Living in Trumpestuous Times

Things are heating up. From the NYT:

President Trump lashed out at the nation’s intelligence agencies again on Wednesday, saying that his former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, was brought down by illegal leaks to the news media

All the smart people said something like this was coming, a big showdown between Trump and the establishment. It sure happened fast.

In a war between Trump and the dark masters of our growing surveillance state, it’s hard to pick sides. Do we want to fight a proxy war with Russia in Syria and Ukraine, or a war with Iran? Do we want a government defined by underhanded leaks, or a government defined by fear-mongering and cronyism? I think Trump’s team is so awful that I guess I’d have to back the meddlesome puppeteers of the intelligence community over his ghoulish gang. But it’s a tough call.

As to the probable winner? Most people I know think Trump is doomed to be contained and expelled by the bureaucratic auto-immune systems of our government. The Republican leadership doesn’t like him. Judges have already clashed with him. The intelligence folks are sniping at his people. It looks like the noose is tightening.

I’m not so sure. We’re constantly reminded that the American president has a lot of power–at least notionally–even if he happens to be an ass. And though I certainly think Trump is an ass, he’s an ass with some rather remarkable talents. Trump has a big faction of the party base on his side, and that faction is unusually active and passionate. They’re also, in certain ways, unusually threatening. They have a representative cohort in Congress, and those representatives almost shut down the government, even with resistance from the House leadership, even without the president on their side.

The intelligence folks are using a Trumpian tactic, playing the media as a means of undermining Trump’s White House. But Trump himself is pretty good at playing the media. It’s also not entirely clear to me that he’s at a legal disadvantage, though of course I’m not an expert on such matters. Are malicious leaks to the media entirely above-board?

What’s to prevent Trump from whipping up the base, getting them to put pressure on their Congressional representatives? And if Congress acts, what’s to stop them from focusing their investigations on the leaks, in addition to–or instead of–investigating Trump’s murky ties to Russia?

I’m not a wonk; I don’t know how these things tend to play out. All I can do is keep a diary of my impressions. Apart from the technical issues of law, political convention, and interdepartmental conflict, a few things seem true:

  • Trump has the bully pulpit, and he’s good at using it.
  • Trump’s presidency is just the tip of a big populist uprising, and those rightwing populists don’t like the offices and agents of the deep state, aka the Washington establishment, e.g. the intelligence community.
  • Whenever establishment Republicans have been pressured by their populist base, the establishment Republicans have caved.
  • This conflict is likely to lead to a long period of scandal, uncertainty, confusion, and disorder, and in times of scandal, uncertainty, confusion, and disorder, people turn to charismatic leaders for moral guidance. Unless some other charismatic leader emerges, that need for security will focus on Trump.

All in all, I think Trump stands a good chance of benefiting from this debacle in the long run, even though he has little experience in government, even though he’s a clown, even though he seems to be–le mot du jour–incompetent.

I suppose I have much less faith in our system–and in the judgment of my fellow Americans–than my peers do.


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The Flynn Effect

A good point from Noah Millman, Damon Linker, and Eli Lake about Flynn’s ouster.

From Linker:

The United States is much better off without Michael Flynn serving as national security adviser. But no one should be cheering the way he was brought down.

The whole episode is evidence of the precipitous and ongoing collapse of America’s democratic institutions — not a sign of their resiliency. Flynn’s ouster was a soft coup (or political assassination) engineered by anonymous intelligence community bureaucrats. The results might be salutary, but this isn’t the way a liberal democracy is supposed to function.

From Lake:

Normally intercepts of U.S. officials and citizens are some of the most tightly held government secrets. This is for good reason. Selectively disclosing details of private conversations monitored by the FBI or NSA gives the permanent state the power to destroy reputations from the cloak of anonymity. This is what police states do.

From Millman:

The GOP Congress is not going to be able to ignore an escalating war within the Executive branch. Nor can they discount the possibility of characters like Flynn engaging in their own freelance retaliatory schemes.

And, you know, there’s also our system of constitutional government, that old thing, which gives Congress the responsibility for dealing with corruption and other lawbreaking by the Executive.

This is very much the kind of thing I’ve been worrying about. The danger posed by Donald Trump and Steve Bannon not that they’re wicked fascist masterminds who always think ten steps ahead, but that they have no interest in democratic governance and outright despise classic liberal values. When people like this are put in power, they create conditions that reinforce their worldview–chaos, controversy, scheming and deceit, ruthless struggles for power, and a fascination with the politics of personal drama: who’s getting whipped, who’s the king’s favorite, who’s the traitor or enemy du jour. As Millman put it in an earlier column:

Radicals in power are another story. Because they see crisis where non-radicals see only problems, the first thing a radical in power needs to do is align the general perception with his or her own. And the best way to do that is to precipitate a crisis. In terms of normal perception, that means doing one’s job badly, even catastrophically badly.

