Finding Your Inner Gorilla

Examining the written works of alt-right Twitter troll Mike Cernovich…

Making money off saps has always been the real American Dream, and by this measure Mike Cernovich is doing his best to truly live out our great national aspiration. One not might have thought the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump would make compelling raw material for a self-help franchise, but in MAGA Mindset: Making YOU and America Great Again, Cernovich manages to meld the nationalist rhetoric of the “alt-right” with the affirmational platitudes of The Secret.

Over the course of the presidential campaign, Cernovich built up a reputation as the man too toxically right-wing for even FOX News. When the network invited him on, a RedState blogger exclaimed, “They’re giving this motherfucker legitimacy? Oh my god!” Cernovich, after all, is a Pizzagate truther known for sending tweets about how date rape doesn’t exist. He regularly uses the word “bitch” in describing women, and has called the Syrian refugee crisis a media-created “hoax.” Yet Cernovich has built up a considerable platform on (where else?) Twitter, where he preaches to a swarm of over one hundred and fifty thousand followers.

In his conspiratorial and misogynistic pronouncements, Cernovich is a run-of-the-mill creature of the online alt-right. He nevertheless makes for an interesting subspecimen, as one of the only fixtures of the movement to parlay his politics into a self-help brand. Cernovich’s blog and books are not just Trumpist propaganda. They sell a lifestyle, a package of inspirational macho clichés to help weedy, socially inept men become their ultimate selves. Cernovich takes Trump’s sales pitch one step further: Make America Great Again is not just a political program. It is a whole new you.

Cernovich himself is a classic rags-to-riches story: the inspiring metamorphosis of a poor, fat kid from the Midwest into a fully-fledged asshole in Venice Beach, California. During this remarkable journey, Cernovich learned martial arts, went to law school, was accused of rape, self-published three entire books on juicing, married a highly successful Silicon Valley patent attorney, was divorced by a highly successful Silicon Valley patent attorney, got a seven-figure alimony payout, rose to internet prominence by savaging a bunch of female gamers on Twitter, and finally became a thought-leader in the world of tinhat fake news (e.g.: “The Orlando Shooter Did Not Act Alone”). Also, his podcast has more followers than James Altucher’s. (We have no idea who James Altucher is either, but Mike Cernovich mentions this fact in every single one of his books, so we must assume it is one of Cernovich’s more significant achievements.)

Cernovich’s internet writings include such thinkpieces as “How to Choke a Woman During Sex” and, entirely unrelatedly, “How to Avoid a False Rape Case.” (Cernovich’s professional advice is that you should secretly film the woman during sex.) Given this provocative online oeuvre, the surprising thing about Cernovich’s first self-help book, Gorilla Mindset (other than how little it actually discusses gorillas), is just how milquetoast and prototypical Cernovich’s advice is. Confronting your challenges, reaching your goals, maintaining your focus. For a masculinist tract, parts of it have a surprisingly Chicken Soup for the Soul vibe.

The gorilla conceit itself goes unexplained. Why gorillas? Presumably because they are muscly and do not suffer from self-doubt. (They are also, however, not known for being especially sophisticated political thinkers, a fact one may wish to bear in mind when assessing how much credence to give Cernovich’s theory of an international war on whites.) The gorilla mindset seems to have something to do with unleashing an inner animal. But what gorillas have to offer, other than large chests and a constrained capacity for higher-order reasoning, one is never told.

We do learn one characteristic of people with gorilla mindsets, which is that they are very organized. “When stepping outside of my door and before closing the door,” Cernovich reveals, “I stop. I feel for my wallet, cell phone, and keys. Because of this Gorilla Mindset habit, I have never locked myself out of my apartment.” A real gorilla never forgets his keys! Mike Cernovich is laying down all the hard truths those effeminate left-wing nature documentaries will never tell you. Later on, in a list of Gorilla Focus habits, we are told that gorillas “do not eat in front of the television.” A real gorilla knows this will only make him lose track of his calorie intake! The discoveries continue to pile on. A real gorilla pees eight times a day, clear urine! A real gorilla always registers as self-employed on his tax returns! A real gorilla COOKS WITH A CROCKPOT!

Cernovich’s next book, Danger & Play, continues the themes of Gorilla Mindset in a more aggressive style. The content is edgier, the formatting is far worse, and Mike Cernovich wants you to know that he is done coddling you. Straight away, he lays down the central traits of Masculine Men. Masculine men are aggressive. Masculine men move with purpose. But above all else, masculine men are hard. Do you have what it takes to be hard, Cernovich taunts his eunuch readers, or are you a coward? “Are you afraid of drinking a green juice?” he asks, “and instead look for your milk and cookies?”

Cernovich’s writing on dating and relationships is predictably full of bad advice. “Acting like a narcissist will make people like you,” he says. (This is not the case.) There’s the usual stuff from “pick-up artist” culture about being mean to women to make them like you, and about how it’s a good idea to bite a woman on the neck if you’re not totally sure she wants you to kiss her. (Though you’d better make sure you film it, lest you be brought up on a false vampirism charge.) His declarations often have the interesting quality, in common with virgins writing letters to Penthouse, of leading the reader to emit a long “Suuuuuuuure.” “My first marriage was ruined by feminist indoctrination,” he insists. (Suuuure it was.) “I was friends with a lot of girls who had crushes on me, but I was too polite to fuck them.” (Suuuuure they did.) Not all of the claims he makes are implausible, though. A long list of “what I juiced this week” (including recipes for cabbage carrot juice, kale lemonade, and a celery refresher) is too exhaustively-documented to be fictionalized.


One can glimpse the fruits of Cernovich’s gender philosophy in a New Yorker profile of him, which portrays his current marriage as wracked by tension and nervous laughter on the part of his indulgent wife. (“Never marry for love,” Cernovich advised his readers in a December 2016 blog post, published just two days after his wife gave birth to their child.) Cernovich’s principled commitment to being an asshole to women seems to have, shockingly enough, caused its share of tearful rifts in the home:

Early in Shauna’s relationship with Mike, she read Danger and Play, including such posts as “How to Cheat on Your Girlfriend.” She said, “I would come home from work crying—‘How can you write such rude things?’ He’d go, ‘You don’t understand, babe, this is just how guys talk.’ ” (Advice from the blog: “Always call your girl ‘babe,’ ” to avoid mixing up names.) Shauna, who has stopped working, continued, “I was still upset, though, and he eventually deleted some older posts.” “I rewrote some of the wording,” Mike insisted. “I never disavow things I’ve said.”

Though Cernovich may draw a principled distinction between disavowing and deleting the things he’s said in the past, he certainly has no aversion to simply lying. His championing of Donald Trump, for example, began as a cynical ploy to sell e-books. In a 2015 Twitter exchange with a follower, who remarked that Cernovich “took a damn sharp turn to the right,” Cernovich replied: “My real views are far more moderate, but now is the time to win. Arguing over details is reserved for the winners.”

MAGA Mindset, Cernovich’s Trump-themed book, is 75% alt-right screed against the evils of feminism and the ethnic adulteration of the United States, and 25% of the usual warmed-over gorilla feces sandwiched between Trump block quotes. Cernovich is eager, in this book, to cast himself as a defender of white working-class folk against the diabolical coastal elites who say that such people “deserve to die.” This is a fascinating evolution from Cernovich’s pre-election view, which was that the people from his own small Midwestern town were human garbage. “My brother is a loser who just got out of prison for shooting his meth dealer,” he writes in Danger and Play. “I haven’t talked to him in more than a decade. Why would I associate with such a scumbag? Because he’s family?” If Cernovich himself hadn’t moved to California, he added, “I’d be stuck working a shit job in a shit downtown, married to some shit cow and raising some shit kids.” Instead, he’s now living the dream in Orange County, alternating between making his wife cry and blogging about liberal media conspiracies. He is truly a populist in the Donald Trump mold.

“My first marriage was ruined by feminist indoctrination…”

Reading Cernovich, one gets the distinct impression that he is urgently trying to prove something. The New Yorker profile provides one possible explanation of this might be:

After law school, his wife became a successful attorney in Silicon Valley. But Cernovich was not admitted to the California bar until nine years after getting his law degree. In the meantime, he says, he got by with “freelance legal research” and “appellate stuff.” Cernovich’s wife earned millions of dollars in stock from an I.P.O.; he told me that he received “seven figures” in the divorce settlement. This seems to have been, and might still be, his primary source of funds. (He insists that book sales provide his main income.)

Thus Cernovich, who wishes to restore American masculinity, is a parasite on his much more successful ex-wife. (It is this, presumably, to which he is referring when he says that feminism killed his first marriage.) The amusing thing, when delving into the Cernovich’s writings, is realizing just how contrived and desperate the masculine posturing seems. Margaret Pless, a blogger who has made it her gleeful mission to catalogue Cernovich’s many egregious fibs and hypocrisies, has described Cernovich as a “Potemkin Alpha Male,” whose online persona is cobbled together from a whole host of unlikely claims. Though Cernovich boasts of his lawyerly credentials—and routinely threatens lawsuits against his opponents during online feuds—he has apparently never served as counsel in a single state or federal court case. Though he’s publicly mocked other men for accepting alimony, he’s also repeatedly contradicted his own claims that his media products have been the source of his financial success, and seems content to stealthily subsist on the drippings of his high-powered ex-wife’s IPO. His pickup game includes such medically dubious advice as “the best condom a man has is the skin on his dick,” and even his 10,000 juicing books contain lengthy legal disclaimers against foolish readers who expect any kind of health benefit from his recipes. “Although Michael claims to be a self-made man, he trolls more well-known men, drafting off their fame to get attention,” Pless writes. “His tales of sexual conquest are just that, and Michael’s legal career is a similarly trumped-up story with little to no basis in fact.”

One could be amused by Cernovich’s constant attempts to puff himself into the gorilla he knows he isn’t. After all, if this is masculinity, then masculinity is pitiable. And it’s a shame that Mike Cernovich and his followers feel the need to become these ghastly creatures, who call women bitches and never leave the gym, just so they don’t feel like failures. It says something dispiriting about the way boys are raised. Cernovich himself writes of a childhood plagued by bullies, which led him to adopt the following life philosophy: “I hurt anyone who wrongs me and hold lifetime grudges.” One feels for the boy Cernovich, the pudgy kid with the speech impediment, who still spends every day trying to prove himself to his imagined tormentors.

Yet as much pity as one may have for men destroyed by the impossible quest to eliminate personal failure and weakness, the Cernovich mentality is still disturbing. By finding a way to fuse Trumpism with self-esteem building, Cernovich offers a tempting ideological framework for today’s angry white man. One of the ways that Cernovich distinguishes himself from other conservatives is that his brand of right-wing politics openly embraces power rather than logic. Cernovich does not want to have a debate. He wants to achieve dominance. One hesitates to use the word fascist, because of its emptiness. But Cernovich, like Trump, seems a dash like Mussolini by way of Norman Vincent Peale.

Not that Cernovich’s books themselves are especially threatening. The reader feels more likely to die of tedium than at the hands of right-wing terror squads. Your reviewers had a very difficult time getting through them (the Cernovich assignment required two reporters, as the boredom was too much to justify inflicting on one). They are not very slickly made. The paperback version of Cernovich’s blog posts includes hyperlinks that do not work because they are, well, on paper. For MAGA Mindset, someone has evidently forgotten to include the page numbers (even though there is a table of contents). They are produced by a tiny publishing house whose other offerings include There Will Be War, Vol I-X and a guide to “extreme composting.” (None of the usual weak, girly composting here. You must compost like a man.)

Under different circumstances, one might be inclined to simply give Cernovich a gentle pat on the head and coo “There, there,” perhaps also passing him a recommendation for a good therapist, who could help him work through some of his lingering complexes about his childhood. But unfortunately, Trump is president, and the cruel, self-aggrandizing philosophy that could usually be met with ostracism and disdain now threatens us all. Mike Cernovich’s philosophy of vanity, bombast, and sexual assault has become national policy.

None of that changes the underlying facts, though. A gorilla may be strong enough to mash you into the pavement, but that doesn’t mean he knows anything. A man may get a lot of people to buy his books, but that doesn’t mean they are good. And an insecure, narcissistic rapist may look in the mirror and fancy himself a great and powerful beast, but he’s still Mike Cernovich. 

Illustration by Tyler Rubenfeld.

Why Journalists Love Twitter

Tweets make lazy political journalism easier than ever…

Journalists have always been lazy. Anyone who pines for a Golden Age of diligent reportage, when a writer would pound the pavement in search of a good lead, or phone source after source demanding the truth, has never actually picked up an old newspaper or magazine and examined its contents. Then, as now, most writing was swill: thinly-sourced, trivial in subject matter, and slobberingly deferential to power. The All the President’s Men era of American journalism lasted exactly the duration of the film All the President’s Men. Do crack investigative reporters exist? Yes. Do they mostly end up fired, or at least in constant conflict with authority? They do. Meanwhile, most of the press remains, as ever, a content mill.

Given that much of the media consists of content-for-the-sake-of-content, the introduction of Twitter came as something of a godsend to journalists. With 500 million new Tweets rolling in every day, and nearly 310 million active monthly users, Twitter offers a sprawling bank of quotable sources. Tweets from all lands are ripe for plucking and republishing,

Hashtags, then, have become something of a goldmine for online publications. Sites like BuzzFeed have made a name for themselves in co-opting tweets from teenagers to pad out their pages with such heady articles as “Just 28 Really Real Tweets About Gymnastics” and “19 Tweets Anyone Addicted To Diet Coke Will Completely Relate To.” But it’s also increasingly common to see tweets quoted as sources in articles from CNN or The New York Times, who can produce the appearance of doing man-on-the-street reporting even as they sit at their desks trawling through Twitter. With millions of members of the public jabbering at one another at all times, Twitter is a vast ever-refreshing quote bank, an extraordinary tool for the writer in an age of 24-hour demands for fresh content.

There’s a basic ethical problem to the BuzzFeed-style practice of culling and republishing tweets. This model of article, which simply repackages memes, quips, and observations created by Twitter users, profits from people’s writing without compensating them for it (and in many cases, without properly crediting them). This constitutes a kind of low-level theft (somewhat like bullying a nerd to do your math homework, if the nerd was a preteen with 100 Twitter followers and you were a multimillion dollar publishing house), and there’s something disquieting about seeing people’s wit being resold for profit without their permission.

But Twitter-based journalism is disturbing for reasons that go far beyond questions of intellectual property and attribution. Using Twitter as a prism through which to examine and report the world creates a narrow and distorted impression of reality. And with journalists already prone to clubby insularity, Twitter provides new ways for them to confirm their preexisting worldviews, and further wall themselves off from ordinary experience. As a consequence, the world reported in the press is the world that exists on Twitter, not the world as it actually exists.

Twitter is not a normal place, though its users are ostensibly normal people. Like a Petri dish forgotten in a warm, moist cabinet, it has developed some truly curious cultures. Facilitated by its ease of use and offer of anonymity, Twitter has borne a plethora of unique subgroups with names as terrifying as “ISIS twitter” (self-explanatory), “Woke Twitter” (tweeters who focus on social justice issues, often to the point of self parody), and “Irony Twitter” (tweeters who communicate only in irony and sarcasm). Each of these groups has developed their own vernacular, traditions, and jokes, much like one would expect of high school cliques, or minor league gangs. Far from being some kind of lofty online manifestation of the “public square,” Twitter has become the digital equivalent of a stall wall in a public high school bathroom, one in which Neo-Nazis and Communists compete with one another for the most obnoxious Sharpie doodles.

Thus presenting tweets as evidence of some national or global trend (rather than as a trend on a social media platform) is several shades of problematic. Inevitably, if we take trending hashtags for actual trends, we will be dealing with a biased sample: we are looking at what is popular among people who spend time on Twitter rather than among people more broadly. Forgetting the Internet’s biases creates delusion. We may treat the artisanal cupcake blogs we follow on Tumblr as representative of every cupcake in the world, but frozen, flavor-free grocery-store cupcakes are destined to remain the norm in most of real life.

When it comes to political journalism, treating the Internet as representative of reality can heavily bias coverage. It’s because the press gets its worldview from Twitter that it was stunned by the persistence of support for Donald Trump. After all, subsequent to every new vulgar eruption from Trump’s mouth during the campaign, a torrent of outrage poured forth on Twitter, leading pundits to repeatedly declare that Trump’s campaign was finally dead (The Onion captured this kind of wishful insistence nicely with the headline: “‘This Will Be The End Of Trump’s Campaign,’ Says Increasingly Nervous Man For Seventh Time This Year”). Yet Trump maintained support from nearly half the electorate. It was almost as if the online world was a poor representation of the world at large. One is reminded here of Pauline Kael’s frequently misconstrued remark on the 1972 election, in which she observed how closed-off her New York social life made her: “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken.” Kael’s remark was frequently spun as comically ignorant (it was misquoted as “I don’t know how Nixon could have won; nobody I know voted for him”), but it actually showed an impressive self-awareness about the detachment of the media from the public, one that most of today’s political pundits couldn’t achieve even if they set their best unpaid interns on it.


