Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

18 July 2016

Smugness and the New Feudalism

[For a recent post on rehabilitating Hillary, click here. For short, day-by-day notes on the Trump Convention, click here. The following post deals with fundamental, longer-term issues raised by Brexit and our current, bizarre Yankee presidential campaign.]

Introduction: optimism can be dangerous
The Economist: today’s apostle of smugness
Today’s three big problems, and the new feudalism
Finding worthy work for idle hands

The Trump Convention

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
    “The Devil makes work for idle hands.” — Old folk proverb.
Introduction: optimism can be dangerous

About a quarter of a millennium ago, the great French philosopher Voltaire published a book about optimism. Most people know it by the name of its main character, Candide. It’s still one of the greatest works of literature and humor in any language. It’s an easy afternoon’s read, but it teaches profound truths with belly laughs that go on for minutes.

The book’s analytical target was a bit of “philosophy” then in vogue among the French upper classes. The world the French elite then lived in, went the notion, was the best of all possible worlds. It was so because Man then was (and is) the best of all possible species, a being of Reason in the Age of Enlightenment.

Not long ago, the high priests of our Yankee upper classes believed a very similar thing. They believed that, at least in the marketplace, people are rational actors. We all act rationally according to our own best interests, they told us, which we assess with laudable precision.

The collective result—so the tale went—is a bit like thermodynamics in physics. Just as widely distributed molecules in a gas obey the same laws of physics and chemistry, making it possible to predict their collective behavior with some precision, so, when people follow the dictates of Reason, you can predict their behavior with some precision. Not only that, their collective behavior, drawn from the wellspring of Reason in each individual heart, will ever be orderly and make good sense. You can even predict, as did High Priest Alan Greenspan, that a rare outburst of disorder in markets will self-correct.

We all know how that one turned out. The Crash of 2008 nearly caused a second global Great Depression. Europe and Japan, if not the US, are still digging out of the financial rubble: Brexit is part of it.

As for Voltaire, we often forget the timing of his great work of philosophy and humor. He first published it in 1759, just thirty years before the French Revolution began. On a per-capita basis, that was probably the bloodiest revolution in human history. The Russian revolution may have been bloodier overall, but the French had a lot more elite to lose their heads.

With these two well-studied historical disasters in mind, perhaps we can all begin to ken that neither the optimism of Voltaire’s day nor the facsimile among our so-called “Chicago school” of economists (before the advent of behavioral economics), is the best possible assessment of our species’ propensities and prospects.

The Economist: today’s apostle of smugness

Today the “best of all possible worlds” philosophy has a respectable global house organ. It’s the British weekly, self-styled a “newspaper,” called The Economist.

The Economist is probably the most widely read single publication on the subjects of economics, politics, and commerce among the global elite, regardless of country. There are three reasons why. First, it’s independent of the world’s three great empires: China, Russia and the US. The Brits lost their empire almost a century ago; so, readers assume, their elite global publication has no axe to grind. And the recent Brexit vote makes clear how independent Britain is from both Europe and the US.

Second, The Economist is the only global publication (for nonspecialists in economics) to focus on economics and commerce and to cover politics mostly as it affects them. More important, it’s not afraid of math, graphs and charts and has reporters who are numerate. One of its most useful (albeit occasional) services is digesting and summarizing leading-edge academic economic research papers for readers too busy or unspecialized to read them in their original form.

The Economist’s third advantage is coverage. It covers all industries and the entire globe (every inhabited continent) and in a unique, quantitative way. In contrast, the New York Times is virtually innumerate, the Washington Post focuses on American politics, and the Wall Street Journal is too much a house organ of extreme capitalism and an adopted bastard son of Rupert Murdoch. American weeklies like Time have some great journalists, such as Joe Klein and Jon Meacham, but their heft and coverage have dwindled to the point of occasional useful commentary.