In this manner, the atmosphere of crisis makes it impossible to hold a regime accountable, because disaster is assumed to be inevitable and therefore cannot be blamed on the regime. Instead, the regime may take credit for the fact that it was prescient enough to see the disaster coming, and for having thought through its implications in advance. Indeed, it may even wind up taking credit for the disaster itself, as being a necessary precursor to something better. Chaos becomes a prerequisite for order. Failure becomes a prerequisite for success. War becomes a prerequisite for peace.

You can call that fascism if you want. I think the label’s an awkward fit. The more important point is that we Americans have been raised on a cartoon vision of autocratic rule: the invincible totalitarian state, penetrating into all facets of life, exercising punitive control over each thought and deed. The arch-Tory tyrants of V for Vendetta, the robo-regulators of the Matrix, the jackbooted, gray-tunicked imperators of a thousand lesser entertainments. And of course the ur-police state of 1984.

We associate these fears with the Nazi regime, the iconic dark sister of Western civilization. The Nazis are like us, but on Think-Like-an-Evil-Person day: industrialized, technocratic, media-obsessed, militaristic, superstitious about the glories of science, ambivalent toward the finer things of high European culture. But they turn every one of our values upside down. They’re the perfect villains for American bravado: a fiendishly entrancing dark side to our triumphal light side. Like orcs, like rabid dogs, they have to be put down: by the sword, by the gun, by the fist if necessary.

The way we think about failed states owes more, I think, to the Soviet menace and the lingering legacy of the Cold War. The deep American fear of someone–some meddling official–telling you what to think. In 1984, the entire society becomes an organ of thought control, bearing down with invincible weight on one man’s soul. Cast as a study of totalitarianism, the novel is rather a tragic celebration of individual conscience, the story of one man against the world. In the end, it takes all the power of the world to crush that man–interest from the highest levels of power, years of dedicated attention from state agencies, elaborate schemes worthy of Satan, torments out of Dante, weeks of high-tech torture and institutional manipulation. Latent in the novel’s dismal prognostications is an ego-gratifying message. Look what it takes to brainwash one Western man.

This is the narcissistic fantasy we’ve returned to over and over in the years since the rise of Stalin, an intellectual complement to our investment in military supremacy: the story of an all-powerful state trying (and in most tellings of the tale, failing) to change one person’s mind. But typical failed states don’t work like that at all. They’re places of crumbing inefficiency and constant inconvenience. The governments are scenes of perpetual squalid drama. They have news organs, but not very good ones, cultural industries, but not robust ones, educational systems rotted with nonsense. They host plenty of active dissidents who are perfectly free to think their own thoughts, but usually incapable of making meaningful changes. They churn with misinformation, rumor, hearsay, scandal, official pronouncements that no one trusts, propaganda that only sometimes works; they breed cynicism and disinterest more often than conformity. Browbeaten by constant untrustworthy assertions, people become suspicious toward all ideas. The apparatus of the police state uses its power not to eliminate every scrap of dissent, but to crush effective resistance.

There are exceptions, like North Korea. But most undemocratic states look more like Thailand, Iran, Pakistan, Guatemala, or even China. They bumble along in a state of mild disorder, topheavy with corruption, prone to monumental projects contrasted with daily inefficiency, clouded with an internal climate of lies and mistrust, veering between democratic gestures and retreats into paranoid autocracy, characterized by a catch-as-catch-can mentality. Not what we would call free, but not an Orwellian nightmare, either.

I see Donald Trump’s presidency dragging us toward an American version of that misery, one in which the government is mostly a scene of murky battles between rival factions (in some cases, rival ethnic factions, with America’s majority tribe, as in Kenya, feverishly clutching at power), widespread corruption and a lack of public spirit accompany a popular fascination with trashtalking gossip and gaudy media (as in India), the abuses of mercenary capitalism are abetted by the abuses of a national surveillance state (as in China), and the national leader is a cultish, often buffoonish figure whose popularity jumps and dips with weekly sensations in the tabloid press (as in–where to start?–the Philippines?). Not Stalin’s Russia–not even Putin’s Russia–and certainly not Nazi Germany. But not the nation most American adults remember.

Of course, these trends have been underway for a long time, and in some ways America did look like this during the nineteenth century. But does anyone want to repeat the nineteenth century? We still have freedom of the press, we still have something like a public square, we still have our faltering liberal values. But Donald Trump’s presidency is creating the conditions where only something like Donald Trump’s presidency will be viable: a corrupt and ruinous state ruling over a cynical and tribalized populace, in which constant disorder empowers any group (the military, the executive) that can bring a semblance of order, and people are always looking for a new great leader to save them from depredations of the current great leader. Lovely.

