Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Trump has a tactical role model: Karl Rove

In the furor over Trump's brazen lying, we forget that there's recent precedent: Karl Rove, once affectionately known as "Bush's Brain".

Trump may come by it naturally, but it sure looks like he's adopted Rove's Three Rules of Politics (I got them from Jeffrey Davis, whose blog is here but I can't find the relevant comment). The rules are: 
  1. Attack your opponent's strength from your weakness. When Trump talks about "crooked Hillary," this is of course an extreme case of the pot calling the kettle black. Trump obviously knows he is vulnerable to this charge, but by throwing the same accusation at his enemies he muddies the waters and plants the idea that he is no worse than everybody else. The media and its "professional centrists" actively assist in this deception with their obsession with false equivalence—the "they're all equally guilty" trope. 
  2. Accuse your opponent of doing what you're doing. One of Rove's most gag-inducing claims was his assertion that Democrats are the party of special interests. Today we have Trump claiming that it's not the Russians who meddled in our elections, it's actually the FBI and Special Counsel Robert Mueller! Again, this is an attack on the very concept of truth and deflects the focus away from his own culpability. 
  3. Be worse than anyone can imagine. This is a particularly diabolical stratagem, since it essentially hijacks human psychology to the benefit of the perpetrator. We know from studies of human cognition that the brain first attempts to understand a statement by making it true. We are wired to expect most people, most of the time, to tell the truth. So when we hear a particularly outrageous whopper, even if on reflection it's obviously false, our inclination is to think "I can't imagine anybody saying something that awful if there wasn't at least some truth to it." This resonates with the famous discussion of the Big Lie in Mein Kampf, wherein Hitler observes that most people tell small lies and literally can't imagine a really big one.
Anthropologist Joe Henrich describes in his great book The Secret of Our Success how language can be a fantastic communication tool—but only if most people are truthful. If you can't trust anything anybody says, then the whole system breaks down and language itself becomes useless. Think about that in the context of Trump's war on the media: the main tool that journalists have to ply their trade is language, and if Trump can rob them of that tool, he wins. As Hannah Arendt noted, the goal of propaganda isn't to sell an alternate version of reality, it's to create a distrust of all descriptions of reality.

In this, Trump has succeeded brilliantly among his base of supporters, making him a worthy heir to the legacy of Karl Rove.

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Thursday, April 26, 2018

A modest proposal to improve the Senate

Notice: I didn't say "fix" the Senate. That goal is probably out of reach. But my idea would take a significant step toward making it more representative of the U.S. population.

We all know the absurd situation we're currently stuck with: Wyoming, with about 580,000 people, gets the same two Senators as California, with close to 40 million—meaning that a Wyoming resident enjoys a sixty-eight to one edge in upper house representation over a Californian. By what possible stretch of the imagination is that fair?

Put it another way: with the filibuster rule, 41 Senators can stop a bill from passage. If the Senators from the least-populous states teamed up for a filibuster, it would mean that Senators representing just 11% of Americans can effectively frustrate the will of the other 289 million.

In practical terms, this means that the interests of residents of mostly rural, mostly western states are vastly over-represented in the Federal government.

So here's the proposal:
  • The 17 least-populous states get 1 Senator. 
  • The 17 most-populous states get 3 Senators. 
  • The middle 16 states get 2 Senators.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

A letter to Republican Congress members

Dear _____________:

As this is written, President Trump has just—again—openly threatened North Korea with nuclear annihilation, in a puerile boasting contest with Kim Jong Un over the size of their "buttons". He also asserted that the job of the Attorney General is to protect the President from accountability for illegal acts.

By the time you read this, he will no doubt have done several more outrageous things, any one of which would have led to the speedy exit from office of any prior President.

And yet, you do nothing.

We are told that virtually all Congressional Republicans agree privately that Donald Trump is spectacularly unfit for office.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Conservative Responses to Climate Change

I decided to start collecting the ridiculous things climate deniers have said about the extinction-level threat of global climate change.