So for people who want or need to understand today’s world, and who hope to take a crack at predicting what it may be like tomorrow, The Economist is the globe’s pre-eminent newspaper. The fact that it’s a weekly, not a daily, gives its reporters time to analyze, as well as gather facts, and readers time to absorb a week’s significant changes in a globe of seven billion people.

So what wrong with all that? Nothing, so far. The trouble is The Economist’s editorial policy, which often creeps far out of its many weekly editorials and into stories of ostensible “news.” In fact, in some issues it’s almost impossible to find a single “news” story without a taint of editorial preaching.

The Economist’s self-described editorial policy—and its consistent prescription for all the world’s ills—is “liberalism” or “liberal internationalism.” In essence, it’s capitalism with a large dose of laissez faire, and international relations based on democracy, free trade and nearly complete freedom of action by private parties (short of outright theft or murder), including businesses and non-governmental organizations.

It’s not that these things are bad. In many cases, maybe in most, they are good. And in most cases where The Economist prescribes them for countries or regions that don’t have them, they might make an improvement, at least in the short term. The problem is that The Economist consistently recommends these things as solutions to very real problems its news articles describes, without ever analyzing whether and how they might work. In other words, The Economist assumes that its “liberalism” is a universal remedy, just as Alan Greenspan once assumed that broken markets would fix themselves.

Unfortunately, the facets of liberal internationalism that The Economist’s editorial staff tout so much and so often are no panacea, far less a rational analytical prescription for the world’s many remaining ills. They may be the way that the best part of the world works today. In that respect they are analogous to the French elite’s celebration of the “best of all possible worlds” in the middle of the eighteenth century. Things were fine for the elite until the party ended and the guillotine came down.

The best example of how these facets are descriptive, and nowhere near prescriptive, is The Eonomist’s “Special Report” on London as a global metropolis, in its issue of June 30th - Juy 6th, 2012. You would be hard pressed to find any more over-the-top triumphalism in any print publication that styles itself a “newspaper.” The greater part of this “report” was a love letter to London and a celebration of how far it had come from some of its worst old days (going back centuries).

The “report” also celebrated London’s newfound wealth, most of which came (and still comes) from bankers and foreigners. In a rare, large-type subhead near the end of the article, the editors made a brief lurch from triumphalism toward the truth. They summarized: “The three groups of people who are unpopular in Britain—the rich, bankers and immigrants—are those on whom London depends.” Nowhere in the “Special Report” was there a discussion why these three groups were (and are!) unpopular, and whether their unpopularity has a rational basis. And so now, barely four years later, we have Brexit, which came as a huge surprise to both British and European elite.

The “newspaper” that styles itself the globe’s pre-eminent publication of popular economic and social analysis should have done better than that. Yet if the truth be told, The Economist’s editorial staff suffers from much the same malady as our Yankee Republicans. It has far too great a tendency to dance triumphantly and repeatedly on the lonely graves of the last century’s Communists, and an aversion to discovering and exposing the flaws of the present capitalist-internationalist order, of which Brexit is just the first of many likely consequences.

As I have noted recently in putting Brexit in historical context, Russian and Chinese Communism are dead (the latter in all but name). So are Marx, Engels, East German Communism, and Hugo Chavez. Fidel Castro is dying; his brother is turning toward the US and the normal international order; and Nicolas Maduro is on the way out. So shouldn’t we should stop re-fighting the last century’s battles and start worrying about this one’s?

Today’s three big problems, and the new fuedalism

Today’s socioeconomic problems are largely consequences of the extraordinary success of the capitalist-internationalist order that The Economist so assiduously celebrates. As it noted three years ago, the present global economic order has raised a billion people out of extreme poverty in one generation. That is an extraordinary achievement.

But that achievement has had several unintended consequences. First, 60,000 US factories, like many in Britain and Europe, have moved to once-poorer nations like China, taking many respectable and well-paying jobs with them. In the aggregate, the massive movement of manufacturing jobs to low-wage nations has threatened the survival of the middle class in advanced nations.

