If Trump Goes Down

Before we get too excited about what could befall President Trump as a result of this or that high crime and/or misdemeanor, I thought I’d run down a few things that might be useful to keep in mind.

Presumably, what many folks are hoping for is the impeachment of Trump and his removal from office. I share this desire to see him removed, of course, but as satisfying as his ultimate defeat and humiliation would be, there will also be unpleasant consequences.

Obviously, I’m talking about the presidency of Mike Pence. I am more or less certain that Pence would be a preferable president to Trump, if for no other reason than Pence is not a demented man-child.

But of course it also means that Pence will be far more competent in the execution of a horribly destructive right-wing agenda. Whereas Trump was happy to roll over for religious conservatives, President Pence will be the thick-necked, silver-haired paladin to usher in Revelation. Establish the Republic of Gilead, in which all the rich white dudes are now “commanders” and women are incubators.

Oh, and the cabinet. What might we expect? Say, Attorney General Ted Cruz? Education Secretary Jerry Falwell Jr.? Defense Secretary Jerry Boykin? Secretary of State John Bolton?

Vice President Mike Fucking Huckabee.

I assume Scott Pruitt stays.

And you’re likely wondering, where’s Sarah Palin?

President Mike Pence can’t abide women in his cabinet, because First Lady Karen Pence can’t be there all the time.

But hey, you think, there’s no way President Pence, forever stained by the scandal of Trump, could survive a general election against a half-acceptable Democrat.

You sure?

The closest analogue to this we have is Gerald Ford taking over for Nixon after his resignation. President Ford, of course, lost his bid for election. But not by much, and had the election happened a week or so later, it’s an even chance he would have won. It’s not a given that a destroyed administration’s back-up president is a sure bet for defeat. The silver lining to that example is that Ford was by all accounts a good and decent man, and had he won, it’s not as though much would have changed or gone off the rails.

Mike Pence is not a good and decent man, but boy does he play the hell out of one on TV. Ford, basically a good egg, couldn’t convince a sufficient percentage of voters of his good-egg-ness. Pence, a sinister, opportunistic fanatic, comes across on TV as sane, stable, comforting, and fatherly. If Trump could con enough of us to squeeze him into office, do you think the far more presentable Pence couldn’t?

And all of this is just what could happen if Trump is successfully removed from office. But it could also be that a great deal of political capitol is spent on trying to oust him, and it never takes. His base of support never wavers, Republicans in Congress remain loyal, and the public grows tired of hearing from perpetually-outraged Democrats.

This is not an argument against impeachment. Trump is dangerous in countless ways, a genuine existential threat to the country and the world. President Pence would also be a threat, but at least in ways that we can count on one or two hands. There’s a playbook for dealing with him and his type. Trump is something else.

But I also think there’s something to be said for toughing out the next three and a half years, containing Trump’s damage and allowing his idiocy to wear thin the patience of the electorate. Democrats gain in the midterms, perhaps winning one of the two houses of Congress, effectively shutting down any of Trump’s legislative goals. And in 2020 a competent Democrat can, hopefully, defeat him fair and square.

Of course, he could win then too.

So, yeah. Alright. Impeach the fucker. We’ll take on the commander next.

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Peak Outrage and the Exhausted Amygdala

Why have I lost interest in politics, when it was once such a passion of mine that I left theatre and performing Shakespeare for a living to pursue it? John Dickerson gets it. In a piece about the titanic clusterfuck that is the VA, he writes:

One primary reason to despair is that we’re already living at peak outrage. Fake umbrage taking and outrage production are our most plentiful political products, not legislation and certainly not interesting solutions to complicated issues. We are in a new political season, too—that means an extra dose of hot, high stakes outrage over the slightest thing that might move votes. How does something get recognized as beyond the pale when we live beyond the pale?