For writers, Twitter provides a way of deepening one’s obliviousness and caressing one’s ego. Twitter allows commentators to follow only those whose opinions they wish to consume, and to receive instantaneous praise from their own followers. Thus Twitter provides a streamlined platform from which to shamelessly pimp out your writing to a self-selected group of people who are likely to read it. It’s a wonderful place to reaffirm your beliefs, and it’s so easy to do so on a platform designed to allow you to tailor the information you receive to what you want to hear, or what you know you’ll agree with.

Twitter does have its egalitarian component, however. At its best it is firmly anti-elitist, giving a platform to those who would previously have gone unheard. Some of these people (e.g. the neo-Nazis) had been pushed to the fringes for good reason, but others were excluded from mainstream discourse simply because mainstream discourse has a tendency to be snobby, corporate-driven, and exclusive. And where once one would have had to penetrate the Manhattan gala-and-book-talk scene in order to hurl abuse at a New York Times opinion columnist, now anyone with an internet connection can politely explain to Nicholas Kristof precisely why he is utterly and completely full of shit (an opportunity that the Current Affairs editorial staff takes regular advantage of). The platform thus allows for an unprecedented level of contact between the unwashed public and our patrician overlords.

But one should not overstate the case, and risk painting Twitter as some sort of classless comradely paradise. Pundits can easily filter out dissenting voices from the public, and sometimes take on the appearance of kings and queens holding court before an audience of adoring Followers. And while Twitter amplifies new voices, it does not seem to expand worldviews. For pundits, the general effect seems to be a winnowing down of their informational intake, to the point where it consists almost entirely of the words of other pundits.

To see the consequences of Twitter-centric journalism, one can examine one of the most repeated stories of the Democratic primary: the so-called rise of the “BernieBro.” In October of 2015, Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic published a brief article titled “Here Comes the Berniebro.” Meyer, a largely Twitter-dwelling journalist (having 40,100 tweets to his name, plus 41,100 “likes” of other people’s tweets), suggested that a new phenomenon had arisen in American politics. The Bernie Sanders campaign was attracting a noxious wave of supporters, whom Meyer christened the “BernieBros.” This group was “very male, […] white; well-educated; middle-class (or, delicately, “upper middle-class”) and “aware of NPR podcasts and jangly bearded bands.” He described these supporters as obstinate and aggressive in their online presence, prone to “performative” appraisals of feminism, and (perhaps worst of all) firm in their belief that Sanders “really could win.” Meyer, himself a white man, castigated these white, male Sanders voters for supporting the sins of “free college for all and a $15 minimum wage” and for falling for “Sanders’s rhetoric that America is trapped in a number of deep, unprecedented crises.”

But aside from Meyer’s bizarre contempt for Sanders voters’ idealism, the article suffered from a simple problem: there was no evidence whatsoever that some kind of “BernieBro” trend actually existed. The theory that there was something distinctly “bro-ish” about Sanders supporters was in direct conflict with the actual demographic facts (a concession Meyer even made in the article, noting that “Sanders’s support skews young, but not particularly male”). Aside from a few dozen isolated tweets, largely by anonymous and unpopular users, nobody could seem to locate the whereabouts of these storied “bros.” To be sure, one could find occasional nasty remarks about Hillary Clinton made in comment sections (although when Glenn Greenwald investigated the examples being cited, he found some of the “BernieBros” turned out to be conservatives or women). People of all stripes are assholes on the internet, though, and no effort was made to answer the real questions, which was how many of these “bros” actually existed.

In a sensible world, then, Meyer’s article should not have even been a footnote in the history of the election. It should have been laughed off as shockingly obtuse. Yet somehow, a flimsy story based on a sample of Robinson Meyer’s Facebook newsfeed ended up – miserably – setting the tone for much of the remainder of the online primary. Instead, the political media in residence on Twitter took the specter of Bernie Bros and went hog wild. Soon everyone from Jamil Smith at The New Republic to Amanda Marcotte of Salon had latched onto the fantasy of an army of evil white men who supported socialist policies as a means of furthering racism and sexism. Smith wrote that unless Sanders could somehow contain the “bros,” they would damage his political prospects. The New Yorker published a cringingly unfunny and cruel “BernieBro Code” containing the “rules” such creatures live by (e.g. “A Bernie Bro is legitimately glad that his uninformed, mainstreamer aunt is part of a generation that is going to be dead soon.”) Paul Krugman, dissatisfied with Sanders’ economic proposals, went so far as to declare that Bernie himself “is becoming a Bernie Bro.” The Sanders campaign was forced to apologize for the BernieBros, despite there being scant evidence of their actual existence.

The explosion of the fake BernieBro trend was both fascinating and appalling. The narrative ruled media Twitter for months, and despite demographic data continually debunking it, pundits clung to it like a safety blanket. It became a convenient way to dismiss all criticisms of Hillary Clinton that didn’t come from someone with a byline in a major publication or a degree from an Ivy League school. In fact, Olivia Nuzzi of The Daily Beast reported in June that she was skeptical of the BernieBros idea, for the simple reason that the Clinton campaign had tried to pitch her a story about the phenomenon. The BernieBros line proved convenient for the Clinton camp, as it shifted press coverage to questions like “How will Sanders stop the BernieBros?” and away from substantive policy.

The BernieBros story showed how news can be manufactured in an age of Twitter punditry: a writer grabs a few stray tweets and produces an article declaring them a nationwide event. Other writers, sharing both the first writer’s political persuasion and constant need to emit content, issue commentaries on the phenomenon, citing the first writer’s article as their source. Pundits quote pundits who quote tweets. Then there are more tweets, then additional punditry. At no point is the story checked against the real world: it is solely a dialogue between The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Twitter.

Thus there are real-world political consequences to this type of shoddy reporting; we at least know that it can filter into a presidential primary. There’s a feedback loop between the media and political elite, and Twitter provides a convenient means of fabricating stories to further particular interests. One can create the news entirely to fit one’s agenda and worldview, since there are always Twitter subcommunities where a certain thing is true, even if it is nonexistent in the wider world.

It can be harder to ascertain motive when all of this back-and-forth occurs online. With conventional network political coverage, sycophancy is easily detected. One could simply turn on Meet The Press, and witness Chuck Todd’s eyeballs morph gruesomely into hearts whenever he was seated across from John McCain or Chuck Schumer. On Twitter, with its veneer of equality, it can be difficult to determine who is doing what for which reasons.

Multiple kinds of journalistic dysfunction are enabled by Twitter. One can draw a distinction between the purely profit-driven lazy journalism of BuzzFeed and the brown-nosing and status-driven journalism of New York magazine or The New Republic. The former is simply unfortunate, in that it gradually turns everyone stupid. The latter, however, is actively pernicious. Through the magic of Twitter, political journalists form incestuous cliques that reaffirm their prejudices, then their own publications treat those cliques as the boundaries of the social world. Twitter helps make politicians our friends, and makes journalists friends with politicians. We have developed an online political culture that is a-okay with calling Dianne Feinstein their “queen” or 83-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg their “mom.” That is not something a healthy society does.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter too much, though. Most of the world happily gets along without ever thinking about what The Atlantic has to say about anything. In writing about Twitter punditry, one runs the risk of reinforcing the very problem one is diagnosing, and attributing an outsized real-world significance to inconsequential commentators. But it remains true that political media sets agendas, and if a presidential candidate is forced to spend time responding to empty rubbish spread by pundits, this is time that cannot be spent campaigning. While the inhabitants of Twitter may constitute a comparatively small fraction of the American public, they make a comparatively large fraction of the country’s noise. To the extent that it escapes the Internet and poisons us all, their obsession with the insignificant could very well be significant.

Illustration by Lewis Rossignol.

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.

Not Here To Make Friends: A Statement of Support For George Ciccariello-Maher

Nobody should suffer employment consequences for political speech on Twitter. Period.

It should be pretty obvious that you don’t have to like someone to stick up for them when the fascists come.

I do not like George Ciccariello-Maher.

As with most of my comrades, I first “met” him online, probably through some ridiculous ultra-leftist Facebook group that I can’t remember but likely left due to irreconcilable infighting over, I don’t know… speculation over how Bordiga would have felt about pornography. I found George very rude and condescending. He felt the need to “warn” me about my more “problematic” friends, which I consider a sort of sexist paternalism. I didn’t like his politics, which I found shallow and histrionic, or his passive aggression, which I found cowardly. Also, as a highly judgmental person who refuses to consort with anyone who is less than very cool or charming, I decided that the white guy academic who wrote “Brechtian Hip-Hop Didactics and Self-Production in Post-Gangsta Political Mixtapes” was a tryhard nerd. Perhaps most unforgivably, his jokes were unfunny. Not offensive in any way—just unfunny.

But none of this matters, because George is under attack. After making an obvious joke at the expense of white supremacists (once again utilizing that classic Ciccariello-Maher wit), an avalanche of right-wing media opportunists seized upon the offending tweet. The hysteria of reactionaries is nothing new, but shockingly, George’s cowardly employers at Drexel University publicly censured him, a ridiculous breach of both academic freedom and free speech.

To quote the folk heroes of our time: I’m not here to make friends. Solidarity is not dependent on amity or admiration, it is the acknowledgment of a shared struggle for dignity, liberation and rights, applied consistently to all of humankind. There is no such thing as conditional solidarity, and while petty bullshit is the spice of life, the work of left politics requires some truly flavorless battles.

The people that any ostensible leftist is obligated to stand up for will not always be likable. Usually they won’t even be leftists. They will have different politics, values and cultures than you. They will overcook their steaks. They will enjoy, and perhaps even prefer, the later seasons of The Simpsons. They will make atrocious decisions in facial hair, which you will suspect they styled in a pretentious effort to look “more ethnic.” They will act in bad faith. They will have bad manners. They will be dull, they will be snobs. They will get on your fucking nerves.

Suck it up. We are fighting for all.

The rule is: nobody should be punished by their employer for the dumb jokes they make online. Nobody should have to worry about having their material security taken away because something they said on Twitter got misinterpreted. Period. It doesn’t matter who they are. It doesn’t matter what you think of them. Because universal human entitlements are universal. That’s the entire point of them. The moment your personal opinions of someone affect whether you believe they ought to be protected, you’re no longer a leftist.

We at Current Affairs stand with George Ciccariello-Maher without qualification or reservation, and we believe he would do the same for us. We’re with you, comrade. Don’t let the bastards get you down.

Bad Ways To Criticize Trump

Progressives need to focus their critiques on issues that actually matter to people…

It is very easy to find ways to criticize Donald Trump. Because he has so many loathsome traits of character, Trump provides the prospective critic with ample possible lines of attack. It can be difficult to know where to start. Is it the bombast? The racism? The massive serial sexual assault? Is it the mob ties? The fraudulent university? The overstated wealth? How about all of the lies? Or the false promises? What about the near-total lack of an attention span, and the ignorance of global affairs? Should we dwell on his childish personality? On his bullying? His vulgarity? His sexism? Trump presents a veritable buffet of appalling qualities, and it is nearly impossible to decide where to start.

But not all criticisms of Trump have equal effective force. After all, surely it matters more that he has actually committed serious sex crimes than that he has possibly made some bizarre reference to Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle. Likewise, his history of making it hard for his contractors to feed their families is far more reprehensible than his outlandish tweeting habits or his risible haircut. Trump’s actions have hurt people in serious ways, and his behavior can be divided into that which is merely silly (such as his calling Rosie O’Donnell rude names) versus that which actively causes pain (such as his almost certainly having raped someone).

Unfortunately, media outrage about Trump frequently adopts a uniform level of outrage at his acts. Trump’s history is treated as a set of bad things, meaning that few distinctions are made among which kinds of transgressions are worse. But there are lesser and greater crimes. Trump’s constant theft of wages and payments from dishwashers, cabinet-makers, and servers is far more consequential than, say, his promotion of a failed mail-order steak franchise. But press coverage often treats such things as being of equal interest. For example, an Atlantic article compiling a definitive list of Trump’s “scandals” lists both the sexual assault allegations and the fact that Trump may have once bought concrete from a Mafia affiliate. But surely grabbing dozens of women’s genitals without their permission is worse than having purchased building supplies from someone vaguely shady. And ThinkProgress put as much effort into its comprehensive (half-joking, but carefully-reported) history of Trump Steaks as its coverage of the story of Trump’s alleged brutal rape of his wife.

Likewise, Mother Jones magazine ran a series on Trump called “The Trump Files.” It included plenty of damning information about Trump’s use of lawsuits and harassment to keep his critics quiet. And yet other entries in the series included: “Donald Thinks Exercising Might Kill You” and “Donald Filmed a Music Video. It Didn’t Go Well.” In the Trump files, one can find plenty of information about how Trump cheated the New York City government out of tax money, or dumped his business debts on others. Yet one can also find files on some of his more ludicrous reality TV show pilot ideas, and “the time a sleazy hot tub salesman tried to take Trump’s name.” There’s a funny file about how Trump couldn’t name a single one of his “hand-picked” professors for Trump University. But the important point about Trump University is not that Trump lied about knowing who the instructors were, it’s that it bilked people out of their savings.

Criticisms of Trump therefore need to be made carefully, because they can all end up bleeding together as noise. This is a good reason for, if not ignoring entirely, then at least giving very selective coverage to the rubbish Trump posts on Twitter. A Tweet is not, after all, the most consequential of communications. And while it may have been interesting for The New York Times to have two reporters compile a vast list of “the 289 People, Places, and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter,” a journalist’s time may be better spent on more useful investigative work.


It’s understandable why Trump’s Twitter feed attracts so much attention. After all, it’s outrageous, and frequently very entertaining. How can anyone resist finding out what he has to say about Glenn Beck (“mental basketcase”), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (“her mind is shot!”) or Saturday Night Live (“unwatchable!”) The truth is, no matter how much we may deny it, on some level many of us enjoy watching Trump defy taboos and be nasty to people. After all, the entire reason for things like the New York Times Trump insult database is that it’s amusing. People hate Trump, but they also love hating him.

There’s also a convenient rationale for reading Trump’s tweets, especially now: it provides closer access to the thoughts of the President of the United States than anybody has ever previously had. For journalists, there is good reason to cover Trump’s social media outbursts: his words are now important. When the President speaks, it moves markets. It can create diplomatic incidents. Like it or not, Trump’s tweets do matter.

The problem, however, is that Trump knows this. He knows that every noise he makes is amplified by the press. And he knows that, as journalist Michael Tracey writes, “his tweets will be instantly picked up by all the typical news outlets [and]  everyone will frantically seize upon every crass Trump tweet, and use it to set the “tone” of their coverage for the day.” Thus Trump’s rude and provocative tweets are calculated for maximum effect. And while members of the press may insist that they understand Trump is trying to get attention, they nevertheless end up granting him precisely the attention he seeks.

It’s a difficult paradox to get out of. You can’t ignore Trump’s tweets entirely, because it’s news if the President of the United States has publicly threatened or disparaged someone. But at the same time, by affording coverage to whatever Trump wants to say on Twitter, one allows him to set the agenda and make the news about himself.

Yet it’s possible that a balance can be struck. Tracey offers a series of tips to journalists for how to deal with Trump’s tweets, which balance the necessity of paying attention to the President with the reality that the current President is a manipulative attention-seeker. As he writes:

– You don’t need to share, comment, react to, or write articles about every Trump tweet. Trump will do inflammatory tweets. Some might be in the middle of the night. Everyone knows that he does this. It’s not surprising anymore. Therefore, it is not incumbent on the journalist to treat every instance of this as a major news item, just like you are not required to treat every politicians’ PR release as a major news item. Journalists should dictate the terms of their coverage, not Trump. 

– You don’t need to treat every Trump tweet as 100% literal. Most of the time Trump is, pardon my French, just “bull-shitting.” He muses, he riffs, he does these extemporaneous stream-of-consciousness rants…So if Trump muses about some nutty idea on Twitter, it doesn’t mean that he plans to actually implement this idea in terms of government policy. He could just be trying to get a rise out of people. And it usually works.

– You are allowed to simply ignore Trump tweets. This may sound like a novel idea, but you are under no obligation to even pay attention to every Trump tweet. As a journalist, you are allowed to focus on other things… Hysterically over-reacting to every Trump tweet helps Trump. When you treat today’s loony Trump tweet as the top news story… you are keeping him at the center of attention, which he obviously craves. But you are also… strengthening his grip over the media, and you are making the media appear helpless and servile. 