I and and others have written on this phenomenon repeatedly (see 1 and 2), so I won’t dwell on it here. But it’s a real and important effect, if only because the rise of a middle class has been the chief earmark and a seminal achievement of so-called “advanced” societies. A big middle class that languishes or disappears will produce extraordinary social and political instability—such as we see now with the ascendance of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.

As odd and unqualified as they may seem, these figures are real people with real followers. They beg to be taken seriously. Or at least the causes of their ascendancy do. The alternative is to whistle as the tumbrel carts approach, like Voltaire’s compatriots in pre-revolutionary France.

The second unintended consequence of the current global capitalist order is the greatest concentration of industrial and financial power since our Yankee Guilded Age. But this time, the concentration is global, and there is as yet no governmental or global leader or institution adequate to fight it. Teddy Roosevelt and our Senator Sherman, an author of the eponymous law that is the fount of all competition law, are no longer with us.

Today, in America, there are four major airlines, four major hotel chains, one dominant Internet search firm, and two credible makers of smart phones and similar mobile devices. As of 2014, our five largest banks controlled nearly half of all banking assets, and their aggregate assets had tripled since 2002. Apple is so powerful that it could, in effect, tell national security authorities to brute-force a smart-phone lock, rather than seek or command its help.

No single individual with a grievance can stand against these corporate behemoths and expect to prevail when not even the US government or the EU can. And the much-heralded common law of England, which we Yanks inherited, they can circumvent with simple contractual boilerplate.

Together, arbitration and secrecy clauses in simple contracts threaten to wipe out the speedy and public justice that our Yankee Constitution promises. The “judges” will not be highly trained, impartial jurists, but commercial arbitrators, drawn from corporate ranks and the same social class as the bosses. There will be no precedent, as decisions in arbitration are not precedential and are often secret. In most cases there will be no appeal, as grounds for appealing an arbitral decision are limited to things like fraud, self-dealing, and obvious bias. So arbitration and secrecy clauses, if judicially enforced, will throw employment and consumer disputes out of the system of “common law” justice that Englishmen and Americans have enjoyed for centuries.

The crux of the matter is the extraordinary growth of corporations. When invented, corporations were efficient and salubrious ways of taking productive economic activity out of the purview of nation-states, with their (then) royalty, large-scale politics and intrigue. Start-up companies were, and still are, means of duplicating in a productive enterprise the kind of thirty-or-fewer member tribes in which our species evolved. So corporations were more comfortable, more flexible, more adaptable and more effective in productive activity than nation-states.

But what are corporations today, when many are as powerful, as rich, as untouchable and sometimes almost as large as nation-states? That is a key question that political and economic responses to the global capitalist economic order have not even begun to address. Offshoring jobs and avoiding home-country taxes are just the tip of the iceberg of big-corporation impunity.

The final issue raised by the present capitalist-internationalist order is the risk of a new feudalism. The vast size of present-day corporate empires easily mimics that of nineteenth-century nation-states. Use of the law and contracts to avoid recourse to the court system makes the individual as helpless before the corporate board as was the serf before the lord in his castle. But the coup de grace of independent worker is the so-called “service economy.”

At the moment, The Economist and like-minded publications laud the transition to an economy based on services, rather than manufacturing. But what does that mean for the average worker? Are all the millions of middle-class workers, who once made or fixed things with their hands or machines under their control, going to go into services? If so, what will they do? Will they all go into sales and dun the rest of us with cold calls, so that no one ever gets any peace from ubiquitous marketing? Will they open restaurants and pubs? Will they serve the bankers and lawyers as cooks, nannies, housekeepers, gardeners, bodyguards, and children’s tutors?

