Skip the Gut Check, Democrats: The Problem Is Hiding in Plain Sight

(Also published at Huffington Post.) Following a shock loss to what looked like the worst presidential candidate in history, many Democrats are agonizing over what policies they need to change in order to win back voters.

They needn’t bother: policy has almost nothing to do with it. Democrats can go left, right, more populist, less populist, or stay put.

Because for policies to make a difference, voters have to know what they are. And in every election, Republicans begin with a big gimme: millions of people are voting for and against things that don’t exist.

We’ve heard a lot over the years about the right-wing media bubble, and, more recently, the plague of fake news in social media feeds.

But for some reason, most analysts — and many Democratic politicians — seem to assume all this misinformation magically disappears in the voting booth. Most of the post-election debate seems to be about substantive factors that supposedly explain why otherwise reasonable people voted for Trump, like economic anxiety, fear of terrorism, or resentment of elitism. It’s like we have a rational investors theory of voter behavior.

But missing from the discussion is the big bloc of voters who were simply making a mistake, based on bad facts.

Consider just some of the reasons some people cite for rejecting the Obama legacy that Hillary Clinton ran on: “soaring deficits,” “job-killing economic policies,” “uncontrolled borders,” and “rising crime.”

None of these things is real.

Graph showing dramatic decline of violent crime since 1992.

  1. “Soaring deficits.” Actually, the deficit under President Obama has plummeted in every fiscal year except the most recent one. But in 2013, according to Pew, only 12 percent of Republicans knew the truth, and only 29 percent of Democrats – misinformation is leaky. The debt has in fact gone up, but that’s inevitable all the while you’re reducing deficits until you get them to zero, like Bill Clinton did.
  2. “Job-killing economic policies.” In fact, Obama holds the record for uninterrupted job growth, with more than 15 million jobs created to date, and has cut unemployment in half from its 2010 peak. But a 2015 Bloomberg survey found that 53 percent of Republicans believe unemployment has gotten worse. No doubt many are also unaware that corporate profits have set new records, the S&P 500 is up more than two and a half times, and inflation has been less than half the post World War II average, among other good economic news.
  3. ”Uncontrolled borders.” The truth is that illegal immigration has declined under Obama, while border enforcement, including deportations of criminals, has greatly increased. Meanwhile the data show that first generation immigrants, including ones here illegally from Mexico, commit less crime than native born Americans. But Pew found that 50 percent of Trump supporters believe undocumented immigrants are a serious crime threat that calls for more border security.
  4. “Rising crime.” In the real world, violent crime has been falling steadily since 1992. It’s now at the lowest level since 1970. But 79 percent of Republicans (65 percent of Democrats) think it’s rising, according to Gallup.

There are lots of other examples, like the fantasies that Obama is a foreign-born Muslim, climate change is a Chinese hoax, or Hillary deliberately let our people die in Benghazi.

Millions of Americans have been convinced of such things. In other words, millions of Americans are casting misguided votes.

If ballots were being altered, that would be a big story. In effect, they are.

As Obama told Bill Maher recently, “If I watched Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me either.”

What to do? Obama provides a clue here too.

Because despite facing the same reality handicap, he won twice.

That means he was able to connect with some voters who otherwise would have voted against him based on faulty information (it goes without saying that some who did so were well-informed and just honestly disagreed with him).

How? By out-communicating the opposition.

People believe falsehoods because they feel true – Trump gets away with all his whoppers because they sound (and probably are) so authentically unfiltered.

What makes Obama a great communicator is that he can make the truth feel true: he connects the head and the gut.

And that’s the gut check Democrats need.

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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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The Only Argument for Trump Is Wrong: He’s Not a Success, He Just Plays One on TV

[Also published at Huffington Post.] It shouldn’t need saying, but not all of Donald Trump’s supporters are bigoted, misogynistic idiots.

Many support him despite his hateful, simplistic campaign and his glaring character flaws, for one reason that they think Trumps everything:

Washington is broken. Who better to fix it than a highly successful outsider?

You probably know people who think this. If so, please share this crucial information:

Donald Trump is not a success. He only plays one on TV.

Consider the facts, not the flash.

  1. Trump was “a stock market disaster,” as CBS Marketwatch columnist Brett Arends has documented:
Charts of poor Trump business results vs. S&P 500

Brett Arends, CBS Marketwatch (Data: Factset)

Somehow, Donald Trump managed to blow a lot of money running casinos. Arends notes:

Over the same period, investors in competitor Harrah’s Entertainment more than doubled their money. Investors in luxury hotel, casino and resort companies like Starwood and MGM earned returns of more than 400%. Even the plain old stock market index more than doubled.

