Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Horserace? Or Hindenburg?

Donald Trump is clearly losing this election. What is the media going to do about it?

Even Trump understands that he's way behind in the polls and that those polls are on the level. That's why he shook up his campaign staff this morning to make it more Trump-y. (New campaign motto: "Let Trump be Trump. We're out of other options.") He's doing much worse than Mitt Romney was four years ago, and Romney lost by a solid margin.

Trump is actually doing so badly that he has defeated the national media's reflexive need to "balance" coverage and to present the Presidential election as a close contest. There are plenty of reporters out there happy, more than happy to write the "Trump Comeback" story or, if necessary, the "Trump: Down But Not Out" story. But Trump's campaign has been so, well, Trumpalicious that he hasn't given those reporters a chance. Trump is currently losing so badly that they can't spin the polls any other way. You can't write the comeback narrative if the comeback kid keeps falling further behind.

The great James Fallows tweeted last week that we were approaching a turning point, where the media would have to decide how to cover the election:
Well, this is the week for that collision. Trump's campaign shakeup is, among other things, a clear attempt to get some journalists back to the Comeback narrative, by giving them a "turning point" as a hook for those stories. That, after all, is how Trump's last shakeup, the firing of campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, worked. It provided a peg to hang the "Trump is about to pivot" stories from. It's the equivalent of hanging an "Under New Management" sign on a restaurant that's been closed down over health violations. Now the pivot hasn't worked, because Trump didn't actually pivot, and so he has new new management and Paul Manafort now reports to someone who is basically Corey Lewandowski with even less campaign experience. Whee! Keep your hands and feet inside the roller coaster at all times!

But since the clear point of this reshuffle is to double down on Trump's previous unworkable strategy, there's a chance that it reinforces the Loser in Disarray story instead and brings on the mother of all media pile-ons. The standard thinking is that Trump is failing and flailing because he's refusing to act like a normal candidate. Now he's essentially declared that normal is for losers, and he's going to be more -- God help us -- unrestrained. More rallies, uglier personal attacks, no bothering with stuff like campaign offices in, say, states. Who knows? Maybe he'll burn a cross on his own lawn. Trump is simply going to flail away with both arms. Since most journalists understand Trump's Trumpiness as the reason he's losing, they are going to assume that turbo-Trumping the campaign will only make him a bigger loser.

The press wants a good horse race, always. The horse race means ratings and sales and advertising dollars. They want a close election the way sportscasters want a close game, because it delivers eyeballs. It takes an a lot to pry the media away from their desire to present a national election as neck-and-neck. An election that seems over before Labor Day is basically their worst nightmare: boring, predictable, and bad for business. How do you generate story ideas when the story is already over?

But the national press can also reach a tipping point where they no longer treat the election as a contest at all. Once that point is reached, the press will start to cover Trump and his campaign for the sheer curiosity value of public-self destruction. Not horse-race coverage, but Hindenburg coverage, where you stop pretending the thing is getting off the ground and just invite the viewers to watch the beautiful colors as it burns. This is how local news covers car crashes. This is how reality TV, from which Trump comes, covers the personal meltdowns of the psychologically troubled people they keep putting on camera. They learned early that the audience doesn't watch reality TV to see other people succeed. They watch reality TV to see other people flame out. When Trump's political failure becomes spectacular enough, the press will treat the disaster as a spectacle.

We've basically reached that tipping point now. It's becoming impossible to pretend that Trump has a fighting chance or that he's capable of taking it, that he is anything but a loser. And so the media will be forced to cover him as the huge, dangerously volatile bag of gas that he actually is. You will be able to see the explosion across New Jersey. And the press will just roll the cameras and watch him burn.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Outsourcing Political Violence: Trump and Daesh

There are still three months to go and we've already gotten to the smirking-death-threats portion of our general election. I can't even say that I'm surprised Trump did it. I just never expected it so early, and I'm sickened by the thought of how much lower the man will sink by November 8. It will get even worse. I mean, of course it will. There's no doubt. But I'm not looking forward to it.

If you have any doubts, or buy any spin, about whether or not Trump intended to threaten Clinton, stop listening tot he clip itself and listen to what he's said since. His campaign's apology isn't just a lie, but an aggressively transparent lie. It is an eff-you lie, designed to show contempt for the person being lied and challenge them to dispute the naked falsehood. (Eff-you lies re a key part of Trump's campaign M.O.)  And more important is what he hasn't said. At no point has he said explicitly, or even had his surrogates say, "We do not want any harm to come to Secretary Clinton." Trump hasn't said that because he doesn't want his followers to hear him saying that. Is it just his personality disorder, keeping him from ever apologizing or admitting a mistake? Is it fear of turning off his hard-core followers who are excited by the death threats? Does it even matter?

So we've reached the perennial question of Campaign 2016: Is It Fascism Yet? Today's answer is: close (all too close), but not quite.

