Why Republicans Are Impressive

Their disciplined commitment to a clear ideology has yielded results…

Sometimes I’m just overwhelmed with admiration for the GOP.

Pick one issue at random from the extraordinarily long list of extremely radical legislative priorities they’re about to pass. How about the plot to destroy Medicaid as we know it?

Ending Medicaid isn’t an obvious or an easy fight—it’s a very efficient program that’s been part of the American social fabric for 50 years, a program with 70 million beneficiary-constituents, one vital to the survival (economic and otherwise) of some of the most photogenically unfortunate people in America (families raising kids with major disabilities, for chrissake!), and a major source of business for the gigantic and very widely geographically distributed healthcare-provision industry. It’s also very popular; only 13% of Americans support slashing Medicaid. And no wonder: 63% of Americans say that either they or a close friend or family member has been covered by Medicaid at some point. It’s not even arguably in any kind of crisis; there’s no obvious reason to touch it.

So for Republicans, going after Medicaid is picking a big fight, one they could easily dodge. But that won’t stop them. They know that destroying this kind of program is key to their vision for America, both ideologically and in terms of budget math. They’ve known it for years, and they’ve been releasing plans and focus-grouping and developing consensus for years in the wilderness, and now they’re tanned, rested and ready. And for 95% of their congressfolks it’s not even a question—they’ll vote yes. They’ll do it in the smartest possible way, too: they’ll say there’s a fiscal crisis and it’s necessary, they’ll say it’s not a cut it’s just market efficiency, they’ll use block-granting to disown the cuts that happen and lay them on the states, and then wait till the cuts reduce the program’s popularity to mop up what’s left. Most Americans won’t really believe anyone would do what the GOP is about to do until it’s too late.

And hey, maybe they’ll even lose a couple of Congressional races over it, but the Dems won’t be in a strong enough position to reverse the cuts for years and years, and starting a program like this is much harder than ending it. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Medicaid is one example among many. On issue after issue—Medicare, financial deregulation, upper-class tax cuts, environmental deregulation, the destruction of public education—the GOP is committed to pursuing a profoundly radical and often deeply unpopular agenda. Remember all those “symbolic” votes repealing Obamacare and so forth? They weren’t symbolic, they were dress rehearsals, opportunities to build party consensus around reforms and enforce discipline around them. This is why analogies between the Republicans today and the Democratic Party in 2008 are so misguided: the Democrats were divided among themselves and committed to building bipartisan consensus, and the laws they passed in 2009—Obamacare, the stimulus bill—were compromised (some would say crippled) accordingly. The GOP is prepared to ram through its agenda with iron party discipline and understands very clearly that bipartisanship is neither possible nor necessary.

This asymmetry is what’s so impressive about the modern Republican Party. It’s not just that they’ve won, but that winning has put them in a position to enact an extraordinarily ambitious and radical agenda, one which will in the course of a few months destroy pillars of American government that have stood for fifty years or more. If Democrats are ever to be in a position to pass their own agenda (or merely to undo the damage that’s about to be done), they need to play close attention not only to how the Republicans won in 2016—a question over which much ink has been spilled—but to how the Republicans transformed themselves over a much longer timeline into a party that could transform the country when it won.

The lesson is this: in modern American politics, having an ideologically coherent and disciplined party is an advantage, not a liability. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom: during the 2016 primary, many Democrats, especially those who supported Clinton, worried about the “purism” of the party’s younger and more progressive wing: would it force the party to confront a choice between nominating ideologically progressive candidates who would be unelectable and facing mass defections to its left? After all, it was widely understood that candidates needed to “pivot to the center” to win general elections. Clinton’s claim to be a “progressive who gets things done” was founded on this assumption: the notion was that Sanders’ policies, even if you found them desirable, were unlikely to get done because it was too extreme, while Clinton’s was closer to the center and therefore more achievable. Yet in 2017 the most extreme political party in decades seems poised to get more things done than any party since the Johnson administration. What’s wrong with the conventional view?


The notion that it’s easier to pass moderate policies than extreme ones takes its plausibility from the notion of the average or centrist voter. You can read about this voter in polling on policy issues. If your policy is fairly close to the views of the centrist voter, he’s likely to vote for you and you’re likely to win elections; the farther you get from this average view, the more difficulty you’ll have. An extreme candidate will turn off centrist voters for the simple reason that they disagree with him. (It is through this logic that Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum mistakenly concluded that Bernie Sanders would have lost against Donald Trump.)

The trouble with this theory is that in modern US politics it is by definition impossible for a major party to embrace policies which are “extreme” in the sense of “far from the consensus views of the average voter.” The average voter’s policy views, to the extent that these exist at all outside this context other than as artifacts of polling, are largely determined not by any particular factual information about the issues or ideological commitments concerning the role of government but by the policy positions of the major parties. If one of these parties embraces a particular position on any given issue, the 40% of American voters who consistently support that party will come to adopt that position wholesale, while most of the rest will come to believe (and be encouraged by the media’s carefully even-handed reporting to believe) that this position is at least reasonable and defensible if not correct. There are very few views so extreme and so indefensible that they can’t garner mass support if repeated frequently enough by a major US party—just think of “global warming is a hoax.”

Republicans understand this in a way Democrats don’t. Just compare Republicans’ rock-solid unity on doing nothing about climate change to the Clinton campaign’s decision to abandon a carbon tax on the basis of internal polling. Republicans don’t look at polls and think “we need to moderate our platform because Americans don’t support starving the poor to death, and we’ll get negative media coverage”; they work hard over the course of many years to shape public opinion until it says what they say. They know that if a major US political party puts out a consistent and coherent message for long enough, the polls will change and the media coverage will change. Significantly, Republicans are also much better positioned to exploit this dynamic because of their internal unity; while there is considerable debate within the Democratic congressional caucus about whether to undertake serious action on global warming, Republicans are absolutely unified on the issue. A united front allows them to deliver an extraordinarily coherent and consistent message over the course of decades in a way Democrats can’t match.

If ideological discipline is no great obstacle to getting elected, it’s also an enormous advantage once you’re in office. The Democrats’ need to corral DINOs like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman into the caucus in order to pass Obamacare and the stimulus bill didn’t just make those laws worse on the merits—they did enormous damage politically. A too-modest stimulus meant a slow economic recovery and contributed to the electoral carnage of 2010, while the changes to Obamacare made to please centrists made it a less popular and ultimately a less politically sustainable law.

The right wing of the Republican Party has spent an enormous amount of time and energy over the past decade running primary challenges against moderate Republicans and replacing them with fire-breathing extremists. Many said this would render the party increasingly unacceptable and unelectable outside deep red states. That hasn’t happened. Instead, far-right Republicans have moved not only their party but the country as a whole to the right; they’ve shifted the terms of the debate and are poised to pass the most radical and comprehensive legislative package this country has seen since 1968.

This is what an ideologically disciplined and unified party with a coherent vision for America, a genuine messaging strategy and the ability to play the long game can do. It’s not a recipe that guarantees winning, by any means; elections are unpredictable beasts. But in a two-party system you’re bound to win eventually. And ideological discipline means that when you win you’re ready to shove your agenda down America’s throat wholesale and change the country for generations. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment. Democrats wondering how to make radical change in this country could do a lot worse than to pay close attention to what the Republicans have done for the past 20 years—and what they’re about to do next.

The Rule Of Law Is Overrated

Is it ethical to send people you know to prison for immigration violations? Only if you look to the law for moral guidance.

In a recent column, New York Times “Ethicist” Kwame Anthony Appiah encourages people to help Donald Trump send people to prison for immigration violations.

Appiah is answering a reader’s question about marriage fraud. The reader has discovered that an acquaintance has gotten married solely in order to obtain a green card for her spouse, and wants to know whether it would be ethical to turn the pair in to the feds. Appiah, a professor of philosophy at NYU, answers that it would. While the reader is not obligated to report any immigration violations she knows about, it would be a decent thing to do. As he explains:

Given that you’re clearly not the only person who has the relevant information, and given the diffuse nature of the harm, you’re not obligated to report what you know. But provided you are morally certain about your conclusion, it would be a good thing if you did. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a website where you may report anonymously. 

Appiah grounds his argument in the concepts of fairness and the rule of law. We have a set of rules and procedures for a reason, he says. It wouldn’t be fair for some immigrants to “jump the queue” while others waited their turn and followed the rules (as Appiah, a British immigrant, did). After all, it is “the nature of the nation-state arrangement that states have a right to regulate who crosses their borders.”

All of which sounds a bit persuasive. But, as is so often the case, the words mask the human reality. Immigration fraud is, after all, a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement distributes a flyer on the subject featuring a cheery pun on how “walking down the aisle” of a church could lead to “walking down the aisle” of a prison corridor). Donald Trump’s administration has considerable power under existing law to come down harshly on those who commit fraud. And judging by his recent executive actions on immigration, there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t.

Thus Appiah is recommending a course of action that could cause two people very serious harm, getting the noncitizen thrown out of the country and the citizen prosecuted and possibly imprisoned for a felony. Yet nowhere in Appiah’s consideration of the ethics of the matter is there a discussion of these consequences, or why the benefit that comes from giving the government information about a violation outweighs the harm you would do to people’s lives.

That’s because Appiah strongly believes, as many liberal-minded people do, in the Rule of Law. Under the rule of law, it doesn’t matter whether a law is harsh or unfair. It is the law, and it must be obeyed. Even if a law is so morally abhorrent to you that you feel compelled to disobey it, you must nevertheless accept the punishment that comes along with civil disobedience. The punishment doesn’t enter into Appiah’s ethical calculus because it isn’t relevant: the question is whether the law should be obeyed, and it should, because rules are rules regardless of what we may personally think about them.


The problem with this kind of thinking is that it does presume that the laws are generally fairly good. There’s something dishonest here: we pretend that we believe that the law is the law and must be obeyed. But nobody would take this to its extreme. After all, if we were operating under fascist law, and the penalty for visa fraud was the death of the violator and their entire immediate family, Appiah would presumably not recommend turning someone in. That would be because he felt the law was cruel and unjust. Thus you can say that you believe people ought to follow the rules because they’re the rules. But you’re implicitly also endorsing the substantive provisions of the specific rules in question, because if the rules deviated too far from your own sense of fairness, you would no longer believe that they needed to be deferred to without consideration for the costs and benefits of the punishment.

Many people invoke “rules are rules” logic. But they are all being dishonest. Nobody actually believes in the rule of law. They only believe in the rule of the laws they are okay with. For example, when Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses, many progressive people insisted Davis should “do her job,” because the law was the law and she should enforce it. But if, in an alternate political world, the law required Davis to shout offensive homophobic slurs at every same-sex marriage applicant before stamping them all DENIED, the same people who insisted she should Do Her Job Because It Is The Law would be celebrating her as a hero if she was the sole clerk who refused to obey her instructions. Every insistence that we should Follow The Law contains some kind of implicit approval of the law’s substance, because nobody is willing to follow the principle to its total extreme end point. (Even the most devoutly law-loving conservative would begin to recognize the limits of the principle if a law were passed requiring them to murder their family and burn down their church.)

This is not to say that the rule of law is a meaningless value to hold. It’s perfectly fine, and probably necessary, to believe that many laws we don’t like should be obeyed simply because they’re laws. The point, however, is that it is important to recognize that nearly everyone only believes this up to a point. Their invocation of the rule of law to defend a particular rule also contains a tacit acknowledgment that the rule in question is not so unjust as to be worth violating.

In times where laws are basically non-horrendous, this distinction may be so trivial as to not be worth discussing. If you believe that even the worst laws are not so bad that they are worth jettisoning The Rule Of Law for, then there’s no problem. But Trump’s America could force liberals to reckon with the question of when a law conflicts with your values to a point where it should not be deferred to. If helping uphold the law means helping Donald Trump send my acquaintances to prison for immigration violations, is it enough to invoke law and order for this to be an ethical course of action?

Kwame Appiah believes that a country’s immigration rules are its immigration rules, and that they should be followed for that reason. But he also believes that the particular immigration rules in America are fair and should be followed. (Interestingly, the immigration system is actually set up in a way that lets British immigrants like Appiah “jump the queue,” which perhaps partially explains why he does not see much of a problem with the rules as they exist.) They’re not, though. They’re cruel, and about to get far crueler. And those who insist that rules are rules may find themselves justifying increasingly inhumane sets of consequences.

Peculiarities of the Yankee Confederate

When small town New Englanders embrace Dixie kitsch…

Earlier this year, my rural Massachusetts hometown became unexpectedly embroiled in controversy, after a police officer mounted a Confederate flag at his home in plain view of the 10-year-old African American boy who lived across the street. The boy’s parents, raising their son in the age of Tamir Rice, naturally felt somewhat alarmed to discover that local law enforcement harbored Confederate sympathies. The town’s Human Rights Commission (we have those here) was promptly alerted and a town meeting was called. There, most attendees condemned the officer’s actions and tried to explain the (seemingly) obvious racial subtext.

But plenty of town residents defended the officer. The local newspaper heard from readers insisting that “saying someone is racist by owning a flag” was far more racist than the flag itself. Another encouraged the boy’s family to “get over it,” lamenting that “if it’s not a flag, it’s how you say ‘happy holidays.’ If it’s not that, it’s a Starbucks cup.” And the officer’s own response? “The flag has no negative connotations to me.”

One can sympathize, for perhaps a second, with those professing themselves baffled by anyone “mad about a flag.” But for them, it may be useful to consider how the same response would sound if someone hoisted a “Death to Black People” flag with a picture of a lynching on it. “I can’t believe you’re mad about a flag; next you’ll be mad about a coffee cup” doesn’t sound quite so reasonable when we draw out what the Confederacy means to a black audience. (Remember, too, that it was not social justice types but right-wing Christians who threw a fit over the insufficient festiveness of the paper cups at Starbucks.) But the more curious question is: if the flag doesn’t have any negative connotations, what possible connotations does it have, when flown in small-town New England? What causes people born and raised in the North, many of them with no historical or familial connection to the South, to align themselves with a symbol of Southern pride, treason, and slavery?


When challenged, fans of the Stars ’n’ Bars have plenty of rehearsed answers. Most often, they will say they appreciate the Confederacy’s place in American history and lament the efforts of revisionist historians to erase it from our collective memory. And following up with “Appreciate what about it, precisely?” will get one nothing except mumbled clichés about the rebel spirit.

The charge that the left is attempting to wipe away history is a strange one. In reality, it would be nearly impossible to find a left-leaning historian who doesn’t want Americans to talk more about the Civil War, slavery, and Reconstruction in order to better understand modern institutional racism. Nobody is less inclined to erase the Confederacy from American history than the left. When we do see efforts to remove inconvenient facts from the standard curriculum, they usually come from conservatives in the South. It was the Texas Board of Education who refused to allow the fact-checking of history textbooks that used hilariously banal euphemisms to describe chattel slavery, referring to slaves as “immigrants” and “workers.” The movement to sanitize and decontextualize Confederate imagery is a far greater crime against the integrity of the historical record than the efforts of leftists to point out that the South did not just stand for “states’ rights,” but the states’ right to maintain a very particular thing. It’s their own fact-blindness that causes history-challenged conservatives to be genuinely stunned that anyone would want to remove the flag from the South Carolina State House after an avowed neo-Confederate and white supremacist massacred nine black churchgoers.

Understanding the cultural pathology behind Northern use of the Confederate flag is like understanding the rise of Donald Trump as a serious politician. It is inexplicable, essentially unfathomable. Yet one can attempt tentative hypotheses, which involve a nuanced examination of race, class, the rural/urban divide, and the widespread human attraction to nauseating kitsch. Just as one can only hope to approximate the structural causes of our 45th president, one can only guess cautiously at why, in the Berkshires of Connecticut and Massachusetts, the Stars and Stripes and the Stars and Bars can hang from the same flagpole without anyone batting an eye or sensing a paradox.


The entire idea of the flag as an enduring Southern symbol is its own revisionist lie. After all, the Stars and Bars flag was barely used in the Old South, revived only in the mid-20th century by white supremacists who would rather see black children hanged from trees than given equal access to the public school system. The symbols of the Confederacy had largely remained the domain of veterans groups until they were deliberately resurrected as a way to resist the Civil Rights Movement. The rebirth began shortly after World War II, when Truman’s decision to integrate the Army increased tensions between Northern and Southern Democrats and inspired Strom Thurmond to run for president as a Dixiecrat. Thurmond, the grandson of a Confederate veteran and a staunch segregationist, employed the battle flag in his campaign as an explicitly racist gesture. In 1956, Georgia creatively incorporated the battle flag design into its state flag to protest Brown v. Board of Education.

In 1961, Governor George Wallace raised the battle flag over the Alabama state capitol. Wallace, one of the most passionate defenders of segregation, also espoused a white-centered form of populism. He targeted the federal government not just because it outlawed segregated schools, but because it enriched elites at the expense of the common man. He tailored his message to blue-collar white voters who felt left behind and condescended to by Washington. Wallace had a gift for pandering: “…when the liberals and intellectuals say the people don’t have any sense, they talkin’ about us people… But hell, you can get good solid information from a man drivin’ a truck, you don’t need to go to no college professor”, he said in 1966. Rather than embracing a truly populist platform like Huey Long in the 1930s, Wallace encouraged his white supporters to direct most of their anger toward newly enfranchised blacks. When he ran as an independent in the 1968 presidential election he won 13.5% of the popular vote, a significant improvement upon Thurmond’s 2.4%. Despite being a neoconfederate at heart, he made significant headway outside the South, attracting tens of thousands at rallies above the Mason-Dixon line; his populist rhetoric and outsider image endeared him to blue-collar whites as far north as Wisconsin. Many union members who would have otherwise voted Democratic bought into his warning that integration would destroy the labor movement. (As always, people straddling the line between the lower and middle classes were the easiest prey for fear-based politics.) Through all this, Wallace stood with the Confederate flag behind him, figuratively and literally. Among the many disastrous consequences of the 1968 election was the permanent association of unpolished white populism with Southern pride. From then on, it became a safe bet that whenever lower-middle-class white resentment bubbled to the surface, no matter where in the country, it would come wrapped in the Confederate flag.


Northern whites lack a unified ethnocultural identity. This could be due to the outcome of the Civil War—the victors may write history, but the losers are often awash in fear, resentment, and self-pity. Such forces bind the populace together and can prove very dangerous in the hands of nationalists (think interwar Germany). It may also be due to their relative diversity; in the 19th and 20th centuries America received a massive influx of immigrants from all over Europe and the majority settled in the heavily industrialized Northeast and mid-Atlantic. Maintaining a straightforward regional identity in the face of constant demographic upheaval is difficult if not impossible.

Now, imagine yourself in the rural North in an age where it is mandated that you consciously create a capital-I Identity for yourself. One is supposed to create this “identity” through consumer choices and Facebook cover photos. You are white, as are most of the people you know. You have a high school education and all your employment prospects are either blue collar or low-level white collar. You subscribe to a personal philosophy that emphasizes disciplined physical labor as the bedrock of proper morality, but you also take pride in your lack of city-boy etiquette and frequently engage in lighthearted but legal hedonism. How do you categorize yourself? What do you “identify” as?

Well, fortunately, an identity just for you has been consolidated into a few symbols, hobbies, and character traits, turned into a packaged cultural commodity for your instantaneous adoption and consumption. This identity is The South. The fake, commodified South, that is, not to be confused with the actually existing South, which has a rich cultural history and (unlike the commodified South) has black people in it. This imaginary South is about all-camo outfits and huntin’, fishin’, and spittin’ to spite coastal elites who want to make it illegal to hunt, fish, and spit. The commodified South is Duck Dynasty, McDonald’s sweet tea, and country songs that have “country” in the title. People seem to really like this stuff, which is why, compared to other regions, the South is overrepresented among Zippo lighter designs and truck decals.

Partially divorced of context, what was once a symbol of an aristocratic slave society becomes, paradoxically, part of a tradition of populist Americana along with John Wayne, Chief Wahoo, and the Pixar version of Route 66. Fully divorced of context, the flag becomes a symbol of vague, noncommittal rebellion. It takes its place alongside a series of meaningless but ubiquitous kitschy products including wolf shirts, the pissing Calvin decal, skull-adorned lighters, and overly aggressive Minions memes about what people can and can’t do before you’ve had your coffee.

The small bit of context that the flag does retain is used to sinister ends. Among rural whites, a watered-down version of neoconfederate ideology serves as a kind of mutant substitute for class consciousness. This is especially evident in modern country music, where many songs are essentially a bullet point list of stereotypes: big trucks, cheap beer, dirt roads, and physically demanding blue collar work. Take, for example, Lee Brice’s 2014 smash hit “Drinking Class”:

“I belong to the drinking class / Monday through Friday, man we bust our backs / If you’re one of us, raise your glass / I belong to the drinking class.”

The structure of Brice’s lyrics shows a keen awareness of socioeconomic class. But this is not the labor movement’s conception of class, with its exhortation to social change. The Lee Brice theory of class is empty of meaning. It’s hopeless and sad; nothing is left but solipsistic in-group pride and alcoholism. The vice neuters any revolutionary fervor. A member of the Drinking Class isn’t interested in social climbing and he would never dream of doing away with class distinctions altogether.


The Drinking Class man knows life is pretty rotten, that you work and drink until you die. But, strongly encouraged by millionaire tribunes of the working poor like the guy from Dirty Jobs, the guy from Duck Dynasty, and the guy from Larry the Cable Guy (plus fellow reality star Donald J. Trump), he adopts flimsy, prejudiced rationalizations to explain his very real feelings of being forgotten and exploited. He justifies his toil as morally necessary, rather than exploitative. And like a surly teen alienated from his parents and bored with masturbation, he joins a cultural clique and cements his place in it by lashing out at its real or imaginary enemies. To get back at the elites who mocked him for making little sense, he begins to do things that make little sense, such as flying a Confederate flag in Massachusetts. (Half-assed clique membership is often embarrassing, like when homophobic metalheads get tricked into wearing leather daddy outfits.)

We can therefore find explanations, if not justifications, for the peculiar existence of our Yankee Confederate. Some of it is stupid, some of it is racist, and some of it is a misguided response to the need for identity and solidarity. Like depressed teens, alienated rural whites aren’t imagining their suffering, and they do have legitimate grievances about the unending despair of the American status quo. But they have reacted in a way that’s difficult to defend either rationally or morally.

The solution here is to organize against the policies that created an alienated rural working class in the first place. To the extent that the flag is a product of the search for identity and community, one needs to have a better, less appalling identity to offer people. To the extent that the flag is a product of racism, what is racism itself a product of? Working class whites have often blamed their problems on nonwhites, but this is irrational scapegoating. And since it’s irrational scapegoating, the left should think seriously about how to give people real explanations for their problems, as well as solutions. The New England Confederate is a bizarre and horrifying sight, but he is not without his structural causes. If we can offer a unifying message to working class people of all races, we may see fewer members of the Drinking Class embrace backward cultural symbols and buy into the South as consumer lifestyle brand. Stars and Bars keychains may create a cheap rush of ersatz proletarian solidarity, but they are no substitute for the real thing.

Illustrations by Gurleen Rai

Getting Away With It

Trump, Cosby, O’Reilly: How predators, harassers, and abusers maintain their power and get victims to keep their mouths shut…

In retrospect, it seems somewhat strange that the rape allegation against Donald Trump was not discussed more during the campaign. After all, the facts as alleged are incredibly sickening and disturbing. According to journalist Harry Hurt III’s 1993 book The Lost Tycoon, in 1989 Trump became incredibly angry at his then-wife Ivana for recommending a doctor who botched Trump’s baldness-reduction operation. An enraged Trump, Hurt reports, punished Ivana by raping her:

Suddenly, according to Ivana, The Donald storms into the room. He is looking very angry, and he is cursing out loud. “Your fucking doctor has ruined me!” he screams. The Donald flings Ivana down onto the bed. Then he pins back her arms and grabs her by the hair. The part of her head he is grabbing corresponds to the spot on his head where the scalp reduction operation has been done. The Donald starts ripping out Ivana’s hair by the handful, as if he is trying to make her feel the same kind of pain he is feeling. Ivana starts crying and screaming. The entire bed is being covered with strands of her golden locks. But The Donald is not finished. He rips off her clothes and unzips his pants. Then he jams his penis inside her for the first time in more than sixteen months. Ivana is terrified. This is not lovemaking. This is not romantic sex. It is a violent assault. She later describes what The Donald is doing to her in no uncertain terms. According to the versions she repeats to some of her closest confidantes, “He raped me.” When The Donald finally pulls out, Ivana jumps up from the bed. Then she runs upstairs to her mother’s room. She locks the door and stays there crying for the rest of the night. The next morning Ivana musters up the courage to return to the master bedroom. The Donald is there waiting for her. He leaves no doubt that he knows exactly what he did to her the night before. As she looks in horror at the ripped-out hair scattered all over the bed, he glares at her and asks with menacing casualness: “Does it hurt?” (Ivana had confirmed that a rape had taken place in a sworn deposition during her divorce. Lawyers for both Trumps sought successfully to keep the divorce records sealed during the 2016 campaign.)

It is difficult to imagine any other candidate for whom this would not have been the leading story of the campaign. If Barack Obama had once been accused of doing this, God only knows the attention it would have received. Yet during 2015 and 2016, it didn’t really come up. Trump himself was reportedly nervous about the possibility of Megyn Kelly confronting him about it. But he needn’t have worried. Kelly would not mention the r-word.

In part, the press’s relative silence on the incident seems to have come from a concerted effort by Trump’s lawyers to terrify any outlet that sought to bring it up. When the Daily Beast prepared a story, Trump attorney Michael Cohen tried to bully the publication out of going to press, telling the Beast:

I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we’re in the courthouse. And I will take you for every penny you still don’t have. And I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know… So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me? You write a story that has Mr. Trump’s name in it, with the word ‘rape,’ and I’m going to mess your life up… for as long as you’re on this frickin’ planet…

Cohen also denied that a rape had occurred. But the words used in his denial were curious:

You’re talking about the frontrunner for the GOP, presidential candidate, as well as a private individual who never raped anybody. And, of course, understand that by the very definition, you can’t rape your spouse… There’s very clear case law.

Thus when Trump’s lawyer insisted that Trump never raped Ivana, Cohen did not choose to deny the alleged facts. He did not insist that Trump had not torn Ivana’s hair out, or that he had not forced his penis into her against her will while she sobbed. Instead, Cohen simply denied that any such an act would legally constitute rape. (Incidentally, this is false. New York law at the time did indeed prohibit raping a spouse.) Cohen said that “[s]he was not referring to it [as] a criminal matter, and not in its literal sense, though there’s many literal senses to the word.” But Cohen’s defense was an attempt to redefine the word “rape” so as not to cover the alleged facts, instead of a denial of the facts.

Ivana’s own remarks on the topic had also been peculiar. In 2015, she denied the incident outright, saying that she and Donald were now “the best of friends.” But when Harry Hurt was preparing to release The Lost Tycoon, Ivana gave the following statement through a Trump lawyer:

During a deposition given by me in connection with my matrimonial case, I stated that my husband had raped me… [O]n one occasion during 1989, Mr. Trump and I had marital relations in which he behaved very differently toward me than he had during our marriage. As a woman, I felt violated, as the love and tenderness, which he normally exhibited towards me, was absent. I referred to this as a ‘rape,’ but I do not want my words to be interpreted in a literal or criminal sense.

Note that, like Cohen, Ivana didn’t explain which facts were wrong. Instead, she said she didn’t “want” the allegation to be interpreted in a “literal or criminal” sense. She does indicate that something happened, something very distinct from ordinary sexual relations, and that she felt afterwards as if she had been “violated.” So there was some kind of incident, but Ivana was silent on the question of whether Trump did, in fact, pull out her hair and force his penis into her against her will. Furthermore, assuming she shared the same misconception as Trump’s attorney, that what happened couldn’t be rape in the literal or criminal sense because spousal rape was legal, even her ostensible denial is consistent with all of the facts in Hurt’s reporting.

The alleged rape of Ivana was one part of an ongoing pattern of cruel behavior in Trump’s marriage. According to Ivana’s divorce documents, Trump “increasingly verbally abused and demeaned [her] so as to obtain her submission to his wishes and desires” as well as “humiliated and verbally assaulted” her. Trump demanded submission and subservience, saying that “when I come home and dinner’s not ready, I go through the roof.” Trump said in an interview that this was part of his philosophy, that while “psychologists” say women want to be “treated with respect,” Trump himself had “friends who treat their wives magnificently, and get treated like crap in return.” “Be rougher,” Trump told his friends, and “you’ll see a different relationship.” As a result, Ivana was apparently “terrified of her husband.” Donald belittled and berated Ivana with remarks like: “You’re showing too much cleavage” and “Who would touch those plastic breasts?”

And of course, Trump’s treatment of his wife fit with his usual pattern of behavior toward women. Trump has been overheard declaring that “you’ve got to treat [women] like shit,” and a trail of accusers can confirm that he means what he says. Nearly a dozen women have accused Trump of sexual assault, many describing a similar modus operandi: Trump simply begins grabbing them or kissing them against their will, forcing his tongue down their throats as they attempt to resist. The allegations are about as solid as you could hope for; People magazine reporter Natasha Stoynoff had six people confirm her story.

What’s more, Trump notoriously confessed on tape to doing exactly what his accusers had suggested he did: grabbing them “by the pussy” whenever he pleased, regardless of their feelings on the matter. As Trump said, his fame allowed him to do “anything” to women:

I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.

The women’s stories therefore line up perfectly with Trump’s own: they say he touches women without their consent, and gets away with it because of his fame and power. He says he touches women without their consent, and gets away with it because of his fame and power.

Trump also admitted to spying on nude underage girls against their will. Numerous former contestants in Trump’s beauty pageants had declared that Trump burst in on them in their changing rooms while they were undressed. Trump confirmed in an interview with Howard Stern that he did this on purpose in order to ogle the women.


Thus Trump’s assertion that when you’re famous “you can do anything” might have been the truest thing he said during the campaign. When you’re a famous man, you can do anything, and you can get away with it for decades. (Only if you decide to run for president might it become an issue, and even then for only a news cycle or two.)

We have case after case to prove this. Bill Cosby drugged and raped women over and over for 40 years, and it took until 2014 for anyone to pay the slightest bit of attention. In the U.K., children’s television host Jimmy Savile raped and abused a stunning 400 victims (at minimum) over the course of a long career in show business. Savile openly bragged in his memoirs about using his fame to persuade police officers not to pursue charges against him over incidents with underage girls. And yet it was not until after his death that Savile’s sex crimes were fully exposed. (The Savile affair led to a massive public prosecution effort against celebrity predators, with a number of famous U.K. entertainment personalities being charged for offenses they had gotten away with for years.) Savile’s wealth and connections made it easy for him to get away with being an abuser.

Or look at the careers of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly at FOX News. For decades, Ailes demanded sex from subordinates, threatening to destroy women’s careers unless they endured his penis (which was “red like raw hamburger.”) O’Reilly has been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment and been forced to settle lawsuits with employees, and his daughter told a psychiatrist that O’Reilly choked his wife and dragged her down the stairs. Yet Roger Ailes left FOX News with a $40 million retirement package. O’Reilly remained on primetime television for years despite multiple accusations, and continued to pump out bestselling books.

Or look at the case of billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein, friend to Trump and the Clintons alike. Epstein allegedly paid numerous underage girls to pleasure him sexually, and may have abused over 30 minors. Epstein’s victims’ families were outraged when Epstein received special treatment from the federal government, who entered into a non-prosecution agreement in exchange for a slap on the wrist 13-month sentence. (Donald Trump told New York magazine that Epstein was a “terrific guy,” and that he is “a lot of fun to be with,” adding that “it is even said that [Epstein] likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”)

There are endless other instances of famous men committing abuse with impunity. Woody Allen probably molested his daughter, and Amazon throws money at him to create a web series. Photographer Terry Richardson is a predator who uses his status to sexually coerce models, yet despite numerous detailed allegations he is still paid to shoot cover photographs for magazines like Harpers Bazaar and Rolling Stone. And of course there’s Bill Clinton. The list of famous male sleazes and sex criminals who suffer no consequences is seemingly endless, as the Daily Beast documents:

Mike Tyson is a convicted rapist, and he now stars as a loveable cartoon TV detective. Roman Polanski raped a 13-year-old and has since won an Oscar to a standing ovation. Sean Connery is the celebrated embodiment of rugged cool, who has openly championed beating women in order to keep ’em in line. Bill Murray has been accused by his ex-wife of repeated, brutal physical abuse. Rick James was arrested for torturing and sexually abusing a woman for three days straight, only to have his image rehabilitated by Dave Chappelle years later. John Lennon is one of the most worshipped artists who has ever drawn breath, and he has copped to battering the shit out of women.

There is no mystery behind any of this. Everyone knows that the wealthy and famous can get away with things that would land other people in prison. Trump even bragged about his predatory acts on tape. Yet this is the way wealth works: it confers a kind of total impunity, in which no amount of evidence is enough to make anything matter.

Some of that impunity comes from the ability to use money to buy people and lawyers to intimidate them. Trump’s ex-wives are bound by the terms of gag orders, and when Marla Maples promised to tell the world what she knew about Trump during his quasi-campaign in 2000, Trump’s lawyers instantly threatened her financially. Trump (like Cosby) threatened to sue his accusers, and with lawyers like Michael Cohen (“I’m going to mess your life up”), taking on men like Trump and Cosby can come at a serious risk to one’s personal reputation. Those who cross Trump frequently end up receiving death threats, and he has boasted about his love of revenge and of ruining the lives of those that anger him.

But this is not just a story about lawyers. It is also about complicity: the complicity of large institutions, and of the public at large, in refusing to hold these men accountable. In England, Savile’s behavior was well-known to high-level staffers at the BBC, who did nothing. At Fox News, when broadcaster Andrea Tantaros told executive Bill Shine that Roger Ailes had sexually harassed her, Shine replied that Ailes was a “very powerful man” and that Tantaros “needed to let this one go.” (When Ailes was publicly exposed, Shine was promoted to co-president of the news channel.) Cosby had numerous public accusers for years, but no media outlet gave the story the attention it deserved until comedian Hannibal Buress casually pointed out that Cosby was a rapist.

Likewise, the U.S. media paid very little attention to Trump’s sexual assault allegations until he himself was caught on tape admitting they were true, and the press never really covered the story of Trump’s alleged rape of Ivana. Now, with Trump elected and inaugurated, the alleged sex crimes have simply receded into the background, the news having moved on. (It is worth pointing out that the media have a strong incentive to cover Trump negatively without actually doing anything that would ruin him completely; multiple high-level television executives have acknowledged that Trump’s rise in politics has been an incredible ratings bonanza.)

One of the most exasperating features of our world is that powerful people do horrible things and are never punished for them. Trump’s political ascent is depressing proof of this: if you’re a famous man with a lot of money, you can abuse, harass, and threaten whomever you please, and nothing will happen to you. If you’re lucky, they might even make you President of the United States.

This article is partially adapted from the book Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity.

Please Can We Not Have A Rally About Trump’s Tax Returns

On the difference between “#TheResistance” and actual resistance…

The past weekend’s worldwide women’s marches were an extraordinary display of political opposition. With more people in the streets than any other single-day demonstration in the history of the United States, they served as a forceful signal to the massively unpopular incoming President Trump that large numbers of people do not support his agenda and have not forgotten that he sexually assaults women. But the marches and demonstrations were so successful that they left many people wondering what ought to come next. It’s impressive getting millions of people into the streets to protest the president. But what do you do after that? Do you end up like Occupy, planting yourself in one spot until the police drag you away, at which point your movement dissipates? Or do you become the Tea Party, and swarm the establishment? What do you do after everybody has gone home? Where does all this political energy go? 

A man named Frank Lesser has a suggestion for where it ought to go: toward protesting Donald Trump’s failure to release his tax returns. On Twitter and in Slate, the former Colbert Report writer issued a call to the public: the next march should be on April 15th, and it should demand that Trump disclose his tax details to the American people. Trump has said that nobody cares about the tax return issue. Lesser wants Americans to prove him wrong. (He has also designed a special protest hat; see above.)

Lesser’s proposal was swiftly picked up by others. The comedian Patton Oswalt enthusiastically endorsed it. Keith Olbermann gave it his approval, and Rogue One writer Gary Whitta signed on. According to the Huffington Post, the idea is now gaining steam, with tens of thousands of people on social media joining in, and it looks like at least some people might actually be intending to follow through with it.

That’s deeply unfortunate, because Trump is right in at least one sense about this one: his tax returns aren’t a terribly important issue. Perhaps if this were a different presidency, and the tax returns were truly the only scandal we could think of, then we ought to care. But these are the Trump years, in which we face the full-scale dismantling of the federal government and the swallowing of human civilization by climate catastrophe. Proving that Donald Trump has been lying about his wealth, or that he owns shares in a hotel in Vladivostok, is well toward the bottom of the list of progressive priorities. (The only argument for doing this is as a route toward finding some piece of information that will lead to Trump’s impeachment. But let’s remember that Trump’s impeachment would do little to prevent the full implementation of the right-wing agenda, which is what we’re ostensibly concerned about.)

The tax day protest idea highlights a problem I’ve written about before: the tendency to criticize Trump without thinking strategically about how those particular criticisms get us toward progressive political goals. Frank Lesser sort of links his tax protest idea to a wider critique of inequality, but the actual goal is to pressure Trump over the tax returns, not to pressure him to refuse to sign any entitlement cuts, or to promise to preserve the jobs of federal workers. If we’re trying to measure the importance of issues by their material consequences for human beings, whether Trump releases his tax returns is downright insignificant next to the rest of the plans that Trump and the Republican Party have for the next four years.

Lesser’s awful idea highlights an important distinction that Trump-era progressives will need to bear in mind: the difference between “#TheResistance” and actual, authentic resistance to Trump’s policies. Since the election, a number of media progressives have branded themselves with the “resistance” hashtag, seemingly out of a desire to roleplay the heroic French guerrilla activity against Nazism. Keith Olbermann began a “Resistance” web series, draping himself in an American flag and having regular televised meltdowns about Putin. But authentic resistance to Trump’s policies does not involve pretending that you’re Jean Moulin, hiding in a farmhouse plotting to blow up one of Hitler’s supply trains. It involves thinking carefully about the human lives that are at stake under Trump’s presidency, and plotting politically efficacious ways to ensure that Trump causes people as little harm as possible.

The first priority is to make sure we are focusing on the right things. The next four years are going to include many useless distractions, and these cannot be given any attention. They may “matter” in some sense, but they matter far less than certain other, more highly consequential things. Bad things to focus on include: Trump and Putin, tax returns, Trump’s appearance, the Trump administration’s incompetence, dumb shit that Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer say, amateur psychoanalysis of Melania Trump, and crowd sizes. Important things to focus on include: climate changeabortion access, pipeline construction, nuclear arms, school privatization, and the repressive use of state force.

Undoubtedly, many people can make a case for why it’s important to have presidents disclose their financial information. But that’s not the case they have to make. The case they have to make is that, given that everyone has a finite amount of energy that they can spend on politics, financial disclosure issues should be the subject of intensive organizing and activism. Every moment you’re discussing one thing is a moment you’re not discussing something else. And so, if you believe that climate change poses a serious threat to the future of humanity, you will have to explain to future generations why you organized a protest about a billionaire’s tax returns rather than about the Earth being boiled alive and its cities sinking into the sea. Things will need to be discussed and protested in the order of their importance, and so it isn’t sufficient to argue for why a particular bad thing about Trump matters. You have to point out why it matters so much that we’re talking about it rather than the selling off of federal land to energy companies, or the 43,000 people per year who will die if the Republicans succeed in returning healthcare to its pre-Obama state.

But perhaps it is no coincidence that many of the most eager endorsements of the tax day plan came from Hollywood. Since the campaign, some of the most counterproductive acts of resistance to Trump have emanated from elite entertainment circles, including Meryl Streep’s attack on middle American cultural tastes (without Hollywood “you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts—which are not the arts.”) and advertisements in which famous people hectored the public about voting. Those people’s focus is always going to be skewed by the fact that they are extremely wealthy: things like tax returns or Trump’s offensive impressions can matter more to them because they’re not personally struggling with debt or drowning in medical bills. Any movement organized by well-off people isn’t going to understand why some issues are more urgent than others. It’s inevitably going to foreground Trump’s various idiotic remarks and ethical lapses, rather than talking about the victims of American inequality and poverty, the people dying of heroin overdoses in West Virginia or being shot in the streets of New Orleans and St. Louis.

One of the key lessons progressives should keep in mind is that authentic resistance is not going to come from the rich and famous. It’s going to come from ordinary people, standing up and working on the issues that matter the most. Let the TV writers and actors grandstand. But real resistance is strategic, and it is led by people whose primary concern is making life better for the vulnerable and the excluded. Forget the tax returns. Don’t #resist. Actually resist, which means caring about the things that matter rather than the things that don’t.

How Pundits Get Everything Wrong And Still Keep Their Jobs

How many times can commentators screw up and still keep commentating? As many as they like…

Understandably, the elite media class is eager to move swiftly onward, as if nothing just happened. They might have been directly complicit in one of the most cataclysmic mass analytical failures in modern US history, but no matter: there are ever-more predictions to be made, more rash surmises to blithely proffer. Self-criticism and introspection—who needs it? After all, the natural state of the pundit could be described as “impulsive predictivity,” the unceasing drive to be constantly telling audiences what will happen in the indeterminate future, as if you possess some amazing insight that renders your predictions uniquely clairvoyant.

But as the 2016 presidential campaign should have conclusively demonstrated, this pretense of expertise is a fabrication. Far from being especially prescient about matters of public affairs, members of the Pundit-Commentariat Industrial Complex are actually incredibly ill-suited to the task of accurately gauging the political sentiments of their own nation. By virtue of the various self-destructive pathologies that perpetually dull and distort their analytical acuity, it turns out that “pundits” are among the least qualified to accurately predict how far-off events will unfold. Surveying a random selection of Twitter trolls would probably yield one better information than scanning the output of the most revered professional prognosticators.

We still have not yet fully taken stock of how systematic and massive was the scope of the failure which gave rise to Donald Trump; it permeated virtually every sector of elite society, from the culture-producing entertainment industry, to high finance, to the “political operative/consultant” cabal—right on down to the journalism/commentary racket. But it may be most fruitful to begin by thrashing the 2016 pundits, whose mixture of arrogance and ignorance is almost unmatched in the history of letters.

The notion of a “pundit” is nebulous and fluid. Its definitional boundaries are always shifting. Indeed, “pundit” can be taken to mean anyone who opines on TV about politics, or it can refer to the distinguished group of people employed by well-regarded national magazines to espouse political opinions, often with a sheen of intellectual gravity. Though there’s plenty of blame to go around, it’s worth lingering on the failings of a certain kind of punditthe “writes regularly for prestigious online opinion journals” kind. The paradigmatic pundit of this character is firmly ensconced in the peculiarities of the contemporary social media-driven click-economy—it’s all he’s ever known.

One liability of having a geographically-clustered, incestuous pundit class is that they almost all know each other. They all reside in the same one or two cities and are members of overlapping friendship circles. This social proximity will inevitably cause a certain kind of in-group solidarity and excusing of failure; that’s human nature, and it’s understandable. We’re more willing to give our friends a pass. Though the nature of the internet enables pundits to write banally on politics from virtually anywhere, they nevertheless all flock to New York City and Washington D.C., whereupon they forge strong social bonds with colleagues and “after work” drinking buddies—and then wonder why they are all hopelessly consumed by groupthink and confirmation bias.


Jamelle Bouie of Slate and Brian Beutler of The New Republic are examplary members of this rising pundit cohort: young-ish prognosticators with an avowedly liberal bent, who came up through the fledgling “new media” ecosystem, and who originally endeavored to upend the existing pundit order. Bouie and Beutler merit special attention as case studies because they epitomize the “digital native” pundit—namely a coterie of 20 and 30-somethings concentrated in the “Acela Corridor” who regularly receive outsized praise for their allegedly bold commentary. They also happened to spend the 2016 presidential cycle advancing theories that proved utterly, flagrantly wrong.

Throughout the campaign, Bouie churned out a series of wildly inconsistent opinion pieces about Trump, alternating between warning the country that it was about to be swallowed up by fascism and reassuring liberals that Hillary Clinton had the election in the bag.

To give a flavor for Slate’s politics coverage, witness two Bouie headlines from only a week apart: “Donald Trump is a Moderate Republican” (November 19, 2015) and “Donald Trump Is A Fascist” (November 25, 2015). Now, the word “fascist” has meaning (or is at least supposed to). Anyone who actually believed Trump to be a fascist should now be out proclaiming far and wide that a fascist has just won the presidency—indeed, Bouie would be justified in attempting to foment violent insurrection and perhaps even a full-on coup d’état to ensure that Trump, the purported fascist, is prevented from taking the reins of state. As a preeminent pundit with sought-after insight, Bouie would in fact be obliged to vigorously sound the alarm, and maybe even take up arms himself. Instead, he recently joined the host of Slate’s “Culture GabFest” for a discussion entitled “Will Late-Night Shows Help Us Laugh Through a Trump Presidency?

It is not unreasonable, then, to surmise that proclamation that Trump is a “fascist” was more a provocation for clicks than any sincere attempt at political categorization. Whether Bouie ever perceived any disjunction between those competing November 2015 theses of “Trump as unprecedented fascist threat” and “Trump as slightly more vulgar run-of-the-mill Republican” remains unclear. (Bouie did not reply to a set of written questions.) One suspects, however, that these ideas were far more a product of Slate’s daily demand for edgy but ultimately hollow hot takes than of considered and honest analysis.

Not only was Bouie’s political philosophy both inconsistent and insincere, but his predictions were laughably disastrous. On August 24, Bouie averred in his Slate column:

“There is no horse race here. Clinton is far enough ahead, at a late enough stage in the election, that what we have is a horse running by itself, unperturbed but for a faint possibility of a comet hitting the track. Place your bets accordingly.”