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Are You There, Sensitivity Reader? It’s Me, Margaret

Katy Waldman describes how authors are using “sensitivity readers” to give input on manuscripts:

These advising angels—part fact-checkers, part cultural ambassadors—are new additions to the book publishing ecosystem. Either hired by individual authors or by publishing houses, sensitivity readers are members of a minority group tasked specifically with examining manuscripts for hurtful, inaccurate, or inappropriate depictions of that group.

Their advice can be subtle:

Is the book about the girl struggling with her weight too much about a girl, well, struggling with her weight? Does a character’s reference to his “shrink” denigrate therapy?

Naturally, issues to do with race, sex, and gender loom large, but recommended edits cover all possible sources of aggravated self-consciousness, including religion, “mental illness, abuse and neglect, poverty, disability, or chronic pain.”

Of course, authors have always sought advice on their handling of tricky topics. Waldman makes clear, however, that publishers are now using professional sensitivity readers to tweak the political messages embedded in their products:

Some publishing houses provide their own sensitivity readers, particularly in genres—such as young adult literature—where the industry feels protective of its audience. Stacy Whitman, who helms the middle-grade imprint of Lee & Low Books, explained that on most manuscripts her team consults a plexus of “cultural experts” they’ve discovered through “networking and research.” The responses flow back to the author “as part of the editorial process,” and each reader earns a modest honorarium. (The site Writing in the Margins recommends $250 per manuscript as a starting fee.) By the time Whitman started at Lee & Low in 2010, she told me, seeking input from reviewers with firsthand knowledge of minority traditions and experiences had already become standard practice at the company.

An inevitable development, I suppose. But why not go further? Maybe one day these sensitivity readers can be fully professionalized, with licensing requirements and certified training courses and agencies to contract out their services.

Then, when an author is criticized for her handling of race (as will surely still happen), she can say in her defense, “But my publisher already hired a sensitivity reader! It wasn’t my artistic decision. Don’t blame me!”

And when attention turns to the publisher, the publisher can issue a statement saying, “We want our readers to know that we do our best to ensure every manuscript rises to the highest standards of cultural sensitivity. For that reason we use Intersectionalia Inc., considered to be an industry leader in sensitivity assurance, to check every work we publish for sensitivity-related material.”

And when outrage shifts to the agency employing sensitivity readers, Intersectionalia Inc. can say, “Our clients are deeply important to us, and this is why we take pride in rigorously screening all our sensitivity readers to ensure they properly express the ethical commitments of our company. Inevitably, at times, a reader will fall short of our high standards, and when this happens we take appropriate steps to the remedy the error.”

At which they will go ahead fire the offending sensitivity reader, and everyone will be happy.

Except, of course, for the sensitivity reader herself, who has now proven to be something other than a perfectly dependable representative of her ethnic and sexual group, something less than a foolproof authority on audience expectations, something more interesting than a QA hireling for purveyors of mass entertainment–that is to say, an ordinary person full of idiosyncratic and unreliable opinions–and thus totally expendable from the perspective of a corporate entity.

In all seriousness, what American publishing needs isn’t more books expressing sensitivity toward members of minority groups. It’s more books expressing insensitivity, written by members of minority groups. The opportunity to be insensitive–prickly, obtrusive, noisy, sometimes offensive, unpredictable, and ultimately unclassifiable–is implicitly the opportunity to be a person, not merely a model queer woman or a typical Muslim American or some other reductive thing.

The need to assert that freedom to be oneself–rough edges, abrasive attitudes, unpopular opinions and all–is what leads people write novels in the first place.

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Cuck or Rabbit?

[T]he swift release of President Trump’s Executive Order on immigration without much advice or feedback from the affected bureaucracies may be evidence that the administration is completely centralizing control within the office of the president. Or it might be because the administration does not understand standard operating procedures in a presidential administration. Or it might be because they worry that they have lost the narrative, need to do something, and a gross Nazi is calling the shots. Again, only the first is a sign of strength. The latter two are signs of weakness. All three of the same observable implications, but have radically different interpretations.

So writes Tom Pepinsky , citing this as an example of “observational equivalence”:

“We have two theories of why something is happening, and yet we cannot tell which is the “correct” theory based on the data that we observe.”

Hum, hum, hum. A certain fellow called Quine comes to mind. Quine was a philosopher who studied indeterminacy, particularly in matters of language translation–which is to say, in areas that can only be understood by reference to human intentions. Daniel Dennet used the example of a triple agent as an illustration of Quine’s ideas.

Imagine a mole planted undercover in a foreign spy agency. The mole’s duty is to spy on the foreign government for the benefit of his countrymen. However, to spy effectively he must seem to be spying on his countrymen for the benefit of foreigners–otherwise he will he discovered as a mole, and his mission will fail.

But it’s quite possible that this spy has turned traitor, and that his pretense is actually sincere: he not only seems to be spying on behalf of a foreign government; he really is spying on behalf of a foreign government. But what’s to say this appearance of tripled loyalties isn’t itself part of the original plot? It may be that the spy is only pretending to be a triple agent for the sake of deceiving the foreign government in which he has been embedded, thereby gaining the trust of his enemies, making him a more effective spy for his allies.