I don't believe that Trump actually planned to threaten Clinton before the moment that he did it. Trump, as you may have noticed, does not think ahead. I think he improvised the threat in response to crowd mood, which is what Trump does at his rallies: feels out his crowd and gives them what they want. The problem, then, is that we now have a sizable number of our fellow Americans who want to go to a campaign rally and hear one candidate for President call for the other candidate's blood. That is a bad, bad thing, and threatens to be a problem long after Trump himself is gone. Trump himself is bad. But the audience Trump has attracted is worse, and might someday be harnessed by a demagogue more directly dangerous than Trump.

Trump has clearly identified, and responded to, a troubling appetite for political violence. What he hasn't done, and doesn't have the skills to do, is to actually organize political violence. I'd like to think he wouldn't have the stomach for that. I'm confident that he doesn't have the organizational ability. Trump isn't going to turn his most blood-thirsty followers into a cadre of brownshirts because, really. Trump can't even open a damned field office. Trump rallies are a ripe recruiting ground for potential thugs, but Trumps campaign can't even turn those rallies into a decent voter-contact list.

Instead, Trump is outsourcing the threat of violence: floating the threat out there in a nominally deniable way and seeing if anyone takes him up on it. Trump  has not thought through what would happen if some Travis Bickle out there took him at his word. or the horrible blowback he would suffer if, God forbid, someone actually took a shot at Clinton; Trump has not thought, in the normal sense of that word, at all. But he's played the same game before, in the primaries, when he muttered about "riots in the streets" if he were denied the nomination. And there the threat was clearly made in his direct political interests, suggesting to the Republican Party that people might use violence on Trump's behalf. This is a card Trump plays. He doesn't orchestrate violence, but uses code words that might lead someone else to become violent for him.

This strategy is very much like Trump's post-bankruptcy approach to real estate. Trump no longer puts up big buildings. He doesn't have the money or the credit with major lenders to do that. Instead, he attaches his name and brand to buildings other people finance and build. In the same way, he seems open to lending his name and brand to political violence that he, himself, does not have the ability to pull off. He can't afford his own stormtroopers, so he's exploring options for outsourcing.

What Trump has done also, alarmingly, echoes the even uglier strategy of Islamist terrorists like al-Qaeda and Daesh (the group often called "ISIS." I prefer the name Daesh, because they hate it.) Now, I am NOT comparing anything Trump has done to the scale or direct culpability of a group like Daesh. But those groups also outsource a lot of their violence. They cannot actually do nearly as much harm as they would like, so they spread their brand on social media and hope some poor, demented Travis Bickle type decides to declare allegiance to them before his grotesque murder-suicide. This makes the suicidal Travis Bickle feel connected to something bigger than his sad, failed self, and makes Daesh/ISIS/al-Qaeda appear capable of more violence, with a longer reach, than they can actually make happen on their own dime. In this way, terrorism and political violence in the 21st century is weirdly mimicking corporate behavior, reducing their own direct capabilities and outsourcing core activities through branding arrangements. If this is the future, I hate it.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Friday, July 29, 2016

Watch Donald Crack

I enjoyed that Democratic Convention a lot, and mostly for the right reasons. In fact, I'm still enjoying it, because I'm currently five time zones ahead of Philly time and so watch the major speeches the next day. [SPOILER ALERT: Don't tell me who they nominate in the finale!] The Democrats presented a positive vision about candidate, cause, and country: inspiring reminders about what they are about, what we are about, and what America is about. It's great, and also I'm walking around London with Stevie's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" stuck in my head. I am one happy Democrat.

This is a much happier feeling than watching the Republican convention was. That was a mix of fearful apprehension for my town, sickened horror at the speakers' outpouring of authoritarian hatred, and mocking schadenfreude at Trump's torpedoing his own convention. I had some fun in there, but it wasn't pleasant fun. It was more the point-and-laugh kind. It didn't make me feel especially good about myself. Thanks to Bill, Barack, and Hill for re-centering the moral compass.

There are far more opportunities for schadenfreude ahead, unfortunately. Because Donald Trump is already starting to come unglued.

One of the most useful psychiatric terms I've picked up in my travels is the word "decompensation." Decompensation is, just like it sounds, the opposite of "compensation." It is when a patient responds to stress or setbacks by getting sicker. The going gets tough, and the patient's symptoms get worse. That doesn't fix whatever's causing the stress; it just deepens it. An alcoholic gets fired and goes on a four-day bender.  A bipolar patient who's having trouble finding work becomes too depressed to even leave the house. Just when the patient needs to step up and cope with a challenge, they become even worse at coping. Bad, bad times.

It's been no secret on this blog that I consider Donald Trump to have at least one fairly serious psychiatric condition. He is, to put it politely, a profoundly disordered personality. And under the stress of the campaign, he is going to decompensate badly. Running for President of the United States is incredibly challenging and stressful, even for strong, sane people who have already run many successful campaigns. Donald Trump is neither strong nor sane, and he has never been elected to any public office in his life. Not dog-catcher, not zoning board, not public water commission. He is not going to be able to take this. He is going to crack.

In fact, he has already started.

