Month: January 2017

The Art of the Lie

The chief reason we misunderestimated Trump so badly was our failure to grasp how he uses language. Trump uses words as tools: to enchant, to denigrate, to befuddle. He could not care less whether they’re “true.” You and I were brought up to value truth and hate lies (even if we fib a bit now and then). After we catch someone in a significant lie we trust them less, and if someone lies continually we consider them a “liar” or a “clown” and pay them no attention at all (except perhaps to laugh at them). In Trump’s case this was a fatal error, since a Constitutional plurality of voters did grasp what Trump was communicating, and liked it enough to elect him President.

Trump rose to political prominence through a big, blatant lie: the Birther Lie. There was never any question about the fact that Obama was born in the U.S.; he had a Hawaii birth certificate and there was even a mention of his birth in a contemporary newspaper. But Trump harped on and on, year after year, about there being some question about whether he was eligible to be President. Like most of us, I dismissed this as an obvious lie. I was aware that Trump’s attacks had racist overtones, but since they had zero truth value I dismissed them as garbage. I didn’t appreciate is that every time Trump said this he was gaining strength, and building a populist movement that would sweep all before it.

I propose an approach that may help us understand Trump’s use of words. Whenever he says something we need to think through what we heard, how we feel about it, what his supporters heard, and how they feel. Understanding Trump in no way defangs him, but it might help us avoid being blind-sided, and possibly might point the way to effectively countering him. Let’s start with the Birther Lie:

What Trump says What we hear How we feel What supporters hear How they feel
Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. Obama is an illegitimate President. Trump is a liar and a racist. Angry and annoyed. Dismissive. Maybe even amused. Obama is an illegitimate President. Blacks aren’t real Americans. Whites like you and me are the real Americans and together we can take control back. Excited. Flattered. Impressed that Trump is an Alpha Male who can get away with telling blatant lies.

The obvious falseness of Trump’s lie does not reduce its attractiveness to his supporters; to the contrary, the fact that he can get away with telling bald face lies shows dominance and power that is seductively attractive. This is why pointing out the falseness of Trumps words has no effect on his supporters. They are resonating to the subtext, not to the text. The fact that his statements are textually false just makes Trump more fun, exciting and powerful.

Let’s try another one.

What Trump says What we hear How we feel What supporters hear How they feel
I’m going to build a wall. And Mexico will pay for it. He won’t build a wall and Mexico won’t pay for it: Trump is a liar and a racist. Angry and annoyed. Dismissive. Maybe even amused. Mexicans aren’t real Americans. Whites like you and me are the real Americans and together we can take control back. Excited. Flattered. Impressed that Trump is an Alpha Male who can get away with telling blatant lies.

Do some of his supporters think he’ll actually build a wall? Do any of them actually believe that Mexico will pay for it? Very few, if any. That isn’t the point, and we were wasting our time by pointing out that this was a fantasy. The message got through loud and clear. That his supporters believe, and, unfortunately, they’re right. The fact that Trump is lying doesn’t matter, and is actually more fun and exciting than off-putting.

Fast forward to the election, Trump lost the popular vote by 2.9 million votes, just over 2% of all voters. There were barely a handful of cases of voter fraud across the entire country. Nevertheless, Trump claims that he would have won the popular vote except for millions of fraudulent votes; a breathtakingly and demonstrably false claim. Take a breath, then analyze it:

What Trump says What we hear How we feel What supporters hear How they feel
“I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally” — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 27, 2016 Trump is a liar and has delusions of grandeur. Angry and annoyed. Dismissive. But no longer amused. The electoral system is rigged. I was robbed of my glory by fraudulent voters. The media lie and cannot be trusted. Angry at the system and the media. Impressed that Trump is an Alpha Male who can get away with telling blatant lies.

On January 23, in his first meeting with Congressional leaders, Trump doubled-down on this lie, with the added claim that the fraudulent voters were unauthorized immigrants. The New York Times for the first time after the election referred to this in its headline as a “lie.” Now even we are beginning to hear this for what it is:

What Trump says What we hear How we feel What supporters hear How they feel
I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of unauthorized immigrants who voted illegally Trump doesn’t give a fig about truth. What he says goes, even if demonstrably false. And he will crush anyone and everyone who opposes him. Angry. Afraid. The electoral system is rigged. I was robbed of my glory by illegal immigrants. The media lie and cannot be trusted. Immigrants (of color) aren’t real Americans. You and I are real Americans and together we can take power back. Angry at the system and the media. Excited. Flattered. Impressed that Trump is an Alpha Male who can get away with telling blatant lies.