The core problem of Trump coverage, one that is rarely acknowledged or dealt with, is that because bad publicity helps Trump, there seems to be no way to criticize him without further inflating him. The moment you pay attention to him, he has won. And since it seems impossible not to pay attention to him, he will therefore always win.

That may make the situation seem impossible. It’s only impossible, though, if the media continue to follow the same set of rules for coverage that they have always operated under. If it always merits attention when important people do outrageous things, then Trump will dominate the media forever, because Trump knows how to increase his importance and knows how to be outrageous. The rules of what’s important must change if we are to successfully reduce Trump’s dominance of the press. That means apportioning more coverage to, for example, Saudi Arabia’s ongoing bombing of Yemen, and less coverage to whatever 140-character idiocy Trump has most recently spewed. It should be recognized that Trump is intentionally trying to get people to pay as much attention to him as possible, and that one needs to find a way not to give him what he wants.

But finding effective ways to apportion critical attention to Trump means more than just ignoring some of his more rancid Tweets. It also requires ridding ourselves of certain kinds of criticism, which frequently seem damning in their content but aren’t damning at all in their ultimate consequences.

Let’s, then, go through a few insults and criticisms of Trump that don’t seem to work very well. A few of the most obvious:

  1. Trump is orange
  2. Trump is vulgar
  3. Trump is dumb
  4. Trump has funny hair

These are all given frequent mention. They are also beside the point. One should care far more about what Trump thinks and does than what he looks like. Now, one could say that what he looks like is in some ways a reflection of who he is, since the ridiculous spray-tan with the little white eye-regions is the product and consequence of his vanity. But the broader principle of progressives should be: what someone looks like is of minimal relevance in evaluating them. That’s what we believe. And we should be consistent in that belief. If someone made fun of our candidate’s appearance, no matter what that appearance was, we would declare that as a matter of principle, image should matter less than substance. Such high-mindedness is both admirable and correct. But it has no force unless you maintain it consistently, even as applied to people whom you detest. (Furthermore, mockery of Trump’s mannerisms and appearance has the perverse effect of building him up into more of an icon than he already is.)

This is why the “Naked Trump” sculptures, which a group of anarchists erected during August in American city parks, were so politically useless. The sculpture depicted Trump as grotesquely flabby, his penis so minute as to be invisible to the naked eye. Entitled “The Emperor Has No Balls,” the statue’s artistic point was to humiliatingly “expose” Trump. But the message didn’t really make sense. Some people critiqued it as “transphobic,” a bizarre line of argument. The real problem with it, though, was that it didn’t actually make a serious point. Trump is fat. So what? Do we hate fat people? Do we want to reinforce the idea that being fat is gross? Trump has a small penis. So what? Do we want to maintain the cruel idea that penis size says something about one’s dignity? And how would we feel about a similarly unflattering nude Hillary Clinton sculpture? Mocking his body is a satisfying form of lashing out at Trump, but it’s not a particularly noble, persuasive, or progressive one.

In fact, one should also be wary of progressive attacks against Trump that are based on premises that progressives do not actually share. For example, there have been critical press articles (by liberals) about Melania Trump’s skirting of immigration law, Trump’s lack of familiarity with the Bible, and Trump’s evasion of the Vietnam draft. But progressives don’t want immigration status to be an issue, and they don’t care whether political candidates have read the Bible. And we’re the ones who are supposed to be sympathetic to those who wanted to avoid being killed in Vietnam.

These attacks are therefore not honest reflections of our values. Of course, the progressive response is that these critiques of Trump are about hypocrisy, about his own standards. Because Trump is anti-immigrant, it makes sense to call out his wife’s own violations of immigration law, or his own employment of unauthorized workers. Because Trump is pretending to be religious for the purposes of running for office, it makes sense to point out his pitiful knowledge of Biblical lore. Because he is warlike, we can point out that he’s a chicken. (Likewise with the sculpture: because Trump is a narcissist, it makes sense to point out that he is unattractive. Not that we care. But he does.)

There’s something a little bit uncomfortable about dwelling on these issues at all, though, because it’s hard to simultaneously insist that something matters for the limited purpose of proving hypocrisy but ultimately doesn’t matter in the least. If we call Trump a small-penised, nonreligious, draft-dodging employer of illegal immigrants (and one who is not even a billionaire at that!), we are willingly adopting a set of values that we don’t hold. And it may be difficult to turn around and insist that actually, those things are fine. Thus while it makes logical sense to make such critiques, it muddies progressive messaging. One’s time is probably better spend pointing out how Trump doesn’t live up to a set of good values that we do hold rather than a set of bad values that he himself pretends to hold.

A useful question to ask when criticizing Trump is as follows: would I care about Thing X if someone on my own side did it? For example, isn’t it true that if someone on my side had bought concrete from someone with criminal ties, I would be taking pains to explain why buying concrete from someone unpleasant doesn’t make you yourself unpleasant. Likewise, I do not care when Democrats have unfortunate haircuts. What matters to me is what someone believes, not whether their flesh is or is not the color of a ripe Satsuma.

This is why John Oliver’s mockery of Trump on Last Week Tonight was particularly toothless and pathetic. Having found out that Trump’s German ancestors were called “Drumpf” rather than “Trump,” Oliver led a campaign to “Make Donald Drumpf Again,” wringing great amusement out of the apparent silliness of Trump’s ancestral name. But what was the point of this joke? What did it say about Trump? Lots of people have foreign ancestors with unusual names. Do we care? Isn’t progressivism supposed to have, as one of its principles, that foreign names aren’t funny just because they’re foreign? Isn’t this the cheapest and most xenophobic of all possible jokes? Oliver’s Drumpf campaign became extremely popular, but it was deeply childish. It fell into a common trap of Trump critiques: it descended to Trump’s level, using name-calling and playground taunts rather than trying to actually critique the truly harmful and reprehensible things about Trump. (It is possible to do satirical comedy that is actually brutal. The best joke about George W. Bush was nothing to do with My Pet Goat or his choking on a pretzel, but was the Onion’s devastating headline: “George W. Bush Debuts New Paintings Of Dogs, Friends, Ghost Of Iraqi Child That Follows Him Everywhere.”)


The critique of Trump as “vulgar” is another especially ineffective angle. Trump’s vulgarity is actually one of his only positive qualities. Vulgarity can be refreshing. It can get to the point, and be emotionally honest. It’s also nice to be told what politicians really think, in language that doesn’t try to disguise cruelty beneath a thin cloak of civility. As Amber A’Lee Frost writes, vulgarity in itself can have a clarifying effect:

Trump’s vulgarity is appealing precisely because it exposes political truths. As others have noted, Trump’s policies (wildly inconsistent though they may be) are actually no more extreme than those of other Republicans; Trump is just willing to strip away the pretense. Other candidates may say “national security is a fundamental priority,” whereas Trump will opt for “ban all the Muslims.” The latter is far less diplomatic, but in practice the two candidates fundamentally mean the same thing. We should prefer the honest boor, as polite euphemism is constantly used to mask atrocities.

Frost also points out that “vulgarity is the language of the people” and can be “wield[ed] righteously against the corrupt and the powerful.” Of course, much of Trump’s vulgarity has no such redemptive quality, and is used in the service of power rather than to undermine it. But it’s still more important to critique the underlying sentiment of Trump’s views rather than the coarseness with which Trump expresses them.

The failure to distinguish between tone and substance afflicted coverage of the notorious Billy Bush tape. Multiple news outlets reported that Trump had been caught on tape making “lewd” or “vulgar” remarks about women. In fact, he had been caught on tape bragging about committing sexual assault. The problem wasn’t the vulgarity. (After all, it would have been unobjectionable if he had been caught on tape saying “there’s nothing I love more than when someone gives unambiguous and enthusiastic consent for me to grab her by the pussy.”) It didn’t matter that he had said the word “pussy,” it mattered that he had admitted to a series of outrageous sex crimes. But the idea that “vulgarity” is what’s unappealing about Trump suggests that if he did the same exact things, with a little better manners, his behavior would be beyond reproach.

Calling Trump dumb is a similarly futile line of attack. First, nothing reinforces perceptions of liberals as snobs more easily than picking on stupid people. When Trump is mocked for his pronunciation of “China” or compared with the President from Idiocracy, critics miss something important: Trump may be an idiot, but he’s no dummy. That is to say: treating Trump as if he is slow leads to underestimating the kind of genius he has for successful PR manipulation. People will analyze the reading-level of Trump’s speeches, and conclude that he has the mind of a fourth-grader. But if you treat Trump as a fourth-grader, you may assume (quite wrongly) that he is easily outsmarted. Up until this point, underestimating Trump has produced nothing but misfortune for the underestimators. Trump should be treated as what he is: non-literate, non-worldly, but media-savvy and ruthlessly cunning. “Trump is dumb” messages are likely to play about as well as “Bush is dumb” messages did during the Bush/Kerry fight. They make liberals seem haughty, and Trump can claim that the elites are sneering at him (and by, implication, the working class) for his lack of formal learning.

Some critics of Trump seem to almost want to goad him into being worse for progressives. For example, in the time following the election, Trump was attacked for refusing national security briefings and retaining executive producer status on The Apprentice. The premise here, apparently, is that we want Donald Trump to spend less time working on reality shows and more time exercising the power of the presidency. But that seems an insane thing to desire. For progressives, it would probably be better if Trump spent four years continuing his reality show act than if he started thinking about which countries he’d like to bomb. The fewer national security briefings he gets, the better. (Same logic applies to the wall. Here’s a quick tip that all progressives should follow: if he doesn’t make an effort to build the wall, don’t tell him he’s a hypocrite and a failure.)

Likewise with Trump’s self-enrichment. A number of people have dwelled on his “conflicts of interest,” suggesting that Trump will unconstitutionally use his new powers to seek new business opportunities abroad, exploiting the office for financial gain. But if we’re being honest, this is probably the best outcome progressives could hope for. We should pray that Trump wants money rather than power, because building hotels in Singapore is one of the least destructive possible uses of his time. Corruption may be bad, but for progressives who care about human rights, Trump’s corruption should be very low on our list of worries. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out before, we should always hope that strongman-leaders are corrupt. If they’re corrupt, they might not do too much harm; you also can buy them off with money. But if they’re sincere yet megalomaniacal, there’s no end to the evil they will do. A corrupt con man will drain your treasury, but an honest ideologue could massacre six million people.

The question anyone writing about Trump should think about before making a criticism is as follows: does anybody really give a crap? For example, which do people care more about: Trump being friendly with Putin or about the potential disappearance of their Medicaid benefits? Do they care more about Trump tweeting some slur about a news anchor, or about the threat of nuclear war? Focus should be kept on those things that affect people’s lives the most.

There are bad potential critiques of Trump at every turn. When Trump negotiated with the Carrier air conditioner company in Indiana, arranging for them to keep 800 jobs in the United States in return for a tax break, some pointed out that 800 was only a fraction of the jobs in Indiana’s manufacturing sector. But this was a foolish critique. After all, 800 may not be many jobs statistically, but it’s a lot to the people working those jobs. Trivialize that number and you trivialize those people’s experiences. And saving 800 jobs was pretty impressive for a guy who hadn’t even been sworn in yet. Scoffing at the number seemed bitter and out-of-touch, and the grumbling appeared to implicitly concede that Trump had accomplished something.

But there was a far better critique to be made: Trump had essentially arranged for the company to receive an enormous bribe as a reward for threatening to send jobs to Mexico. It was a deal that looked good but set a terrible precedent, because it signaled to corporations that Trump would help to arrange for taxpayers to give them money to stay in the United States. The Trump Carrier deal was a PR masterstroke, but there was a serious and effective criticism to be made of it.

One person who understood how to criticize the deal effectively was Bernie Sanders. In the Washington Post, Sanders wrote:

Today, about 1,000 Carrier workers and their families should be rejoicing. But the rest of our nation’s workers should be very nervous. In exchange for allowing United Technologies to continue to offshore more than 1,000 jobs, Trump will reportedly give the company tax and regulatory favors that the corporation has sought. Just a short few months ago, Trump was pledging to force United Technologies to “pay a damn tax.” He was insisting on very steep tariffs for companies like Carrier that left the United States and wanted to sell their foreign-made products back in the United States. Instead of a damn tax, the company will be rewarded with a damn tax cut. Wow! How’s that for standing up to corporate greed? How’s that for punishing corporations that shut down in the United States and move abroad?

Note what Sanders did not do. He did not criticize every aspect of the deal. He did not diminish what it meant to the workers whose jobs were saved. But he reversed the message: instead of a move to help workers, it was a handout to corporations. This is the correct approach. It doesn’t treat every aspect of everything Trump does as necessary of the same criticism. Instead, it asks: how do Trump’s actions affect people in the real world? And if Trump’s actions affect people negatively, they should be criticized.

It’s possible to conduct effective messaging against Donald Trump. During the campaign, unions and independent groups recorded a series of devastating video ads featuring Trump’s workers and contractors, explaining the various ways in which he had screwed them and hurt their families. If they had been run across the country, they might have been very effective. (The Clinton campaign didn’t do anything with them.) Donald Trump has very low favorability ratings, and it should be relatively easy to expose him as a con man, one who offers working people promises that he has no intention of fulfilling, who says he will “drain the Washington swamp” and then stuffs his administration with parasitic billionaire elites.

But mounting effective attacks against Trump requires caring about being effective to begin with. The more Democrats spend time talking about things like, say, Trump angering China with a phone call to Taiwan (isn’t the left supposed to favor talking to Taiwan?), the less we’ll zero in on Trump’s true political weaknesses. Trump wants us to talk about his feud with the cast of Hamilton. He does not want us to force him to talk seriously about policy.

Criticisms should be of the things that matter: the serial sexual assaults, the deportation plans, the anti-Muslim sentiment, the handouts to the rich, the destruction of the earth. These are the things that matter, and if progressives actually do care about them, then these are the things we should spend our time discussing. Forget the gaffes. Forget the hypocrisy. Forget the hotels. Forget the hair. And don’t bother calling him Drumpf.

This article is adapted from the forthcoming book Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity. Pre-order today for shipping January 20th. 

What This Means, How This Happened, What To Do Now

Dealing with the election of Donald Trump

This morning, the people of Earth awoke to find that the fate of the human species has been placed in the hands of reality television mogul and unconvicted sex criminal Donald J. Trump, who has been given access to the nuclear codes. This is, to somewhat understate things, a deeply troubling development. Trump is a man embodying every single noxious trait in the human character, a man that even Glenn Beck finds unhinged. For those of us who abhor white supremacism and sexual assault, or who believe that climate change and nuclear war threaten the survival of the planet, this is a state of emergency.

There is no time to sit around goggle-eyed and slack-jawed. We should ask a number of straightforward questions, and try to figure out what’s what. First, how did this happen? Second, what are its implications? And finally, what the hell do we do now?

But first, let’s take a breath. Yes, this is a disturbing event of extraordinary magnitude. Remember, though, that the U.S. presidency, while extremely important, is only a small part of the existing world. Nothing has exploded just yet, nobody has died, and we have a little while longer to figure out how to interpret this thing and brace ourselves for its consequences. Nobody quite knows what is about to happen, and while it might be worse than all of our fears, it could also end up not quite being nearly as bad as expected. If there is one thing this election has shown, it is that we just don’t know what the future holds. All we can do is try to remain calm and analyze it as soberly as we can.

What, then, does the election of Donald Trump actually mean? Here is the important point: nobody knows. Anybody who says they know doesn’t know. This election is, first and foremost, a repudiation of the establishment, which means that the wisdom of pundits, experts, and elites has been proven hollow. So in trying to interpret this event, do not listen to those who insist they know things, or who confidently offer a new round of predictions for what will happen. We’ve entered the Age of the Unpredictable.

At least in the very immediate aftermath, the consensus among liberals about their loss seems to be as follows: they underestimated the racism and sexism of the American people, and the degree to which this country was full of a dark and rotten hatred. As Paul Krugman summed up his own take-away:

People like me, and probably like most readers of The New York Times, truly didn’t understand the country we live in. We thought that our fellow citizens would not, in the end, vote for a candidate so manifestly unqualified for high office, so temperamentally unsound, so scary yet ludicrous. We thought that the nation, while far from having transcended racial prejudice and misogyny, had become vastly more open and tolerant over time. There turn out to be a huge number of people — white people, living mainly in rural areas — who don’t share at all our idea of what America is about.

I have a strong feeling that Krugman’s perspective will become conventional wisdom among devastated blue-staters in the next few days. Trump won because of his appeals to racism and sexism, and his vicious misogynistic lies about Hillary Clinton. He won because a large percentage of the country is hateful and does not share progressive values.

