What is Trump?

The greatest virtue imbedded in democratic government is not fairness or equality, but honesty. Democratic elections deliver the preference of the public as stated, with little allowance for after-the-fact denial. The result is not merely the government we deserve but the government we claimed to want, and like any honest statement, we must suffer the consequence of expressing it.

Much of the mainstream media’s rhetoric surrounding Donald Trump is aggressively anti-democratic. We are constantly told he “can’t” or “won’t’” win, he’ll “never” be the nominee or president, and “should” or “must” drop out immediately. It is therefore also profoundly dishonest, as it seeks to deny the popularity of a candidate that is quite obviously present — and by recent accounts, growing.

I am deeply sympathetic to basically every criticism of Trump, but repeated assertions from on high about his “doomed” campaign and “inevitable” surrender make me squeamish. Candidates are not generally scolded or shamed out of elections, nor should they be. They are not obligated to earn a passing grade from the Very Serious People in order to continue their campaigns; runs should only end once voters have expressed their opinion, either at the ballot box, or through a series of unambiguous polls. As of now, Trump has not failed either test.

There have been endless articles attempting to diagnose the Trump phenomenon from a variety of different angles, but all share common conclusion that the man’s base is coherent and strong. This suggests Trump’s road to the nomination is anything but impossibly uphill. A majority of GOP voters may oppose him, but primary elections are decided by plurality vote and on a packed ballot less than 50% can be more than enough to win. In 2012, Rick Santorum won Iowa with 24%, Romney won New Hampshire with 39% and Gingrich won South Carolina with 40%. And back then the GOP field was considerably less crowded.

Though Canadians have scorned the Trump candidacy with predictable smugness, the modern politician he most resembles is Toronto’s Rob Ford. Like Trump, he was popular in a way the Serious People found equal parts maddening and incomprehensible. Like Trump, they constantly predicted just one more gaffe would make him go away forever. Like Trump, he represented an honest expression of public sentiment that can only emerge in a direct-election political system.

During his peak, when his reelection looked imminent, my thesis of Mayor Ford was that he simply represented the fact that a lot of people these days are nasty and gross, and nasty gross people like electing one of their own to power as much as anyone else. Educated upper-middle-class types are often in a great deal of denial about the sheer popularity of a vulgar lower-class culture they go out of their way to avoid, and become shocked when forced to confront it. How did Two and a Half Men get so popular? And where did all these Minions come from? It’s a style of willful dishonesty about the nature of the society they inhabit, formed from a sheltered perspective.

Trump is not popular for political reasons, and efforts to cast him as a revolutionary figure of substance, particularly among alt-righters who worship the man as their white nationalist messiah, seem tortured and weird. Trump does not have a history of pushing clear or consistent political beliefs, priorities, or agendas. He does have a history of being an entertaining reality show star known for sassy insults and loveable egomania.

Voters are human, and can be animated by the superficial appeals of celebrity, novelty, and humour. Such appeals have the capacity to cloud better judgements about merit and ideology, and common sense in general.

Much of modern American culture is shaped by products and media that encourage us to discard rational consideration of what is right or good in favour of what is fun or satisfying in the immediate moment. It is not surprising that politics is not immune to this, and commentators on both right and left alike have cautioned for decades against following “celebrity” politicians offering fame in place of reputation and emotional satisfaction instead of wisdom.

Trump is perhaps a more grotesque and brazen spectacle than what we are used to, but the trend lines have been pointing in his direction for quite some time. While his erratic vanity makes it difficult to predict just how long he intends to pursue the presidency, his popularity is an honest expression of what a certain faction of Americans enjoy, and the sentiment will outlast the man.

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Bilingualism and Mulcair

Here are two recent articles about Canadian politics I wrote for two different clients:

Bilingualism is the demand of Canada’s linguistic aristocracy,” for the National Post, in which I reflect on what my time in Japan taught me about how languages are learned or not-learned.

Mulcair’s radical promise,” for Loonie Politics, in which I consider the consequences of the fact that the NDP is the only party that still favors using the “coalition government” trick to prevent Harper from serving another term.

