How to Win Every Argument You Ever Have: Be Willing to Lose

Bust of Socrates

A bust of Socrates at the University of Western Australia, Crawley (Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)

As we mark the first post-Trump Thanksgiving, the best advice about arguments might be to try not to have them, at least for today.

But knowing they’re probably inevitable, now seems like a good time to share the ultimate secret to winning them. In fact, with this secret, I can promise you that you’ll win every single argument you ever have, from here on out.

Are you ready? Here it is:

Be willing to lose, and you never will.

Surprise! Winning is not actually the point of an argument. The point, although it can be hard to guess from our Facebook feeds, is to advance knowledge. And if your goal is more knowledge – and why wouldn’t it be? – you’ll never lose.

Because even if you lose, you win.

On the other hand, if you never lose, you never learn.

And how could that be a real victory? “Hurray! I’ve never learned a thing! In me, knowledge remains stalled forever!”

If you want to be a great arguer, emulate one of the greatest, Socrates: focus on questions, not answers. The answers will take care of themselves.

Now maybe you think I’m just asking you to be impossibly virtuous. So let me divulge that this practice also has a sneaky side benefit: if you can be genuinely open to new facts, if you can – and this is crucial – change your opinion in the face of those new facts (stay with me now), you’re likely to become more well-informed.

And the more well-informed you become, the more reality is going to be on your side.

And that’s the best ally you could have.

Because reality – even in the age of Trump – has a way of winning in the end.

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Branding Bannon: How to Protest a White Nationalist in the White House

(Also published at Huffington Post.) Democrats in Washington have registered strong objections to Donald Trump’s choice of Steve Bannon as his senior White House adviser.

Will their protests make any difference? So far, it looks like no: as the minority in both houses, Democrats have little leverage, and media attention is already fading.

But here’s something that might work, and it borrows a page from Trump’s own playbook: brand Bannon.

Democrats, and everyone who cares about equality, should give him a new name: White Nationalist Steve Bannon.

And pledge never to refer to him as anything else.

This idea is of course similar to Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” — but with an important difference: it’s not an unsupported slur, it’s a simple statement of fact.

Under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart News has become a hub for the bigots of the white nationalist alt-right, running stories such as this one:

Headline and image of confederate flag from Breitbart news story praising the Confederacy

A Breitbart News story repeated the racist lie that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery.

Some people who know Bannon — sorry, I mean White Nationalist Steve Bannon — claim that he personally is not a bigot (though his ex-wife, among others, disagrees).

I might say that’s a distinction without a difference — but what White Nationalist Steve Bannon does is actually worse than just being a garden variety bigot. Most bigots are ignorant. White Nationalist Steve Bannon, an alum of Harvard, Goldman Sachs, and the U.S. Navy officer corps, knows exactly what he’s doing.

Imagine what he could do in the White House.

The great thing about always and only saying “White Nationalist Steve Bannon” is that it’s a protest that would meet him every time he appears anywhere, and need never end.

Unless, let’s hope, his term in government ends, hopefully before it starts.

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A letter to a friend who voted for Trump

Also published at Huffington Post.

Dear _____________,

We wouldn’t be friends if we didn’t see the best in each other.

It’s because of that that I need you to help me understand what you just did.

I know you’re not a bigot. If we disagree on some social policy question, it’s never because we disagree about equality, only about the best way to achieve it.

But you just voted for a bigot. Please don’t tell me he isn’t one. Ask any black, brown, or Muslim friends or colleagues you have how they feel about Trump’s five years of promoting the racist birther lie, founding his campaign on the false claim that Mexican immigrants are a threat (you do know they have a lower crime rate than native-born Americans, right?), pledging to ban all Muslims (lower-than-average crime rate there, too), or aligning with white nationalism?

If they learn you voted for Trump, they may never look at you quite the same way again. Can you tell them that you did?

If so, how?

Read more in The Huffington Post…

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A Year of Trump: Awful at the Start, Worse Now

Donald Trump photo by Gage Skidmore via, Creative Commons licenseThe other day I realized that I’m coming up on a year of writing about Donald Trump:

His ignorance, racism, his narcissism, and — perhaps explaining it all — his disturbingly baby-like mouth.