This is a tempting story for people on the left to tell themselves, because it exonerates them of any responsibility for the outcome. It is also an extremely discouraging story, because it suggests that the majority of voters are bad, nasty, deplorable people. Fortunately, this story is almost certainly misleading. One of the main problems here is that many Democrats in coastal cities know very few Trump voters. Thus they have a hard time making sense of these voters’ motivations. In order to understand Trump’s base of support, instead of trying to speak to and empathize with these voters, they look at statistical data. From that data, they see that these people express anxiety about race and immigration, and that they are not disproportionately poor. They thus conclude that Trump voters are motivated primarily by prejudice, and mock the idea that it is economic concerns that matter most to them.

If you adopt this theory, then you reach a somewhat fatalistic conclusion about Trump supporters. You can’t persuade them, because they’re racists, and racism is an irrational feeling. Instead, you fight them, by mocking them, and trying to turn out your own base. By treating Trump’s support as largely the product of racism, one gives up on any attempt to actually appeal to Trump voters’ concerns and interests, since racism is not an interest worth appealing to.

This was what Democrats did. This was a campaign of mockery: Trump voters were treated with disdain. Hillary Clinton dismissed huge swaths of them as a “basket of deplorables.” To be a Trump supporter was to be dumb, a redneck, a misogynist.

Here’s the problem: if Democrats had actually spent time with Trump voters, as opposed to judging them by polls, they would have found this theory incomplete. They missed the fact that many Trump voters had a kind of undirected dissatisfaction and anger at the Establishment. For some, the source of this was most likely economics. For many, immigration. For others, it was probably simply an existential despair at the hopelessness of modern life, such as we all feel. But many of them simply didn’t know what they were angry at. They just knew they were angry. Trump came along and gave them a convenient narrative: the source of this anguish was ISIS, Mexicans, and Hillary Clinton. This was very powerful. Democrats didn’t have a good counter-narrative. They lost.

There are facts that complicate the simple “racist deplorables” explanation. As Nate Cohn of The New York Times noted, “Clinton suffered her biggest losses in the places where Obama was strongest among white voters,” meaning that this was “not a simple racism story.” There are plenty of people who voted for Obama in 2008 or 2012 who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. The important question is why? These are people who will happily vote for a progressive black president, but will turn around and vote for the Klan’s favored candidate four years later. What is going on?

The only thing we know is that this question won’t be answered easily or quickly. It depends on spending time with these people, understanding what truly makes them tick, and how to make them tick differently. Note that maybe it is racism that fueled their Trump votes. But it’s clear that racism is something that can be exacerbated by demagoguery. Just because someone is capable of being a racist doesn’t mean they will be one. We are all highly susceptible to social influences. Trump can make people more racist than they were otherwise inclined to be. The question for Democrats is how to get people to move in the other direction.

It’s important to recognize the extent to which the Trump vote was an undirected repudiation of the Establishment rather than an affirmative vote for anything. Liberals didn’t understand why none of Trump’s scandals (the fraud, the tax evasion, the sexual assaults) seemed to dim his support. They didn’t realize that Trump was a bomb being thrown at the elite, which meant that (in some sense) the worse he was, the more people liked him. A vote for Trump is a Molotov cocktail. It is not nuanced. It is designed to do as much damage as possible. Pointing out that the Molotov cocktail does not share the thrower’s values, or cheats on its taxes, is not an effective rhetorical strategy. Because a vote for Trump is an attempt to blow up the government, it doesn’t matter at all whether Trump is a sleaze, sex predator, or vulgarian. He pisses off the right people, and that is what matters.

The most important parallel with Donald Trump’s victory is the surprise U.K. Brexit vote, in which pundits similarly confidently predicted that the country definitely wouldn’t vote to leave the European Union, only to have the country decisively vote to leave the European Union. Elites in London simply couldn’t imagine that there were enough people willing to make such a suicidal choice for the mere pleasure of delivering a middle finger to the Establishment. But they underestimated how much people hated the Establishment, having rarely traveled outside their insular cosmopolitan bubble. Having failed to appreciate the degree of latent rage simmering outside the urban center, they were blindsided. Likewise, as Krugman’s words illustrate, America’s liberal press could not believe that Donald Trump could ever be president. The outcome was so unthinkable that their inability to imagine it affected their assessment of its chances of occurrence.

In fact, the most important lesson of this election is about the press. This disaster should cause a major reevaluation of political media, who failed utterly to appreciate the seriousness of what was happening. There is a good argument to be made that the media is responsible for creating Trump in the first place. But the press also thoroughly failed the country, by distorting reality to make it appear as if Clinton was more likely to win than she was. In doing so, they allowed people to rest easy who should have (and would have) been out trying to put the brakes on the Trump train.

Liberal commentators made a crucial error: instead of trying to understand how the world actually was, they interpreted the world according to their wishful version of it. Throughout the race, I saw dozens of commentators on the left insisting that Clinton was a shoo-in, and that the “horse race” was manufactured. Trump, they said, stood no chance. For example, Jamelle Bouie of Slate wrote in August:

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

Plenty of others appeared similarly confident. Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias of Vox were equally cocky. Yglesias insisted that Trump’s prediction of an American Brexit was a complete misunderstanding of the dynamics of Brexit. He also claimed to have insights proving that polls showing a Clinton lead actually underestimated her support. Klein crowed that Hillary’s exceptional debate performances had “left the Trump campaign in ruins.” Even a usually sober-minded leftist like Corey Robin of Brooklyn College confidently declared that “Clinton is going to win big-time in November.”

This complacency was extremely damaging. Liberal pundits bought into myth (fabricated by the Clinton campaign) of Clinton as an “inevitable” president. This idea should have been disposed of permanently in 2008, as well as by Clinton’s weak primary performance against a socialist upstart. But there seemed to be a belief among the liberal press that if they just repeated it enough times, it would be destined to come true. This was sheer stupidity. By either explicitly or tacitly reassuring people that Clinton would definitely win, they diminished the sense of urgency among progressives. People could feel as if they didn’t need to do anything, because nothing inevitable needs help coming to fruition.

The press’s insistence that Clinton was doing fine was so ubiquitous that it distorted every progressive’s picture of reality. I fell victim to this myself. In February, I believed Trump was being massively underestimated, and wrote an article predicting with complete certainty that he would be president. In May, I said that the Democrats’ nomination of Clinton was a “suicidal mistake.” But then the drumbeat of inevitability began to penetrate my consciousness. I began to feel I was being alarmist, that I was letting my biases interfere with my judgment. After all, the pundits had their polling data. And they seemed so confident. I still felt so uneasy. Something felt wrong. But when Trump was accused of committing serial sexual assault, I began to feel as if they might be right. Perhaps Trump was over. I wrote that while “we should make sure the threat is truly vanquished before celebrating,” since it would be unprecedented to put someone who had admitted to sex crimes in the White House, “perhaps” we truly were rid of Trump.

This was foolish. But I see how it happened. We progressives all fell into an echo chamber of wishful thought, just like the Republicans did during their primary. Trump couldn’t win, so he wouldn’t win. We forgot that there is a distinction between media representations of reality and reality itself. If the press had done their job, rather than just bullshitting, perhaps we would have been as alarmed as we should have been.

The election of Trump is therefore a serious repudiation of media “experts.” Pundits like those at Vox position themselves as “explainers” of reality, disguising the fact that they are making an awful lot of things up in order to cover gaps in their knowledge. Trump’s election has shown that believing these types of claims to expertise can be positively dangerous. And yet it is almost certain the experts will persist in claiming superior knowledge of the world, even as they refuse to leave their D.C. and New York enclaves. There are no consequences to false predictions, even if you end up getting Donald Trump elected president, and it is unlikely that Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias will lose their jobs. (They have “pundit tenure.”) Indeed, Yglesias has already begun making his next set of predictions.

It is crucial, however, that the following lesson be learned well by progressives: these people do not know anything. Do not believe predictions, whether from this website or anywhere else. No political commentator or forecaster can offer you any real certainty, because they don’t have any special magic that the rest of us don’t have access to. Nate Silver may have been somewhat less wrong than everybody else. But Nate Silver was still wrong, or at least useless. (His predict-o-meter flopped all over the place over the course of the election cycle, making it a poor tool for calibrating one’s behavior.) Sam Wang of Princeton was totally discredited, having laughably predicted a 99% chance of a Clinton victory.

The reason they do not know anything is clear: they are absolutely obsessed with empirical data. They love polls, even though polls by definition can’t account for the sorts of things that do not show up in polls. Many people treated Donald Trump’s contempt for polls as a sign that he was living in his own world. In fact, he was living in the real world, which is separate and distinct from the world of polls and data. The fundamental problem with poll-watching is that you really never do know.

Thus, going forward, we need to have far less confidence in the power of existing empirical data to predict and explain the world. There needs to be a complete reevaluation, not of techniques for estimating probability, but of the meaning and importance that is attributed to probabilities. The truth is that the world is far more unknowable than we think. Human beings have free will, or are at least highly unpredictable, which means that efforts to anticipate their behavior are destined to go poorly.

Could this all have been avoided? It’s worth saying that in retrospect, running Hillary Clinton for president was never a very good idea. Running Clinton against Donald Trump was an especially bad idea, because all of Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate played to all of Trump’s strengths. Clinton gave Trump precisely the kind of fodder (mini-scandals, shady dealings, etc.) on which his bombast thrives. She also happens to be a very poor campaigner, and a complacent one. The weakness was obvious even in the differing campaign slogans. “I’m With Her” is about the interests of the candidate. “Make America Great Again” is about the voters. Let’s learn an important lesson here: do not run a widely-despised ruling-class candidate who has open contempt for the white working class. That is a recipe for electoral catastrophe.

Could Bernie have done better? It seems a reasonable hypothesis. After all, Clinton lost because of the Rust Belt. As a populist, anti-Wall Street candidate focused on jobs, Sanders was well-positioned to strongly counter Trump in these states. Biden might have done even better, and I hope he regrets his decision not to run. But ultimately, these speculations are both impossible to evaluate and immaterial to the situation in which people now find themselves.

What other lessons might actually be useful going forward, other than trying to understand voters, running better candidates, and never listening to a word pundits and polls say? Well, a small one is: never vote third-party in a swing state. Jill Stein ended up receiving very little of the vote, making it silly to attribute this catastrophe to her (as Paul Krugman immediately tried to do). Still, where margins are small, even tiny third-party percentages can make a huge difference. And since all Stein voters were probably just as horrified at last night’s outcome as the Clinton voters, the idea that there is no difference between “the lesser of two evils” is false. Having less evil is always better. Don’t vote third-party in a swing state. (And third-parties should probably find a new strategy for building their movement that involves more than just trying to sabotage a presidential election every four years.) Still, any Democrat who focuses their ire on Jill Stein is seriously missing the point of this election.

But a very limited amount of time should be spent on blame-slinging and “I told you so”s. Every single person who opposed Donald Trump should have many, many regrets. I have plenty of them myself. I regret that I didn’t do more for Sanders, and then that I didn’t do more for Clinton after Sanders lost. I should have been knocking doors. Instead I watched movies and wrote magazine articles and went to class. I wrote an academic article. An academic article! What on earth was I thinking? I regret that I allowed myself to be lulled into thinking everything would be alright, even though I knew deep down that there was no rational reason for feeling assuaged, and that the “experts” who were telling me Clinton would win didn’t know any more than I did.

The truth is, those of us on the left were complacent asses. All of us. When I wrote in February that Trump would definitely defeat Clinton, I believed that. But I didn’t act as if I believed it. If I’d really felt like I believed it, I should have been spending my every waking hour working to prevent this hideous outcome. I didn’t, though. And when all of us think of how uselessly we frittered away so much of our time, how much more we could have done, we may be kicking ourselves for years. Especially if the nuclear apocalypse shows up.

What’s going to happen now? For a leftist, liberal, or progressive, nothing good. There is complete Republican control of government. This means that even in the best case scenario, in which Trump turns out to be mostly bluster, as incapable at organizing a dictatorship as he is at running a hotel, we can expect to have every single progressive policy of the last eight years rolled back very swiftly. Goodbye, healthcare! Goodbye, moderate criminal justice reforms! Goodbye, mild attempts to rein in corporate malfeasance! It’s all down the tubes. Sayonara. (Probably. Again, keep in mind: nobody knows anything.)

The worst case scenario is very, very bad. Trump could be our Hitler. They laughed at the Nazis in 1928, the man with the funny moustache and his gang of silly brown-shirted thugs. They weren’t laughing so much in 1933. Things could be the same when it comes to the man with the funny hair and the orange face. Hah… Hah… Hah… Oh shit. We know Donald Trump is a man without a conscience. Yet we have just handed him near absolute power (in part enabled by the joint Democratic/Republican expansion of executive branch authority over the years). For all we know, there could be death camps on the horizon.

For the sake of our sanity, it’s necessary to assume that this isn’t true. We must act as if we are not all about to die, as if the sky will not fall. (And who knows? It might not.) If we become resigned, if we start to feel doomed and hopeless, we are liable to produce a highly dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy. This has to be a moment of action rather than despair.

Progressives are going to have to fight for their values. They are going to have to fight hard. But they are also going to have to fight differently. The left will be doomed if it does not seriously rethink its practices. We’ve just lost every branch of government, and watched the presidency be given to a misogynistic sociopathic fraudster. Clearly we have gone wrong somewhere.

The most fundamental part of a new plan is this: do not do the same damn thing all over again and expect different results. We need a new kind of left politics. We need something that has what Obama had: inspiration, hope. It was joked that Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan was “No you can’t.” That’s no good. Trump inspires people. He may inspire people by appealing to their nastiest, most inhuman and unneighborly instincts. But he inspires them. We have to have an agenda that gets people excited. It can’t be like trying to make people eat their vegetables. “You’ll vote for me and you’ll like it, because you have no alternative” is not an effective way to get votes.

Progressives need to understand how people who are different from them think. No more writing them off as racist and deplorable. Even if they are, what good does that do? You need to understand racists not so you can sympathize with them, but so you can figure out what shapes people’s beliefs, and help them reach different beliefs. People on the left must reach out to people on the right. They must make their case. They must go into red states. They must take counter-arguments seriously and respond to them. It is not sufficient to have John Oliver eviscerate Trump on television and call him Drumpf. It is not sufficient to have Lena Dunham dance around in a pantsuit. It is not sufficient to line up a bunch of Hollywood celebrities to tell people how to vote. When someone asks “What kind of world does the left want to build?” we need to have a vision. When someone asks “Why should I vote for you?” the answer cannot be “Because I am not Trump.” After all, people like Trump.

The Clinton campaign was a disaster. Let’s never do anything like it again. Let’s never again have a campaign in which people were constantly having to defend the indefensible. Let’s never again run on “experience” rather than values. Let’s never again treat everything as fine when it clearly isn’t. (Let’s also never again underestimate Donald Trump. The man is wily. He may have never read a book in his adult life. But he knows how to win an election. Calling him stupid, or treating him as stupid, misses the point. For a “stupid” man, he sure showed the elites.)

Overnight, the world has changed. We may have thought history had ended, that nothing too terribly unexpected would ever shake us up again. But history never ends. The future could hold anything. It may hold catastrophe. But there is no time to think about that. What is needed now is a plan. In the immortal words of Joe Hill

Don’t mourn, organize!

Explaining It All To You

The persistence of Vox…

Do you know what your problem is? Your problem is not that you are uninformed. That is what you might have thought your problem was. Your problem is also not that you lack information. This is a common misconception. In fact, people nowadays have lots of information. Too much, even. No, your problem is the opposite. Your problem is that you cannot interpret the information you have. You lack the guiding hand of expertise. You need a vox dei, a little Voice of God whispering in your ear, helping you along, telling you what it all means. You need someone to let you know what’s what, to find the truth for you and analyze it and put it in orderly stacks of notecards with little suggested opinions on them.

For the past two years, Ezra Klein’s philosophy in running has been precisely this: people do not need facts, they need explanations. The ordinary person is ill-equipped to interpret the facts, to figure out what they mean. Klein rejects what he calls the “More Information Hypothesis,” the idea that a better-informed citizenry could have more productive political debates. In fact, because we see facts through partisan lenses, facts alone are useless. People are irresponsible with knowledge; facts just make them “better equipped to argue for their own side.”

Thus for Klein, the job of experts is not to give the public raw information, so that it can come to its own conclusions. The job of experts is to process the information themselves, and tell the public what it ought to have concluded. They are not here to help you figure out what you believe. You are a hopelessly irrational consumer. They are here, rather, to tell you what to think.

Vox therefore does not hesitate to make strong judgments. Its headlines frequently declare that “No, X is not what you think it is…” or tell you “Here’s the real reason why…” It promises to give everything you need to know on a subject, eliminating the need for further curiosity on the reader’s part. If you don’t know what the 18 best television shows are, Vox will tell you. (Quantification is its specialty; Vox builds trust by knowing the numbers, by having the data.) The Vox “explainers” say it plainly: about this, there can be no doubt.

Yet strangely, Vox staff would likely bristle at being called mere manufacturers of “opinion” or “commentary.” This is because when a Vox-er declares a scandal to be “bullshit,” he intends it as fact rather than opinion. There is no attempt to distinguish between the journalistic and the editorial. It all blurs together as “analysis.” Vox is therefore an exercise in the simultaneous having and eating of cake; it wishes to both make strong value-laden assertions and be trusted as neutral and dispassionate. This means that Vox inherently practices a crude and cruel form of rhetorical dishonesty: it treats matters of profound complexity as if they are able to be settled through mere expertise. If anyone disagrees with what the wonks have concluded, they must be dumb, delusional, or both.

As conservatives quickly pointed out after Vox’s debut, this ends up meaning that liberal political values are implicitly assumed to be factually correct. It has also meant that over the course of 2015-2016, Vox became a powerful propaganda outlet for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It would run features like The 11 moments that define Hillary Clinton” (Of course there are exactly 11). These would include important milestones like “How the 2008 loss turned Hillary into a hipster” but would completely leave out Goldman Sachs and Clinton’s devastation of Libya.

Clinton appeals so perfectly to the Vox sensibility that its writers become puzzled when trying to figure out how anyone could oppose her. So Ezra Klein will ruminate on the mystery of why Hillary Clinton is distrusted by the public but liked by those in her inner circle, concluding that it is because Clinton is a careful listener who prefers paying attention to the views of others rather than explaining her own. (Klein doesn’t mention the equally plausible thesis that Clinton is distrusted because she tells lies about things and treats the public with cynicism and contempt.) Or Dylan Matthews will wonder why Hillary Clinton is not being given credit for her incredibly ambitious socially progressive policy platform. (Failing to consider that almost nobody thinks Hillary Clinton will ever actually make any attempt to put that platform into action.)  

As Fredrik deBoer says in his critique of Vox, the “explainer” stance is insidious, because it disguises partisanship as objectivity, falsely assuming that there can be such a thing as a “view from nowhere.” He shows how Vox used selective and highly unreliable empirical data in order to attack Bernie Sanders, while cultivating the illusion of rigor and neutrality. For example, by producing a calculator showing people how much each candidate’s policies would cost households in taxes, without disclosing how much these policies would save households elsewhere, Vox made it look as if Bernie Sanders was simply planning to drain families of all their money. As deBoer argues: “The whole notion of ideology-free explanation of complex subjects is of course itself ideology-laden… The pretense of neutral explanation simply deepens the potential dangers of bias.”

In fact, it is curious that Klein and Vox should have embraced the label of “explainers.” After all, the word has some interesting connotations. Explanations (rather than, say, “explorations”) are the provenance of the hyper-confident and the sometimes-criminal: one explains away one’s misdeeds; the villain caught red-handed shouts “I can explain!” as he is dragged away. Indeed, what Vox does much of the time involves explaining away, usually pointing out why the empirical data make it irrational to oppose Hillary Clinton’s policy preferences. “Explanation” has also increasingly become associated with the notorious act of “mansplaining,” the ubiquitous tendency of male know-it-alls to buttonhole passing women and show off their learning at generous length. Fittingly, the experience of reading Vox can often feel like a protracted blind date with a garrulous male Capitol Hill staffer.

It should be no surprise that the main thing these explainers love to explain is “policy,” the more complicated the better. Policy wonks love policies because they get to explain them. Everyone else hates complicated policies, because everyone else has to be subjected to them. The more inscrutable and byzantine the policy (and the more confusing and misery-inducing those policies are for ordinary people), the more jobs there are for wonks. Hence the site’s ongoing love affair with the Affordable Care Act, which in its abstruseness, ineffectiveness, and elitism has every ingredient dear to the heart of the wonk. And hence everything from Matthew Yglesias’ hilariously erroneous early prediction that Obamacare’s implementation is going to be great and people will love it” to his current cheerful call for a more punishing mandate


The site’s founders are perfectly open about their passions. Witness the promotional blurb for the site’s podcast, “The Weeds”:

Everyone is always warning you not to get lost in the weeds. But not Vox’s Ezra Klein, Sarah Kliff, and Matthew Yglesias. They love the weeds. That’s where all the policy is. This is the podcast for people who follow politics because they love thinking about health care, economics, and zoning.

Nobody sensible loves thinking about zoning. For most of us, zoning regulations are a tedious necessity in the service of a particular administrative end. It’s amusing that Vox-ers deliberately disregard the old warning not to get “lost in the weeds.” That phrase is supposed to offer an important caution: if you fetishize policy detail, you lose sight of the actual broader purpose of policy, which is to improve human living conditions. For Klein et al., however, the policy is the purpose. (This is not an exaggeration: “The point of politics is policy,” Klein writes.) Policies are ends in themselves.

Klein might object to this. “Actually I understand full well what policy is for.” (Every sentence spoken by a Vox-er begins with an implicit or explicit “Actually.”) Klein would insist that, of course, policies are not the point. But then why does he like zoning? Why doesn’t he like buildings and see zoning as a means? This is how we know wonks don’t care about the ends of politics: they never talk about their actual political visions. What, for example, is Ezra Klein’s utopian ideal? What kind of world does he wish to build? Nobody knows, because he never tells us. He probably doesn’t even think about it. Whenever I meet a progressive wonk-type, I always make sure to ask them: “If you could wave a wand and fulfill your every political goal, what kind of world would you build?” The answers inevitably consist of more policy. “A nationwide jobs program,” “universal pre-K,” or “guaranteed annual income.” (And those answers are from the true dreamers and visionaries among the wonks. Frequently their utopias consist of things like “a 2% drop in the unemployment rate.”) Each of these is a policy dream that forgets what policy is supposed to be for.

The failure to think about ends and ideals is important, because it reveals the fundamental oversight of progressive wonk-ism. This is the idea that there ever can be such a thing as a “correct” and “rational” political solution, that one can discuss health care policy without discussing one’s values and convictions. As The Federalist pointed out, this is a fallacy: you may haul out your chart showing that ObamaCare decreased the numbers of the uninsured, and believe you have proven it is the rational policy choice. But those who object to ObamaCare see an individual mandate as a form of unjustified coercion, and disputes over the nature of coercion are philosophical and cannot be resolved through the display of empirical data. Focusing on “the weeds” is sly, because it carefully avoids having to discuss and defend your underlying moral assumptions. And by keeping the focus on “explanation” rather than “discussion,” one can avoid difficult questions that might force the interrogation of one’s preconceptions.

These disputes are philosophical and cannot be resolved through the display of empirical data.

But one should be careful about affirming Vox’s self-conception as an “news explainer” site to begin with. Despite the hype, much of Vox is the same old dreary #content as the rest of political media, with a bit more condescension and bar charts. These range from pointless banalities (“If America were Canada, the election would have been over long ago”) to clickmongering contrarianism (“3 Reasons the American Revolution Was a Mistake”) to obsessive considerations of the plusses and minuses of daylight savings time and time zones. There’s a hefty dose of the usual Democratic Party innuendo about Trump’s supposed Russian connection (“Trump is covering for a Putin plot against American democracy”—as Frankie Boyle has recently pointed out, it’s amusing to see those who whine about the rise of “post-truth politics” suddenly turn and declare that Donald Trump is a Russian agent), as well as copious free advertising for Elon Musk (Is he too ambitious? How will he meet his next challenges?) The rest is the same insipid horse-race stuff, plus the usual torrent of disdain for Trump and his supporters (“Actually, Trump supporters and Brexiteers are racists”).

Peculiarly, Vox is only loosely edited. For its core writers, it functions mostly like a blog. The lack of editorial oversight means some truly oddball content sneaks in, such as this 5,000 word piece from Todd VanDerWerff which begins as a defense of the Hamilton musical then digresses into a extended discussion of how VanDerWerff’s late father may or may not have been a rapist. The hands-off approach to content control lets wild and interesting things sneak in sometimes, such as the work of Current Affairs editor Yasmin Nair or Emmett Rensin’s skewering of Daily Show-type liberal sanctimony. (It was odd to see Vox publishing something that implicitly condemned the bulk of the site’s own content, although Rensin was soon after suspended from the publication for being too interesting.)

The lackadaisical approach to quality control has also led to some extraordinary factual pratfalls. (Remember, though, that it is not facts but explanations that Vox promises.) In 2014, Deadspin had fun compiling a list of “48 times Vox totally fucked up a story,” including the site’s infamous assertion that Israel contained a road bridge between the West Bank and Gaza. One might have excused these as mere hiccups inevitable in a publication’s early life, but six months after the Year of 48 Fuckups, the site ran an embarrassingly error-ridden attack on Seymour Hersh, which managed to misstate the dates of both the My Lai massacre and the Abu Ghraib scandal within a single paragraph.

Vox’s factual unreliability is not merely a product of Klein’s sloppy oversight, however. It is in many ways inherent to the site’s model of content production, which depends entirely on having incredibly young writers assume a position of omniscient expertise. As Deadspin’s Kevin Draper observed:

These Bright Young People may well be near-experts on one or two subjects, or at least close enough to pass as such online, but Vox publishes at the same rapid pace as the rest of the internet, on an exceptional and ever-growing number of topics, and there’s only so much authoritativeness to go around.

Vox’s difficulty at getting the facts right emerges from its confidence in the wisdom of 22-year-old D.C. clickbait-churners. It is “an explainer site by people who live way too much of their own lives outside reality.” Corey Robin has noted that the main qualification of the “Vox generation of punditry” is that they “know their way around JSTOR,” yet have a broad historical amnesia that leads to them to be totally oblivious to the place of contemporary events in larger patterns over time.

James Fallows, in his deliciously scathing 1991 look at The Economist, suggested that the magazine’s intentionally anonymous bylines “conceal[ ] the extreme youth of much of the staff,” quoting Michael Lewis’ observation that “if American readers got a look at the pimply complexions of their economic gurus, they would cancel their subscriptions in droves.” But Vox proves Fallows’ thesis false. The pimpliness of Vox’s writing and editorial staff is evident in every word they write. Yet instead of discrediting Vox, it is part of their brand.

As Corey Robin notes, the Vox generation of pundits know their way around JSTOR yet have a broad historical amnesia…

No writer better represents the Vox ethos than co-founder Matthew Yglesias. Yglesias went straight to blogging as a Harvard philosophy undergrad, and his primary qualification for punditry has been his ability to produce a large volume of words at considerable speed. Along with Klein, he in many ways embodies what Vox-ism is all about. 

Much of Yglesias’ work is simply boring (Yglesias likes writing about burritos). But it’s also somewhat stunning for its extraordinary combination of arrogance, erroneousness, and callousness. Yglesias is a perfect case study in how highly-educated people can be embarrassingly stupid, making consistently ludicrous factual and analytical statements. Yglesias muses aloud “I’d been interested to know what, if anything, is legally or practically preventing [Miami] from just expanding further and further west if anyone happens to know” (Many wrote in to point out the existence of a rather large expanse of swamp known as the Everglades.) Or he portentously announces that “in many ways, the Chipotle burrito is very similar to the iPhone.” Yglesias is perhaps the man whose work is most synonymous with the “#SlatePitch,” the intentionally irritating, click-hungry denunciation of some perfectly innocuous truth or convention (hence “The Case Against Eating Lunch Outside“).

The Yglesias oeuvre…

But if Yglesias were simply naive and pompous, one could comfortably laugh at him. However, like the similarly contrarian Nicholas Kristof, he delights in taking up noxious positions designed to unsettle liberal sensibilities and thereby prove his independence of mind (and perhaps reassure him that he is less of a bore than his C.V. implies).

Hence articles like “Against Transparency,” in which Yglesias insists that journalists shouldn’t be able to view government email, without ever considering the potential real-world effects of giving the powerful new ways to conspire free of public accountability. One senses that Yglesias makes arguments like this with a delighted smirk, aware that he is annoying people, but convinced that their annoyance proves their irrationality rather than his intolerability.

The worst of Yglesias’ mischievous endorsements of horrendous moral stances was his column on factory safety. Immediately after the 2013 collapse of the Bangladesh garment factory that killed over 1,000 people, Yglesias took to Slate to explain why workplace safety regulations actually inhibited the operation of free markets. Yglesias explained that high-risk jobs have high compensation, and just like people might choose to be lumberjacks, they might choose to work in highly dangerous garment factories for a premium. Thus “it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum.” The article was accompanied by a photograph of Bangladeshis loading dead bodies onto a truck.

The column was classic Yglesias, in managing to be both ignorant and appalling. Appalling since Yglesias published it the same day as the factory collapse, as the rubble was still being cleared. Ignorant because Yglesias adopted the most delusional Heritage Foundation economic myth, that somehow people in Bangladesh work in dangerous garment factories because working in dangerous garment factories is what they most want to do. As Mark Brendle summarized:

Yglesias champions one of the most horrifying and widespread implements of oppression and misery yet conceived—factories taking advantage of cheap labor, lack of environmental regulations, and a disregard for human life by those who profit most from having those factories in their countries—then pretends that it exists in a vacuum, where people in “those countries” are happy for these jobs, instead of acknowledging the closed system of the global economy, where those conditions are not only systemic, but inevitable and structural, in order for the wealth and prosperity of the “first world” to exist at all.

When confronted with this outrage, Yglesias simply wrote another explanation of why his original work was justified, admitting that his reaction to the criticism “as a writer and a human being” was annoyance. (It should go without saying that if one’s first reaction “as a human being” to being asked to show a little compassion for dead Bangladeshis is “annoyance,” then one is not a human being at all.) Here is Vox-ism in a nutshell: it is impossible to stop explaining and think, impossible to understand that there are more questions in heaven and earth than “What do the data say?” (Like perhaps, “Am I a good person?”)

Yglesias perfectly demonstrates the operation of “Pundit Tenure,” a phenomenon by which established political commentators can never become discredited no matter how wrong they are. Provided they continue to emit a sufficient daily wordcount, and provided they do not question too many Beltway orthodoxies, they can bounce from publication to publication for the duration of their natural lives. Yglesias semi-seriously tweets “the Nazis had a lot of good ideas” and titles articles “Dumb Jewish Politicians,” yet none of this affects him. If any merit-based criteria were operating in determining who gets to be a pundit, Yglesias would long ago have ceased to make a living putting words together. And yet he persists.

I once attended a public talk Yglesias gave on housing policy to promote on his (62-page) book The Rent Is Too Damn High. Yglesias was placed in conversation with Yale Law School professor Robert Ellickson, a bona fide expert on housing and zoning with approximately four decades of experience in the field. Goodness knows why anyone thought to pair the two up, as Ellickson is notoriously grumpy and does not suffer fools with much equanimity. The discussion was one of the most satisfying I have seen. Ellickson clearly had no idea who Yglesias was, and took pleasure in ripping Yglesias’ pamphlet to shreds for its basic economic ignorance. Ellickson practically pondered aloud why a frivolous 20-something blogger was being treated as an expert on housing, pointing out the numerous ways in which Yglesias’ arguments were flimsy and ill-considered.

But watching Ellickson flay Yglesias, I was most struck by the fact that Yglesias was completely unfazed. Far from being ashamed at his humiliating defeat, Yglesias did not even seem to acknowledge that he was even being defeated or humiliated. He didn’t attempt to defend himself. He just… kept talking, as if the numerous arguments that had been made proving him wrong simply didn’t exist. 

This refusal to back down or admit fault is apparently characteristic of Yglesias generally. When a conservative publication interviewed him about his defense of dishonesty in politics, Yglesias simply told them “go fuck yourself,” and hung up. Recently, Yglesias tweeted a reprehensibly xenophobic remark aimed at Glenn Greenwald, unambiguously implying that Greenwald didn’t care about America because he lived in Brazil. (As is well-known, Greenwald moved to Brazil because of anti-LGBT discrimination in U.S. law, making Yglesias’ remark even more tactless.) When confronted, instead of apologizing, Yglesias doubled down, falsely accusing others of twisting his words. Yglesias is an enthusiastic practitioner of one of the most obnoxious tendencies in the human character: the belief that if people hate you, it must be because you’re right rather than because you’re an asshole. Thus when people criticize you for taking the opportunity of a deadly factory disaster to explain why workplace safety standards are Actually Not As Good As You Think, your default reaction is not contrition or self-doubt but annoyance that people fail to recognize your rationality. 


This is what is most irritating and dangerous about the Vox mentality. It is the same tendency that afflicts mansplainers generally: the refusal to entertain the possibility that it could be you who is wrong. “Explanation” implies certitude. For the explainer, information flows in a one-way channel, from the mouth of the explainer to the ear of the explained-to. Vox does not need to listen; Vox knows. After all, these are the three charts you need to read about the Trans-Pacific Pipeline. Here’s the real truth about Donald Trump’s taxes, in five simple statistics. Everything you need to know, explained.