And so on, indefinitely. We can never arrive at a certain interpretation of the spy’s loyalty by observing his behavior, since the spy’s duty, as a spy, is to dissemble. We can even imagine a scenario in which the spy wavers in his loyalties without ever changing his actions. At one minute he feels loyal to his countrymen; at the next feels loyal to their enemies. Yet he goes on acting the same way, spying on both countries even while his allegiance oscillates. Until the spy takes some definite action that makes questions of loyalty pragmatic rather than notional, there’s no way for anyone else to know whom he truly serves.

This is the scenario that John Le Carre made famous in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and that David Foster Wallace spoofed in his footnote on Rodney Tine in Infinite Jest:

(Rodney Tine, Sr., Chief of Unspecified Services, acknowledged architect of O.N.A.N. and continental Reconfiguration, who held the ear of the White House of U.S.A., and whose stenographer had long doubled as the stenographer-cum-jeune-fille-de-Vendredi of M. DuPlessis, former asst. coordinator of the pan-Canadian Resistance, and whose passionate, ill-disguised attachment (Tine’s) to this double-amanuensis–one Mlle. Luria Perec, of Lamartine county L’Islet, Quebec–gave rise to these questions of the high-level loyalties of Tine, whether he ‘doubled’ for Quebec out of the love for Luria or ‘tripled’ the loyalties, pretending only to divulge secrets while secretly maintaining his U.S.A. fealty against the pull of an irresistible love, it was said.)

Chief of Unspecified Services: not a bad title for Steve Bannon.

So we come to the question on everyone’s mind: whether the Trump administration intends to wreck our government as part of a plot to seize power, or will inadvertently wreck our government out of administrative incompetence.

I think it’s clear where consensus lies. Pundits always gravitate to the argument that Trump is clueless and doomed to fail, their reasoning being roughly as follows:

Trump doesn’t do what we, the opinion leaders, believe he ought to do, and even when he does, he doesn’t do it in the way we believe he ought do it.

We, the opinion leaders, have come to be successful because we are reasonable and well-informed; what’s more, being reasonable and well-informed, we deserve our success.

Because Trump doesn’t do what we wish him to do, Trump must be unreasonable. Because Trump is unreasonable, he neither deserves nor is likely to find success. Ergo, Trump will fail.

This is essentially the attitude that prevailed during the election, when every reasonable observer came to believe that Trump’s campaign was a garbage fire that had scorched and scotched all conventional rules, and that therefore Trump was doomed to lose. Now the same experts assure us that while they were wrong about Trump’s campaign management, they’re right about Trump’s presidency, because after all, holding office is very different from seeking office.

Fair enough. But imagine the following. Say Trump destabilizes the world order and makes a mess of the U.S. government. In a time of destabilization and messy government, people naturally gravitate to strong leaders. This gives Trump more power, which he uses to spread further destabilization. The cycle repeats until it reaches some decisive crisis–a war, a legal battle, a systemic collapse–or some externally conditoned terminus, like Trump’s death or a scheduled election.

In that case, we’ll never be able to say whether Trump’s destructive actions were devious or clueless, whether he planned to spread disorder as a means of gaining power, or merely acquired power as an ironic consequence of incapacity. Indeed, we’ll never be able to determine in what measure Trump’s actions were guided by idiocy versus strategy, since both lead to the same result.

What we will be able to describe–what we can already describe, I think, with reasonable confidence–is the general pattern of Trump’s behavior, which is the praxis of demagogues everywhere. He rails against corruption and disorder. He presents himself as the only solution to corruption and disorder. He attributes corruption and disorder to vice and weakness, and associates vice and weakness with foreign threats and local scapegoats. Finally, he acts in such a way as to spread corruption and disorder, which keeps the whole cycle spinning round.

Does Trump believe any of this stuff? Does he have a long-term plan? Who cares? This is his modus operandi.

The pundits wring their hands and screw up their faces, asking in the pained voices of intellectuals pinched between two historic epochs, “Will our institutions save us?” Are they nuts? Our institutions have already failed. That’s how Trump got to be where he is.

In his current position, Trump is ideally positioned to A: cause disruption and B: profit from disruption. We’ve seen that he excels at both.

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A Dis, of Course

Hey, why are you reading the interwebs, you grimy little appeaser? You could be punching Nazis right now.

I finally caught up with Freddie deBoer’s posts on the Spencer punch incident. (See this among others.) I’m not sure why I bothered, since I’ve been reading Freddie long enough that there were no real surprises. His characteristic maneuver on politic subjects is to make pragmatism into a form of purism. Success becomes the ultimate measure of morality, in a way that at times eerily echoes Donald Trump. Trump promises that his followers will eventually get tired of winning; Freddie laments that his fellow leftists never tire of losing.