This is of a piece with the utter lack of a generosity of spirit from even the most well-meaning progressives out there, who have been socialized to salivate at the prospect of uncovering the heretics in their midst, taking as much pleasure in sicking the mob on the perceived transgressions of fellow liberals as they do in substantive policy wins. How can you be truly moved to tackle problems like Veterans Affairs, climate change, or the Boschian hellscape of our prison system, when you’re consumed by your fury over Alec Baldwin on Stephen Colbert?

More Dickerson:

As FDR said, the public cannot “be attuned for long periods of time to a constant repetition of the highest note on the scale.” If we are constantly yelling outrage, it leaves us with nothing when the real thing comes along.

True, but perhaps even worse, the constant repetition of outrage I suspect trains our lizard brains to be in a constant state of threat. Our collective amygdalae are pumping out fight-or-flight chemicals at such a rate, that either everything looks like an equally existential threat or unpardonable offense, or we become exhausted, and cease to care about much at all.

For myself, I have to wonder, now that I’ve passed both of these stages, is there any coming back? 

The Loudest Voice is a Bawling Baby

Frank Rich:

…these days Fox News is the loudest voice in the room only in the sense that a bawling baby is the loudest voice in the room. In being so easily bullied by Fox’s childish provocations, the left gives the network the attention on which it thrives and hands it power that it otherwise has lost.

And this is largely why I don’t watch The Daily Show or shows on MSNBC anymore. We get it, Fox is full of backward morons. They’re the Westboro Baptist Church of media. They love it when you waste your time hating them.

It’s part of a larger problem, like what can make Twitter so tiring — the constant, frenetic need to be offended or feel bullied by someone, and the high horse one gets to climb when they call it out.

Don’t feed the trolls, whatever their form. Don’t read the comments. Rein in the snark. Get a grip, and pick the battles that are actually worth fighting.


Shattering My Dreams of Disunion

A piece in The Economist argues that despite popular fatigue with our country’s countless foreign entanglements, Americans ought to appreciate those entanglements, which enable us to maintain our world primacy, and therefore our ability to enormously influence the workings of the world to our advantage.

I am sympathetic to this position. I take solace that it is currently we who are calling many of the global shots and not some other superstates, on the ascent as they may be.

But when I think this way, when I’m expressing a preference for the primacy of American values around the world, I admit, I’m not thinking about a great deal of what makes up America. I’m not thinking about Texas or Florida or Louisiana. I’m thinking about myversion of American values; progressive, with a strong emphasis on human rights. I’m thinking about “Blue America.”

So this gets tricky for me. Here’s one of the qualities the author of the Economist piece in question notes as a key factor in our

First is geography. Being self-contained makes America secure, whereas all other great powers have had to defend themselves against their neighbours. Even Britain at the height of empire in the 19th century was repeatedly distracted by the need to stop any one country dominating continental Europe. By contrast, America has friends to the north and south and fish to the east and west. Europeans warily eyeing nearby Russia, or Asians fearful of China, can ask Americans for help, safe in the knowledge that they have a home to go back to on the other side of the world.

This is very Germs-Guns-and-Steel-esque, ascribing geopolitical destiny in large part to geography, both in terms of location and land shape. And it makes perfect sense.

But here’s the thing. I have suggested, rather earnestly, that the United States would be far better off if it were not so damned united anymore. Rather, I’ve preferred the idea of smaller North American nations that better suit the increasingly-disparate ideologies of the various regions. So, for example, you’d have New England as one country, Texas as its own nation, etcetera, all trading and cooperating, but no longer bound by the same central power, and therefore able to get more done without haggling with polities with few shared interests.

If I got my way, though, there go the fruits of geography. Poor, naive New England or the tiny-yet-dense nation of New Amsterdam (which is what I’m now calling the nation-state of New York City) would be suddenly vulnerable to the potential aggressions of The Old South or what have you. Far-right representatives now commonly sent to Washington have already shown themselves to be more than happy to destabilize the global economy on a whim, and they tend to hail from those gun and machismo-worshipping regions that might be more inclined to threaten their neighbors. Given the power of an independent nation with a military of its own, who’s to say they wouldn’t behave just as irrationally and dangerously?