If so, how will our future society differ from seventeenth-century feudalism? Indeed, how will it not be worse than seventeenth-century feudalism? When feudalism was in real flower, obligations flowed both ways: the lord and lady had a bond with the servant and had to keep him employed, fed, protected and alive. There is no such bond today: menial employees of the rich are “at will,” subject to being laid off or fired at any time. So the modern serf has all the burdens of the old feudalism and few of the benefits.

When you think of these three points from the perspective of today’s average worker, his or her lot doesn’t seem so fine compared to a lifetime job with a big, reliable corporation, a “defined benefit” pension, and a strong union to protect his or her rights, does it? Yet all those good things have vanished in our “new” global capitalism—all to the workers’ loss and the bosses’ and shareholders’ benefit. The prices of imported goods may be lower now, but who from the working class can afford them? Reversing Henry Ford’s “solution” by making goods cheaper so that workers with minimal wages can afford them is a race to the bottom with no apparent end.

Finding worthy work for idle hands

As if these social and political problems were not enough, a fundamental choice faces humanity in a now-foreseeable future. Within the next century or so, we may reach a point where work, in a fundamental economic sense, becomes optional, not mandatory.

Wild animals spend virtually all of their days in a perpetual quest for food. They don’t take long to reproduce—their “courtship” and gestation periods are a mere fraction of ours. But once offspring appear, the need to feed new mouths and protect them from predators occupies parents to the point of exhaustion and distraction, often jeopardizing their own individual survival.

Human civilization began when we put that daily quest for survival behind us. By cultivating crops and food animals, we gained time for unrelated commercial and artistic activities. We could make jewelry, better clothes, shoes and weapons, and eventually computers and mobile devices.

But what happens next? What happens when and if we can manipulate the genes of our crops and food animals to ensure their survival (and their maximal healthiness to us) and make farming and ranching even easier? What happens when automated machines make the clothes, houses and other things we need, and when those machines can even make and fix themselves?

How do we divide labor then? Today there are those who begrudge safety nets and other support for the disabled, poorly educated and those who for other reasons cannot find work. What will they and we do when work itself becomes unnecessary, at least for the vast majority of our human population?

Some futurists have predicted a society in which most of us turn to the arts. But will everyone have talent? And if today we give the 0.1% the vast substance of our civilization, mostly through corruption and inertia, what will happen when a lot of today’s work becomes unnecessary or superfluous? Will fights over fair distribution subside when there is more to share, or will they sharpen because there are fewer objective standards for sharing? Will the bosses, who stick together and can make good arguments by virtue of their superior education and experience, take it all?

One thing is clear. Any society in which a whole social class—such as our middle class today—feels aggrieved, resentful and oppressed is not a happy option. As we lapse into our new feudalism, will the privileged live in houses or compounds looking more like the castle-fortresses of old than the gated communities of today? Will they rely on armed guards and automated drones to protect them from the masses, or will they construct a society fair and equal enough so that they they need no special protection and can walk the streets unguarded and unarmed?

Today’s discontents raise these questions clearly enough. But how much starker will they be when much production is automatic, disease is rare (due to genetic engineering), and today’s conceptual links between work and results become more and more tenuous? The purported thinkers who run The Economist and our many think tanks should concern themselves with these future-oriented questions and leave the post mortems of Marx, Engels and (eventually) Fidel to historians.


The wonder is not that members of the middle class have discovered some undesirable but apparently unintended consequences of the global capitalist order that The Economist and other elites so relentlessly celebrate. The wonder is that it took them so long.

The wonder is that François Hollande, who claims to be a socialist, not only failed to see it coming, but failed to see the significance of the general workers’ strikes that nearly shut down his own economy only months ago.

The wonder is not that the dam burst first in Britain, with Brexit. Britain is the world’s oldest democracy, the most experienced, and the least dominated by elitist propaganda.

As a parliamentary democracy, Britain can respond more quickly and adroitly than our own Yankee hog-tied system, which suffers minority rule in both Houses of Congress. So it’s no wonder that the Brits moved first.