Naturally, Freddie’s response to the Nazi Punch harps on tactics. Will violence help the left beat the right? Is this a good long-term plan? Why, Freddie asks, isn’t anyone talking about efficacy?

Curiously, the discussions I’ve seen–if snide jokes and shouting matches can be called “discussions”–have mostly been about efficacy. Those in favor of violence argue that it will suppress hateful speakers, and since hateful speakers themselves incite violence, this will eventually lead to a more peaceful society. In their view, the mechanisms that normally curb hateful speech, like the media and the law, have become corrupt or incompetent, leaving violence as a necessary resort.

They also argue that violence has symbolic or inspirational value. A given act of violence may not accomplish much in itself, but it attracts a lot of commentary, gives people something to cheer about, and thereby draws attention to important issues and spurs others to collective action. (I think this argument implies that punching white supremacists is a good use of violence, in that it gets people excited without doing much actual harm. While assassinating Congressmen, say, would be a bad use of violence, in that it would horrify people without meaningfully changing the system.)

Those opposed to the use of violence argue that it begets more violence, which leads to an escalation of hostilities, which ends up giving more power to strongmen and demagogues. They also argue that violence drives away the moderates and everyday citizens needed for a broad coalition, in that every act of violence undermines ethical ideals, like equal rights and the golden rule, that most Americans hold dear.

The point is that these arguments about strategy depend on beliefs about morality, because everyone now assumes that political action is largely a matter of effective messaging. If most citizens think violence is admirable, then the use of violence will attract and inspire new followers. If most citizens think violence is reprehensible, then the use of violence will repel potential sympathizers.

Freddie–along with every other sensible person who has written on this issue–makes the valid and vital point that most ethicists, most moralists, and most ordinary people see violence as justified only as a form of defense. That’s why champions of The Punch have been so eager to frame it as an act of defense, arguing that Spencer’s speech is itself a form of violence that terrorizes the oppressed.

I find that argument sophistic, but beyond that, I found the tone of the ensuing conversation almost inexpressibly repugnant. The problem, as always, isn’t that people on the left want to debate morality versus strategy, but that the most vocal partisans now treat “strategy” and “morality” and “debate” as equally dirty words. To the extent that such words have any meaning, they refer to ideas and ideals, and every right-thinking radical on the internet already knows that ideas and ideals are only flimsy pretexts for the abuse of power.

As cathartic as people may have found the black-bloc punch and its violent import, I notice that it hasn’t yet inspired a popular revolution. The real story, as always, was one of wounded feelings. The people initially cheering the punch included  folks who had been suffering alt-right harassment for years. They understandably took satisfaction in seeing one of their tormentors get his comeuppance. When moralists started wagging fingers, their natural reaction was to think, “Really? With all that’s happening, you’re scolding me? ME?” So they responded by dismissing the moralizers as frauds and cowards and appeasers. Others were dragooned into showing emotional support. And so most of the energy, as always, went into humiliating and jeering at people who showed themselves to be insufficiently zealous, who dared to speak of strategies OR morals OR beliefs, who suggested with their actions or words or even their conspicuous silence that there was a conversation to be had. The controversy over abstract ideas became a proxy war for human passions.

So it goes on social media. I have to say, a movement so invested in sneering at people who presume to advocate for nonviolence is one with which I have no spiritual affinity. But this alone leads me to wonder whether all the talk of strategy and coalition-building, at least as it relates to messaging, matters very much at all. The Spencer Punch furor, which began so innocuously, has left me alienated from the political movement to which I notionally belong. Yet I can’t see myself doing anything but going to the same marches, voting for the same politicians, sending out the same letters and donations–doing more or less what I’ve done before, but in a spirit of grim compliance rather than one of hopeful solidarity.

To the extent that the left has a strategy, then, it’s one that has utterly failed to win my sympathy. But I can only go on being leftist in practice if not in spirit, because the very same values–I would even call them “old-fashioned values”–that leave me appalled by leftist strategy have made me horrified by rightist policy. I find myself in the perplexed position of belonging to a coalition that I would say has bad morals, bad ideas, bad habits, and bad strategies, but is ultimately fighting for good causes.

Is this simply the nature of politics? I wonder how many other people feel the same.

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To Dream the Impossiblie Dream

The Onion tells us how to fix the internet:

Across the world, discussions have taken place as to how the internet, if it is one day revived, could be made less appalling. Several guidelines have reportedly been proposed, including a minimum age requirement and a questionnaire aimed at identifying the most frivolous or virulent users, and then either barring them entirely or corralling them inside a section of the internet dedicated to people who do nothing but make humanity worse.

While access to email and online weather services would remain largely unchanged, sources confirmed that Reddit and 4chan would be eliminated entirely, and the internet would be strictly limited to a single, reliable database of song lyrics.

Reliable song lyrics? And you thought tech utopianism was dead.