So not only is a unified, centrally-governed United States good for geopolitics, but it may also be the only thing standing between a secure New England and an army of ornery Texans marching on Boston. I’m probably exaggerating the potential for all-out armed conflict, but it does throw a wrench in my fantasy.

Instead of Smaller Government, Let’s Elect Fewer Assholes

Ilya Somin kind of blew my mind with this piece at Cato’s website, and it briefly shook my belief in a strong central government. Briefly! Ever so briefly.

What I think Somin gets right is the diagnosis of a particular problem: voters’ abysmal political ignorance. No matter how much smarter we as a society might get, no matter how much more information is instantly available to us, we are still grotesquely stupid when it comes to government and politics, with no signs of improvement.

Somin refers to this as a “rational ignorance,” because there’s no way a sane person with other things on his or her mind like careers and families and pets and hobbies and whatnot could ever fully grok what the hell is going on.

So Somin posits that what would induce more rational engagement would be “foot voting” as opposed to “ballot voting,” or making one’s positions clear and affecting change by relocating to places where policies are more favorable, just as one patronizes businesses one gets better service or products from. Of course that sounds nutzo, until you see where he’s going: you can foot-vote if the jurisdiction is small enough that leaving it is not the end of the world. In other words, more decentralization and more hyper-localization of government.


The key difference between foot voting and ballot box voting is that foot voters don’t have the same incentive to be rationally ignorant as ballot box voters do. In fact, they have strong incentives to seek out useful information. They also have much better incentives to objectively evaluate what they do learn. Unlike political fans, foot voters know they will pay a real price if they do a poor job of evaluating the information they get.

“Political fans” are people like me, who love politics as a sport or drama, and follow the characters, but don’t necessarily know everything about policy (even though we one think we do).

More Somin:

The informational advantages of foot voting over ballot box voting strengthen the case for limiting and decentralizing government. The more decentralized government is, the more issues can be decided through foot voting. It is usually much easier to vote with your feet against a local government than a state government, and much easier to do it against a state than against the federal government. . . .

Reducing the size of government could also alleviate the problem of ignorance by making it easier for rationally ignorant voters to monitor its activities. A smaller, less complicated government is easier to keep track of.

Somin dismisses it as a solution, but this gets at the very beauty, and absolute necessity, of representation. Rather than needing to understand all policy minutiae, which I never could anyway, I get to choose someone to represent me and my interests. To do so, I can use things like party affiliation, history in office (if there is one), and statements of principles, as well as things like evaluations of character and integrity, to guide my choice. They are, as Somin points out, shortcuts, but they will do. They will have to!

And this applies to the micro as well as the macro level. Of course I can’t be expected to know all the ins and outs of the behemoth federal government and all its tentacles and tributaries of tentacles. So of course I need to choose someone to represent me. But nor can I seriously be expected to grasp all the workings of my municipality or congressional district. Budgets, education, public works, city management and countless other aspects of local government make it equally as daunting as the federal. (Perhaps it is not literally as complex, but if I could stand next to a moon and then next to a planet, they’d both seem impossibly big and have roughly the same effect on my sense of awe.)

I work a full time job and I have two small children. My job is intellectually rigorous, and demands an awful lot of processing power throughout the day. Even if all government were decentralized to some radically tiny, libertarian-pleasing level, it’d still be too much for me to fully grasp.

And that’s why we have a shorthand, known as representatives. We just have to do our best in choosing them, and hope we don’t pick a bunch of assholes, as we so often (usually?) do. Instead of slicing up the government and polity into bite size pieces, which won’t help anyway, and only lead to general provincialization and the dilution of federal rights, let’s try to get better at picking our stand-ins. Fewer assholes. As a “political fan,” I can make that effort, at least.