Here’s the collection (so far) at the Huffington Post:

Here’s How Wrong Trump Is: Immigrants Commit Less Crime

Trump Has Exposed GOP Racism

Scarborough: A ‘Generational Opportunity’ to Reform the GOP by Fighting Trump

The Real Reason Fox News Is Going After Trump
Aug 10, 2015

If Trump’s as Smart as He Says, He’ll Withdraw Now — Here’s Why

Bigots Aren’t Ashamed of Being Bigots, But Why Aren’t They Ashamed of Being Cowards?12/9/2015

Who Says Trump Is Smart?

Suicide Mission: In Embracing Trump, the GOP May Finally Stop Him — And Destroy Itself

The Sweet Smell of Trump

Baby Donald Just Needs His Bottle

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Baby Donald Just Needs His Bottle

[Also published at Huffington Post.] Just look at his mouth.

Donald Trump photo by Michael Vadon

It’s the mouth of a hungry baby, lips permanently pursed for a nipple.

Now look at his hands. See how they flail about — they’re not just the size of baby hands, they move like the hands of a baby in distress.

Back to the face. Flushed, yelling, eyes screwed shut.

A hungry, hungry baby.

Experts aren’t sure exactly what causes narcissistic personality disorder. WebMD says:

Parents who put their children on a pedestal and shower them with endless praise can plant a seed of narcissism, a recent study found…

Then again, the opposite is true, too. Children who are ignored or abused tend to be self-centered almost as a survival instinct.

Whether, as an actual baby, Donald Trump got too much nursing, or not enough, we can’t know. But in grownup Baby Donald, we see the symptoms all too well. As a textbook case of narcissistic personality disorder, Baby Donald will:

Think about himself most of the time and talk about himself a lot
Crave attention and admiration
Exaggerate his talents and achievements
Believe he’s special
Set unrealistic goals
Have wide, fast mood swings
Have a hard time taking others’ feelings seriously
Strive to win, whatever it takes
Fantasize about unlimited success, money, and power.

We don’t have to give him the presidency.

Just give him his bottle.

Image credit: Michael Vadon (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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The Sweet Smell of Trump

[Also published at Huffington Post.] Con artist. Demagogue. And yes, in many ways, a fascist.

It can seem incredible that such a man is the front-runner for one of our two major parties.

But as shocking as Donald Trump may be, we’ve seen his type before. The trouble is, we Americans forget our history — and that enables his rise.

Back in the 1930’s, there was Father Charles Coughlin. A Canadian-born Catholic priest, Coughlin started out as a progressive who supported FDR’s New Deal, before using his nationwide radio program and magazine to promote anti-semitism, Mussolini, Hitler and, like all such people, himself, above all.

In the 50’s, we had Senator Joe McCarthy, who built his power by whipping up mass hysteria about communists and homosexuals supposedly subverting the U.S. government and army.

By 1957, the toxic mixture of celebrity, fear-mongering, hatred and phony patriotism — which shocks us so in Trump — was already familiar. Familiar enough to shape the plot of a Hollywood classic, “The Sweet Smell of Success.”

“Success” tells the story of an unprincipled, self-aggrandizing gossip columnist and power broker named J.J. Hunsecker, a character based on the real life Walter Winchell.

Check out this scene, with Burt Lancaster as Hunsecker and Tony Curtis as press agent Sidney Falco. Witness Hunsecker’s greed, dishonesty, violence and narcissistic identification of himself with the nation — and just try not to think of Donald J. Trump.

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#ObamaAndKids — My Contributions

Photos of President Obama with kids (many taken by the great White House chief photographer, Pete Souza) range from heart-warming to just plain wonderful. So, like so many others, I love the #ObamaAndKids hashtag that’s trending now. It led me to go back through my own photos of Obama, looking for these ones.

Barack Obama meets three little boys, Michigan State University, Oct. 2, 2008. Photo by Spencer Critchley for Obama for America.

Presidential candidate Barack Obama meets three little boys, before a speech at Michigan State University, Oct. 2, 2008

Barack Obama and a little boy, Michigan State University, Oct. 2, 2008. Photo by Spencer Critchley for Obama for America.