  1. In fact, as the National Journal’s S.V. Dáte showed last year, over his adult life Trump could have made about as much or more money – and caused less damage from bankruptcies and his habitual stiffing of creditors – if he’d put the money he inherited from his father into an index fund and left it alone. Dáte’s numbers are necessarily imprecise and the details can be argued, but the point stands: Trump’s performance as an entrepreneur, as opposed to a lucky rich kid, is unimpressive. Just ask a real success, Warren Buffett:

People who believed in [Trump], who listened to his siren song, came away losing well over 90 cents on the dollar. They got back less than a dime,” Buffett said at a rally for Hillary Clinton Monday. “In 1995, when he offered this company, if a monkey had thrown a dart at the stock page, the monkey on average would have made 150%.

  1. In 1995, as the New York Times first reported, Trump reported a loss of nearly a billion dollars – a billion dollars! – and apparently used it to avoid paying federal taxes for up to 18 years. “That makes me smart,” he brags, about a gigantic collapse that left his investors holding the bag.
  2. A partial list of Trump’s failures includes the casinos, Trump Shuttle, Trump Vodka, Trump magazine, Trump World magazine, and Trump University – the last facing multiple investigations and lawsuits alleging it was “really a fraud from beginning to end,” in the words of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
  3. As Ivanka Trump recounted in the 2003 documentary “Born Rich,” her father once told her he was billions in debt:

I remember once my father and I were walking down Fifth Avenue and there was a homeless person sitting right outside of Trump Tower… it was around the same time as the divorce. And I remember my father pointing to him and saying, You know that guy has 8 billion dollars more than me. Because he was in such extreme debt at that point.

Ivanka said she was proud of the way her father came back from that. But consider how he did it…

  1. Since flopping as a developer and investor, Trump has dropped those pursuits, and switched to a new one: licensing his brand. In other words, he’s been selling the gilded image of himself as a success, long after the reality failed — and while his branded properties continue to fail.

This is the character he’s been playing since the 2004 debut of “The Apprentice.” Unfortunately, even some well-meaning people have been fooled into thinking that character is real.

Ironically, it’s through the pretend Trump that the actual Trump finally has succeeded — and on his own “merits,” too:

At long last, he really is making money — out of being a phony.

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As ‘Brand’ Replaces Reputation, Democracy Goes to Hell

Kellyanne Conway

Kellyanne Conway photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

[Also published at Huffington Post.] There’s one question that has so far gone unasked during any of the thousands of interviews with Donald Trump’s surrogates or spokespeople, but during each one, it’s the elephant in the room:

What is wrong with you?

How can any educated, rational, moral person be willing to lie so flagrantly, on behalf of a grotesquely unworthy candidate for the most important job in the world?

The question goes unasked, of course, because it would violate the norms of civil discourse, on which democracy depends.

The trouble is, Trumpists are happy to violate those norms, knowing they have their interlocutors in a bind: Responsible journalists can only respond with the facts. But if you don’t care about facts — if you deny them when they’re played for you on video — there’s nothing to constrain you from saying anything.

As Josh Barro tweeted recently, “Trump’s people lie and lie and lie and lie and lie and they don’t even respect us enough to lie well.” 

How did we get here? We’ve always had dishonesty in politics, but how did we get to this point of utter shamelessness?

KellyAnne Conway, Jason Miller, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, and the rest all appear to be rational people. They have to know that they will carry the stink of this campaign for the rest of their lives. Whether Trump loses or (incredibly) wins, their reputations are destroyed.

Ah. That’s it. Reputations don’t matter any more.

We’ve replaced them with “brands.”

And nothing destroys a brand, as long as it keeps selling.

Newt Gingrich, for example, didn’t need the Trump campaign’s help to destroy his reputation. He long since did that himself. And yet he still gets booked all over cable TV, still gets paid to speak, still runs profitable scams.

His brand still sells.

When reputation mattered, it was a brake on perfidy. The fear of public shaming would cause even the most mendacious public figures to modulate their behavior.

Now, shame is a monetizable commodity: just ask any celebrity who’s traveled the well-worn circuit of fame — humiliation — more fame.

You can’t threaten a Trumpist with shame, because they’re wearing the reputational equivalent of suicide vests. Just like terrorists believe they’ll live on in paradise, Conway, Gingrich, and the rest believe — with reason — they’ll live on in media.

We sophisticated moderns may be rediscovering, through its absence, the value of the archaic concept of honor. To the signers of the Declaration of Independence, honor was “sacred.” To us, it seems quaint.

But what if we brought it back? Not exactly the old version, which was often tied to assumptions about class, gender, race, and censorship that we’ve rightly left behind, but one rooted in a basic reverence for democracy?