When the climate has been so badly disrupted that not even the deniers can deny it any longer, this will serve as a "Hall of Shame" that the Right has sunk to—all for the "fun" of pissing the libruls off and serving their Fossil Fuel Masters.

Please add your favorites in the Comments!


What is this "climate change" of which you speak? Don’t be ridiculous.

It would be impossible for mere humans to change the earth’s climate. It says so in the Bible.

It’s cold outside. How can the earth possibly be warming?

The climate isn’t changing. Anything you see is just normal fluctuations.

Earth is actually getting cooler, not warmer.

If global warming did exist, it would be a good thing.

Climate change is a hoax perpetrated by evil scientists because they want more research grants.

Climate change is a hoax perpetrated by evil liberals because they want to take away our SUVs.

Climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the evil Chinese to make U.S. industry uncompetitive.

Global warming stopped a few years ago. Crisis over!

If the climate is changing, humans aren’t responsible.

Scientists are divided over whether climate change is real. It would be foolish to act before they are 100% in agreement.

The climate may be changing, but there’s nothing we can do about it.

If we ignore climate change it will go away. So we need to outlaw any mention of it.

Trying to do anything about climate change would destroy our economy.

If climate change becomes a problem, the free market will find a solution.

The Chinese may appear to be serious about fighting climate change, but that’s just part of the hoax.

Freedom to emit unlimited greenhouse gases is a fundamental American right.

Miami isn’t drowning. Tropical pests and diseases aren’t expanding toward the poles. The polar ice isn’t melting. Wildfires, droughts, and storms aren’t getting worse. Who are you going to believe, us or your lying eyes?

And finally, of course: Climate change is fake news.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Maybe Republicans and Democrats aren't so different, after all

OK, that title is deliberately provocative. But it gets to what I think is a real issue.

Let's start with the fact that the Republican party is undeniably composed of an unlikely coalition of two wildly different groups: the plutocrats who provide its funding, and the social conservatives who provide its votes.

By now, the pattern is familiar (and very recently it seems that the white working class is starting to catch on): Once every election cycle, Republican politicians and their backers pretend to care about issues like abortion and gay marriage, and use these issues to drive their voters to the polls. Once they've been reelected, they continue with their program to reduce taxes on the wealthy and cut benefits to the not-wealthy, essentially ignoring the social issues they campaigned on.

So: in the Republican party we have two groups:

  • Plutocrats like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, and allied groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce
  • "Real Americans" who vote on expertly-contrived "values" issues that the plutocrats put before them. 

Thomas Frank addressed this in his great book "What's The Matter With Kansas?". (Aside: in answer to the question of why the hell lower-class people vote against their own interests, I have proposed the notion of Altruistic Punishment: they hate the professional elites so much that they are willing to incur a cost to themselves to punish or confound them:  )

Monday, December 05, 2016

Update: no, President Trump is not going to make us trust each other again

With reference to the previous post: our country is more divided than ever. Among other things, Trump is casually throwing out inflammatory (and unfounded) accusations, like the "millions of illegal voters" who allegedly denied him a majority of the popular vote. And of course there is his ongoing war with the news media, that seeks to destroy their credibility and thereby deprive Americans of a common set of facts that we can discuss and use to shape a policy agenda.

Furthermore, the Trump administration is shaping up as the most corrupt one in a long, long time, maybe ever. Not a recipe for building trust in our institutions. Which probably suits the Republicans fine.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

The "battles" of spoiled celebrities

Prince. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Michael Jackson. Heath Ledger. Elvis, fergodsake.

It's becoming the standard script: whenever we hear about the untimely death of yet another celebrity from a drug overdose, we're virtually guaranteed to be informed that he or she was "battling addiction." As if that both explains and excuses said celebrity's actions.

Contrast this with what we're told about the OD of a drug abuser who happens to be poor and not a celebrity. If we're told anything at all, it's likely to be along the lines of "Ho hum. There goes another worthless junkie."