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Even Autocrats Can Be Incompetent

David Brooks, two weeks ago, on Trump’s erratic leadership:

If the figure at the center can’t give consistent, clear and informed direction, the whole system goes haywire, with vicious infighting and creeping anarchy.

Thus the current centrist consensus: that the real danger of a Trump presidency isn’t oppression but incompetence. Instead of an autocratic menace seizing power through fiendish plots, Trump will be a weak buffoon who spreads disorder through careless errors. Because he’s all gut, no head, his administration will lurch from one crisis to another, but without exerting real control, much less gaining power. If you want to explain the Trump presidency, think maladroitness, not malfeasance.

I think these centrist critics of Trump don’t quite understand the implications of their own critique.

Sure, Trump’s presidency is anarchic. But how is Trump likely to respond to that anarchy? If Trump’s carelessness leads to general mayhem, how else can he respond but by doubling down on the political skills he demonstrably does possess: fearmongering, propaganda, demagoguery, and a talent for redirecting public attention toward the farce or scandal or scapegoat du jour?

Maybe Trump will blame his misfortunes on the media. Maybe he’ll pick flamboyant fights with other D.C. factions. Maybe he’ll blame foreigners. Maybe he’ll mollify his supporters by persecuting minorities and dissenters. Or maybe he’ll choose symbolic sacrifices from among his crew of toadies and hangers-on, as he did with the bumblers and thugs on his campaign staff. Probably he’ll do all of the above.

Then what? All this Sturm und Drang will only make things more chaotic, more vicious, more anarchic. Leading to greater strife in the government and greater discontent in the populace. Leading to more paranoia and insecurity on Trump’s part, leading to more scapegoating and sensational feuds, leading to more unrest and anger …

This is the essence of politics in the personal style: everything revolves around the leader’s persona, his fights, his fancies, his favorites, his fears. Political fortunes depend on loyalty and court intrigue and the leader’s manipulation of his subordinates, making corruption the essence of government. A corrupt government is ineffective and untrustworthy, so the leader can only keep power by casting his rotten regime as the inevitable alternative to some scarier existential threat–an enemy abroad, a traitor within. This leads to pointless battles and cruel persecutions, which diverts energy from the ordinary work of government and provokes stronger dissent. And on and on.

Right-leaning moderates like Brooks all seem to think that because Trump is new to Washington, responsible Republicans and D.C. fixtures will have the skill and probity to “contain” him, which is to say, that they’ll be willing and able to interrupt the cycle described above. At worst, we’ll get four years of factionalism and inaction. At best (in their view), we’ll get something like the neocon agenda, artfully assembled by Pence and Ryan while Trump squats somewhere with his fast food and Twitter account.

Really? Who are these responsible, capable, upstanding Republicans? What government have the pundits been covering? Come to think of it, I’d say that liberals hoping for Trump to be exposed as a fraud and denounced as a failure have underestimated Trump and overestimated the public. Trump’s administration will either be bumblingly inert or actively destructive. Either way, he’ll have ample cause to do what he does best: telling lies and laying blame. It’s worked pretty well for him so far.

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Notes on Nicks

There’s some okay stuff in this Amanda Petrusich piece on Stevie Nicks. Her comments on Nicks’ “girlishness,” for one. Long before Lady Gaga wore a mantle of bunched Kermit dolls, Nicks was dressing with the corny exuberance of a girl who’d just raided her grandma’s attic. And Nicks has a knack for writing lyrics that sound both deeply personal and mushily vague, like a fourteen year-old scribbling thoughts in her diary:

And the days go by
Like a strand in the wind
In the web that is my own
I begin again
Said to my friend, baby
Nothin’ else matters

Do you know what that means? I’m not sure I do. But I know how it feels. In a rock song, that’s what matters.

Even when Stevie Nicks was coked to the gills–no, especially when she was coked to the gills–she had an air of wispy self-sufficiency. Her songs are mostly about vulnerability–not only the heartache of women in love, but the unease of men surprised by intimacy. What a contrast with our own day’s pop superstars, always shouting in the Whitney Houston mode about how proud they are to be themselves. I like the contrast Petrusich draws between Nicks’s soft romanticism and today’s bombastic arena anthems. Whatever happened to wistful pop?

The trouble is that profiles like this always scant the songcraft. They give you a performer’s image, her aura, her legacy, her clothes. They linger over lyrics and stray quotations, which tend to sound dumb when removed from their songs of origin, like fragments of high school poetry. But what about the tunes, the instruments, the arrangements? What about the music that actually makes pop stars famous?

It’s especially frustrating here, because Nicks, unlike many of today’s superstars, actually wrote most of her own material. And her recordings, especially her classic records, have a characteristic sound. It’s worth giving a little attention to that sound and how she created it.