At this point Trump’s lies are focusing more on delegitimizing institutions that might get in his way, like the media, and the electoral process. But the tweak to the Popular Vote Lie juices up its appeal to his base, despite making it even more breathtakingly untrue.

As I’m writing this, on January 24, Trump had his Press Secretary Sean Spicer repeat this ludicrous claim, saying that Trump’s belief is “based on studies and evidence people have brought to him,” which Spicer refused to specify. Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN, “I wasn’t there, but if the President of the United States is claiming that 3.5 million people voted illegally, that shakes confidence in our democracy — he needs to disclose why he believes that.”

Now let’s tackle the lie du jour, the Inauguration Crowd Lie. Apart from the needs of Trump’s insatiable ego, the number of people attending the Inauguration is supremely insignificant. Obama won most of the states near D.C., while Trump lost them, so it stands to reason that there might be a smaller crowd for Trump. Also, the weather was crummy. Nobody would have thought twice about this issue if Trump hadn’t chosen to lie about it. But lie he did, and has continued to do.

As reported in the New York Times, at his speech to the CIA Trump, “called journalists ‘among the most dishonest human beings on earth,’ and he said that up to 1.5 million people had attended his inauguration, a claim that photographs disproved.” We don’t need a chart to parse this: it’s a direct attack on the media, for reporting accurate information that Trump would prefer were otherwise. Sean Spicer continued the attack at a no-questions press briefing, including multiple falsehoods. When Kellyanne Conway tried to defend Spicer on Meet the Press she lamely characterized Spicer’s lies as “alternative facts.” We had a lot of fun with that phrase — which I just noticed can be tweaked into “aLternatIvE factS” — but Trump’s bold attack on the credibility of the press isn’t one bit funny. This piece by Ezra Klein in Vox nails it: Trump’s real war isn’t with the media. It’s with facts. But to destabilize our grip on reality he first has to discredit the press as an unreliable source of information.

Trump’s lies are part of a deliberate campaign to energize (and build) his base, discredit any institutions that might oppose him, and loosen our own grip on the real, factual world. Pointing out the falseness of his lies makes us feel good — and encourages those of us who care about truth — but does little to blunt their emotional power. Who in today’s America has the cohones to stand up to the Alpha Male and shame or bully him into silence, or truthfulness? There had better be such a person or institution, since this must happen soon! 

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Don’ts for the Trump Era

How we behave can affect whether Trump becomes a Putin-esque dictator or whether we get our democracy back. Here are some things I think we should not do.

  • Don’t Get Distracted. For all his intellectual failings Trump is a genius at manipulation and distraction. It will be very easy — as the media did throughout the campaign — to allow shiny fluff like his 3 am tweets to distract us from what’s actually important. I have argued in The Worst Problem With Trump that Trump’s violations of law and the Constitution should be our central focus; I’m concerned that we will let him off the hook for violating the law by chasing after an infinity of awful but lawful policies and decisions. But whether you agree with me on this or not, don’t lose sight of whatever you think is most important.
  • Don’t Burn Out. We will be subjected to a veritable tsunami of upsetting information every day of the Trump Era. Each day’s news will cause us heartbreak and outrage, horror and fear. Disconnect for a while if it becomes too much to bear! Take time to breathe, and enjoy your life. But when you can, come back to the fray.
  • Don’t Sink to Trump’s Level. Some have said that to counter Trump Democrats must resort to similar tactics — lies, manipulation, and the ruthless use of power (this last currently being limited to the Senate filibuster). I say no: that isn’t who we are, it isn’t who we should become, and it isn’t how we will prevail. While I think the “arc of history” idea is sentimental b.s. I also believe that values matter and that very often sound and humane values will eventually win out.
  • Don’t Break the Law (Unless You Decide To). Trump and his minions will be most happy to have the FBI search your apartment or office and take away your computers, then lock you up and throw away the key. Don’t give them the opening! That said, there’s a time and place for nonviolent civil disobedience, so do what you feel is necessary so long as you’ve considered and accepted the consequences.
  • Don’t Get Violent. I think violence plays into Trump’s hands, by giving him justification to declare martial law. I don’t think we should use violence at all while there is any chance of preserving democracy through other means.
  • Don’t Normalize. These are not normal times and Trump is not a normal President. We can’t afford to give him the benefit of the doubt, since there is no doubt. When friends waver we must remind them that the Trump Era is #NotNormal and must never become “the new normal.”
  • Don’t Give Up.