Journalists often say of KellyAnne Conway that, despite the flagrant dishonesty, she’s “a professional,” or a “good person.” I understand the desire to preserve standards of civil discourse. But Conway and her colleagues are exploiting those standards, and in so doing they’re undermining democracy.

They’re behaving dishonorably. Even in — or especially in — the most democratic society, there should be a cost for that.

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I know it sounds insane, but Trump sure looks like a Russian agent

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin photo from Wikimedia Commons

[Also published at Huffington Post.] One of the foundational ideas of artificial intelligence is the Turing Test, named for the brilliant Briton Alan Turing. According to the Test, if a computer can act enough like a human mind to fool an actual human, the computer can be said to have achieved human intelligence.

If we adapt the Turing Test for Russian agents, Donald Trump passes.

We don’t have direct knowledge that Trump is in fact a Russian agent, for now at least. But he acts so much like one that it’s impossible to tell the difference.

I know how crazy this sounds, and believe me, I am no fan of conspiracy theories. But the evidence keeps piling up.

At Monday night’s debate, Trump once again defended Russia against charges that it’s interfering in our election, like he did in the first debate, and at other times. In so doing, he argues against his own country’s intelligence services, which have unequivocally stated — including in briefings to Trump — that Russia is behind the hacking and disinformation we’ve been facing.

Trump defends Russia against criticism whenever he has the chance. He also frequently praises its dictatorial president, Vladimir Putin — a man who jails and kills political opponents — as a stronger leader than the democratically elected Barack Obama.

Until it became too awkward, Trump’s campaign manager was Paul Manafort, who enriched himself by consulting for the former Ukrainian prime minister, and Putin puppet, Viktor Yanukovych. While Manafort was still in charge of the Trump campaign, it removed a plank from the Republican platform that had called for arming the new Ukrainian government against Russian incursions.

Trump has also on the one hand denied that Russia has gone into Ukraine (to be fair, this might just have been stupidity), and on the other suggested the annexation of Crimea (part of Ukraine) might have been justified.

Trump’s position on NATO — that the U.S. shouldn’t protect allies unless they pay — might as well be custom-designed to advance Putin’s dream of weakening the alliance that has protected the West since World War II.

Trump has pursued and profited from multiple business dealings in Russia. According to comments by Donald Trump, Jr. in 2008: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

And now there’s this: Newsweek reporter Kurt Eichenwald has noticed that the Russian government appears to be feeding disinformation directly to Trump. At a rally today in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, Trump read from a document that purports to prove a connection between Hillary Clinton and supposed perfidy in Benghazi, via an email Trump claimed was written by Clinton friend Sidney Blumenthal.

“He’s now admitting they could have done something about Benghazi,’’ Trump said, dropping the document to the floor. “This just came out a little while ago.”

The crowd booed and chanted, “Lock her up!”

The trouble is, Eichenwald knows the email is a fake, because it uses language misleadingly lifted from one of Eichenwald’s own Newsweek articles, in a form only ever published by the Russian government propaganda organ Sputnik:

This is not funny. It is terrifying. The Russians engage in a sloppy disinformation effort and, before the day is out, the Republican nominee for president is standing on a stage reciting the manufactured story as truth. How did this happen? Who in the Trump campaign was feeding him falsehoods straight from the Kremlin? (The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment).

The Russians have been obtaining American emails and now are presenting complete misrepresentations of them—falsifying them—in hopes of setting off a cascade of events that might change the outcome of the presidential election. The big question, of course, is why are the Russians working so hard to damage Clinton and, in the process, aid Donald Trump?

An agent is someone who acts on behalf of another. Possibly it’s unwitting, as so much of his behavior seems to be, but by his own words and deeds, Donald Trump is indistinguishable from an agent for Vladimir Putin‘s Russian Federation.

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Calling it: Trump is going to quit, citing impact on family

There should be a word that combines “absurdly” and “tragically” — “absurgically?” It’s hard to be more absurgically wrong than I was when I wrote this:

[Also published at Huffington Post.] If only because Donald Trump says there’s a “zero percent” chance he’ll do it, I’d expect him to drop out of the presidential race. Since about three-quarters of what he says has been shown to be false, it’s a pretty good bet even blindfolded.

But in plain sight are other, more substantive reasons:

  • Party leaders desperately wish they could fire him, but can’t. His quitting is their only out.
  • He’s a raging narcissist, facing one of the most crushing humiliations in American history. He won’t be able to see that through.
  • Despite his pose as the ultimate winner, he frequently fails. And when he does, he always blames others.
  • And finally, showing concern for his family — especially a daughter he has leered overand a wife he has boasted of betraying — may at this point be the only sympathetic move he can possibly make.