Presidential candidate Barack Obama and a little boy, before a speech at Michigan State University, Oct. 2, 2008

Presidential candidate Barack Obama meets a little girl following a speech in Farmington Hills, Michigan, Sept. 8, 2008. Photo by Spencer Critchley for Obama for America.

Presidential candidate Barack Obama meets a little girl, following a speech in Farmington Hills, Michigan, Sept. 8, 2008. In his connection with her, we can see why there are so many wonderful #ObamaAndKids photos: he wholeheartedly loves children, and they can tell. (Meanwhile the Secret Service agent over his shoulder is doing his job, making sure even she is no kind of threat.)

A little girl who has just met presidential candidate Barack Obama, Michigan, Sept. 1, 2008. Photo by Spencer Critchley for Obama for America.

This little girl had just met presidential candidate Barack Obama at Labor Day picnic in Monroe, Michigan, Sept. 1, 2008. He had signed a shirt for her, which she was now wearing.


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Suicide Mission: In Embracing Trump, the GOP May Finally Stop Him — And Destroy Itself

[Also published at Huffington Post.] For decades, the GOP has been playing its base for suckers, by running the Grand Old Play: pander to the small-government, traditional-values rubes, and then get back to real business: serving business. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne traces the history of this “serial betrayal” in his new book, Why the Right Went Wrong.

But after falling for it over and over, the marks are finally waking up to the con — and they’re out of their minds with rage.

That’s why so many of them support Donald Trump, who by any traditional measure is an insane choice for a presidential candidate.

Donald Trump by Gage SkidmoreBecause Trump isn’t a candidate in the traditional sense. He’s a giant middle finger to the GOP establishment. Even his hair says “F*ck you.”

And it’s why the establishment can’t say anything to undermine Trump’s support.

It’s the cost of spending decades teaching people not to trust you — especially if you also spent those decades rebranding reason as “liberal bias.” No argument will get you out of paying that bill.

So the establishment seems to be giving up the fight. Instead, it’s making a tentative, nose-holding move towards Trump. It’s a move made not in surrender, but in desperate hope: GOP elites pray that for all his populist posturing, Trump is really just a more flamboyant version of the Grand Old Play.

They’re trusting that eventually Trump will drop the act. As Bob Dole says, “He’s got the right personality and he’s kind of a deal-maker.” After all, deals are what Trump has done throughout his checkered business career. He’s cut them with Democrats, Republicans, Saudi princes, mob-affiliated contractors, whomever, as long as it he thinks he’ll come out ahead (though he’s often been wrong about that). To get the deal done, he’ll say whatever he needs to.

Trump admitted as much in his recent interview with the New York Times editorial board:

Mr. Trump talked about the art of applause lines. “You know,” he said of his events, “if it gets a little boring, if I see people starting to sort of, maybe thinking about leaving, I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, ‘We will build the wall!’ and they go nuts.”

So maybe the GOP can cut its own deal. But let’s step through what happens next.

There are four plausible scenarios party leaders need to plan for:

1. Trump loses the Republican primary to a relatively sane alternative, i.e. not Ted Cruz or one of the other extremist (but unlikely-to-win) choices.

2. Trump loses the Republican primary to Ted Cruz (again, God forbid).

3. Trump wins the primary, but loses the general.

4. Trump wins it all (oh please, God forbid).

You could argue that if the elites embrace Trump, any of these scenarios works out better for them.

Scenario 1. The establishment embrace damages Trump’s brand (and he’s nothing but brand), helping him lose, they hope, to a more palatable candidate. Then the Grand Old Play can proceed more or less as it always has.

Scenario 2. Trump still loses, although after vanquishing one demon, the GOP has summoned a worse one in Cruz. As nutty as Trump is, he doesn’t want to tear down the system that made him wealthy. But Ted Cruz has shown he’s willing to tear down anything that isn’t Ted Cruz. I’ll leave exploring this nightmare for another time, but for now, let’s assume the party would try to adapt its Trump strategy to Cruz.