Now that they have, the risk of a new feudalism, and the possible unintended consequences of an effort to fend it off, should be self-evident to every thinking person. The corporate behemoths of today are rapidly replacing the overbearing and even tyrannical nation-states of old. Ordinary people are rightly afraid that their reign might be more subtle but no less oppressive than that of the kings, queens and dukes of old.

To be sure, they are smoother and more subtle. Where the nation-states had (and still have) barrel bombs, firing squads and (in some cases) nuclear weapons, the corporate bosses have lawyers, lobbyists, and smooth-talking PR folk. To the unthinking, they can make their oppression sound like a blessing.

But the middle classes, who are losing their livelihoods, their self-respect, their prospects for self-advancement, their economic independence, and their legal rights, are not fooled. Britain is the canary in the coal mine; despite its relatively small population—it is perhaps the world’s most advanced democracy. France and the US likely will follow. Neither the discontents that underlay Bernie Sanders’ candidacy nor the huge Internet following that he accumulated and nurtured will soon subside.

So The Economist and other celebrators of the present global capitalist order had better stop fighting the last century’s battles with dead Communists. They had better leaven their triumphalism for a system that has inordinately advanced the prospects of the 0.1% and left the rest of us hurting, fearing or insecure. In short, they had better stop celebrating and start thinking again, about how to fix an international order that has kept the peace and accomplished much since humanity’s most terrible war but is now clearly starting to run off the tracks.

Trump Convention, Day 1

Day 1 of the Trump Convention was a uniformly dismal affair. It was amateur night, all night long, just like Trump’s candidacy. Speaker after speaker complained bitterly and inarticulately about misfortunes in his or her life, or the nation’s, blaming all angrily on the President, Hillary and our current government without rhyme or reason.

Seldom in any political event was there so little logical connection between facts and emotion, logic and angst. Totally lacking the entire evening were humor and warmth. I have been to informal protest meetings in the sixties with far more intelligence, empathy, humor and humanity. If this was entertainment as politics—Trump’s key “innovation”—it was very, very bad entertainment.

Even the evening’s “highlight”, Melania Trump’s “character testimony” for her husband, was a dismal affair. Her speech was competently delivered, but stiff, cold, aloof and abstract. Utterly absent were charming little stories about The Donald, humor, and warmth. Like a talking dog, Melania impressed us not with the quality or memorability of her speech, but with the bare fact that this former refugee from Slovenia, displaying a strong accent and self-evident fear of the limelight, could get through the speech in her non-native language at all.

The only former GOP president or presidential candidate to show up was Bob Dole. He spoke to reporters just enough to reveal his strong party loyalty and his senility. Mike Pence was there, of course, and Trump’s family.

The rest were people you never heard of before and never want to hear from again. Even the technical quality of the coverage was poor: the Convention’s managers put PBS in a sky “booth” open to the air and floor noise, so that they and the audience could barely hear each other over the über-amplified voices of the speakers. It was a cheap trick you might have expected from a Soviet convention.

The sole bright point of the whole evening was the absence of feared violence, both inside and outside the Convention. The sunny, mostly empty Public Square of Cleveland was peaceful, except for a brief visit of about a dozen local militia members open-carrying assault weapons. Apparently, even the crazies had decided to stay away—perhaps a good omen for the vote in November. The overwhelming impression was of sadness and disbelief that a once-great political party had sunk so low.

Day 2

Day 2 of the GOP Convention was as much a surprise on the upside as Day 1 was on the downside. The reason was completely unexpected.

It was not just unexpected, but unremarked, at least by PBS’ pundits. Like Trump’s very candidacy, the surprise simply crept in under the radar of professional pols and media analysts. No doubt they had never seen the like before and so just didn’t know what to make of it. Isn’t that the story of Trump’s entire campaign?