Trump Diplomacy

Who would ever have thought to see “Trump” and “diplomacy” in the same sentence? The two ideas are antithetical. But responsibility for our nation’s diplomacy comes with the job. How do things look so far?

Europe. Trump’s disparagement of NATO, and equivocation about whether the U.S. would honor its treaty obligations, combined with his cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, is a catastrophe for Europe. I don’t suppose Putin will invade Germany any time soon, but one can confidently anticipate that it will continue to bite off chunks of its neighbors, such as Georgia and Ukraine, and will seek to destabilize the Baltics. But quite apart from what Russia actually does, the weakening of NATO leaves Europe no alternative but to seek an accommodation with Russia. With the U.S. now an unreliable ally, countries bordering Russia will have to make nice to avoid destabilization or disguised invasion. Most of Europe is already dependent on Russia for natural gas and with the U.S. out of the picture is on its way to becoming part of Russia’s “near abroad.”  See, for example, this Bloomberg piece: “U.K. Said to Fear Trump to Embolden Putin, Weaken NATO Pact

East Asia.Trump has wobbled on East Asia. At first he said Japan should get its own nuclear weapons, then he said he never said that. He violated decades of protocol by taking a call from Taiwan’s President and claimed that our “One China” policy was subject to negotiation, which China rejects. He has expressed admiration for the brutal, autocratic President of the Philippines, reportedly endorsing Duterte’s campaign of extra-judicial murders of suspected drug dealers. What all this means is anybody’s guess. Most likely it’s “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing.” What it means for East Asia, however, is easier to predict. America is no longer a reliable ally for anyone, so our East Asian friends must start planning for a future without American protection. This will mean cozying up to China and Russia in the short term, and at least laying the foundations for a sprint to nuclear weapons in the medium term. Even if there is no hot war Japan and our other East Asian friends have little choice but to accept Chinese dominance.

Mexico and Canada. Trump’s announcement of his campaign included one of his most iconic claims:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

Trump proposes to protect us from these sinister Latinos with the Wall, for which Mexico is supposed to pay. He also proposes to rip up NAFTA, which could send the Mexican economy into a tailspin. Sending back millions of undocumented Mexicans would be unfathomably cruel, and damaging to the U.S. economy, but if it actually happened the injection of wealth and talent might help cushion the other damage Trump intends to cause to their economy.

Trump hasn’t been as nasty to Canadians as he has been to Mexicans — he hasn’t (yet) proposed to build a wall along the longest undefended border in the world — but his threat to rip up NAFTA also casts a cloud over Canada’s economic future.

While in general I think Trump is a disaster for our foreign relations, in the case of our immediate neighbors he may more or less get away with his bullying. Both Canada and Mexico are highly dependent on our economy and they are geographically stuck with us. And if either gives Trump any serious lip he can just invade.

Free Trade. It must be acknowledged that the benefits of free trade have been oversold, both by Republicans and neo-liberal Democrats. Yes, we have known since Adam Smith that trade benefits both countries, but we have turned a blind eye to the fact that many of the benefits of trade flow to a few people and regions while other people and regions are grievously harmed. My own view is that we should combine something closer to “fair trade” with extraordinary investments in the people and communities who are harmed by trade (or other global changes such as automation).

People hurt by free trade — or who thought they had been — were obviously a potent political force in the 2016 campaign. Not only did they power Trump’s victory in key rustbelt states, but they enabled Sanders to make a serious run at the Democratic nomination. Clinton’s disavowal of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement that she had helped negotiate was breathtakingly too little too late.

Trump, however, seems oblivious to both economic theory and history. He instead embraces a pre-Wealth-of-Nations “mercantalist” idea in which trade is a zero-sum game, with a winner and a loser. His threatened tariffs could easily lead to a trade war that could bring world trade crashing down. This would be devastating to the economies of producing countries and would also fuel inflation in consuming countries who are suddenly forced to produce goods and services at higher cost. Without overplaying the parallel, these were the conditions that led to the Great Depression of the 1930’s.

Russia. The big winner in all of this is of course Russia, which did so much to help Trump get elected. It’s nonsense to say that America has been turned into a “subordinate ally to Russia,” as claimed in a recent Maclean’s article. But it is true to say that America’s “soft power” to influence world events has been crushed. Russian tanks will not be parading down Fifth Avenue any time soon, because America’s “hard power” remains strong. But our moral and persuasive influence around the world, most particularly in the key theaters of Europe and East Asia, has been destroyed. America is now a military powerhouse located in North America, with little ability to influence events — apart from blowing things up — elsewhere in the world. Russia can’t take us over, but they have neutralized us as a world superpower. Vladimir Putin just won World War III without firing a single shot.