Scenario 3. After Trump wins the primary, the party’s reputation is beaten down even more for a few months, since it is now officially led by a global and historical embarrassment. But at least the suffering would end in November!

Scenario 4. If a (I hesitate even to write it) President Trump does in fact turn out to be a deal-maker, the GOP establishment does everything it can to run a non-catastrophic presidency. It surrounds Trump with regents who know what they’re doing, prevents him from actually wielding power, and keeps him happy by flattering his Titanic ego (huge but fragile, like the ship).

You can see how to the GOP, embracing Trump might look, if you squint really hard, sort of clever.

But it turns out to be a kamikaze strategy: all the party can win is full ownership of its destruction.

Under each of these scenarios, the rage of base voters will go beyond extreme. This time, finally, they were promised the end of the betrayals. But once again, betrayed they will be, either by the party, Trump, or both. Meanwhile, mainstream Republicans will recoil from their party’s apparently limitless cynicism.

The GOP, left with no valid claim to either its base or its mainstream, will just finish splitting into pieces.

There is another choice, though, unlikely as it may seem. Republican leaders could show true leadership. They could repudiate Trump, Cruz, and all forms of extremism, and make a brave stand for principled conservatism.

They would still be likely to lose. But they would lose with honor. And on that, they could begin to rebuild.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Who Says Trump Is Smart?

Donald Trump photo by Anythingyouwant, via Wikimedia CommonsDonald Trump’s ideas are widely recognized as not just hateful, but idiotic.

And yet the conventional wisdom in most of the media is that, all the same, “he’s a smart guy” — after all, look how successful he is. Even his liberal critics, including the very smart Rachel Maddow, give him credit: Trump may have no principles, but he obviously has brains.

A related line of thought holds that as a smart guy, he must know that what he’s saying is wrong in every way, so he can’t actually believe it, and must be saying it for purely political reasons.

But where is the evidence that he actually is intelligent? If he is, he also must be one of our most brilliant actors, because he’s completely convincing as a lout.

I suspect the reason so many journalists assume he’s only pretending to be stupid is that few of them know much about business — including how to judge business success.

Some examples:

1. Many journalists seem to think that making a lot of money is evidence of high intelligence. But anyone who’s worked in the corporate world can tell you different. Some senior executives are really smart, but many are more or less average. As research has shown, drive and social skills often count more than brains do.

You may have heard the old saying about college: It’s a place where former A students teach B students to work for C students.

2. Few journalists seem to understand how Trump makes his money. They accept his self-presentation as a genius builder. But for a long time it’s looked as if what Trump really does is just license his brand (for now).

He does have a talent for being famous, and that’s worth money. If you want to build something, he can make a lot of money by charging you to put his name on it. But that’s the same kind of “genius” that any celebrity shows when they put their name on perfume or sneakers.

3. There’s little reason to assume that Trump actually has nearly as much money as he claims. We have only his word for it — the word of one of the world’s most notorious fabricators. And as he himself has said, his net worth varies depending on how he feels.

Since a lot of his net worth seems to amount to brand equity, that actually, kind of, sort of, makes sense. I can tell you that the Critchley brand is worth not $10 billion — that’s Trump change — but $20 billion. Since I won’t take a penny less for it, I can claim it’s true.

In fact, I think I will. Would you like to loan me a half-billion or so? I have $20 billion in collateral.

4. Speaking of borrowing money, Trump has had to be bailed out repeatedly, with four corporate bankruptcies to his name. If you want to see someone who’s a genius at making money, take a look at the remarkably non-loutish Warren Buffett. As S.V. Dáte has pointed out, Buffett has used his investing acumen to beat the market about 22 times over during the time since Trump inherited a pile of money from his father. Trump, on the other hand, might have done better if he had put his windfall in an index fund and left it alone.

As I’ve watched Trump get cut all kinds of slack for saying the stupidest things imaginable, I’ve wondered if he just comes across as very different in person. Maybe those who have met him know something I don’t.