People have good reason for not trusting fact-checkers and wonks. That is because they lie. And they torment people with those lies, by portraying disagreement as an irrational refusal to acknowledge objective empirical truth. They treat political disputes as questions of fact rather than value, and steadfastly refuse to acknowledge their own considerable biases. 

When Vox emerged, there was some speculation as to whether it would survive. But it has consistently done well, and of course it will survive. It will survive because we are all insecure and confused, and promises of explanation and certitude are appealing in a chaotic world. Ezra Klein is right that we do not know what to do with the barrages of information we encounter every day, and his let-me-explain-it-to-you business model is savvy.

But the more Vox persists, the less hope there is for American politics. The Vox model is premised on the idea that people shouldn’t think for themselves, that the important parts of political thought and decision-making should be outsourced to experts. Inevitably, these experts will produce solutions nobody likes, because the moment one is convinced that all opposition must be founded in ignorance, one will always be right no matter how many people are hurt or how many people complain. The point of politics is no longer to help us live together and understand one another. The point is policy, and our job is to listen to the explainers. After all, they have the facts. They’ve got them here in 5 charts. It’s everything you need to know.

What The Clintons Did To Haiti

Their actions in the country were shameful and shouldn’t be defended…

In this excerpt from Superpredator: Bill Clinton’s Use and Abuse of Black America, we examine the Clintons’ involvement in the country’s affairs during Hillary Clinton’s time at the State Department. 

Bill and Hillary Clinton had long shared a personal interest in Haiti, dating back to the time of their honeymoon, part of which was spent in Port-au-Prince. In his autobiography, Bill says that his understanding of God and human nature were profoundly transformed when they witnessed a voodoo ceremony in which a woman bit the head off a live chicken. Hillary Clinton says the two of them “fell in love” with Haiti and they had developed a “deep connection” to the country. So when Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State in 2009, she consciously made the redevelopment of Haiti one of her top priorities. The country, she announced, would be a laboratory where the United States could “road-test new approaches to development,” taking advantage of what she termed “the power of proximity.” She intended to “make Haiti the proving ground for her vision of American power.” Hillary Clinton selected her own chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, to run the Haiti project.

Mills would be joined by Bill Clinton, who had been deputized by the U.N. as a “special envoy” to Haiti. Bill’s role was not well-defined, and Haitians were curious about what was in store. Mills wrote in an email to Hillary Clinton that Haitians saw Bill’s appointment as “a step toward putting Haiti in a protectorate or trusteeship status.” Soon, “joking that he must be coming back to lead a new colonial regime,” the Haitian media “dubbed him Le Gouverneur.”

The project was heavily focused on increasing Haiti’s appeal to foreign corporations. As Politico reported, Clinton’s experiment “had business at its center: Aid would be replaced by investment, the growth of which would in turn benefit the United States.”

One of the first acts in the new “business-centered” Haiti policy involved suppressing Haiti’s minimum wage. A 2009 Haitian law raised the minimum wage to 61 cents an hour, from 24 cents an hour previously. Haitian garment manufacturers, including contractors for Hanes and Levi Strauss, were furious, insisting that they were only willing to agree to a seven-cent increase. The manufacturers approached the U.S. State Department, who brought intense pressure to bear against Haitian President René Préval, working to “aggressively block” the 37-cent increase. The U.S. Deputy Mission Chief said a minimum-wage increase “did not take economic reality into account” and simply “appealed to the unemployed and underpaid masses.” But as Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review explained, the proposed wage increase would have been only the most trivial additional expense for the American garment manufacturers:

As of last year Hanes had 3,200 Haitians making t-shirts for it. Paying each of them two bucks a day more would cost it about $1.6 million a year. Hanesbrands Incorporated made $211 million on $4.3 billion in sales last year, and presumably it would pass on at least some of its higher labor costs to consumers. Or better yet, Hanesbrands CEO Richard Noll could forego some of his rich compensation package. He could pay for the raises for those 3,200 t-shirt makers with just one-sixth of the $10 million in salary and bonus he raked in last year.

The truth of the “economic reality” was that the Haitian undergarment sector was hardly likely to become wildly less competitive as a result of the increase. The effort to suppress the minimum wage was not solely a Clinton project. It was also a “concerted effort on the part of Haitian elites, factory owners, free trade proponents, U.S. politicians, economists, and American companies.” But it was in keeping with the State Department’s priorities under Clinton, which prioritized creating a favorable business climate. It was that same familiar Clinton move “from aid to trade.” Bill Clinton’s program for Haitian development, designed by Oxford University economist Paul Collier, “had garment exports at its center.” Collier wrote that because of “propitious” factors like “poverty and [a] relatively unregulated labor market, Haiti has labor costs that are fully competitive with China.” But the Clintons’ role in Haiti would soon expand even further. In 2010, the country was struck by the worst earthquake in its history. The disaster killed 160,000 people and displaced over 1.5 million more. (The consequences of the earthquake were exacerbated by the ruined state of the Haitian food economy, plus the concentration of unemployed Haitian farmers in Port-au-Prince.) Bill Clinton was soon put in charge of the U.S.-led recovery effort. He was appointed to head the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), which would oversee a wide range of rebuilding projects. At President Obama’s request, Clinton and George W. Bush created the “Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund,” and began aggressively fundraising around the world to support Haiti in the earthquake’s aftermath. (With Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State overseeing the efforts of USAID, the Clintons’ importance to the recovery could not be overstated; Bill’s appointment meant that “at every stage of Haiti’s reconstruction—fundraising, oversight and allocation—a Clinton was now involved.”

Clinton announced that Haiti would be a laboratory where the United States could road-test new approaches to development, taking advantage of “the power of proximity.”

Despite appearances, the Clinton-Bush fund was not focused on providing traditional relief. As they wrote, “[w]hile other organizations in Haiti are using their resources to deliver immediate humanitarian aid, we are using our resources to focus on long-term development.” While the fund would advertise that “100% of donations go directly to relief efforts,” Clinton and Bush adopted an expansive definition of “relief” efforts, treating luring foreign investment and jobs as a crucial part of earthquake recovery. On their website, they spoke proudly of what the New York Daily News characterized as a program of “supporting longterm programs to develop Haiti’s business class.”

The strategy was an odd one. Port-au-Prince had been reduced to ruin, and Haitians were crowded into filthy tent cities, where many were dying of a cholera outbreak (which had itself been caused by the negligence of the United Nations). Whatever value building new garment factories may have had as a longterm economic plan, Haitians were faced with somewhat more pressing concerns like the basic provision of shelter and medicine, as well as the clearing of the thousands of tons of rubble that filled their streets.

The Clinton-led recovery was a disaster. A year after the earthquake, a stinging report from Oxfam singled out Clinton’s IHRC as creating a “quagmire of indecision and delay” that had made little progress toward successful earthquake recovery. Oxfam found that:

…less than half of the reconstruction aid promised by international donors has been disbursed. And while some of that money has been put toward temporary housing, almost none of the funds have been used for rubble removal.

Instead, the Clinton Foundation, IHRC, and State Department created what a Wall Street Journal writer called “a mishmash of low quality, poorly thought-out development experiments and half-finished projects.” A Haitian IHRC members lamented that the commission had produced “a disparate bunch of approved projects. . . [that] do not address as a whole either the emergency situation or the recovery, let alone the development, of Haiti.” A 2013 investigation by the Government Accountability Office found that most money for the recovery was not being dispersed, and that the projects that were being worked on were plagued by delays and cost overruns. Many Clinton projects were extravagant public relations affairs that quickly fizzled. For example, The Washington Post reported that:

…[a] 2011 housing expo that cost more than $2 million, including $500,000 from the Clinton Foundation, was supposed to be a model for thousands of new units but instead has resulted in little more than a few dozen abandoned model homes occupied by squatters.

Other Clinton ventures were seen as “disconnected from the realities of most people in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” Politico reported that many Clinton projects “have primarily benefited wealthy foreigners and the island’s ruling elite, who needed little help to begin with.” For example, “the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund invested more than $2 million in the Royal Oasis Hotel, where a sleek suite with hardwood floors costs more than $200 a night and the shops sell $150 designer purses and $120 men’s dress shirts.”


Predictably, the Royal Oasis didn’t do an especially roaring trade; The Washington Post reported that “[o]ne recent afternoon, the hotel appeared largely empty, and with tourism hardly booming five years after the quake, locals fear it may be failing.” In a country with a 30-cent minimum wage, investing recovery dollars in a luxury hotel was not just offensive, but economically daft. Sometimes the recovery projects were accused not only of being pointless, but of being downright harmful. For instance, Bill Clinton had proudly announced that the Clinton Foundation  would be funding the “construction of emergency storm shelters in Léogâne.” But an investigation of the shelters that the Foundation had actually built found that they were “shoddy and dangerous” and full of toxic mold. The Nation discovered, among other things, that the temperature in the shelters reached over 100 degrees, causing children to experience headaches and eye irritations (which may have been compounded by the mold), and that the trailers showed high levels of carcinogenic formaldehyde, linked to asthma and other lung diseases. The Clinton Foundation had subcontracted the building of the shelters to Clayton Homes, a firm that had already been sued in the United States by the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) for “having provided formaldehyde-laced trailers to Hurricane Katrina victims.” (Clayton Homes was owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, and Buffett had been a longstanding major donor to the Clinton Foundation.) The Nation’s investigation reported on children whose classes were being held in Clinton Foundation trailers. Their semester had just been cut short, and the students sent home, because the temperature in the classrooms had grown unbearable. The misery of the students in the Clinton trailers was described:

Judith Seide, a student in Lubert’s sixth-grade class [explained that] she and her classmates regularly suffer from painful headaches in their new Clinton Foundation classroom. Every day, she said, her “head hurts and I feel it spinning and have to stop moving, otherwise I’d fall.” Her vision goes dark, as is the case with her classmate Judel, who sometimes can’t open his eyes because, said Seide, “he’s allergic to the heat.” Their teacher regularly relocates the class outside into the shade of the trailer because the swelter inside is insufferable. Sitting in the sixth-grade classroom, student Mondialie Cineas, who dreams of becoming a nurse, said that three times a week the teacher gives her and her classmates painkillers so that they can make it through the school day. “At noon, the class gets so hot, kids get headaches,” the 12-year-old said, wiping beads of sweat from her brow. She is worried because “the kids feel sick, can’t work, can’t advance to succeed.”

The most notorious post-earthquake development project, however, was the Caracol industrial park. The park was pitched as a major job creator, part of the goal of helping Haiti “build back better” than it was before. The State Department touted the prospect of 100,000 new jobs for Haitians, with Hillary Clinton promising 65,000 jobs within five years. The industrial park followed the Clintons’ preexisting development model for Haiti: public/private partnerships with a heavy emphasis on the garment industry. Even though there were still hundreds of thousands of evacuees living in tents, the project was based on “the more expansive view that, in a desperately poor country where traditional foreign aid has chronically failed, fostering economic development is as important as replacing what fell down.” Much of the planning was focused on trying to lure a South Korean clothing manufacturer to set up shop there, by plying them with U.S. taxpayer funding. The Caracol project was “the centerpiece” of the U.S.’s recovery effort. A gala celebrating its opening featured the Clintons and Sean Penn, and it was treated as the emblem of the new, “better” Haiti, that would demonstrate the country’s commitment to being “open for business.” In order to build the park, hundreds of poor farmers were evicted from their land, so that millions of dollars could be spent transforming it.


But the project was a terrible disappointment. After four years, it was only operating at 10% capacity, and the jobs had failed to materialize:

Far from 100,000 jobs—or even the 60,000 promised within five years of the park’s opening— Caracol currently employs just 5,479 people full time. That comes out to roughly $55,000 in investment per job created so far; or, to put it another way, about 30 times more per job than the average [Caracol] worker makes per year. The park, built on the site of a former U.S. Marine-run slave labor camp during the 1915-1934 U.S. occupation, has the best-paved roads and manicured sidewalks in the country, but most of the land remains vacant.

Most of the seized farmland went unused, then, and even for the remaining farmers, “surges of wastewater have caused floods and spoiled crops.” Huge queues of unemployed Haitians stood daily in front of the factory, awaiting jobs that did not exist. The Washington Post described the scene:

Each morning, crowds line up outside the park’s big front gate, which is guarded by four men in crisp khaki uniforms carrying shotguns. They wait in a sliver of shade next to a cinder-block wall, many holding résumés in envelopes. Most said they have been coming every day for months, waiting for jobs that pay about $5 a day. From his envelope, Jean Mito Palvetus, 27, pulled out a diploma attesting that he had completed 200 hours of training with the U.S. Agency for International Development on an industrial sewing machine. “I have three kids and a wife, and I can’t support them,” he said, sweating in the hot morning sun. “I have a diploma, but I still can’t get a job here. I still have nothing.”

For some, the Caracol project perfectly symbolized the Clinton approach: big promises, an emphasis on sweatshops, incompetent management, and little concern for the actual impact on Haitians. “Caracol is a prime example of bad help,” as one Haiti scholar put it. “The interests of the market, the interest of foreigners are prioritized over the majority of people who are impoverished in Haiti.”

But, failure as it may have been, the Caracol factory was among the more successful of the projects, insofar as it actually came into existence. A large amount of the money raised by Bill Clinton after the earthquake, and pledged by the U.S. under Hillary Clinton, simply disappeared without a trace, its whereabouts unknown. As Politico explained:

Even Bill’s U.N. Office of the Special Envoy couldn’t track where all of [it] went—and the truth is that still today no one really knows how much money was spent “rebuilding” Haiti. Many initial pledges never materialized. A whopping $465 million of the relief money went through the Pentagon, which spent it on deployment of U.S. troops—20,000 at the high water mark, many of whom never set foot on Haitian soil. That money included fuel for ships and planes, helicopter repairs and inscrutables such as an $18,000 contract for a jungle gym… Huge contracts were doled out to the usual array of major contractors, including a $16.7 million logistics contract whose partners included Agility Public Warehousing KSC, a Kuwaiti firm that was supposed to have been blacklisted from doing business with Washington after a 2009 indictment alleging a conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government during the Iraq War.

The recovery under the Clintons became notorious for its mismanagement. Clinton staffers “had no idea what Haiti was like and had no sensitivity to the Haitians.” They were reportedly rude and condescending toward Haitians, even refusing to admit Haitian government ministers to meetings about recovery plans. While the Clintons called in high-profile consulting firms like McKinsey to draw up plans, they had little interest in listening to Haitians themselves. The former Haitian prime minister spoke of a “weak” American staff who were “more interested in supporting Clinton than helping Haiti.”

One of those shocked by the failure of the recovery effort was Chelsea Clinton, who wrote a detailed email to her parents in which she said that while Haitians were trying to help themselves, every part of the international aid effort, both governmental and nongovernmental, was falling short. “The incompetence is mind numbing,” she wrote. Chelsea produced a detailed memorandum recommending drastic steps that needed to be taken in order to get the recovery on track. But the memo was kept within the Clinton family, released only later under a Freedom of Information Act disclosure of Hillary’s State Department correspondence. If it had come out at the time, as Haiti journalist Jonathan Katz writes, it “would have obliterated the public narrative of helpful outsiders saving grateful earthquake survivors that her mother’s State Department was working so hard to promote.”

The Clintons’ Haiti recovery ended with a whimper. The Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund distributed the last of its funds in 2012 and disbanded, without any attempt at further fundraising. The IHRC “quietly closed their doors” in October of 2011, even though little progress had been made. As the Boston Review’s Jake Johnston explained, though hundreds of thousands remained displaced, the IHRC wiped its hands of the housing situation:

[L]ittle remained of the grand plans to build thousands of new homes. Instead, those left homeless would be given a small, one-time rental subsidy of about $500. These subsidies, funded by a number of different aid agencies, were meant to give private companies the incentive to invest in building houses. As efforts to rebuild whole neighborhoods faltered, the rental subsidies turned Haitians into consumers, and the housing problem was handed over to the private sector.

The Clintons themselves simply stopped speaking about Haiti. After the first two years, they were “nowhere to be seen” there, despite Hillary’s having promised that her commitment to Haiti would long outlast her tenure as Secretary of State. Haiti has been given little attention during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, even though the Haiti project was ostensibly one of great pride for both Clintons.

The widespread consensus among observers is that the Haiti recovery, which TIME called the U.S.’s “compassionate invasion,” was a catastrophically mismanaged disappointment. Jonathan Katz writes that “it’s hard to find anyone these days who looks back on the U.S.-led response to the January 12, 2010, Haiti earthquake as a success.” While plenty of money was channeled into the country, it largely went to what were “little more than small pilot projects—a new set of basketball hoops and a model elementary school here, a functioning factory there.”

The widespread consensus is that the Haiti recovery was a catastrophically mismanaged disappointment.

The end result has been that little has changed for Haiti. “Haitians find themselves in a social and economic situation that is worse than before the earthquake,” reports a Belgian photojournalist who has spent 10 years in Haiti:

Everyone says that they’re living in worse conditions than before… When you look at the history of humanitarian relief, there’s never been a situation when such a small country has been the target of such a massive influx of money and assistance in such a short span of time… On paper, with that much money in a territory the size of Haiti, we should have witnessed miracles; there should have been results.

“If anything, they appear worse off,” says Foreign Policy of Haiti’s farmers. “I really cannot understand how you could raise so much money, put a former U.S. president in charge, and get this outcome,” said one Haitian official. Indeed, the money donated and invested was extraordinary. But nobody seems to know where it has gone.

Haitians direct much of the blame toward the Clintons. As a former Haitian government official who worked on the recovery said, “[t]here is a lot of resentment about Clinton here. People have not seen results. . .. They say that Clinton used Haiti.” Haitians “increasingly complain that Clinton-backed projects have often helped the country’s elite and international business investors more than they have helped poor ‘Haitians.” There is a “suspicion that their motives are more to make a profit in Haiti than to help it.” And that while “striking a populist pose, in practice they were attracted to power in Haiti.”

But perhaps we should be more forgiving of the Clintons’ conduct during the Haitian recovery. After all, instead of doing true harm, the Clintons simply failed to do much good. And perhaps it’s better to have a luxury hotel than not to have one, better to have a few jobs than none at all. Thanks to Bill Clinton, there’s a gleaming new industrial park, albeit one operating at a fraction of its capacity.

Yet it’s a mistake to measure Clinton against what would have happened if the United States had done nothing at all for Haiti. The question is what would have happened if a capable, nonfamous administrator, rather than a globetrotting narcissist, had been placed in charge. Tens of millions of dollars were donated toward the Haiti recovery by people across the world; it was an incredible outpouring of generosity. The squandering of that money on half-baked development schemes (mainly led by cronies), and the ignoring of Haitians’ own demands, mean that Clinton may have caused considerable harm through his failure. Plenty of people died in tent cities that would not have died if the world’s donations had been used effectively.

Democrats have bristled at recent attempts by Donald Trump to criticize Hillary Clinton over her record in Haiti. Jonathan Katz, whose in-depth reporting from Haiti was stingingly critical of the Clintons, has now changed his tune, insisting that we all bear the responsibility for the failed recovery effort. When Trump accused the Clintons of squandering millions building “a sweatshop” in Haiti in the form of the Caracol park, media fact-checkers quickly insisted he was spewing Pinocchios. The Washington Post said that while Clinton Foundation donors may have financially benefited from the factory-building project, they benefited “writ large” rather than “directly.” The Post cited the words of the factory’s spokesman as evidence that the factory was not a sweatshop, and pointed out that Caracol workers earned at least “minimum wage” (failing to mention that minimum wage in Haiti remains well under a dollar). PolitiFact also rated the sweatshop claim “mostly false,” even though Katz notes “long hours, tough conditions, and low pay” at the factory and PolitiFact acknowledges the “ongoing theft of legally-earned wages.”

Defending the Clintons’ Haiti record is an impossible endeavor, one Democrats should probably not bother attempting. As the Center for Economic and Policy Research, which has studied the recovery, noted, when it comes to the Clinton-led recovery mission, “it’s hard to say it’s been anything other than a failure.” Haitians are not delusional in their resentment of the Clintons; they have good reason to feel as if they were used for publicity, and discarded by the Clintons when they became inconvenient.

None of this means that one should vote for Donald Trump for president. His tears for Haiti are those of a highly opportunistic crocodile, and his interest in the country’s wellbeing began at the precise moment that it could be used a bludgeon with which to beat his political opponent. As we have previously noted in this publication, one does not need to be convinced that Hillary Clinton is an honorable person in order to be convinced that she is the preferable candidate. It is important, however, not to maintain any illusions, not to stifle or massage the truth in the service of short-term electoral concerns. It remains simultaneously true that a Clinton presidency is our present least-worst option and that what the Clintons did to Haiti was callous, selfish, and indefensible.

More on Clinton involvement in Haiti can be found in Superpredator: Bill Clinton’s Use and Abuse of Black America.

The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton

In “False Choices,” feminist writers dissect the Clinton candidacy. We speak to three of the contributors.

Hillary Clinton’s presidential nomination has widely been seen as a historic milestone for women. But a number of feminists are not so sure that Clinton’s campaign is entirely good news for the cause. False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Verso, 192pp., $14.95) brings together a number of essays by feminist writers, exploring different aspects of Clinton’s policies and career, and making the case that a serious feminist politics requires a more critical stance on Clinton. Current Affairs recently spoke to The Nation’s Liza Featherstone, who edited the book, along with Yasmin Nair and Margaret Corvid, who each contributed to it. Speaking on the day after Clinton’s nomination in Philadelphia, we asked why they don’t think of Clinton as a feminist hero, and what kind of feminism they do believe in. 

CA: We’re here on the day after the nomination of the first female candidate for a major party and my question is… isn’t this an exciting historic moment?

LF: That’s your question?! Ok. No, it isn’t very exciting to me. I guess the first female anything is always a bit of a milestone. But in the case of Hillary we’ve been hearing about her inevitability for so long, and her long established anointment as a part of the political elite. We’ve seen this in other countries where a female political figure rises to prominence from her family connections, and it’s really nothing new or interesting. We haven’t seen in those countries that it leads to a great breaking of barriers for other women. And I don’t think that British women who lost their council housing saw Maggie Thatcher’s presence at the top of the political structure as extremely empowering or exciting. Similarly, I think we’re going to see this as a major non-event for American women.

MC: I’m actually a little bit critical and disappointed in all of the coverage denoting this a historic moment. In my own circles I have a lot of liberal friends, people who are saying to vote for Hillary and are extremely excited about this—representation is important to them. But I think the focus on representation is even worse than nothing at all because it closes out opportunities for us to say that feminism is about something more than representation. It’s about systemic structural change that gives women from all areas, races, classes and nationalities more opportunities to be safe, more opportunities to have a good life and have their human rights respected. And so you can talk about Hillary being the first woman as a major nominee, but besides her gender, nearly everything else is against women. That includes her support for neo-liberalism and imperialism. It includes nominating a Vice Presidential candidate who’s soft on choice and is a very big hawk for free trade. You could just keep going down the list. It’s all very disappointing.

YN: I remember the years of Margaret Thatcher and I’m glad Liza brought her up. Thatcher is responsible for the decline of the central welfare state as we know it. She was a woman who was profoundly anti-family, anti-women, anti-union, you name it. But also I remember growing up under Indira Gandhi and other women leaders in the region of what is now known as South Asia. All of whom came out of powerful families. And Indira Gandhi had terrible policies, which included forced sterilization, particularly of lower income men. The dynastic aspect makes an interesting parallel. She came out of a very powerful family and birthed a party that remains more or less now within the purview of one family. After Ranjiv there was Sanjay and so on. And Hillary Clinton is establishing something similar. She’s also an ex-president and she has a daughter who is being given the Clinton Foundation to run. What I see is exactly what we saw with the Gandhis. There’s an ongoing accumulation of cultural and financial capital across generations. And everyone ignores the dynastic element. We had two Bushes, we could have more. We have the great possibility of two Clintons, perhaps even more, because Chelsea Clinton is very young, she’ll have more children, and then I’m sure she’ll enter politics, followed by the children. So for people who talk about this as a historic achievement, there’s a terrible precedent for this kind of historic achievement.

LF: I’m glad you’re talking about the dynastic aspects. After Michelle Obama spoke at the convention, it was really striking how many people said “Oh, she should be president.” Are people just craving these dynasties? What did we have an American revolution for? The one accomplishment of our bourgeois revolution was that we overthrew the idea of monarchy here. Yet people just seem to be pathologically creating and recreating it.

CA: Speaking of the Clintons as a family, to what extent does it make sense to talk about “Clintonism” as a unified philosophy? Every time you associate Hillary with the misdeeds or destructive legacy of Bill there’s a lot of pushback. People say, quite reasonably, that you can’t blame a woman for the crimes of her husband. Yet at the same time there is a massive effort on the part of the Clinton campaign to take credit for the first Clinton Administration’s economic gains. So should we be talking about Hillary as part of something larger called “Clintonism” or not?

LF: It absolutely makes sense to talk about Clintonism. It’s absurd when people say it’s unfair to associate Hilary with the crimes of Bill. After all, it’s not as though she was folding the laundry while all of this was going on. They’ve been a team the entire time, even back in Arkansas they were known as “Billary” and they were sold as a twofer. When Bill was first elected, sometimes you’d get some condescending Republican saying “Oh, ha ha, she’s the one who should be president.” Well, obviously there’s sexism there. But they were always a partnership. And when you look at some of Bill’s most reactionary policies, that’s particularly where you see Hillary being a prominent intellectual partner in crafting the policy as well as a prominent political partner in drumming up support and pushing for it. We see her right there all along the way. So I think it is ridiculous to think she is some sort of waiflike Alice James figure in the back while the men are doing things. It’s a strange sort of victim feminism there.

MC:  Two points. First, the Hillary campaign really tries to have it both ways. In one sense, Hillary is trying to set up some political space for herself as a distinct individual. In another, she is running her campaign based on the record of the first Clinton Administration. But you can’t have both, even though the media would like to think that we have the capacity to believe this confusing set of self-contradictory things. Next, the Clintons are not only consistent in a neoliberal political ideology that you could call “Clintonism,” they are also consistent in the way that they do politics. One thing that both Bill and Hillary have is this kind of changeability in their political perspectives. They’ll believe one thing, say about criminal justice reform decades ago, and now they believe something else. And they both seem to think that they can just give lip service to an issue and then go on and legislate policy however they want.

YN: We have statements to prove that they saw themselves as a team. I remember Hillary Clinton’s famous quote, “I’m not staying home baking cookies.” Then the Republicans said she was insulting housewives and she had to walk it back by bringing in a sheet of cookies and doing a photo op with them. But we have documented evidence that they operated as a team. They said it. “Eight years of Bill, eight years of Hill,” that was their slogan. In my chapter, I write about Hillary showing up at the Beijing women’s conference and making a speech about how women’s rights are human rights. And even though we’ve forgotten, that was a pivotal moment in the history of UN, NGO, human rights discourse. Hillary Clinton wasn’t there as “the wife,” she was there as “first feminist.”


CA: The book frequently makes the point that not only does the rise of Hillary Clinton not represent an advance for women, but it actually hurts them. You go through multiple specific realms, Margaret talking about the criminalization of sex work and Yasmin talking about carceral feminism, and argue  not just that the symbolism is empty, but that actual women who are marginalized and poor are affirmatively hurt by Clinton’s policies.

MC: The point about the symbols not being empty is really important. If the symbols were empty, we could say “Yeah, actually Hillary is not so great, but go ahead and vote for her and here’s some other ideas.” But her symbolic politics actually crowds out actual liberatory politics. Sex work and human trafficking is actually a really good example. There was a speech last night at the DNC by a woman named Ima Matul who is a campaigner against what they call trafficking or modern slavery. And when they were billing the speakers, they talked about Ima Matul as a sex trafficking survivor. But she wasn’t actually a sex trafficking survivor. She experienced forced domestic labor. But the fact that they characterized her as a “sex trafficking” survivor really shows how the DNC and Hillary use the notion of trafficking as a tool to give themselves some feminist credibility. Hillary Clinton has long been an opponent of the full decriminalization of sex work, which sex workers are actually advocating for. When she was Secretary of State she actually used international aid and development money as a tool against it. They wouldn’t give money to countries unless they signed onto a pledge that they would illegalize sex work in their countries and crack down on it. So she’s trying to look like a really good feminist and say look we’re going liberate women who are enslaved. But if Hillary wanted to actually deal with issues of bad working conditions for people who migrate for work in any industry, she would advocate full amnesty for all undocumented immigrants. She would loosen border controls and make sure that people who are migrating for work don’t feel criminalized and that they can go to authorities if there’s a problem.

CA: In your piece, you are very critical of the idea of rescuing women from sex trafficking. But to a lot of people that seems like the most unobjectionable idea in the world. Why are you so critical of something that is so universally embraced?

MC: Because they’re being really sneaky about it. There’s something called the rescue industry, Laura Augustine and Melissa Gira Grant have written about it. There’s a multimillion dollar international industry based on “rescuing” victims of trafficking. And it’s a real good instant feel-good idea for people. But what it’s really doing is reifying, strengthening, concepts of us and them. Consider the fishing industry. People who are in fishing are in an incredibly dangerous industry, there’s lots of bad working conditions there’s lots of risk of injury and death. But nobody is going around talking about making fishing boats illegal. Nobody is doing that. From a socialist perspective, we say that these people need workers’ rights. They need to organize and bargain over their working conditions and have control over their working life. But this idea of “rescuing” people ignores the fact that every job is a negotiated network of subtle consents and coercions. We all have to work for a living. But people talk about migrated sex work as automatically being trafficking, even though they don’t talk that way about other types of work. And instead of improving their working conditions you’re going to “save” them from their work without actually giving them an alternative. Instead, the answer is to lock people up to jail and deport people. But if they actually wanted to fix exploitation, they wouldn’t place new power in the hands of a carceral, criminological state. Instead, the agency would be given to the women themselves, those people who are traveling for all kinds of work.

CA: Perhaps that’s a good transition to Yasmin’s piece on “carceral feminism.” Could you tell us what you mean by that term, Yasmin, and why you think it’s important?

YN: Well, to give a very broad definition, “carceral feminism” is simply the form of feminism that thinks that the apparatus of the state is the best way to end women’s oppression and enable women’s freedom. The underlying logic is that those who oppress women are guilty of criminal acts, and must be put in jail in larger numbers. So that logic has no problem expanding what we call the “prison industrial complex,” if it’s being done for the sake of women. As Margaret indicates, in the example of sex trafficking, you have mostly white liberal feminists demanding that traffickers must be put in jail. But what they ignore is that the system is set up in such a way that it is often the women themselves who end up in prison and are then deported back to the horrendous conditions they may have fled. So, for example, under sex trafficking laws, if a woman who is caught up in the dragnet of sex trafficking raids does not point to someone as her trafficker and label them a criminal, she will frequently be deported. Yet in many cases, those who they are compelled to point to as “traffickers” are in fact community members or people who have even tried to harbor or help them. So, for instance, if I were to give housing or shelter to a woman who is an immigrant and a sex worker, I could be considered a “sex trafficker” under the current law.

So “carceral feminism” takes feminist principles and then ends up increasing criminalization, sees the prison industrial complex as a solution to social problems. Now, there’s a history here, and a reason why feminists turned to this approach. The fight against rape has had little support, and marital rape only became illegal in all 50 states in 1993. So using the law is in some ways understandable. But you end up seeing prison as a cure-all solution, even though prison is just another problem.


In terms of the Clintons, Hillary Clinton has recently been talking about her opposition to mass incarceration. We have to call bullshit on that. First, obviously, in the 1990s she lent public support to the crime control efforts that grew the prison population more than any other administration. Second, it was the first Clinton Administration that introduced the ten-year ban on undocumented immigrants, which means that if you have been the country without papers and you leave the U.S. and try to re-enter, you are subjected to a ten-year ban from entering. And that ban made people terrified to leave the U.S., their lives are criminalized.

LF: These are perfect examples of how Hillary Clinton is not just an empty symbol as a woman and feminist, but her femaleness and her status as a prominent feminist are actually something that can be used to pursue oppressive policies. That is incredibly important.

CA: If Hillary’s type of feminism is oppressive, then, what type of feminism do you advocate? False Choices seems to be about more than just Hillary Clinton, in that it’s trying to forge a different approach in how to think about feminist issues. It seems to not just be about criticizing her, but advocating a new type of critical, socialist-inspired feminism. And that it wants to get rid of something we might call, I hate using the word “bourgeois,” but bourgeois feminism.

LF: We do kind of sound like old Marxists when we use the term bourgeois. But it’s an important descriptor of a politics that’s about the elite and protecting elite interests. This is exactly why we did this book, we do want to advance a type of left feminism that is not Hillaryism. And we see left feminist writers and thinkers who are so smart, so committed to the way feminism and the material world are actually deeply intertwined. And we want to advance that way of thinking. We aren’t simply haters who hate Hillary Clinton, although… good Lord. The feminism I would like to see replacing Hillaryism in the long run would be one that is deeply committed to the advancement of all women, not just the 1%, or in Hillary’s case, one woman. I’d like to see a feminism that is deeply committed to redistribution of wealth. It’s been amply demonstrated that that is the only thing that actually helps women advance toward anything like parity to men: universal programs like socialized medicine, socialized day care, quality public schools, free higher education. These are the kinds of things that actually do help women. And when we see feminism and socialism coming together that’s a lot more promising for both agendas.