I am also briefly quoted in this Foreign Policy article about US-Canada differences, as manifested by the GOP debate.

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The GOP debates

I actually watched both, even though that entailed ignoring the Canadian prime ministerial debate scheduled simultaneously with the “top tier” one.

What was most striking was how good everyone was. Despite the tired caricature of the GOP field as a “clown car” packed with lunatics, with at most two exceptions (Trump and Dr. Carson), all 17 of the candidates presented as competent, qualified, articulate, and thoughtful. It is an amazingly strong field. I assume a lot of these people are going to run again in 2020 simply because there are basically no Republicans of national stature or fame who aren’t running now.

There are theories that our brains can only conceptualize so many friends; I think the same is probably true of political candidates. It is extraordinarily difficult to form useful opinions and insights on over a dozen politicians of rather narrow ideological deviation, so the pressure is strong to just relapse into familiar storylines and simply reconsider the the merits or flaws of those whom you have pre-existing opinions.

Huckabee was said by some to have had a good night for instance, but since I grew numb to his shtick long ago his performance didn’t move me. I know he’s articulate and witty and forceful in a way that makes for good retail politics, but he also suffers the classic populist’s flaw of lacking substantial second-liners to follow the clever one-liners. Santorum was neither impressive nor unimpressive, I just think the world has so utterly tired of him he barely registers at all. Perry has clearly been heavily coached since last time, and has some Dubya-esque charms that now seem oddly nostalgic, but given how infamously he flopped in 2012 it’s probably too late.

Rand Paul is a confused anachronism. He tries to win the isolationist vote while simultaneously conceding the isolationist moment has passed. What’s left is a candidate as shrill and pugilistic as his father but without the ideological consistency. It’s not compelling.

Trump, ditto. Whether he exceeded low expectations or not, he was identifiably himself. People project all sorts of things onto him, but at his core he’s just a rude man utterly convinced of his own brilliance. Either you go for that sort of thing or you don’t.

Dr. Carson has a sweet and pleasant (even Reaganesque) personality but he’s not qualified to be a head of state. He did nothing last night to demonstrate otherwise.

The newcomers, your Kasich, your Gilmores, got lost in the weeds of limited attention spans.

Many pundits felt Carly Fiorina was the breakout star of the earlier, “bottom tier” debate, but I wonder whether voters are too fatigued at this point to go through the whole process of “getting to know” the entire biography and baggage of some slightly intriguing new face when there’s already so much of that to sort through as it is.

In that sense, I’d posit it was the middle tier, those candidates who are nearly equal parts knowns and unknowns, who had the most actually at stake, since their inclusion offered the potential to solidify public perceptions that have yet to fully harden.

On that front, I found Walker, Bush, Christie, Jindal, and Rubio to be exceedingly plain, though Walker’s plainness was more vivid than most, given his superstar reputation. Bush comes off as completely identical to Mitt Romney in style and substance, which I suppose suits him just fine. But if his slow-and-steady campaign capsizes for some reason you can easily imagine one of the other four generics filling the void.

Rubio, who the press also seems to be impressed with, demonstrated sophisticated calculating in some answers. When confronted with a quote implying he favored abortion in cases of rape or insest, he simply replied “I never said that,” which is just weasely enough to both win hardcore pro-lifers in the primary and offer plausible deniability to moderates during the general.

Cruz is the one candidate I have a hard time pigeon-holing. I was taken some time ago by this very good essay by Andrew Ferguson that argues Cruz is enormously overrated, the product of a quiet conspiracy between the liberal press and Cruz himself to inflate him into a much more consequential figure than he actually is. He’s an intelligent man who has chosen to use his intelligence to market himself as a radical right-winger who everyone hates. I am not sure this is a wise way to win a popularity contest.

Lindsey Graham, it has been said, only entered this contest to make a point about how we don’t fear the Middle East nearly enough and he delivered it with all the passion of a cop informing the next of kin. His performance was more avant garde than anything Trump did.

They were interesting debates but I’m not sure we learned much.