Over the last few days, as the general election gets underway, he has done a huge number of maladaptive things: expressed his desire to punch various speakers from the Democratic convention, decided to rant on Twitter about how Mike Bloomberg was mean to him, and mostly damningly urged the Russian government to spy on his election opponent. None of that is rationally calculated to help him. None if it is something you would do to help yourself. And I don't think he planned to plea to Putin at all; it was just another troubled impulse he could not control. Lack of impulse control is one of his symptoms.

You can look at his behavior as demonstrating his lack of fitness for office, and you should. He is appallingly unfit for that office. But you can also understand what Trump is doing as the expression of psychiatric symptoms getting worse under pressure. Maybe that moves you to some compassion for him, and maybe it doesn't; Trump's condition prevents him from feeling compassion for anyone else, and in his current position he is extremely dangerous to our country. But we shouldn't necessarily lose our compassion because he has. We're bigger than he is.

Those symptoms are only going to get worse, because the pressure of the campaign is only going to get worse. I mean, the general election hasn't even really gotten started yet. Donald Trump is going to crack under that pressure, and he is going to do it in front of the entire world. I am not looking forward to watching that. But anything is better than watching him crack in the Oval Office.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Monday, July 25, 2016

Just a Thought (DNC Convention)

It would really be great if DNC delegates would stop, you know, booing black people.

Comments disabled. End of post.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

RNC Cleveland: Local Grievance Edition

Trump and his circus have left town, and so have I. But before I turn myself over entirely to watching the DNC on GMT, let me point out a few local Cleveland issues that bothered me about this convention. I've already blogged about the big stuff. Let me just get some Cleveland things off my chest.

1) As someone who used to live in downtown Cleveland (at least for most of the week) I felt a special sympathy for the immigrants and first-generation Americans who live and work downtown in the convention zone. Back when I lived on East 12th Street, I did all my local grocery shopping from a little store run by Arab immigrants. For a party that talks endlessly about small business owners, the Republicans talk a lot of smack about the hard-working immigrants who own many of those small businesses.

I found myself thinking a lot about the family that runs that grocery, and what it must be like to have the neighborhood around your family store be taken over by America's Number One immigrant hater and Muslim basher. Sorry, guys. I am really, really sorry.

2) Well-known former actor Scott Baio used some of his ridiculous prime-time slot to misuse Langston Hughes. This is standard practice among conservatives, who find "Let America Be America Again" too tempting a phrase to resist (although they can easily resist actually reading Langston Hughes's poem, which means the opposite of what they think it means. Generally, they seem pretty good at not reading things.).

But even if this has become standard operating procedure, it takes a special amount of ignorance to misuse Langston Hughes's words in Cleveland. Langston Hughes is from Cleveland, Chachi. There are places named for him inside the convention "event zone." Do a little research before you open your mouth, and have some respect.

Also, for those of you keeping score at home, Baio kicked off the Republicans' Monday-night theme of "taking language from black folks without giving them credit."

Hughes's poem is a little masterpiece, at once embracing the best version of the American Dream, the dream of freedom and equality, while acknowledging that "America was never America to me." Or, out another way, Hughes points out that that vision of America has never been completely real, but that it can and should and must be. Here's a little taste:

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe. 

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
If you like that, just wait until Hughes really gets going:
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.  
You can read the whole thing here. If this sounds to you like exactly the opposite of the hateful Republican convention and the hateful demagogue it nominated with a "false patriotic wreath," you're exactly right. It is the opposite of that.

On a related topic: Shut up, Chachi.

3. In the middle of all the disorganized hate-mongering, Unindicted Co-conspirator Chris Christie revealed that Trump the First would, if elected, purge the civil service of Obama appointees.  Not just get rid of Obama's political appointees whose terms automatically end when parties change power, but any career civil servants, the non-political types who are there to do their jobs no matter who the President is. What Trump and Christie want is the power to fire the entire civil service, everyone with a government job, and potentially replace them all with political appointees.

We used to do it that actually, and it is no way to run a serious country. It rewards partisanship over competence. (Imagine a system in which every election leads to someone replacing your mailman, and where the mailman doesn't actually have to do his mailman job as long as he does his real job as a political activist. Sound like fun? It wasn't.) This is outrageous just on the level of basic good governance and, you know, wanting to actually operate like America.

But here's what really hacks me off: it was Republicans who changed that corrupt system, Republicans who created our professional, non-partisan civil service, and for that to happen a Republican President of the United States had to die.

He was President James Garfield. He was murdered by a lunatic assassin who was enraged at civil service reform. He was from Cleveland. He is buried in Cleveland. His tomb is about six miles or so from the convention floor.

So let me say that it is particularly grotesque that these alleged Republicans demand a return to the old corrupt "spoils system," in the city where the man who gave his life to end that corruption has his tomb. Chris Christie wants to turn basic civic services into crass political tools? Huh, funny. No one is surprised. That's what he's already in trouble for doing.

But if Chris Christie wants to badmouth that particular Republican achievement, all I can tell him is: "Meet me at the Garfield Monument and say that again."

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog