“Fake News” and the Limits of Fact-Checking

Fighting for truth requires more than just pouncing on Trump…

At this point, the most tiresome and ineffectual observation one can make is that many things Donald Trump says are untrue. It’s tiresome because people have been pointing this out every single day for two years, and it’s ineffectual because by now, it is highly unlikely that anybody out there is going to stroke their chin and say “You know, you’re right, I’m not so sure this Trump character is entirely honest.”

In the last few months, the writings of Andrew Sullivan have been among the more hysterical and unhelpful guides to understanding our situation. Sullivan believes Trump’s presidency is literally the end of America as we know it, and thinks the proper lesson from Trump’s ascent is that there is simply too much democracy in this country. He is among the many commentators whom Trump seems to have turned slightly mad (though he has long been a conspiracist). It is therefore little surprise that he continues to have conniptions over Trump’s never-ending stream of untruths.

Sullivan suggests that living in the United States is now like “being a child trapped in a house where there is an abusive and unpredictable father” (in fact, for people like Sullivan and myself it is absolutely nothing like that, and the comparison is offensive). Madness is supreme, lies pass for truth, the Supreme Leader tries to convince us that black is white. And Sullivan is at his wit’s end trying to figure out a solution:

What are we supposed to do with this? How are we to respond to a president who in the same week declared that the “murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 45 to 47 years,” when, of course, despite some recent, troubling spikes in cities, it’s nationally near a low not seen since the late 1960s… What are we supposed to do when a president says that two people were shot dead in Chicago during President Obama’s farewell address — when this is directly contradicted by the Chicago police? None of this, moreover, is ever corrected. No error is ever admitted. Any lie is usually doubled down by another lie — along with an ad hominem attack.

Sullivan does, however, have an idea for how to respond:

Here is what we are supposed to do: rebut every single lie. Insist moreover that each lie is retracted — and journalists in press conferences should back up their colleagues with repeated follow-ups if Spicer tries to duck the plain truth. Do not allow them to move on to another question. Interviews with the president himself should not leave a lie alone; the interviewer should press and press and press until the lie is conceded. The press must not be afraid of even calling the president a liar to his face if he persists.

Well, good luck with this.

Sullivan’s thundering outrage about Trump’s relationship with the truth, as well as his proposal to meet this with more insistent fact-checks and new rounds of follow-up questions, nicely illustrates a particular tendency shared by many of Trump’s opponents in the media. Seeing a “post-truth” presidency fueled by “fake news,” they respond by demanding that the press become more resolute in checking Trump and upholding its public duty to prevent the light of truth from being extinguished.

All of which sounds good and noble, as well as difficult to argue with. But I think it overlooks two important and related issues: effectiveness and humility. First, it’s not enough to check the facts and shout that Trump is a liar. You have to actually get people to believe you. Second, the “Trump is a liar and the press must hold him accountable” framework allows journalists to avoid self-criticism, and makes them less likely to concede when Trump is actually right on the facts. If you’re always out to get Trump, you’re less likely to be fair to him, and if you’re not fair to him, you’re less likely to persuade the people whom you seek to persuade.

Trust in media is at an all-time low. That should concern journalists just as much as Trump’s lies, because it means that they can fact-check the hell out of whatever they like, but few people are likely to believe them. You can scream as loudly as you like that Trump has exaggerated the crime rate, but unless you work on the trust problem, you’ll be shouting into an empty void.

Working on the trust problem will require scrapping the simplistic idea of a “truthful press” against the “lying President.” In fact, precisely because so many journalists have adopted the Sullivan worldview, thinking of themselves as the heroic guardians of truth against a habitual liar, they have ended up pushing dubious anti-Trump stories. The Federalist compiled (and Trump retweeted) a list of news stories since the election that have tried to damage Trump, but have been either false or exaggerated. For example, journalists spread a claim that there had been mass resignations from the State Department in protest of Trump. This was totally false. Members of the media have gone absolutely apoplectic over Trump’s incorrect claim that there is mass voting by non-citizens, without acknowledging that it was The Washington Post that first published a study suggesting this was the case. And nearly every standard of journalistic scrutiny and restraint is instantly jettisoned when it comes to stories involving Trump and Russia.

It’s never a good idea to envision yourself as a crusader against evil, because it inevitably blinds you to the issues on which reality is murky, and reduces the chance that you will question your own presuppositions. With a media that needs to regain public confidence, it is especially important that they be as scrupulously fair to Trump as possible. That means not making mountains out of molehills, and not reflexively calling things lies and falsehoods. For example, at Trump’s recent press conference, he claimed that Hillary Clinton “gave Russia 20 percent of the uranium in the U.S.” The fact-checkers pounced. Actually, they said, Russia’s nuclear agency bought a company controlling 20 percent of America’s uranium production capacity, and Clinton’s State Department was only one of a number of agencies whose approval was required for the deal. Thus what Trump said was “mostly false.”

But this is missing some key points. First, while Trump’s statement departs slightly from the literal facts, Trump isn’t the only one who thought the uranium deal was a serious issue. A New York Times report in 2015 confirmed that “the sale gave the Russians control of one-fifth of all uranium production capacity in the United States” and “brought Mr. Putin closer to his goal of controlling much of the global uranium supply chain.” The Times also raised ethical concerns about Clinton’s approval of the deal, noting that “shortly after the Russians announced their intention to acquire a majority stake in Uranium One, [Bill] Clinton received $500,000 for a Moscow speech from a Russian investment bank with links to the Kremlin that was promoting Uranium One stock.” Second, and more importantly, what Trump was trying to draw attention to was the double standard that is applied to him when it comes to Russia. If Trump had been involved with this kind of deal, with similar financial compensation from Russians for a speech, for many in the press it would have been further evidence that Trump is a puppet of Vladimir Putin. But nobody thinks that about Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s approval of the uranium deal may have been wise, but Trump mostly raised the issue to draw attention to the fact that the reporting on his own relationship with Russia has been over-the-top conspiratorial.

I don’t think anybody can accuse me of liking Donald Trump; the book I’ve written about him is called Anatomy of a Monstrosity (available in paperback for $17.95) and is, let’s say, not especially complimentary. But it’s precisely because I so strongly oppose Trump that I am strongly determined to make sure all of my claims about him are defensible. The New York Times recently reported that certain people may actually be made more sympathetic to Trump by overreactions to him, although the evidence suggests that support for Trump is shrinking rather than growing. If you are concerned with actually stopping Trump, you need to ask how to get people to listen to your criticisms. And if you’re talking about the death of the Republic, and failing to recognize that beneath a factual misstatement there may be an underlying true point, people will be justified in feeling as if you are not a credible arbiter of truth.


The problem of media credibility seems like it should be central in discussions surrounding “fake news.” That term is now used by liberals to describe fringe conservative websites, and by conservatives to describe CNN and The New York Times. It’s also, as Glenn Greenwald has written, somewhat like the term “terrorism” insofar as it is used totally inconsistently and without any clear standard as to what it means. That is, to some degree, an inherent problem, because it requires some distinctions that can only be resolved via judgment rather than appeal to objective fact. (For example, what distinguishes mere shoddy reporting from fake news? If Slate or The Washington Post report false things, at what point do they become fake news? Greenwald notes that mainstream commentators seem to want the category of fake news to exclude their own organizations by definition.)

The problems with the “fake news” discourse were in evidence at a recent two-day conference at Harvard on the subject, called Combating Fake News: An Agenda for Research and Action. Notably, no portion of the conference was dedicated to trying to define a standard for what constitutes fake news. Instead, the talks focused on how to get rid of it. On the second day, breakout groups asked questions about various forms of “interventions” that could occur to stop the scourge of fake news:

Group A: Interventions by government What regulatory interventions, if any, are appropriate by government actors? In the US context, how does the first amendment act limit interventions?

Group B: Interventions by private sector For companies such as Facebook, what steps are possible and desirable with respect to controlling fake news and misinformation?

Group C: Interventions by third parties What kinds of interventions are possible by third parties– fact checkers, extensions, apps?

Group D: What role for the academy? Crossing disciplinary stovepipes to understand and mitigate the effects of fake news.

The presumptions here are instructive, as well as the omissions. The idea here is that consumers are making bad choices, and it is up to us to intervene and stop them. It’s no coincidence that the conference’s keynote speaker was Cass Sunstein, who is best known for proposing ways to manipulate people into acting the way policy-makers want them to act.

But by skipping the question of how to define fake news, efforts to stop it will inevitably be partisan. Just as Sunstein’s “nudge” idea contains an implicit set of assumptions about what constitutes people’s self-interest, any use of the phrase “fake news” will necessarily contain an implicit judgment criterion for what it is and isn’t. In this case, the buried assumption is that mainstream media organizations are not fake news; fake news is something that comes from independent and “fringe” media.

The Harvard conference once again shows how the need to improve the media itself is consistently overlooked. Instead of asking why people don’t trust the newspapers, and how the newspapers can restore that trust, we ask how people can be stopped from making bad choices. The solutions are things like “apps” and “extensions.” (It’s unclear how such things could possibly do any good, seeing as they would only ever be used by those who are already concerned with the problem.) The conference posed the question of how “public institutions, e.g. local, state and federal government” should intercede, even though any attempt by government to become arbiters of truth and falsehood would be terrifying.

I sense a certain impotence here. Liberals see a bunch of false things flying around, and don’t know what to do. Because they think the mainstream press generally does a pretty good job, the only possible solutions are to (1) hire more fact-checkers or (2) empower some entity, such as Facebook or Twitter, to determine what is true and what is false. But both of those ideas are disastrous. Nobody will read the fact-checkers, and their belief in their own factual correctness will end up leading them to ignore their own biases, which will lead even fewer people to read them. And Facebook can’t possibly sort out what’s true and what’s false, and nobody should want to trust it with that job.

Personally, I think the “fake news” problem is overblown, or at least only a small part of the picture. We’re better off now than in the days of yellow journalism, and we could always have the misfortune of being like the British, whose tabloid newspapers are almost entirely filled with manure. The real question, it seems to me, is not “Who should step in to stop the fake news?” but “How do the country’s major media institutions become trustworthy?”

There is an undercurrent of arrogance and presumption to some of the discussion about fake news and Trump. Media figures are outraged that they, the trustworthy and good, are being disbelieved and shat upon. Chuck Todd of NBC haughtily declared after Trump’s press conference that “delegitimizing the press is un-American.” (On the contrary, delegitimizing the press is a sacred patriotic duty.) And Andrew Sullivan is an unabashed elitist, upset at an excess of democracy. Because such people refuse to recognize that many people have perfectly good reasons for not listening to a word they say, they aren’t committed to taking the kind of self-critical steps that will actually fix the problem they care about.

It’s not that fact-checking is bad or unnecessary. Obviously journalists should challenge the president, and consistently hold him accountable. But repairing the problem of fake news and getting people to disbelieve lies will require much more. It will require a press that people respect, which will require clearly examining one’s own buried assumptions and values.

Democrats Need a Coherent and Powerful Message

Clinton’s communications director demonstrates how Democrats shouldn’t communicate…

One of the reasons Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election is that nobody had any idea what she actually wanted to do as president. Everyone knew what Trump wanted: to build the wall, bring back the jobs, and bomb the shit out of ISIS. But it was never clear what Hillary Clinton was actually proposing to do. The messaging from the Clinton campaign was entirely focused on who she was (an experienced and responsible person, rather than an unhinged and bigoted one) rather than any actual plan she had for how to fix the country’s problems.

This really isn’t an exaggeration. You can try it on your friends: ask them what Clinton’s main plans were (no, desperately lifting Bernie Sanders’s free college proposal doesn’t count). See if they can tell you. Even Joe Biden saw it, saying that Clinton never figured out why she was running in the first place, beyond feeling as if it was something she probably ought to do. We hear sometimes about how Clinton had the most progressive platform ever. But nobody can remember what was actually in it.

One serious problem of the Clinton campaign, then, was its failure to craft a clear message. Because Clinton wanted to court both moderate Republicans and Sanders socialists, her public statements frequently ended up saying almost nothing (witness her official comments on the Dakota Access Pipeline, which were rightly mocked as meaningless). An important lesson to learn from Clinton’s loss should be: it’s got to be clear what you stand for. And you have to stand for something, you can’t stand for everything. Furthermore, saying things like “we face complex and intersectional challenges” is not a compelling diagnosis of America’s social ills. It’s empty language, it won’t resonate. (I remember multiple news stories from the campaign in which voters said they literally couldn’t understand the words that Clinton was speaking.)

But Clinton Democrats have not necessarily learned this lesson. Witness what Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s former communications director, had to say recently on the subject of what to make of the large anti-Trump protests:

I think that a lot of this energy is not — the base is there, but you are wrong to look at these crowds and think that means everyone wants $15 an hour. Don’t assume that the answer to big crowds is moving policy to the left. I think the answer to the big crowds is engaging as much as you can to be as supportive as you can and understanding — what these people want, they are desperate. It’s all about identity on our side now. They want to show he does not support me. I support you, refugee. I support you, immigrant in my neighborhood. I want to defend you. Women who are rejecting Nordstrom’s and Neiman Marcus are saying this is power for them. Donald Trump doesn’t take me seriously, well, I’m showing you my value and my power, and I think it’s like our own version of identity politics on the left that’s more empowering, and I think that’s we’re — that’s a safer place to be.

There are a few issues to note here. First, if anyone wondered whether Clinton Democrats would have learned that they needed to care more about economic issues, the answer is no. Palmieri, like Nancy Pelosi, does not sense any need to respond to the economic populism that led 13 million voters toward Bernie Sanders in the primary and helped Trump win crucial Rust Belt states. The standard progressive criticism of Clintonian centrism is that it values racial diversity and inclusive gender politics, but it actually doesn’t care about lifting the living standards of working-class people of any race or gender. Palmieri confirms that this impression is no myth; it’s “all about identity” these days, and we shouldn’t assume people want $15 an hour. (Is there actually anyone who doesn’t want $15 an hour?) And “power,” to this contingent of Democrats, is about whether you shop at Neiman Marcus or not. It’s not about, say, power in the workplace.

But there’s a separate important question to ask: what is Palmieri actually talking about here? Look again at the above paragraph. It’s almost totally without meaning. What is “a safer place to be”? What does “it’s all about identity” even imply? Yes, one gets the fact that she’s rejecting calls to adopt more progressive economic policies, and that she thinks doing politics means deciding which expensive department store to shop at. But the most striking thing about the statement is its utter vacuousness. She wants to be supportive and empowering, but we get almost no specifics as to what that entails. (Palmieri also said that voters were “scared” rather than “angry,” a distinction just about as clear and useful as the one between “greatness” and “goodness” in the baffling Clinton slogan “America is great because America is good.”)


Now remember that Palmieri was Clinton’s communications director. That should have meant she was the person most skilled at delivering a clear message. She should at least have been able to speak an intelligible English sentence. But Palmieri’s style is the Clinton style: the words slip through your fingers like sand, and nobody has any idea what is actually being said. (Incidentally this same communications director, when she was once asked whether the Clinton Foundation would return Bill Cosby’s donations, replied: “They, um, but you know, the, uh, the foundation has, uh, it’s, uh, buh, there’s been a lot of donors that, uh, have given, uh, have given money, uh. They, uh, as our friend Paul Begala said, it’s, you know, wealthy people giving money to help poor people. Uh, we think that’s, uh, that’s a positive thing.” Loyalty rather than competence has long been the central criterion by which Clinton staffers are selected.)

Thus, while one important goal for the Democratic Party must be to offer policies that materially benefit the working class, another goal is to find ways of speaking that people actually understand and relate to. You’re not going to sway people towards your message if you don’t really have one, if there’s no clear and coherent vision for what the party means and stands for.

This in itself is a reason why the progressive wing of the party needs to shape its direction, and why the DNC needs a Keith Ellison rather than a Tom Perez. Even if you disagree with what the progressives are offering, they’re actually offering something, something intelligible and cogent. As with Trump, everybody knew what Bernie Sanders stood for: Medicare for all, reining in Wall Street, free college. You can take it or leave it, but at least there’s something to actually take. Centrists don’t have an actual vision, because they form their politics by triangulating between whatever worldviews are on either side of them. That means that they don’t really believe in anything, or at least that their beliefs are not founded on obvious inner moral convictions.

But in order to win people over, you’ve got to actually believe in something. People see through empty rhetoric about empowerment and inclusiveness. They know that politics is about what the government does, and that unless you’re telling them what you plan to do with the government, you’re not actually telling them anything. If Democrats are going to get back into power, they need a simple and morally forceful set of basic values and policy plans.

The Sanders/Cruz Debate Was The Best Political TV in Ages

Last night was a glimpse of what tolerable political media could look like…

My God, that was fun. And enlightening. And thorough. How on earth was it on CNN?

Last night CNN hosted the most improbable of televised spectacles: a 2-hour debate on healthcare policy between Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders. Ostensibly, it was to be a debate about ObamaCare, but since neither Cruz nor Sanders likes Obamacare much, it ended up being a debate over whether to fix Obamacare through a single-payer system or by letting the market decide. It was therefore essentially a contentious two-hour tussle over the relative merits of socialism versus capitalism.

Both Cruz and Sanders were in excellent form. Cruz is a slick debater and came armed with a bevy of statistics about the horrors of Canadian healthcare, as well as a map showing how ObamaCare had hurt Trump voters. Sanders did what he does best: making an emotionally compelling case for the need to take care of one another, and challenging the callous moral underpinnings of Republican pro-market orthodoxy.

Over the course of two hours, Sanders and Cruz gave their spiels on various aspects of the healthcare system, including drug pricing and importation, the coverage of pre-existing conditions, Medicare and Medicaid, women’s health, and cost control. They answered thoughtful questions from audience members who had suffered in various ways from America’s disastrous overpriced healthcare system. (Cruz was confronted by a woman with multiple sclerosis who had had to leave Texas because it had declined to expand Medicaid, while Sanders had to explain to the owner of a hair salon chain why she should feel a responsibility to pay for her employees’ health insurance.)

Sanders’s best moments came when he challenged Cruz on Cruz’s lawyerly evasions. When Cruz was asked whether, under his plan, insurers could deny people with pre-existing conditions, Cruz replied that nobody would lose their health insurance. Sanders pointed out that people with health insurance not losing it did not mean that people without it could get it. Similarly, when Cruz insisted that he would preserve the right to “access” good health care, Sanders replied that “access” meant very little without the ability to actually afford it:

You have access, but you don’t have enough money. You have access right now, go out and get a really great health insurance program. Oh, you can’t do it because you can’t afford it. That’s what [Cruz] is saying. Oh, you want to go out and buy one of Donald Trump’s mansions? You have access to that as well. Oh, you can’t afford $5 million for a house? Sorry. Access doesn’t mean a damn thing!

Cruz, too, successfully hammered Bernie on the cost of his single-payer plan, and slickly re-characterized all of Sanders’s proposals as pro-government and anti-choice. (He also gave a closing statement that bizarrely referenced the “More Cowbell” sketch from Saturday Night Live to make the case against single payer, telling the audience that Sanders was just trying to give them more cowbell. As I say, bizarre.)

Naturally, I am biased in attempting to assess the victor of the debate, considering my previously expressed opinions on the subject of Ted Cruz. But I had been worried that Bernie would struggle against Cruz, given Cruz’s reputation as a formidable debater (Bernie was sometimes ropey during the primary debates, and missed numerous opportunities to land important points). But Sanders did exceptionally well, getting the case for universal healthcare across with impressive clarity and force.

Because of that, I remain more convinced than ever that Sanders would have absolutely crushed Donald Trump had he been the Democratic nominee. That’s because Sanders is very effective at disowning bad Democratic policies while embracing good ones. Unlike Clinton, he doesn’t try to defend the least defensible actions of the Obama administration. He doesn’t insist the Affordable Care Act is great, he insists it’s somewhat better than what came before. When Cruz pointed out that Democrats were bought by Big Pharma just as much as Republicans, Sanders didn’t try to dispute it; he agreed. Sanders’s status as an independent willing to criticize his party means he doesn’t end up having to make dishonest and partisan arguments in order to exonerate the actions of his team.

But the most important takeaway from last night’s debate wasn’t that Bernie would have won (though he would have). Instead, the most extraordinary thing about the debate was just how good it was. It was two hours of actual policy substance in which the disagreements between two sides were laid out clearly and thoughtfully, with each side challenging the other’s assumptions and having to demonstrate a serious knowledge of the issue. Because it was on a single subject, it didn’t have the cursory, talking-point oriented feel of the presidential primary debates, which sometimes had to cover about ten issues in 90 minutes. The moderators carefully kept the senators from straying away from the subject of healthcare, and that level of focus and depth made it the single most substantive policy discussion on television in recent memory.

For a couple of hours last night on CNN, then, the viewing public saw a vision of what political media could be like, if media companies were serious about trying to get people informed, and staying away from sensationalism. This was no talking-head jabber-fest, it was an authentic discussion in which disagreements were carefully but contentiously explored. It was an incredibly refreshing change from the usual barrage of Trump-oriented, substance-free hysteria. (Indeed, one of the most impressive aspects of the debate was that the name “Donald Trump” was spoken only about twice.)

CNN has been notoriously dreadful for a long time. They helped build Donald Trump’s candidacy by broadcasting full-length live feeds of his rallies, and their closest thing to a substantive and hard-hitting commentator is Anthony Bourdain. But if the Sanders/Cruz debate is indicative of a new long-term strategy, there may be some minuscule sliver of hope for American political media. This is what we need more of. Real debates that neither descend into pointless bickering nor avoid serious disagreements like the divide between socialism and capitalism.

Hosting political debates on CNN won’t fix American politics. But it will sure make political television a lot more bearable. More of this, please. More of this all the time.

If Your Party Doesn’t Appeal To Young People, It Will Wither And Die

If Democrats fail to address millennials’ economic concerns, they will continue to flounder…

With the Democrats having been resoundingly defeated in the 2016 election, it should be obvious that the party has some serious introspection to do. Party leaders need to (very quickly) figure out how to mobilize the politically disaffected in order to reclaim power, and they particularly need the kind of organizing energy that Barack Obama was able to inspire in 2008. Doing this would giving millennials good reasons to turn up to the polls and support Democratic politicians. Unfortunately, if Nancy Pelosi’s comments at a recent CNN town hall are any suggestion of the attitude among party elites, there are no plans to attempt to engage the concerns of younger voters. This is terrible news for the party’s political fortunes, which are currently somewhat dire.

At the town hall, NYU sophomore Trevor Hill asked Pelosi about the party’s stance on economic issues. Pointing out that millennials were less enthusiastic about capitalism than those in older generations, Hill said: “I wonder if there’s anywhere you feel the Democrats could move farther left to a more populist message.” Hill insisted that he was not trying to get Pelosi to make a “radical statement about capitalism” but merely pointing out that “the younger generation is moving left on economic issues.”

Pelosi’s reply was firm. She chuckled, and declared: “I have to say, we’re capitalist ― and that’s just the way it is.”

It was an alarmingly oblivious response. Pelosi didn’t even suggest that there was room for a “democratic socialist” perspective, of the kind promoted by Bernie Sanders. The party is for capitalists, she said, and that’s that. Pelosi went on to talk about the problem of income inequality and made some remarks suggesting that it was possibly a bad thing and might need perhaps to be somewhat curtailed. But she entirely evaded Hill’s question of whether the party had any intent of moving left on economic issues.

Pelosi’s response was predictable. She is on the record declaring that the Democratic Party does not need a “new direction,” even after losing the House, Senate, and Presidency. Nobody should have expected Nancy Pelosi of all people, who is the very definition of an entrenched Democratic politician, to believe that the party needed a fresh start.


But the response was also deeply troubling, insofar as it suggested that party elites are not especially concerned with courting younger voters. To a majority of millennials, capitalism is a dirty word, and for Pelosi to actually laugh at the prospect of changing the Democrats’ perspective on it shows an ideology deeply out of touch with the way many younger people think. As Hill observed afterwards of Pelosi’s disappointing answer: “She can’t possibly understand where I, or millions of other millennials who are drowning under capitalism, come from… She refused to admit that the Democrats needed to move in a populist direction, which is what so many millions of Americans are crying out for them to do.”

There are perfectly good reasons why young people don’t like capitalism. They’re drowning in debt, they work awful jobs, and many of them have worse economic prospects than their parents. Capitalism, to them, means working for low pay and no hope of advancement. That’s why they flocked to Bernie Sanders. But Pelosi’s message says firmly to Bernie Sanders socialists: you are not wanted in our party. That means writing off a huge number of people. Sanders may not have won in the primary, but he got 13 million votes to Hillary Clinton’s 16 million. Telling populist-leaning Democrats to go screw themselves means alienating extraordinary numbers of people, who are unlikely to show much enthusiasm for a party apparatus that has made it clear it doesn’t care what they think.

The Democrats’ attitude toward young people has been troubling for a while. Age was a key divide between Clinton and Sanders supporters, and during the campaign some of Hillary Clinton’s supporters were astonishingly patronizing toward younger voters. Gloria Steinem suggested that young women were only supporting Bernie Sanders because they were following boys, and Madeleine Albright made the case that those who didn’t support Clinton would roast in hell. The editor of Mother Jones magazine declared that she “hated millennials” for their refusal to embrace Hillary Clinton. Clinton decided to select Tim Kaine as her running mate instead of choosing someone that young people might have been able to muster some shred of excitement about (like, say, Bernie Sanders). Even Matthew Yglesias of Vox noted that the Kaine pick was a deliberate middle finger to Sanders supporters, sending the message: “You get boring, centrist Tim Kaine! What are you going to do — vote for Donald Trump?” (Failing to note that there was another option beyond Clinton or Trump: staying home).

This is actually one reason why it’s so essential that Democrats make Keith Ellison head of the Democratic National Committee. Ellison speaks about engaging young people, about broadening the party’s appeal, about building the grassroots. He prioritizes the economic issues that millennials care about. Tom Perez, on the other hand, is about as exciting as Tim Kaine. The choice between Ellison and Perez is going to say a lot about whether the party is committed to becoming something new, or repeating its mistakes ad nauseum.

The Democrats’ political situation is terrible at the moment. They have lost 900 seats in state legislatures, they continue to hemorrhage governorships even in blue states, and Donald Trump is the President of the United States. Unless Democrats can engage new people and generate enthusiasm, their party will wither and die. Donald Trump ran a populist campaign and won. Bernie Sanders ran a populist campaign and nearly toppled the “inevitable” nominee and ruined what was supposed to be a coronation. It’s very clear that without a different economic message, the party is going to fail to excite those who could be its most effective activists. (Democrats also need the skills that young people bring; remember how good Bernie Sanders’ ad team was?) Nancy Pelosi’s declaration that unless you support capitalism, you are not a Democrat, means that 51% of millennials should want nothing to do with the Democrats. Perhaps she’s comfortable with that. But anyone who cares about building a progressive majority shouldn’t be.

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.

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.

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.

It Matters, Yes, But How Much?

Are Putin and the DNC leaks worth our attention? Sure. Are they our number one priority now? Probably not.

As of this moment, millions of people remain incarcerated in this country. Immigrant families are living in fear for their livelihoods and lives, with no idea what may face them over the next four years. An opioid epidemic is ravaging white communities, gun violence is ending hundreds of black lives in New Orleans and Chicago, and the U.S.-created bloodbath in Iraq continues unabated. This is not to mention the civilization-ending threats of climate change and nuclear war

Yet few of these issues would penetrate your consciousness, were you to pay attention to certain Democratic and progressive commentators. Instead, you would see a single-minded focus on the question of Russia, and the connections between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. If, for example, you were to browse through the recent written output of Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn, you would find that fully ¾ of the stories he has written since Nov. 15th concern Russian intervention in the election. If you were to examine the Twitter feed of Neera Tanden, head of the Center for American Progress (one of the left’s major think tanks) you would mostly find comments about Russian hacking and the Wikileaks-Putin-Trump axis. And if you were to look at the news generally, you would see coverage absolutely dominated by the question of Vladimir Putin’s role in the November election.

Indeed, some progressives seem to think that this is the only issue that ought to be discussed at the moment. Esquire’s Charles Pierce was quite direct about this, saying “I honestly believe that this should be the only story dominating the news right now.” In fact, things seem to be getting somewhat out of hand. People are talking about new Cold Wars; John McCain thinks war has already been declared. The hand of the Russians is being seen everywhere, from popular financial blogs to the Vermont electric grid. Though one risks being called a Putin apologist for saying it, one suspects a bit of paranoia may be setting in…

It’s fundamentally understandable to be concerned by the reports about Russian hacking activity. After all, elections should be fair. If they aren’t fair, the entire system’s legitimacy is thrown into doubt. And foreign tampering makes them unfair. But separate from the questions of evidence (which are considerable) are questions of proportion. And there is good reason to believe that progressives and Democrats, confused and terrified at the result of the election, and unsure what to do next, have blown up the issue beyond all reason, and in doing so distracted themselves from talking about things that matter and dedicating themselves to the work of formulating a compelling political agenda and rebuilding power.

Before anything else, let’s remember what Russia’s “hacking the election” (a bizarre term) is actually supposed to have entailed to begin with. If we assume all the facts as alleged, Vladimir Putin did not actually change the result of the election by throwing away ballots or hacking voting machines (even though many Democrats evidently believe this to be the case). He did not send Russian agents to pose as voters, or exercise some form of sophisticated mind-control. The allegation, instead, is that the Russian government embarrassed the Democratic Party by releasing a series of documents from the Democratic National Committee and the email account of John Podesta.

Now, the documents in question are not alleged to be fabricated. The Clinton team made some noises suggesting this was the case early on, but there is now almost complete consensus that they were real. So the allegation here is that the Russian government embarrassed the Democrats by exposing things about the party that were perfectly true. These included the biases of Debbie Wasserman Schultz in the primaries, the leaking of debate questions to the Clinton campaign by CNN contributor Donna Brazile, and Hillary Clinton’s speeches to Goldman Sachs. (Another part of the strategy, according to the recently-released intelligence report, involved broadcasting a documentary on Russian television favorably depicting the Occupy Wall Street movement. One might observe that running a program on Russian state TV is an unusual way to attempt to influence voters in Michigan and Wisconsin.)


All of this is pretty thin as election manipulation. First, the only plausible theory for how it “manipulated” the election to begin with is that voters didn’t actually like what the documents revealed about Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, so they decided not to vote for her. Democrats are therefore arguing that voters shouldn’t have been able to take into account their feelings about the DNC’s biases in the primary, or Donna Brazile’s unethical coordination, in casting their ballots. This information, i.e. the unseemly truth about the inner workings of the party, should rightfully have remained secret.

But did this information even really have much of an effect? The DNC stories led to Wasserman Schultz’s resignation. But they also mostly confirmed what people knew already. Same with the Goldman Sachs transcripts, which were actually mostly notable for not nearly being as bad as anyone expected them to be. How many people’s decision-making was actually altered as a result of these few news stories? And if this made the necessary marginal difference, was it the bulk of the reason Trump won? (Since we’re in the habit of deferring absolutely to intelligence agencies’ judgments these days, the head of the NSA thinks the DNC stories didn’t make a difference.)

Now, note what I am not arguing: I am not arguing that Russia did not leak the embarrassing DNC information. Nor am I arguing that there should be no consequences for a government trying to aid one candidate over another in a foreign election. But it is important to remember that the “interference” in question did not involve telling lies or changing votes. It involved releasing true information, of genuine public interest, that made people less inclined to vote for one party over another.

I am sure this line of reasoning is not persuasive to many Democrats, who fundamentally believe they lost in an unfair fight. But as a voter, I was extremely glad to know the information that came out of the leaks. I felt it was important. I voted for Hillary anyway, but I felt more informed about how the party worked, and I’m pleased the facts came out. Leaks are often useful in shining light on secretive and undemocratic institutions.

It’s also true that by focusing so intensively on the leaking of DNC information, Democrats are failing to conduct the necessary critical self-reflection on other reasons why they may have lost the election. The DNC leaks would not have mattered at all had the election not been close, and it’s important to understand why the election was close. This requires a serious appraisal of the strategic mistakes the Democrats made, such as failing to focus on blue collar voters in key swing states and failing to craft a compelling message. It requires considering why the Clinton campaign decided to send Lena Dunham to North Carolina rather than sending Hillary Clinton to Wisconsin. It would require some humility, and some consideration of whether some voters’ rejection of the Democrats might have been, in part, an explicable and rational response to factors like major spikes in their health care premiums. Ultimately, single-minded focus on Putin entirely exonerates the Democratic Party from any responsibility for their own loss. And that’s dangerous, because it means they’re not actually trying to figure out how to improve their electoral fortunes in the future.

Even worse, every moment spent talking about Putin is a moment not spent talking about mass incarceration, policing, Social Security, Medicaid, public schooling, Chelsea Manning, gun violence, climate change, and war. It’s true that one can care about many things at once. But it’s also true that political messaging is somewhat zero-sum: you can’t talk about everything, you have to allocate your resources and energy. And if you’re spending all of your time trying to cheerlead the next Cold War (and, by the way, almost making Trump appear sane for being seemingly the only politician disinclined to start such a war), then you’re not pushing the progressive agenda forward. You’re definitely not giving anyone a sense of your major priorities, and you’re also not giving anyone a convincing reason to return to the Democratic Party. Trump is giving press conferences in front of factories whose jobs he has supposedly preserved, while Democrats are frantically calling Trump a Kremlin agent. Who is speaking most to people’s real life material interests?

Sadly, it doesn’t have to be this way. Trump is unpopular, and it wouldn’t take much effort for Democrats to build a serious opposition movement that excited the country and effectively challenged the Republican agenda. But when the media is absolutely dominated by Russia stories, this is going to be impossible. Just consider two hypothetical headlines:

  •  “Democrats Vow To Defend Social Security and Medicare, Fight Trump’s ‘Anti-Working Class’ Agenda”
  • “Democrats Vow To Investigate Russian Hacks, Fight Trump’s ‘Pro-Putin’ Agenda”

Which of these is going to rebuild the party’s political fortunes? Which is going to get politically apathetic people to join our side? And which do we care about most? Yet which are we seeing instead, over and over and over?

It’s difficult to escape the cynical conclusion that a lot of the Democrats’ noise-making on Russia is somewhat opportunistic. Consider what would happen if the roles were reversed. If Trump lost the election, and the intelligence agencies said it was because Putin pulled for Clinton by releasing the Billy Bush tape, what would Democrats say? Would they make the same arguments? Would they say that the Billy Bush tape should never have been heard? Would they say that Clinton’s victory was illegitimate? Would they spend the bulk of their time insisting that the election was compromised?

Of course they wouldn’t. We know exactly what they would do. They would insist that Trump was a sore loser, and would mock him. They would say that the tape had been of public interest, and was genuine, and that focusing on the source of the tape ignores the fact that it was the content that made the difference. And they would say that since there was no allegation that the vote itself was compromised, it was ludicrous and dangerous to delegitimize the election result. (Remember that before the election, it was Democrats warning about the consequences of the losing candidate refusing to accept the election result.) Fundamentally, they would want the country to move on.

So it’s difficult to take the Democrats’ high-minded invocations of patriotism and principle very seriously. Unless we think they would all be doing the same thing if they had won the election rather than lost it, then it is not really about foreign intervention, but entirely about the fact that they still don’t want to believe Trump is really the President-elect.

But they need to accept that, or at least massively dial down their level of concentration on the Russia issue. For one thing, this Putin stuff is a dead-end. We are stuck with Trump, and instead of complaining about all the ways in which his victory was unfair, we need to be figuring out how to make him a one-term president. That’s going to involve the kind of thinking that Democrats really don’t want to do: a deep critical inquiry into their own screw-ups, and (hopefully) an overhaul of their entire way of doing business. It’s harder, and requires more humility, than agitating against the Kremlin. But it’s the only way to win.

It’s also the right thing to do. The people who sit in America’s prisons, the people who work in America’s hotels and orange groves, and the people who clean America’s bathrooms, all need progressivism to work for them. That means they fundamentally need Democrats to keep things in proportion, and to remember how much the DNC email leaks matter, versus how much the needs of the American working class matter.

Why You Should Never, Ever Listen To Nate Silver

Part I of our “How The Press Failed You” Series…

Of all people, Nate Silver should probably not have been gloating the morning after Election Day. After all, having made his reputation as a statistical wunderkind by predicting 49 states correctly in the 2008 race, Silver called five states wrong in the 2016 election, assuming Hillary Clinton would end up with 302 electoral votes (she got 232).

In fact, the entire 2016 campaign season was been characterized by a series of spectacular Silver blunders. Not only did he notoriously give Hillary Clinton a greater than 99% chance of winning the Michigan primary (she lost), and bungle Indiana as well, but he spent much of the past 18 months emitting a series of embarrassing declarations as well as ludicrous prophecies that totally failed to materialize. Let us go through a sample:

“I wonder how much of the Trump Bump is just voters trolling pollsters,” Two Good Reasons Not To Take the Donald Trump ‘Surge’ Seriously — July 16, 2015.

“Basically Trump is the Nickelback of presidential candidates. Disliked by most, super popular with a few.” — July 28, 2015

“PREDICTION: Trump won’t be the Republican /nominee.” — Aug. 6, 2015

“Media: Trump’s doing great! Nerds: No. Those polls don’t mean what you think. Media: A new poll shows Trump doing great! Proved you wrong!” —  Aug. 9, 2015

“Donald Trump is winning the polls and losing the nomination.” — Aug. 11, 2015

“About 25% of Americans identify as Republican. Donald Trump’s getting about 25% of that 25% in the polls. Why is this impressive to people?” — Nov. 19, 2015

“Dear media, Please stop freaking out about Donald Trump’s polls.” — Nov. 23, 2015.

“As for me, I remain quite skeptical of Trump’s chances. I also think his nomination would be an unmitigated catastrophe for Republicans.”  Nov. 29, 2015

“Idea that ‘Trump would win an election today’ also dubious. If election were today, voters would be more informed and news cycle different.” — Dec. 4, 2015

(in response to Rupert Murdoch tweeting that Trump’s “cross-party appeal” was a “winning strategy”): “Actually, Trump is by far the least popular Republican with independents (and Democrats)” Jan. 15, 2016

“Wait it’s just now sinking in that Trump might be a wee bit problematic as a general election candidate?” — March 20, 2016

“Trump’s general elex numbers have been terrible since he launched bid. Media barely noticed during 2015 Trumpmania.” — March 29, 2016

“[Idea of Trump being presumptive nominee by mid-May] is delusional. Math doesn’t work.” — April 9, 2016

“The bad news for Trump is that a poll showing him 5 points down is considered good news for Trump.” — June 26, 2016

“Perhaps the worst take is the ‘Trump’s actually doing well to only be down by 7!!!’ take. He’s the least popular major-party nominee ever.” — Aug. 3, 2016

“Trump has been super unpopular with the November electorate pretty much forever.” — Aug. 16, 2016

“Trump is doubling down on a losing strategy.” — Aug. 18, 2016

“[The] most delusional part of Trump thinking he has a silent majority is how small a fraction of the population he’s even bothering to appeal to.” — Aug. 13, 2016

On the whole, it’s a humiliating record. In the primaries, Silver didn’t even do as well as Carl Diggler, a fictional parody-pundit who literally just makes stuff up based on whatever his gut tells him. Presuming Silver is supposed to be something different from the rest of the jabbering punditocracy, his career should be over.

Yet bizarrely, in the days after the election, Silver was bragging about his performance. Silver insisted that after Election Night, he felt vindication, and scoffed that some major pundits had been “smugly dismissive of Trump’s chances.” Looking back on Silver’s record of statements on Trump, one wonders to which pundits he may have been referring. For over a year (July 2015 to Aug. 2016) he wrote smug “dear media” letters about Trump-hype and called Trump’s strategy “delusional,” insisting that Trump just didn’t understand the math. Having expressed regret after the primary for “acting like a pundit” and underestimating Trump, in the general election he was still acting like a pundit and underestimating Trump.

Thus Silver took a cheerful victory lap, despite having totally failed, repeatedly and embarrassingly, to provide any information of use. He bases his claim to have succeeded off his having given Trump a somewhat higher probability of a win than some other people, despite still thinking Clinton was the definite favorite. But it doesn’t take a statistical genius to be cautious in a situation of high volatility. (The main reason Silver is being praised for being wrong is that a man named Sam Wang of something called the Princeton Election Consortium was even more wrong, giving Clinton a 99% probability of a win.)

The myth of Nate Silver’s continued usefulness is based on a careful moving of goalposts. His initial claim to fame was based on number of states correctly predicted. But in 2016, if we measured by that number (especially if we subtracted the states whose outcomes were most obvious), Silver wouldn’t look good at all. So now we’re invited to focus on a different statistic, the percentage chance of an overall Trump win. Conversely, when it’s the percentage chance that goes wrong, Silver reminds us how many races he called correctly. Like a television psychic, Silver is able to carefully draw your attention to that which he gets right and ignore that which he gets wrong. If the probability percentages look good, but he screws up a large number of races, we should look at percentages. If those look terrible, as they did in Michigan, we should forget them and think about numbers of states.

Similarly, Silver will make predictions that have multiple components, so that if one part fails, the overall prediction will seem to have come true, even if its coming true had no relation to the reasons Silver originally offered. See, e.g., “It’s a tight race. Clinton’s the favorite but close enough that Trump would probably pull ahead if he ‘wins’ debate.” Silver can look back and say “I saw that Trump could pull ahead.” But what he actually predicted was that Trump could pull ahead based on debate performance. If he pulls ahead for some other reason, Silver is completely wrong (because he had excluded that other possibility), yet he seems right.

When one goes through Silver’s Twitter feed for the election cycle, one sees him predicting nearly every damn thing in the universe. Sometimes Clinton is winning, sometimes Trump is winning. Sometimes anything could happen, as in the below tweet:

Each of these outcomes now about equally likely: —Clinton landslide (8+ point win) —Obamaish win (4-7 points) —Narrow Clinton win —Trump win

Silver makes sure to hedge every statement carefully so that he can never actually be wrong. And when things don’t go his way, he lectures the public on their ignorance of statistics. After all, probability isn’t certainty, he didn’t say it would definitely happen. And of course, that’s completely true. But recognize what it means: even when Silver isn’t wrong, because he’s hedged everything carefully, he’s still not offering any information of value. Sophisticated mathematical modeling, just like punditry, can’t tell us much about the things we most need to know. It can’t predict the unpredictable, and the unpredictable is what matters most of all.

Donald Trump was trying an untested experiment. You couldn’t easily put numbers on it. Anyone who did was destined to be pulling the statistics from their ass, because there was no way for human beings to access the relevant information. The critical question was not: what do the polls, after some defensible adjustments, say about the candidates’ chances? It was “What happens when a bombastic, widely disliked male real-estate tycoon and a technocratic, widely disliked female Secretary of State go up against one another in a highly volatile race involving race, economics, the FBI, Wikileaks, and sexual assault allegations?” Since nothing like this has ever happened in human history, it was destined to be the case that the best thing you could do was be somewhat cautious. 

Silver actually knows all of the limitations of his work, and states them openly: Statistical models work well when you have a lot of data, and when the system you’re studying has a relatively low level of structural complexity. The presidential nomination process fails on both counts.” Thus the sneaky thing Silver does is this: he fills his work with caveats, but then turns around and writes articles like “The Six Stages of Donald Trump’s Doom,” in which he lays out very vivid, totally fantastical and unfounded, sets of forecasts about the future. In the primary, he foresaw a situation in which Bernie Sanders would win two states and then nowhere else, an idea that turned out to be doubly wrong (he lost one of the two, and then he won a bunch of others). None of this has any grounding beyond Silver’s gut.

This is why Silver is irresponsible and untrustworthy. It’s not, as the Huffington Post stupidly alleged, that he’s a bad or biased statistician. It’s that he mingles solid statistical observations (of highly limited usefulness) with wild prophecy and the same old know-nothing horse-race punditry. He acts as if statistics and polls can tell us to some useful degree whether Trump’s highly unorthodox political strategy will work. He offers totally worthless speculative scenarios, such as Bernie Sanders losing all but two states, even though the dynamics that would lead to such scenarios are not accessible to human observation or prediction. And over the course of the election, he used his authority and credibility as a numbers genius to tell people not to worry about Donald Trump, and to treat those who were “freaking out” as if they had were idiots.

But the central problem with Silver is that ultimately, he’s producing horse-race stuff. He doesn’t actually care about politics very much in terms of its human stakes. (In fact, according to journalist Doug Henwood, Silver once said that he “doesn’t give a shit” about politics.) He’s producing entertainment; people refresh FiveThirtyEight for the same reason that they watch actual horse races. But for anyone interested in the actual human lives affected by political questions, Silver’s analyses are of almost no help. They can tell us today that Silver thinks Trump has a 5% chance of winning. But then we might wake up tomorrow and find that Silver now thinks Trump has a 30% chance of winning. And the important question for anyone trying to affect the world, as opposed to just watching the events in it unfold, is how those chances can be made to change.

That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with Nate Silver, just that nobody should ever pay any attention to him. Nate Silver will probably always be the best poll data analyst. The problem is that poll data analysts are completely fucking useless in a crisis. They don’t understand anything that’s going on around them, and they’re powerless to predict what’s about to happen next. Listening to anything they have to say is very, very dangerous. If you want to change anything, you’ve got to forget Nate Silver forever. That’s because he tells you entirely about the world as it looks to him right now, rather than the world as it could suddenly be tomorrow. He has no idea what the outer boundaries of the possible are. Nobody does.