Addendum 1/16/17: I still think Trump is just a no-nothing contrarian, but there’s also the possibility that he actually is Putin’s puppet, in which case we’re truly f#%*ed.

Addendum 1/17/17: Note that the damage to our alliances doesn’t come only from what Trump may or may not actually do in office. A President elect saying that NATO is obsolete itself shatters confidence, no matter what he later says or does. And even more deeply, it’s not just what he may say and do that will destroy America’s alliances all over the world: it’s who he is. Nobody can rely on an unstable compulsive liar, or the country he leads. If the next administration is sane and reliable we can begin to heal, but all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Something Will Break

Trump isn’t even President yet and people are already talking about a Constitutional crisis. He’s still just Tweeter-in-Chief, people! Enjoy this relatively tranquil period before things really hit the fan. January 20 will be a living nightmare. And from then on his twitchy little fingers will have the Red Button to toy with at 3 am instead of just his mobile phone. Every day will be a tweet-storm of bad decisions, lies, threats, bombast and violations of law. If Trump serves out his first term this will go on, day in day out, for 208 weeks, 1,461 days.

Not only is this an ugly prospect, it’s literally incredible. Our democracy and our society will be subject to continuing chaotic stress. I simply can’t imaging this going on for so long. Instead, something else has to happen.

Something will break. But what? Here are some possibilities.

  • Impeachment. The House can impeach Trump and if the Senate convicts we’d have President Pence for the remainder of the term. This strikes me as the most likely end to Trump’s presidency, even though there is almost no sign of this yet. The Emoluments Clause seems a slender reed, even though it would be perfectly legitimate legal grounds for impeachment. Real evidence of treason would do the trick, but what we have at this writing is unsubstantiated at best and “fake news” at worst. I have every confidence, however, that Trump will provide ample grounds for impeachment after just weeks of misgovernment. The Republicans are happy to use Trump to rubber stamp their plutocratic agenda for now but if he becomes an embarrassment they would even happier with Pence. I yield to no one in my dislike of Pence’s policies but I would sleep much more soundly with him in the White House. Update Feb. 13, 2017: While there is no indication that the Republican Congress is moving in the direction of impeachment I propose a possible scenario: the Joint Chiefs of Staff schedule an off-the-record meeting with McConnell and Ryan, at which the Chiefs state that the greatest security threat to the republic is the President himself. That might get the ball rolling. Update August 16, 2017: Trump’s failure to unequivocally condemn racist neo-Nazi’s triggered coordinated statements from four of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They can’t be any happier about Trump’s off-the-cuff threats of nuclear war against North Korea. While it’s taken far longer than I expected, the private meeting with Congressional leadership is looking ever more likely. Some smoking gun would be necessary for impeachment, but this might well emerge from the Mueller investigation or from disgruntled former staffers or many other sources. 
  • Removal by the Cabinet. Keith Olbermann (yes he’s back) points out that Amendment XXV, Section 4 provides that the Vice President and a majority of the cabinet can temporarily take away the President’s powers if they declare him “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” This becomes permanent only after a 2/3 vote by each house of Congress, but the standard seems less stringent than the “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” required for impeachment. While it’s easy to imagine Trump’s behavior justifying removal under this clause it’s unlikely that the ragtag cabinet he’s assembled would have the guts to invoke it. I think straight-up impeachment is more likely. Update Feb. 13, 2017: I’m still skeptical about this scenario but it now seems more plausible that Trump might go frankly and unambiguously insane. 
  • Resignation. So far Trump seems to be having fun, but he might find the Presidency itself burdensome and annoying. Pressure to resign could come from many places; while his first instinct would certainly be fight back I can imagine circumstances in which he would prefer to resign and take up the reins again of his yuge real estate empire.
  • Death. I’m not an expert, but Trump’s health doesn’t look all that great to me. He’s overweight and his constant sniffling during the debates suggests at best a sinus condition and at worst a serious cocaine addiction. He will be the oldest President in American history, and as his own doctor has noted, “if something happens to him, then it happens to him.” He might also die by unnatural means. The Kennedy assassination occurred while I was in high school and Reagan was shot and seriously wounded in 1981. In all, four U.S. Presidents have been assassinated. I was pleasantly surprised that there were no serious threats to President Obama, but the possibility that someone might kill Trump cannot be excluded.
  • Military Coup. The U.S. military, while overwhelmingly Republican, takes quite seriously its responsibility to protect the country from harm. And it’s obvious to any thinking person that the single greatest threat to the United States of America is Donald J. Trump. The military also takes quite seriously its duty to follow the lawful commands of its Commander in Chief, so it would take quite a lot of provocation before it would step in. Nevertheless, it seems to me that this might happen.