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Understanding Canada’s election

Campaign season is here once again! Here’s a video tutorial.

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Soylent!

The food of the future! But is it any good?

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The wrong side of Hillary

The wrong side of Hillary

Bad things tend to happen to those who oppose the Clintons.

It’s now known that many of the vilest slurs hurled against Barack Obama during his first presidential run — including crazed allegations he was born in Kenya or a closet Muslim who secretly wore weird Muslim clothes — had their origins in the Hillary 2008 campaign. Neither Senator Clinton nor her immediate proxies cast such aspersions directly, of course — that would be unbecoming of a leader of such imperious airs. No, the rumors began, as rumors often do, via the chain letters, blog comments, and idle gossip of free-agent “supporters,” who were just innocuously repeating second-hand truths as they understood them. The technique was what political scientists call the “whisper campaign;” nasty underground innuendo against a candidate that mysteriously emerges at precisely the time her opponent needs it most.

Today Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont, who promises to bring Scandinavian-style “democratic socialism” to America, seeks to replay the role of 2008 Obama and offer a more aggressively “left” alternative to Hillary Clinton, reputed centrist. But leftism is a vast bundle of priorities, and few politicians can effectively embody them all. Because Sanders’ focus has always been primarily economic — his crowd-pleasing speeches mostly center around corporate greed and income inequality — he’s left himself vulnerable on the front becoming steadily more dominant in America’s left-wing conversation — social justice and identity group sensitivity.

On July 18 Senator Sanders was interrupted during a speech by self-appointed representatives of the Black Lives Matter set, and his irritated, slightly befuddled reaction — which included tone-deaf bragging about spending “50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and dignity” — exposed  unfamiliarity with the rituals of humble privilege-checking now expected of white progressives. Columns in progressive outlets were  written about his campaign’s “race problem,” and memes began to sprout about his suspiciously “all-white” audiences and supporters. And didn’t he come from Vermont, the whitest state in the country?

Similar suspicions have been conspicuously whipped up over Sander’s supposed closet life as a “gun nut,” in the words of one Slate columnist, a reputation that helps solidify his caricature as a hickish creature from the backwoods of lily-white New England. Sanders, of course, can barely even be called a gun moderate by any standard beyond the far left’s; there are numerous rural-state Democrats to his right on this issue, and he’s received a D- from the NRA and an F from Gun Owners of America for consistently backing the vast majority of firearm control bills brought before Congress. Yet what Sanders calls the “mythology” of his Second Amendment record has managed to become a settled piece of online conventional wisdom just the same.

Other slurs have been darker still. Mother Jones somehow stumbled across a cringeworthy 43-year old essay Sanders wrote in his hippie days in which he mused about what he assumed were typical female sexual fantasies (“being raped by 3 men simultaneously”) in order to make some dated and obscure point about gender relations. This, said his enemies, was proof the old geezer was on the wrong side of “Rape Culture.” Then there was the truly bizarre rumor that the Jewish senator was some manner of secret Israeli double-agent, an allegation infamously flouted on NPR by a host who claimed to just be repeating something she’d heard online.

Hillary has reason to fear Sanders; initially assumed to be little more than a Kucinich-like fringe figure providing token opposition to her coronation, his poll numbers have now risen to the point where victories in a couple of early primary states seem plausible, if not likely. As Clinton’s press becomes near-uniformly negative thanks to ongoing troubles with her ominously missing emails, which beg questions of credibility on everything from the business ethics of her family’s charity to Benghazi to who is or isn’t in her inner court of advisors, the case for a “cleaner” Democratic candidate in 2016 gets ever stronger.

What Bernie (and for that matter, O’Malley, Chaffee, or Biden) will never have, however, is an appeal that can be couched in the trendy narratives of identity group victimization and triumph. Hillary’s importance as a glass-ceiling breaker must never be forgotten, and if that requires a nasty underground campaign pushing slanderous stereotypes of of her white male opponents, so be it.

For want of the First Woman President, much can be lost.