But Mark Bowden makes me think, “Nah.” For a profile he wrote for Playboy some years back, Bowden spent quite a bit of time with Trump. His impression, as described in the latest Vanity Fair, sure rings true:

Apart from the comical ego, the errors, and the self-serving bluster, what you get from Trump are commonplace ideas pronounced as received wisdom. Begin registering all Muslims in America? Round up the families of suspected terrorists? Ban all Muslims from entering the country? Carpet-bomb ISIS-held territories in Iraq (killing the 98-plus percent of civilians who are, in effect, being held hostage there by the terror group and turning a war against a tiny fraction of the world’s Muslims into a global religious crusade)? Using nuclear weapons? The ideas that pop into his head are the same ones that occur to any teenager angry about terror attacks. They appeal to anyone who can’t be bothered to think them through–can’t be bothered to ask not just the moral questions but the all-important practical one: Will doing this makes things better or worse? [My emphasis.]

Maybe we should take the advice of Maya Angelou: “When people show you who they are, believe them.”

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Conservatives, liberals join in repudiating Trump’s hate speech against Muslims

Donald Trump photo by Gage Skidmore via, Creative Commons licenseWe knew liberals would be denouncing Donald Trump’s hateful call to ban Muslims from entering the United States — and God bless them. But so too are leading conservatives — and God bless them, too:

(Updated 12/8/2015)

Dick Cheney: “I think this whole notion that somehow we can say no more Muslims, just ban a whole religion, goes against everything we stand for and believe in.”

Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives: “This is not conservatism. What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for and, more importantly, it’s not what this country stands for.”

Reince Priebus, Chair of the Republican National Committee: “I don’t agree. We need to aggressively take on radical Islamic terrorism but not at the expense of our American values.”

Bill Kristol, Editor of the Weekly Standard: “Trump has entered John Birch Society/Pat Buchanan territory. Important to save conservatism from him.”

Ari Fleischer, former spokesman for President GW Bush: “Trump’s statement calling for a total ban on all Muslims entering the US is nuts.”

Russell Moore, Southern Baptist Convention: “Anyone who cares an iota about religious liberty will denounce the reckless, demagogic @realDonaldTrump plan for Muslims.”

Jennifer Horn, New Hampshire Republican Party Chair: “There are some issues that transcend politics…it is un-Republican. It is unconstitutional. And it is un-American.”

Matt Moore, South Carolina Republican Party Chair: “As a conservative who truly cares about religious liberty, Donald Trump’s bad idea and rhetoric send a shiver down my spine. American exceptionalism means always defending our inalienable rights, not attacking them when it’s politically convenient.”

Jeff Kaufmann, Iowa Republican Party Chair: “I’m here to reiterate that our founding principles are stronger than political cynicism… we don’t make ourselves safer by betraying bedrock Constitutional values.”

David French, National Review: “Even the most hawkish national security conservatives can identify multiple categories of Muslims who should have access to the United States, beginning — of course — with our own citizens. There are many others. What about the interpreters who’ve laid down their lives to serve our warriors downrange and now find themselves under imminent threat from jihadists? What about members of allied militaries who are training to be the Muslim “boots on the ground” that we need to help take the fight to the enemy? Do we treat the Kurds — who are sheltering so many of Iraq’s Christians while also providing the most effective fighting force against ISIS — the same as we treat suspected terrorists?”

Sen. Marco Rubio: “I disagree with Donald Trump’s latest proposal. His habit of making offensive and outlandish statements will not bring Americans together.”

Gov. Chris Christie: “A ridiculous position and one that won’t even be productive.”

Former Gov. Jeb Bush: “Donald Trump is unhinged. His ‘policy’ proposals are not serious.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham: “@Realdonaldtrump has gone from making absurd comments to being downright dangerous with his bombastic rhetoric.”

Regarding earlier xenophobic proposals by Trump, such as requiring all Muslims to be registered in a database:

Jonah Goldberg, National Review: “No movement that embraces Trump can call itself conservative.”

Max Boot, Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations: “Trump is a fascist. And that’s not a term I use loosely or often. But he’s earned it.”

Steve Deace, radio host and pundit: “If Obama proposed the same religion registry as Trump every conservative in the country would call it what it is — creeping fascism.”

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore / / CC BY-SA

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