 

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The GOP’s Suicide Squad

[Also published at Huffington Post.] All along, we’ve assumed there was at least some dark, Machiavellian brilliance behind it.

At the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, Republicans in Congress, fearing that George Bush’s failures had condemned them to the political wilderness, hit on an escape plan: cause Obama to fail, too. They pledged to oppose every single thing he proposed ― even if they agreed with it. And they’ve kept that pledge.

Nearly eight years later, we have the result:

Chart showing 56% approval of Obama and 14% approval of Congress

Approval of Congress: 14%. Approval of Obama: 56%. (Source: Monmouth poll, Aug. 10, 2016.) Chart: the author.

To get there, Republicans:

  • Slowed our recovery from the Great Recession (although that recovery was still stronger than anyone else’s)
  • Fought reforms of the system that caused the crash
  • Spurned the opportunity offered by historically low interest rates to rebuild our infrastructure and put Americans back to work
  • Shattered the record for filibusters
  • Shut down the government
  • Blocked aid to veterans and 9/11 first responders
  • Pandered to birthers and other racists
  • Prevented common sense gun regulations backed by 90% of voters
  • Denied the planetary risks of climate change
  • Came within a hair of preventing 20 million (and counting) Americans from getting health coverage
  • And, by making so many people so furious, helped pave the way for a nominee who is destroying their party while threatening the foundations of our democracy.

So, to summarize: Congressional Republicans sacrificed the national interest, in pursuit of political suicide.

Corruption, or incompetence: as Machiavelli might advise, you should probably try to pick just one.

 

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Debunking The Media’s Top Excuse for Giving Trump Billions in Free Publicity

[Also published at Huffington Post.] He’s a genius at exploiting the media, if at nothing else: Donald Trump’s rise has been fueled by almost unbelievable amounts of free coverage — well over $2 billion worth so far.

Many have complained that this makes the media, hungry for Trump-driven ratings, complicit in the elevation of a dangerously unqualified reality show star to the near-summit of political power.

There’s standard media response, though: Trump gets more coverage simply because he’s more available. It was repeated Sunday by Face the Nation‘s John Dickerson in The New York Times Magazine:

If the others don’t want to talk, then that’s on them. In a lot of cases, Trump was the only one who would talk on any given Sunday. Talking to the press is not always good. Donald Trump seems to think it is, but most of his opponents didn’t. He was getting more airtime, but he was also the only one who was as available as he was.

Seems reasonable, and I accept that Dickerson, a fine journalist, believes it’s true.

But I think he’s kidding himself, along with all the others who make this claim.

I’ve helped book interviews for three presidential campaigns. I can tell you what happens — under normal circumstances — when one candidate is more available than another. That candidate gets turned away, in the name of media balance.

On the 2008 Obama campaign, for example, our interview-booking operation was far better than John McCain’s. Every day, we offered opportunities with the principals (the presidential and vice presidential candidates) and their spouses, and/or with high level surrogates, such as governors, members of Congress, and celebrities. We booked a lot of them, but we also were frequently told, “Sorry, we have to say no because the other side isn’t making anyone available, and we can’t look like we’re favoring you.”

That’s the normal state of affairs. What’s been happening with Trump is not normal.

And the only explanation that seems credible is the obvious one: Trump, thanks to his very outrageousness, is ratings gold. Turning him down would mean throwing away a fortune. Consider what he’s done for CNN:

When CNN President Jeff Zucker saw the ratings for Fox News’s first Republican debate last August — a staggering 24 million viewers — he immediately called up his head of advertising sales and told her to raise prices, by a lot…

Since the start of the year, when the primary season began in earnest, CNN’s prime-time audience has more than doubled to 435,000 viewers a night in its target demographic of 25- to 54-year-olds, according to Nielsen…

Mr. Zucker acknowledges that CNN has been criticized for the ample airtime it has devoted to Mr. Trump, but he dismisses most of that as coming from those who “just don’t like Donald Trump.”

“To his credit, he has been willing to submit to interviews, town halls, or whatever, in a way that I still don’t understand why many of the others weren’t willing to do,” he said.

I accept that Zucker believes this explanation just as much as CBS’s Dickerson does. But we’re talking about an industry where, in business terms, ratings are everything: deciding the fates of networks, and the careers of individual employees. Well-intentioned people can lose site of what’s really going on, even when — or especially when — they’re surrounded by the evidence.

They’re like the young fish in the parable: An old fish swims up to them and asks, “How’s the water?”

“What’s water?” they reply.

 

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