The Nicks formula starts with a steady drumbeat at a moderate tempo, usually playing standard, unadorned pop-rock accents. One-TWO-three-FOUR. Instruments come in gradually: a subdued bass, maybe a muted electric guitar. Keyboards or an organ lay down basic chords, nothing adventurous, often broken up over several beats. A lead guitar adds tremulous coloring. The arrangement makes heavy use of vocal harmonies and backing singers. Often the songs are outright duets. Although synthesizers feature prominently, fancy production effects are kept to a minimum.

The result can be schmaltzy, especially with those woozy synths and lounge-like backing vocals. But it does evoke a distinctive mood. As a compositional approach, the method relies on empty space, the lonely plodding of the drums, the mournful bent notes of the lead guitar. The instrument parts, stripped down to a few simple accents, figure like distant sounds in a desolate area, horns at sea, sirens on a dark street. Mood intensifies through a slow accumulation of simple harmonies: guitar, keyboard, vocals, weaving together.

It’s not music you dance to. It’s music you drive to, singing along in the solitude of your car, the thrum of the highway doubled by those steady rhythm sections. Music you put on at evening, alone, with a dark mass of rain pushing up the valley, a few headlights curving by on the county road. At the whiskey hour.

“Nightbird,” “Sable on Blonde,” “Bella Donna,” “Kind of Woman,” “Outside the Rain,” “Wild Heart”: these are good examples of the signature Nicks style. Her upbeat songs have faster tempos, happier chords, busier arrangements, but still make use of the same basic elements: strong quarter-note accents, prominent backing vocals, layered instrumentation, plaintive guitar and keyboard riffs trading places in the bridge and post-chorus. I don’t know exactly how much of the credit for this sound goes to Nicks’ producer, Jimmy Iovine, but it’s worth noting that many of the hits she recorded with Fleetwood Mac–“Dreams,” “Rhiannon,” “Sara,” “Gypsy”–have the same distinguishing marks. Even some of her later tracks, which all too frequently collapse under pileups of eighties-tastic synth effects, have vestiges of the style; check out “Some Become Strangers” or “Nightmare.”

For an illuminating contrast, try listening to some of the fluffy, boppy hits written by Nicks’ bandmates in Fleetwood Mac: “Don’t Stop,” “Go Your Own Way,” “You Make Loving Fun,” “Hold Me,” “Little Lies,” “Over My Head.” Rhythm guitars and bouncy keyboards fill out the verses. Backing vocals are present but not prominent. We hear no interweaving of doleful synths and haunting electric guitar, just little bursts of radio-friendly licks. The tempo is quick but not urgent. Musical gimmicks and production effects cue shifts in mood, which generally ranges from mellow to buoyant.

Some of these are decent pop songs. But they sound different from Stevie Nicks songs.

This helps explain, I think, why Stevie Nicks is remembered for being Stevie Nicks, while Fleetwood Mac are remembered for being a groovy old Boomer band that gets dredged up for national campaign events. Nicks did something tricky. She made popular music about unpopular feelings: mournfulness, fragility, sorrow, regret. Everything about her public presence–the ethereal clothes, the brooding lyrics, the air of wounded innocence–and the songs themselves, with their hollow spaces, wistful vocals, and keening instrumentation–reinforced that image.

That kind of personal mystique can get you a reputation as a poetess, a witch, a visionary, a genius. I’m not sure we need to go that far. Maybe Stevie Nicks is something less mysterious. Maybe she’s just a talented musician.

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A Little More on Clinton

I’ve been thinking more about this argument liberals are having. How much should we blame Hillary Clinton for losing the election? Did running Clinton as a candidate have anything to do with Trump’s win? Would someone else have been better?

It’s strange how even these internal debates end up splitting along partisan lines. People who think Clinton lost the election also seem to think she was a terrible candidate overall–corrupt and incompetent and entitled and undeserving. And people who support Clinton often talk as if it’s traitorous and misogynistic to point out any of her flaws, as if this kind of honest critiquing was what ended up tainting a totally spotless politician.

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to say that Clinton would have made a good president–better than the men who were running, anyway–but had major liabilities as a campaigner.

Does it matter? Isn’t it all just crying over spilled milk?

It matters if progressives have a message to offer. Because they ran Clinton as their candidate, the election became–at least on the left–a referendum on her personal record. That didn’t leave much room for visions, promises, or hopeful rhetoric, especially since Clinton herself isn’t great at that kind of talk.

Liberals had three answers to this problem:

  1. “Yes, but she’ll be our first woman president! Isn’t that, in itself, inspiring enough?” In other words, let’s do the Obama thing again, but this time with sex instead of race. This is a hopeful message; the trouble is that the candidate herself wasn’t in a good position to deliver it. Clinton couldn’t get up in the debates and spend the whole time saying, “A vote for me will be a vote for women’s equality!” Obama had other things to talk about: he was young, he was new, he’d voted against the Iraq War, and most important, he was personally committed to a vision of a unified America. What could Clinton say along those lines?
  2. “Maybe Clinton’s not especially inspiring, but if you really dig into the policy details, you’ll find that her proposed budget, along with her recommended tweaks to the ACA, are projected to produce an increase in household income over the next four years of …” Um, no. The more rousing version of this appeal was, “Clinton’s a hardheaded pragmatist, just the kind of workmanlike leader we need.” This is actually the theme that won me over. But I’m not surprised it didn’t work on, say, young people.
  3. “Sure, Clinton has problems. But Trump!” Good argument. The trouble is, it’s not inspiring. It’s depressing. It’s the kind of message that whips up core supporters but dampens overall enthusiasm. Which lowers turnout. Which is what happened.