So to be clear, Bouie likened the odds of a Trump victory to the odds of an extra-terrestrial mass extinction event. He even began performing postmortems before the election had been held:

“Donald Trump is a dud of [sic] politician who squandered his advantages in a winnable election. More than just a bad candidate, he has been a catastrophe for the GOP itself… On Nov. 8, nearly 18 months after he announced his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, the saga of Trump will come to a close.”

Perhaps Bouie reckoned that if he wrote enough columns conveying absolute certitude, he could will Hillary Clinton to victory. Whatever Bouie’s motive, he clearly failed spectacularly. Bouie had “one job,” and that was to accurately inform his readers about what was going on in the electorate. In this narrow task Bouie failed. What will be the consequences? (Hint: there will be no consequences.)

Illustration by Pranas T. Naujokaitis

Brian Beutler was christened an avatar of the Washington, D.C. “power elite” by the New York Times at the ripe old age of 28, which in 2011 profiled him and other members of the so-called “Juicebox Mafia,” a cluster of hyper-wonkish young men who supposedly constituted the future of political commentary. (Notably, the profile appeared in the Fashion section.)

A hallmark of induction into said elite is becoming bizarrely out of touch with the rest of the country. By this standard, Beutler proved himself a highly qualified member. But unlike pundits of old, Beutler has evidently shunned the practice of on-the-ground reporting, which was once critical to the pundit’s self-conception. Even people like the late David Broder of The Washington Post, once the purest embodiment of the establishment commentator, frequently traveled the country and talked to voters; it’s unclear if Beutler ever left Washington, D.C. during the entire election cycle. (Beutler also did not reply to a submitted set of written questions.) Instead, he sat at his desk, like Bouie, and declared Clinton victorious without deigning to converse with voters. On October 19th, he wrote: “This race is over. It has been for some time.

But worse than the bad predictions, Beutler made a point to heap regular contempt on ordinary voters whose views diverged from his own. He spearheaded a meme, popular among D.C. liberals, which essentially held that Trump supporters couldn’t possibly be motivated by anything resembling “economic anxiety.” Beutler and friends would find a Trump supporter saying something eccentric or racist, and tweet it with the sarcastic caption “economic anxiety.” The meme implied that the Trump phenomenon very obviously had no basis in the genuine anxieties of an immiserated, dislocated white working class depredated for decades by a hubristic economic elite. To the commentators scoffing at “economic” issues, Trump’s support was little more than pure, old-fashioned racism. Beutler hammered home the point unceasingly, winning bountiful likes and retweets from his fellow “new media” compadres, who naturally found the routine absolutely hilarious.

Of course, post-election analyses, including by the pundits’ own beloved FiveThirtyEight, have demonstrated that Beutler’s smug dismissals were entirely misplaced: economic anxiety was in fact a predictor of Trump support. “It is clear that the places that voted for Trump are under greater economic stress, and the places that swung most toward Trump are those where jobs are most under threat,” wrote FiveThirtyEight’s Jed Kolco. Additional studies have verified this correlation.

If you are a professional pundit, and your sole job is to accurately discern trends in the American electoral landscape, why on earth wouldn’t you feel compelled to venture out and do some actual reporting? Either it’s out of sheer laziness (certainly a distinct possibility) or an inherent skepticism that reportage has any analytical value. To the new generation of pundit, sitting around refreshing FiveThirtyEight nineteen times a day is a sufficient substitute for going and actually speaking to the people whose political opinions you purport to be an expert on.

The central assumptions on which The New Republic’s senior political editor and Slate’s chief political correspondent based a huge portion of their election analysis proved utterly, humiliatingly wrong. Of course, this will not redound to their discredit. That’s because the pundits inhabit an environment whereby the normal incentives for success and failure are precisely inverted compared to those under which most Americans labor. For normal people, even the tiniest mistakes often result in drastic consequences. They don’t just get to ignore those failures and barrel forward as if nothing happened. And yet that’s how we permit the pundit class to operate. In the case of Bouie and Beutler, it wasn’t merely that they made erroneous predictions; anyone can mistakenly guess that something might pan out, when it does not. Rather, their entire analytical framework was drastically, catastrophically faulty. If any other American worker had performed his or her job so poorly, they could expect to receive severe sanction—docked pay, unfavorable scheduling, or termination. But in the world of punditry, there is no price to pay for failure. Instead, the American pundit class simply carries on as before, rattling off self-assured predictions about future events.

It thus should not be mysterious why Americans are increasingly disdainful of the media class; they see them failing over and over again, but no punishments meted out. They know intrinsically that the pundits are shielded from anything that they’d recognize as professional accountability. And for what? The pundits provide no useful service; they opine from the comfort of their Washington domiciles. Maybe it’s the pundits’ jobs that should be outsourced, rather than the jobs of the “economically anxious” who they so delightedly mock.

The third and final part of our “How the Press Failed You” series. Part I was on Nate Silver. Part II was on New York Times commentators

Order Our New Book “Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity”

The ultimate book on the meaning of our present political situation, as well as the best way to fix it…

Current Affairs is pleased to announce the upcoming release of our new book Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity, which will ship starting on Inauguration Day (Jan. 20th). Copies can be ordered from Amazon.

Anatomy of a Monstrosity is the ultimate book for understanding Donald Trump himself, as well as what his election means for the United States and the world. But it is much more than a book about Trump: it is a book about the forces that led to his existence, and a guide for how to create a Trumpless world. Anatomy of a Monstrosity is not simply concerned with examining Trump as a human being, but looks closely at why progressives failed to stop his election, and develops a series of proposals for how ordinary people can fight back against Trumpism and win.

Carefully sourced, comprehensive, witty, and biting, Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity is the single book everyone opposed to Trump should read. Inside you’ll find:

  • A complete guide to Trump’s personal and political history
  • Dark and terrible Trump facts that have received little coverage
  • A look at how the 2016 election unfolded, and why the press underestimated Trump so spectacularly
  • A post-mortem dissection of the Clinton campaign
  • Reflections on what Trump’s presidency will likely mean
  • A series of lessons for progressives, and a set of plans for how deal with the new political reality


Anatomy of a Monstrosity is divided into four parts: Who He Is, How It Happened, What It Means, and How To Stop It. Expanding on Current Affairs’ previous highly-regarded post-election commentaryAnatomy will help the shell-shocked and terrified figure out what just happened and whether there is any hope left. Over 350 pages, the book goes carefully and engagingly through recent events, giving readers a realistic but somewhat encouraging perspective on the present situation.

Current Affairs’ early writing on the election has been praised by Fortune magazine for its prescience, and our loyal readers have come to rely on our signature brand of independent-minded and thorough political analysis. Anatomy of a Monstrosity expands our work on the 2016 election into book form, giving readers an insightful account of possibly the most consequential event in recent human history. In the same meticulous and compelling style as Superpredator: Bill Clinton’s Use and Abuse of Black America, Anatomy of a Monstrosity analyzes political events in a manner that is both rich in facts and morally compelling.

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It Is Morally Unconscionable Not To Give Chelsea Manning Clemency

Barack Obama must make the right choice…

The ability to give clemency is one of the most unrestricted powers given to the President of the United States. It isn’t subject to review by the courts; the President can pardon or commute the sentence of anyone convicted of a federal crime. The decision to offer or withhold clemency is entirely in the President’s hands.

It would therefore be a morally unconscionable act for Barack Obama not to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning. Given the President’s total responsibility for the decision, his complete authority over whether or not to grant mercy, failure to grant clemency for Manning would be a decision that would place a lasting moral stain on Obama’s presidency. In the next four days, Obama has the power to save a young woman’s life. Declining to exercise that power would be an act of shocking callousness and cowardice.

To the extent that there are heroes in this world, Chelsea Manning is one. She sacrificed her own freedom and reputation in order to bring crucial information to light. Thanks to her, the public gained a necessary understanding of the darkest sides of the Iraq War. She exposed rampant  detainee abuse and torture and demonstrated the complicity of the United States military in such acts. She exposed civilian deaths in a now infamous video in which a U.S. Apache helicopter fires on a group of unarmed people in Baghdad, killing two Reuters photographers, among others. There is a long list of important facts that the public now knows thanks to her. Many pieces of the now common narrative around the failings of the Iraq War would not be there but for Manning.

We all depend on the courage of leakers and whistleblowers in order to find out more about how the world really is. Without people like Manning, who are willing to face serious personal consequences in order to do what they think is right, unaccountable governments would become steadily more so. For what it’s worth, Manning even displays all of the values that Obama voiced his support for in promising a transparent and accountable government. There is a reason why other great whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg have come to her defense and objected to her treatment.

When brought to trial for her actions Manning took full responsibility for her actions and their consequences. She hoped that the necessity of the public disclosure would earn some leniency from a cruel state.  She pled guilty. But she was granted a shockingly harsh sentence of 35 years. The longest sentence for any leak to media in US history. Longer than anyone responsible for torturing Iraqi detainees ever received. She has already served five years of her sentence – and they have not been an easy five. The U.S. Army has treated Manning with an extraordinary level of brutality. She was held in long-term solitary confinement for 11 months, a treatment classified by the United Nations as a form of torture. Manning has also suffered unique difficulties for being a transgender woman in a men’s-only prison. As she wrote in her petition to Obama: “I need help… I am living through a cycle of anxiety, anger, hopelessness, loss, and depression. I cannot focus. I cannot sleep. I attempted to take my own life.”

What has been done to Manning is appalling. When she attempted suicide, instead of giving her treatment, the Army punished her by giving her more solitary confinement; i.e. treating severe psychological distress with more torture (a regularly used ‘remedy’ in this country’s prison system). Unsurprisingly, Manning attempted suicide again. She has clearly been suffering deeply, and we can only speculate on the additional troubles she will face under the incoming Trump Administration. (This is not to mention what Manning went through during her time in service.)

Chelsea Manning is a human being, who is being tortured and is hovering near the brink of suicide. One person has the power to step in and help. He must.

Of course, Manning is only one individual among many whom Barack Obama has a moral duty to exercise his power to help. The system of mass incarceration will outlast his presidency, and while Obama has granted some pardons and commutations, our prison system remains an indefensible fixture of American life. Focus on Manning should not detract from the fight to free all of those caged by the state – no one should be left behind. Nevertheless, Manning provides a clear-cut moral case. There is no excuse to be made – even by the government’s warped standards.

Barack Obama has disappointed progressives for many reasons. But in each instance, there has been a common reply from his defenders: Obama’s hands were tied by political constraints. Yet here is an instance in which nothing binds Obama. He has complete discretion. What he chooses to do will tell us a lot about what kind of person he truly is. Granting Manning clemency will not absolve Obama of the millions of other harms that he has created, nor even wipe clean the slate of other whistleblowers his administration has prosecuted, but not doing so would demonstrate the basest unwillingness to do good in the face of….literally no obstacle whatsoever.

There is no excuse for a refusal to act. Obama must grant Manning clemency.

Beware The Job Creators

People need jobs. But some jobs shouldn’t exist.

Cancer is a job creator. So is war. Death camps, prisons, and poison gas factories create jobs. And of course, the construction of an enormous border wall is a job creator.

But, and this should be obvious, the fact that something creates jobs does not mean it is worth doing. If I am a spectacularly rich man, and I hire a squadron of manservants to kick puppies to death for my amusement, I have created a good number of jobs. I am also a horrible human being who is making the world worse.

The observation that something does not necessarily become worth doing merely because it creates jobs is understood well, even by conservative economists. The 19th century French economist Frédéric Bastiat famously argued against the (intuitively appealing) idea that smashing windows was sound economic policy because it kept glaziers employed. Bastiat pointed out that you couldn’t just look at one consequence of an action, you had to look at all of them. And that means looking not just at what you did spend money on, but also on what you didn’t. In his little parable about broken windows, Bastiat helped to develop the modern concept of opportunity cost.

But while everyone understands that job creation isn’t in itself a dispositive justification for doing something (if I announce that my new healthcare plan will create thousands of new jobs for morticians, the voting public will rightly be wary), the rhetoric of job creation is so powerful that it frequently prevents a sober-minded assessment of all of a thing’s consequences, including human/environmental toll and opportunity cost. I am sure, for example, that building an enormous border wall will create quite a few jobs (for Mexican laborers). It’s still a colossal waste of time, human labor, and concrete. (War and militaries are a waste for a similar reason. Every ounce of human energy spent on tasks that destroy human lives is being diverted away from bettering human lives, meaning that the consequences of war are actually far worse than their visible destruction; they also include all of the construction that would have occurred in their absence. Likewise, every additional useless Air Force base is a school/hospital/roller disco that isn’t built.)

It’s always going to be difficult to respond to job creation arguments, which is why unions are signing on to Trump’s plan to fast-track pipeline-building projects. How can anyone say no to jobs? Nobody wants to say that jobs are bad. People who do not have jobs often need jobs. (Although what they really need is money, jobs being the thing we make them do in order for them to acquire it.) The unemployment rate is very low right now, but that doesn’t mean anything to unemployed people. But in the long run, if you’re offered a job digging your own grave, you’re making a bad bargain. And the world may be better off without some kinds of jobs.

Quality of jobs matters too. Barack Obama’s presidency saw the restoration of millions of jobs and the lowering of the unemployment rate. But many of these jobs were temporary positions, or positions with highly variable hours and few benefits. If a political act creates jobs, but reduces workers’ bargaining power and quality of life, then the jobs are an illusory gain.

People on the left haven’t really found a good way of countering job-creation rhetoric. Look at how Hillary Clinton stumbled in West Virginia. She thought they would be excited when she promised to put mining companies and miners out of work. After all, an ideal world doesn’t have these jobs; they’re unsafe and filthy, and we want a future based on clean energy that doesn’t contribute to climate catastrophe. But her pitch did not go down nearly as well as expected, because, well, people really like having jobs. So unless you’re offering them better jobs (which Clinton was trying to say she would do), you’re going to have a tough time running against a pro-jobs candidate.

The question is: what if a candidate comes along offering to create millions of jobs? And what if the promise isn’t illusory? What if they will create millions of jobs, but the jobs will be (1) military jobs, i.e. destroying human civilization, (2) border construction and patrol jobs, i.e. erecting useless barriers to free human movement, or (3) coal jobs, i.e. destroying the earth. We could all be hired to destroy every last shred of life on earth.

Frequently, when Donald Trump promises jobs, the response on the left is to argue that his plans won’t create many jobs at all. Rep. Raul Grijalva recently wrote an article in The Guardian entitled “The Keystone pipeline will create just 35 permanent jobs. Don’t believe the lies.” But this isn’t the main problem, as Grijalva points out in the body of the article. The main problem is that fossil fuel jobs are a deal with the Devil. And it’s necessary for Democrats to find a way to convey this without seeming not to care about people’s employment prospects.

The truth is that an ideal world has few jobs in it. The more tasks that can be done by automation, the better. And the good news is that as automation advances, there will be less and less need for certain kinds of work. Unfortunately, in a capitalist economy without a serious social safety net, that means displaced workers will be unable to provide for themselves. It will therefore be tempting to buy into job-creation schemes, which create unnecessary or destructive work, such as building border fences or pointless and expensive pieces of military hardware.

If the left stands for a serious guarantee of well-being, though, people may be less likely to be tempted by the promise of jobs for the sake of jobs. If nobody fears being unemployed, because medical care, housing, and a basic income are guaranteed, then it will be easier to make the argument that we should move away from fossil fuels, or decrease the size of the American military. A social democratic set of policies gives people the freedom to think with their heads rather than with their empty stomachs. Once people aren’t so desperately dependent on their jobs for their basic material well-being, they have the luxury to be wary of the job creators.