I don’t list “revolution” because it really isn’t possible in 2017; so long as the military is loyal it can put down any sort of insurrection. Public disorder could certainly be part of the equation, but I think it would lead to one of the outcomes listed above rather than itself becoming an outcome.

Martial law and personal rule by President-for-Life Trump are also possibilities, of course. All of the institutions of our democracy might break before he does. That’s the elephant in the room.

Update May 14, 2017:  Ross Douthat argues in this morning’s New York Times that the idea of removing DT before 2020 is “just noise.” I have to admit that there continues to be no sign that the Republican leadership is moving towards either impeachment or Article XXV removal for unfitness; they have even less character and integrity than I supposed. But I continue to think that our system cannot stand four years of this level of stress, not to mention the possibility of a truly apocolyptic disaster like nuclear war with North Korea. I still think “something will break” before 2020.

The Worst Problem With Trump

There are many things wrong about Donald Trump becoming our President:

  • His ignorance and contempt for facts, and truth.
  • His childish sensitivity and impulsiveness.
  • His self-centered narcissism, and lack of conscience.
  • His willingness to stir up racial and ethnic hatred and violence.
  • His lack of relevant knowledge or experience.
  • His “bromance” with Vladimir Putin, and his admiration for other brutal autocrats such as Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.
  • His selection of cabinet members and advisors — with the exception of Defense and State — who are incompetent, opposed to the mission of the department they are supposed to lead and/or involved with the neo-Nazi “alt-right.”
  • Etc.

These are all serious problems, and I don’t minimize them.

But I submit that the single worst problem — the one that poses the greatest threat to America’s democracy — is Donald Trump’s ignorance and contempt for law, including the Constitution.

I yield to no one in my distaste for Mike Pence: He’s a cruel theocrat who would be terrible for woman’s rights, unions, blacks, immigrants, LGBT people, etc. He would feather the nests of the 1% just as vigorously as Trump. But my impression is that he understands and respects the Constitution; he accepts that the President is bound by federal law; he understands the concept of “balance of powers”; he could pass an eighth-grade civics test (if such a thing still existed). None of this is true, imho, of Trump. Pence would do terrible damage and cause immense suffering, but he would not destroy the Republic; Trump may.

For all his failings, Trump does understand power. Both hard power — the boss’ ability to say “You’re hired” and (famously) “You’re fired” — and also the psychological power of manipulating people’s emotions by saying what they want to hear, whether or not this has any connection with reality or what he will actually do. Indeed, I am prepared to acknowledge that he has a genius for ruthlessly wielding psychological power. Absent proof of actual vote tampering there is no other explanation for how he managed, despite his obvious unfitness, to get nominated and elected.

Although he understands power, Trump has no patience for limits on his power imposed by law or the Constitution. His business career is littered with alleged frauds and other violations of law; he admires autocrats like Putin and Duterte; and he has as much as said that he doesn’t think that laws against conflicts of interest apply to him. There is no reason to suppose that he will respect any of the laws or Constitutional provisions that seek to constrain Presidential power. If Trump is allowed to run roughshod over the Constitution and federal law American democracy will end and he will be our autocratic ruler. 

How can Trump be stopped? (If, as I expect, he will rampantly violate federal laws.) The first recourse must be to the courts. Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I think that many federal judges have enough integrity to stand up to Trump. Possibly even Chief Justice Roberts (who broke ranks to uphold Obamacare). But court cases take time, and judicial decrees aren’t self executing; they’re enforced by the Executive branch, which will be Trump’s plaything. Will the courts move quickly enough? Will they show courage and integrity, or will they fall in line like the Republican Congress is now doing? Will Trump respect judicial decrees even if he dislikes them? If Trump dismisses judicial orders will the Republican Congress eventually impeach him? I hope that the answer to each of these questions will be, “Yes!”

I submit that violation of law is the issue that we must keep our eyes on amidst the maelstrom of distressing and distracting information that will descend on us in the Trump Era. Ignorance and contempt for law could be the Achilles heel that brings him down. But only if we keep focusing on it, and avoid being distracted by the Trump tweet du jour.

A famous English legal maxim reads, in Latin, “Non Sub Homine Sed Sub Deo et Lege.” In English, “Not Under Man But Under God and the Law.” The idea of government under laws that apply to everyone is the fundamental principle of democracy, and it must be defended.