On the right, the election was a referendum on Trump’s character. He compensated for that handicap with big promises. “We’re going to protect jobs. We’re going to build bridges, factories, airports. We’re going to stop terrorism. We’re going to end corruption. We’re going to bring change. We’re going to make America great again.” It was all a bunch of baloney, of course. And Trump’s character is so atrocious it almost didn’t matter.

But he had a hopeful story to tell. Clinton couldn’t pull that off. She had to rely on hopeful stories other people were telling. That’s not good enough.

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Taking the Measure of Clinton’s Poor Performance

A few days ago the wife and I were discussing our primary votes. I confessed I had decided to cast what I called a “naïve” vote for Hillary Clinton. In using the word naïve, I meant I had made a deliberate choice to put aside strategic concerns and simply vote for the candidate I preferred.

I knew Clinton was harried by scandal, but I personally thought the scandals were arcane and overblown.

I knew Clinton was considered unlikable–and I, certainly, don’t find her appealing–but I thought crowd-pleasing charisma was overrated.

I knew Clinton was a hawk, but I decided I could live with it–especially since the Middle East is such a mess that I’m not sure isolationism or pacifism would work better.

I knew Clinton was an establishment candidate, a guarded insider, a Washington fixture saddled with decades of political baggage, but I admired her professionalism and poise.

In an era of angry revolution, I gravitated to a candidate who represented the converse of angry revolution.

That seems to have been a bad gamble.

It has to be said that Clinton performed very poorly. She fell behind Obama’s totals in just about every category. She lost young voters, black voters, Latino voters, Asian-American voters. She lost almost as many votes among black women as she did among white men. She never managed to boost Democratic turnout, even against an enemy like Trump. And she never inspired the anticipated surge among women.

Think about that. One month after the Hollywood Access leak, Clinton underperformed among women. That’s just terrible.

I’m not sure this can be blamed on Clinton or her team. In retrospect, they ran a campaign that played to her strengths and her opponent’s weaknesses. They raked in money from big donors, banked on Obama’s popularity, relied on celebrities to reach out to young voters, harped on Trump’s bad character, and baited their opponent into frequent crazy displays. The last in particular was probably a good strategy. Every time Trump launched one of his bizarre vendettas, the polls swung against him.

But an attack-driven campaign is inherently risky, and the timing didn’t work out. If the sexual harassment scandal had broken when the Comey announcement did, we might have been looking at a Clinton presidency. Yet the furor died down. Disgust with Trump simply didn’t translate into enthusiasm for Clinton.

I know, I know. Clinton’s campaign ignored the working class. She didn’t pay enough visits to Wisconsin. She took the Democratic base for granted.

But would she ever have won those people? I’m not sure this problem could have been fixed by shuffling around a few campaign stops.

One trope that bugged me throughout the campaign was the depiction of Clinton as a kind of granny president–warm, fuzzy, maternal–an ubermom who was going to bustle into Washington, soothe everyone’s anxieties, and clean up the country’s messes. It was infantilizing, it smacked of desperation, and it made for a grotesque mismatch with Clinton’s actual record. (That’s our Hillary–the lovable old babushka who bakes cookies for Goldman Sachs bankers and bombed the bejeezus out of Libya.) I’ve often heard that Clinton is more charismatic in person than onstage. But how many union blokes was she supposed to shake hands with? How many disgruntled Flint women could she hope to take out for coffee?

No, the problems with Clinton’s candidacy were there from the start. We knew what they were. Clinton did too. She tried to compensate by clinging to Obama’s coalition. It didn’t work.

Would Sanders have done better? Perhaps he would have been tainted by his socialist sympathies. Perhaps the inevitable third-term hurdle was too high for any Democrat to clear. Perhaps something unexpected would have sunk his unorthodox candidacy. We’ll never know.

I still believe Clinton, of the available candidates, would have done the best job as president. We’ll never know that, either.

But we do know this. Clinton’s candidacy failed in all the ways that matter. She didn’t boost turnout among Latinos. She didn’t energize young voters. She didn’t excite the base. She didn’t win over significant numbers of vacillating Republicans.

She did all the things, in essence, that were expected of her. And it didn’t work.

She was my first choice, my personal choice, and in that sense, a naïve choice. But I have to admit, she seems to have been a bad choice.

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