YN: I often speak about the problems with “white liberal feminism.” But you can be a “white liberal feminist” and not actually be white. I have no doubt that under the regime of Hillary Clinton we will get a diverse bunch of capitalists. First the women are allowed in, then the black people then the brown people, so I’m sure the board rooms will be very diverse. But the class structure remains in place. This type of feminism really doesn’t think about an alternative to capitalism but instead thinks about ways to make capitalism more palatable and more diverse and more woman-friendly. So let’s put changing tables in all the bathrooms and that will solve all of our problems. Not that diaper changing tables aren’t important. But they don’t address the fundamental issues facing poor women, like brutal employment conditions.

The class element is implicated in abortion too, which Hillary Clinton supposedly cares about. We had that case of Purvi Patel in Indiana, who was given 10 years sentence for inducing an abortion. These are always poor women, wealthy women are not sent to jail for feticide, because of the class structure. But even though Democrats want us to worry about Donald Trump and what might happen to the Supreme Court, Clinton has as her Vice Presidential nominee a man who has a record of being very anti-abortion. That worries me far more than Donald Trump, who if he gets elected would resign in 3 weeks taking the best china with him, and just wants to turn the White House into some kind of glitzy Trumpian fount of wealth. Until you are unwaveringly in favor of abortion rights, you are never against inequality. Until women can control their bodies, there is no ending inequality, because what prevents women from moving forward in any realm is their inability to control contraception and control whether they want to have children or not.

LF: The recent developments on the abortion issue are really particularly flabbergasting to me. Mo Tkacik writes really well in False Choices about how abortion has become the Democratic Party’s sole selling point to women. But as Yasmin just pointed out, it’s a pretty good one, since abortion rights are foundational to women’s autonomy. What’s amazing, though, is how weak Hillary is on that issue alone. She’s spent a lot of time talking about overturning the Hyde Amendment, but then she picked Tim Kaine, a man who describes himself as a long term supporter of the Hyde Amendment. It’s an amazing slap in the face to all of those women’s organizations who have been, the unkind way to say it is shilling for her, but have been supporting her. It’s really telling to see how superficial her support is for something that most liberal feminists actually regard as an absolute cornerstone of women’s rights.

MC: That’s why we can’t wait for feminist policies to be bestowed upon us from above by a white knight like Hillary Clinton, who is really just mouthing these words to get people to vote for her. In order to force through really feminist and socialist policy in the US we need a movement of women, led by women, particularly women of color, who actually disrupt the social order to get people to sit up and pay attention. The feminists who really inspire me are in groups like Black Lives Matter, which is pretty much mostly lead by black queer women. They are in leadership, they are at the head of the table. But it’s not a boardroom table or an oval office table, it’s a table where they’re plotting how to shut down highways to protest the killings of black men and women by police. So my hope for the future of feminism is in movements like this. Not in political parties or Hillary Clinton.

The Strange World of the Special Tribunal For Lebanon

A very expensive court prosecutes spectral defendants…

“Because missiles can fly through windows, the courtroom is windowless.” So reports Ronen Bergman in “The Hezbollah Connection,” an epic 8,000-word dispatch from The New York Times Magazine last year. The courtroom in question belongs to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), a United Nations-backed entity in The Hague, Netherlands. The STL is tasked with trying in absentia five Hezbollah members accused of orchestrating the 2005 bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri along with 21 others in a massive blast in Beirut. More than a decade later, as the tribunal fumbles its way toward ostensible justice from the depths of its windowless chambers, one can’t help but begin to question how any disgruntled party in Lebanon would go about firing missiles at a Netherlands courtroom 2,000 miles away.

Earlier this year in Beirut, I spoke with members of several STL defense teams who were in town interviewing “witnesses” for the tribunal. These particular witnesses were officials from Lebanese mobile phone companies, as the prosecutors’ case is in large part based on the analysis of enormous quantities of mobile phone logs, which are said to point to the five Hezbollah men. Much of the STL’s work thus consists of the endless examination of telecom information using unproven methods of co-location and link analysis. Indeed, as lawyer Philippe Larochelle—who has since resigned from his position as co-counsel for defendant Hussein Hassan Oneissi—put it to me: it’s essentially the case that “the accused are phones.”

The trial of the phones kicked off in The Hague in January 2014, following all manner of delays and detours. In one rather lengthy detour, from 2005-2009, four Lebanese generals were imprisoned without charge thanks to a recommendation by initial UN prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who was operating on a defective theory that the generals had conspired with the Syrian government to assassinate Hariri. Once a sufficient international stink had been made over the wrongful imprisonment and the generals had finally been freed, the STL fixed its attention solely on Hezbollah.

As the New York Times sees it, the STL is “necessary simply because of Hezbollah’s unique role in Lebanon and the world: Although the group is classified by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization, it is also a popular political party in Lebanon, and therefore it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for Lebanon or any other single nation to provide an appropriate venue for its prosecution.”

But “necessary” is an odd way of describing the STL to begin with. The tribunal’s singular nature makes it an unusual international priority. For one thing, it’s expensive; some half a billion dollars had already been spent as of February 2015—with Lebanon in charge of 49 percent of the bill. This is hardly small change in a country plagued by widespread poverty and a dearth of government services. During my most recent visit to Tyre, Lebanon’s fourth-largest city (located twenty minutes from the border with Israel), the area was receiving as little as two hours of government-supplied electricity per day. A November 2014 article in Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper noted that the country had just managed to fork over $36 million “in dues” to the STL despite “financial troubles, as the [Lebanese] economy reels from the impact of a massive refugee influx from Syria and ongoing security problems.” The previous December, meanwhile, the U.S. State Department issued a press statement applauding “Lebanon’s decision to fulfill its 2013 funding obligations” to the STL and emphasizing that the United States, too, had “provided strong financial support to the Tribunal since its inception, and we will continue to do so.”

Photos courtesy of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
Photos courtesy of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Yet the absence of any actual defendants gives the STL an air of the farcical. Indeed, it is the first international trial in absentia  since Nuremberg. In Beirut, defense lawyer Larochelle remarked to me that having worked more than two years for the STL without ever seeing the person whose “interests” he was supposed to be representing had taken its toll on his motivation. A lawyer can find it dispiriting to defend an invisible client. Any eventual conviction by the “mock court,” Larochelle said, would be “imperfect” in light of the reality that “the accused are not there”—and that the most the prosecutors could hope for was “a conviction for five ghosts.” Given the specifics, imperfect would seem something of a wry understatement.

One might think that the May 2016 assassination in Syria of one of the defendants, Mustafa Amine Badreddine, would also have put the operation in a pickle. (It wasn’t, however, unexpected: when I spoke to a member of the defense team in Beirut several months prior to the assassination, he claimed there was a good chance Badreddine would be killed—either before or after the verdict—by the Mossad, CIA, or some other interested party.) But so far, the tribunal appears undeterred. Following Badreddine’s death, the STL swiftly took to Twitter to assure the world that it remained “committed to fulfill its mandate with the highest standards of international justice.” Granted, a dead Badreddine is no less present at the proceedings than he was before.

The United States, for one, has long been insistent on seeing things through at the STL, regardless of the court’s eccentricities. In the aforementioned press statement, the State Department condemns “those responsible for reprehensible and destabilizing acts of violence in Lebanon,” lamenting that, “for too long, Lebanon has suffered from a culture of impunity for those who use murder and terror to promote their political agenda against the interests of the Lebanese people.” A lofty promise is put forth: “The Tribunal, working with the Government of Lebanon, will help end this impunity by providing a transparent, fair process to determine responsibility for the terrorist attack that killed former Prime Minister Hariri and scores of others.”

But the only obvious transparency on display at the STL is the transparent selectivity of its justice. No other political assassination—a tradition that has defined the Lebanese landscape for decades, both before and after Hariri’s demise—has merited such attention. And as a Beirut-based criminal justice analyst pointed out to me, the post-cold war crop of international tribunals—for the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and so on—have all dealt with genocide and crimes against humanity rather than crimes against individuals.

The tribunal’s mandate also depends on the highly contested nature of the word “terrorism.” The STL defines itself as “the first tribunal of its kind to deal with terrorism as a distinct crime.” In these groundbreaking dealings, the STL notes, it “applies the Lebanese legal definition of terrorism, of which an element is the use of means that are ‘liable to create a public danger.’” As usual, the word “terrorism” is so broad as to be almost entirely empty of meaning, making its application open to extreme subjectivity.

One of the most blatant hypocrisies in the international community’s stance against “terrorism” is in its lack of application to more-than-eligible actions by the United States and Israel. Hezbollah’s very raison d’être, it bears mentioning, lies in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, an affair that killed an estimated 20,000 people, the vast majority of them civilians. After occupying south Lebanon for no fewer than 22 years and subjecting the country to intermittent bouts of slaughter, the Israeli military returned in 2006 to decimate its northern neighbor and wipe out approximately 1,200 lives, again mainly civilian. In regularly flattening sections of Lebanon, Israel would appear to have the “creation of public danger” down to an art. But Israel’s maneuvers have not yet proven special enough for a Special Tribunal.

In fact, Hezbollah has accused Israel itself of carrying out the Hariri assassination, though the STL has categorically refused to consider the possibility. Arguably, the Israeli state did possess not only the technical sophistication to orchestrate the murder but also sufficient motivations. After all, the direct outcome of the assassination—which has from the get-go been blamed on varying combinations of Syria and Hezbollah—was the Syrians’ departure from Lebanon, where they had maintained an occupying presence since being summoned by Christian forces shortly after the launch of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. The termination of the Syrian occupation translated into big points for Israel, which had been forcibly evicted from its own occupation in 2000 by the Hezbollah-led resistance movement—an affront the Israeli government still hasn’t managed to get over.

“Excessive fixation with the killing of the multibillionaire Hariri has tended to distract from the fairly pervasive injustice suffered by much of the rest of the Lebanese population…”

The United States’ own insistence on pursuing the prosecution solidifies the double standard. After all, it was none other than the U.S. that was rush-shipping bombs to the Israeli military in 2006 while it engaged in slaughtering Lebanese children. The one-way moral reasoning once again raises the question of just who deserves the denomination of foreign terrorist organization. The United States has never faced international legal action for its various violent incursions abroad, and has freely supported the assassination of heads of state from Patrice Lumumba in the Congo to Salvador Allende in Chile. In 2011, a U.S. drone was directly involved in the killing of Libya’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi, plunging the country further into a ruinous civil war. Yet strangely, Hezbollah faces the only international terrorism tribunal ever constituted. In The Hague, phone lines are being put on trial for the killing of a Lebanese superbillionaire, while U.S. politicians have not once been summonsed to answer for the destruction of Iraq.

The proceedings are hopelessly hypocritical in other ways. The “Government of Lebanon” that has been assigned the job of helping to end “impunity” is itself largely comprised of sectarian warlords hailing from the civil war era. Those warlords have remained entrenched in power despite being responsible for untold quantities of spilled blood. There’s a lot to be said for impunity.

There’s also something to be said for social class, it seems. The excessive fixation with the killing of Hariri has tended to distract from the fairly pervasive injustice suffered by much of the rest of the Lebanese population. Unsurprisingly, a not insignificant amount of suffering is attributable to aforementioned warlords. As Lebanese criminal justice expert Dr. Omar Nashabe remarks in a 2012 paper published by the American University of Beirut, “families of thousands of persons who disappeared during the [Lebanese] civil war question the creation of the STL to investigate the killings of a few elites with no serious investigations into the fate of their [own] relatives.”


There are other thorny geopolitical implications to the tribunal’s work, too. It’s worth reviewing the words of Lebanese Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, who in a leaked American diplomatic cable from 2006 is quoted as characterizing the tribunal as “our best weapon against the Syrians.”

Jumblatt is a civil war relic whose public positions have been, at best, a jumble of schizophrenic self-contradiction. Despite opposing the invasion of Iraq at the time it occurred, Jumblatt is quoted in a book by George W. Bush as retrospectively praising the invasion as equivalent to the fall of the Berlin Wall. (Note that, since the invasion quickly turned to disaster, most observers would have revised their opinions in the opposite direction.) Jumblatt additionally appeared in a 2007 issue of The New Yorker, advising then-U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney on how to undermine Syria’s Bashar al-Assad so as to disrupt “the basic link between Iran and Lebanon.”

Fast forward to 2015, when Jumblatt himself testified in The Hague, as one of a lineup of Lebanese politicians trotted before the STL to aid the battle against “impunity.” No matter that, like many of his colleagues, Jumblatt is guilty of ethnic cleansing and other misconduct dating from the civil war period. According to the Daily Star, the Druze leader had at the outset “personally lobbied world leaders to finance the [Hariri] tribunal” but had since had a change of heart:

At a meeting with the outgoing Russian ambassador to Lebanon in 2010, Jumblatt said he wished the tribunal had never been established. ‘We got the tribunal, but I wish we did not,’ Jumblatt said… ‘The aim of [U.N. Security Council] Resolution 1559 and the 2006 War [with Israel] was to disarm the Resistance [Hezbollah]. When this failed, they resorted to [attempting to use] the STL’s indictment [to carry out this goal] (rampant brackets in original).

Jumblatt’s own psychological oscillations aside, the STL has since become an even better “best weapon against the Syrians” and affiliated entities on account of the war raging in Syria and efforts to discredit select tribunal participants.

The more dysfunctional the international community is, the more dysfunctional the justice.

Now that one of the “ghost” defendants,  Badreddine, has definitively crossed over, it’s anyone’s guess what the future holds for the defense attorneys who represent the deceased man’s remaining earthly “interests.” But however things ultimately shape up in The Hague, it seems there is plenty of job security to be had in the tribunal industry; as the Times notes, many of the judges and lawyers involved in the STL “have made a career of serving in such international tribunals.” The U.N.’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, for example, has now been operating continuously for over twenty years, and defendants quite literally grow old as they wait for their trials to conclude.

Philippe Larochelle, himself a veteran of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Court, cast as the STL’s most distinguishing characteristic the sheer amount of money and resources being thrown at the project. Larochelle suggests, with characteristic understatement, that the STL’s lucrative employment opportunities raised the question of “to what extent” participants were being “paid to validate a dubious process.”

He describes the court as the “Dubai or Qatar of tribunals.” On its sleek website, the STL offers free downloads of high-quality professional photographs of its gleaming facilities, encouraging the media to disseminate them. There is, however, one area in which the STL has attempted to pinch pennies: the court’s website specifies that “interns will not receive remuneration for their work [and] will cover the travel and living costs in the Netherlands.”

As the funds keep flowing in, the folly and general arbitrariness of the result is readily apparent. Even The New York Times acknowledged that “the prosecution has produced no direct evidence,” an indication that the court “is also likely to establish new precedents in murder convictions on the basis of circumstantial evidence.”

STL aficionados might have hoped for at least a few incidents of compelling testimony to redeem the court’s mission and give it an aura of useful purpose. But these, too, have been few and far between. Instead, the most crucial witnesses have lapsed into contradiction and recantation. In December, for example, a former bodyguard for “Sami Issa”—said to be the alter-ego of now-nonexistent defendant Mustafa Badreddine—positively identified Issa/Badreddine in two photographs and then backpedaled. The Daily Star summed up the ensuing scene:

Bizarrely, he testified that the man in the photograph was wearing eyeglasses, comparing them to Issa’s. Though the photo was of poor quality, the person depicted did not appear to be wearing any.

But the money is certainly being spent. The Times noted some of the results:

The tribunal’s budget makes it possible for lawyers to present their graphic exhibits in the clearest possible manner. During some hearings, prosecutors place impressively accurate before-and-after models of the scene of the bombing on an enormous table at the center of the room. The model makers, who spent weeks constructing them, put special emphasis on precisely reproducing the destruction, even the damage to trees.

As is well known in criminal justice circles, leaf disfiguration patterns hold the key to any murder mystery.

All of this may be slightly unfair to the STL, though. After all, there may be little hope for any venue dedicated to the pursuit of “international justice.” As Larochelle pointed out to me, it’s an ideal that is categorically impossible, given that it can’t be disentangled from the (inevitably politicized) international community itself. As he noted, “The more dysfunctional the international community is, the more dysfunctional the justice.”

Two days prior to the announcement of Badreddine’s demise, I subjected myself to a brief but excruciating viewing of STL courtroom proceedings, which are transmitted with a thirty-minute delay on the STL website. During the segment I watched, a female prosecutor examined a protected witness—a representative of a telecommunications company in Lebanon. The witness’s protected status meant that the screen went blank each time he spoke, and his voice was mutated into a cross between Darth Vader, Optimus Prime, and the guy who narrates movie previews. The prosecutor spent most of her own screen time reading to the court the scintillating text of Lebanese mobile network subscription agreement forms.

Watching justice plod along into eternity at the STL, I couldn’t help but wonder how many in the courtroom secretly longed for a window. Or perhaps even a missile.