The Facts, Not in the Flow

Jeff Jarvis:

. . . I have long believed that the real job of journalism is to add value to what a community knows — real value in the form of confirmation and debunking and context and explanation and most of all reporting to ask the questions and get the answers — the facts — that aren’t already in the flow. The journalist’s and journalism organization’s ability to do that depends on trust over traffic.

NBC’s Chuck Todd, responding to criticism that the news media has not corrected the rampant, cynical proliferation of misinformation about the Affordable Care Act:

What I always love is people say, ‘Well, it’s you folks’ fault in the media.’ No, it’s the President of the United States’ fault for not selling it.”

You see the problem here.

(The Jarvis quote is not a response to the Todd quote, it’s a reaction to a different circumstance entirely, but they sure attached themselves to each other in my mind.)

I mean, it’s a law on the books, right? The idea that it is not journalists’ responsibility to report what’s true, but simply to narrate a rhetorical contest, well, it’s nauseating. We can’t tell you the truth because one party in the battle is poor at marketing? Really?

It’s no wonder we’re as deeply un- and misinformed as we are.

Propagating Virtue Through Use (Or, Humanism as Inexhaustible Doritos)

A little while ago I posted about Claude S. Fischer’s piece exploring the phenomena of sympathy, and how our “moral circle” has expanded over time to allow us to feel sympathy or grief for the misfortunes of strangers and foreigners (in all senses of the word), and, incidentally, how at least in the West a fetishization of “public grieving” (or as I termed it, “garment rending”) developed, even over losses not directly our own.

Hemant Mehta pointed me to a piece by JP O’Malley in The Rationalist about American philosopher Michael Sandel. The gist of the piece is to show how Sandel has some refreshing ideas about balancing markets and more ephemeral democratic virtues, and how Sandel as a personality may be in danger of being co-opted by politicians who want to look like they have a heart while they sink the knife into yours.

First off, I appreciated how Sandel says that Western societies seem to have such faith in markets that we have all given up a great deal of what makes our democracies democratic; in ceding authority to the invisible hand, we leave little else to discuss or debate — what’s left to be democratic about? The market will sort it out. It sounds a whole lot like religion.

Anyway, that’s not the call-back to the Fischer piece though. It’s about treating each other and ourselves as more than consumers:

. . . in Sandel’s view, the freedom argument [in favor of markets] is taken too far by libertarians and laissez-faire economists. “Market freedom refers to our freedom as consumers, but not as citizens, and not as full human beings. Our identity as consumers is only part of who we are. And if we allow our identity [as consumers] to dominate, then we miss out on important aspects of freedom to do with individual self-development and citizenship.”

[. . . said Sandel,] “There are some economists who make the argument that human beings should rely as much on possible on self-interest and as little as possible on altruism, solidarity or civic virtue. These economists seem to think that positive virtues are fixed in quantity, that they are like fossil fuels: the more you use, the less you have. But for me Aristotle is closer to the truth. There is not a finite supply of virtues, as if they were commodities. Aristotle says that we learn to become brave by acting courageously, and that we learn to care for the common good by engaging in civic acts and civic responsibility. These virtues are cultivated through practice.”

There’s that word: “cultivate.” (And not incidentally, “practice.”) Being kind and compassionate to each other, the choice to show sympathy in the sense of recognizing common humanity in everyone as a default, is something that is not in short supply, nor in any supply. It is a practice that can be cultivated. The very act of embodying virtues like sympathy and compassion for those from, say, different countries or economic classes, or even virtues like democratic deliberation, further propagate them through use.

An excellently-crafted musical instrument must be played to remain in fine condition, and indeed, to improve and “season”. It doesn’t “run out” of songs or notes. So it is with a democratic society. Democracy and humanism must be practiced so that we can have more and better democracy and humanism.

Or as Jay Leno used to say in those 1980s Doritos ads, “Crunch all you want; we’ll make more.”