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What “cuckservative” theory gets wrong

Several years ago I wrote about a phenomena I dubbed “douchebag conservatives” — young men who self identify as members of the right not out of positive regard for conservative philosophy or politics, but because the right offers greater tolerance for their retrograde, politically-incorrect lifestyles. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Trump Bubble

The Trump Bubble

Everything we think we know about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign flows from a single word: “rapists.”

In making his infamous off-the-cuff remarks (not that he makes any other kind) at his campaign kick-off that the Mexicans “are bringing drugs and they are bringing crime and their rapists” into the United States, Trump offered a political Rorschach test that has been chronically misinterpreted ever since. Like so much about Trump, there is significantly less here than meets the eye.

Was it a racist comment? On this, social justice warriors, the Republican establishment, and white nationalists all seem to agree, which should perhaps indicate his remarks were a tad lacking in clarity.

Was Trump implying all Mexicans are rapists — or at the very least, significantly more likely to be? That’s a interpretation that satisfies many, be they liberals desperate to believe the Republican base is a gaggle of bigots, backers of primary rivals desperate to dismiss Trump as unhinged, or genuine racists desperate to have one of their own on the center stage.

Or perhaps Trump was merely expressing deep reservations of immigration in general?

Ann Coulter, who coincidentally has an anti-immigration book out right now, has been promoting this theory of Trump quite strenuously, and it’s certainly a valid explanation for his current bump in the polls. Immigration  is a great deal less popular in the United States than is fashionable to acknowledge, with large reason for the distaste being an assumed correlation between immigration and criminality.

Trump, for his part, has sought to clarify. “We’re talking about illegal immigration, and everyone understands that,” he barked at a Telemundo reporter the other day. “That’s a typical case of the press with misinterpretation.”

In other recent interviews, Trump has thrown his support behind increasing immigration overall — so long as the immigrants come legally — and has more or less taken it for granted that there should be some “path to citizenship” for non-felonious illegals already here (“I’m going to formulate a plan I think people will be happy with”). Other Trump critics on the right have dug up fairly recent examples of Trump spouting deeply establishmentarian immigration talking-points, including a 2012 interview with NewsMax in which he uses words like “mean-spirited” and “maniacal” to describe Governor Romney’s immigration rhetoric.

His prescriptions for America’s leaky southern border, meanwhile, have been preposterous  “I would do something very severe unless [Mexico] contributed or gave us the money to build the wall,” he told CNN, helpfully adding “I’m very good at building things.” (In Trump’s version of the world there are very few problems that can’t be solved with bullying.) Genuine racists may be similarly discouraged to hear Trump’s endless damage-control assertions of how much he “loves” the Latino people and braggy confidence that he’ll “win the Hispinic [sic] vote.”

At present, Donald Trump’s image seems to have congealed at “Fifth Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” a characterization deserving of suspicion given the vast ideological diversity of people who share it. Everyone presumes that beneath that hair and that bravado there must be an inner core that is either supremely vile or supremely heroic. His wealth, fame, and fearlessness is assumed to liberate him from the self-censorship and political correctness of other Republicans, exposing a creature of pure right-wing id.

Tragically discarded is our conventional understanding of celebrities who “get political” late in life — they know a great deal less than they think. Those who have lived most of their adulthood knowing only privilege and power are less likely to have had the sort of diverse life experiences and interactions necessary to breed sophisticated political opinions; they are less likely to be pressured by life’s complexities to formulate viable solutions to properly understood problems. They are, in short, likely to be buffoons.

Trump’s talent has been the conversion of his buffoonery into the persona of a populist demagogue, the sort of politician upon whom voters project beliefs he has never specifically articulated, but we assume a man like him would hold. In that sense, he is nothing revolutionary or unprecedented, but a stock character of American presidential politics that runs in continuum from William Jennings Bryan to Huey Long to Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson to Ross Perot and even the current president.

What we feel we deserve is not always what we are given.

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Autopsy of a non-event

The rapid rise and fall of the false rumor of Prime Minister Harper’s plan to abolish the Senate offers a revealing case study of the sophomoric irresponsibility of contemporary Canadian political journalism.

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