The instrument of the surprise was Trump’s son, Donald Trump, Junior. A complete novice to large-scale politics, he gave by far the best speech of the night. It was “best” in the sense most directly relevant to GOP needs: increasing the probability of Trump Senior winning the general election.

Mitch McConnell damned Trump Senior with faint praise, referring repeatedly to McConnell’s own patience and party loyalty. Paul Ryan lent Trump Senior some credibility by calling him a fellow conservative, but at the same time tried to pull him and the audience toward Ryan’s different vision of conservatism. Chris Christie demonized Hillary in “prosecutorial” style, using a series of truths, half-truths, innuendoes and outright lies, many of which would never have passed muster in any real courtroom. Ben Carson completed Hillary’s demonization, literally, by associating her indirectly with Lucifer.

But a key goal of the Convention—perhaps the most important one for Republicans—was convincing a skeptical public (and themselves!) that Trump Senior might actually make a competent Chief Executive able to handle substantive policy. The only person even to address that goal was his own son.

Junior Trump’s speech was remarkable in four ways. First, like his dad, he’s not a politician. He’s a young graduate of Wharton Business School and, apparently, his father’s key assistant. If he wrote some or all of his speech himself, he’s a credit to his school, and his school a credit to writing that makes sense and can drive a point home.

Second, the son’s speech was by far the most substantive of the night, with the freshest and newest ideas of policy. Part of the newness was simply refusing to use the same, old, tired jargon of left and right. But part of it came also from the notion that Trump & Son, both businessmen, learned how to create jobs and “sign the front of a paycheck.”

Third, in describing his father’s relationship with him and other workers, the son humanized the candidate, painting him as patient, loyal, tough but supportive—a good dad and a good boss. He made it possible to believe that, even if you also believe that the father is sometimes a hard dealer and sometimes a self-dealing fraud.

But the most remarkable and effective aspect of the son’s speech was how he humanized workers in his father’s company. He recalled how his father had assigned him (and his siblings) to work under and learn from people who did construction, poured concrete, and raised drywall. He lauded working people who lack impressive academic credentials but have doctorates “in common sense.”

By telling those simple stories about his post-Wharton business “education,” Trump Junior did something I have not heard any pol in either party do (or do well) for a number of years. He gave our American working people the respect and admiration they deserve.

Last night, after Day 1, my family wound down by watching a PBS feature on the final steps in constructing the new Number 1 World Trade Center. The feature focused particularly on five so-called “iron workers,” men who assembled multi-ton steel structures, a thousand feet above street level, in mountain-style wind and weather.

Men like these, and the many women who join them, are not just the salt of the Earth. They are the backbone of America. I met and worked with many in my short career as a scientist: technicians, miners in my temporary below-ground work, and machinists. Their common sense, “situational awareness,” resourcefulness, and sense of safety make dangerous work safe and get difficult projects done on time. The fine world in which we highly educated folk live would not be possible without them.

Their problem is that, today, they get no respect. Their jobs and careers are ever on the block for lower prices and “shareholder value.” They are “voters,” “workers,” “labor” and lately the “middle class.” They are seldom, if ever, people like us college grads and PhDs. They get none of the admiration that their skill, training, resourcefulness and steadfastness deserve. And that simple fact is part of what’s behind their current, often incoherent rebellion.

I have no idea whether Trump Junior’s speech was truth or fastasy. I have no idea whether he wrote any part of it. But I do know two things: if I were one of those workers and heard that speech, Trump would likely be my candidate. And if Trump can generalize that feeling from white men to the many marginalized black, brown, yellow and immigrant workers throughout the Rust Belt—the ones whose jobs bosses have sold abroad for cheap pliers and lawn chairs at Wal Mart—he just might be the next president of the United States.

Day 3

Day 3 of the Trump Convention, apparently, was the end of amateur night. It was a night of professional demagogues.

Make no mistake about it. Ted Cruz and Newt Gingrich are highly skilled, articulate demagogues. They are among the best we have. They were the “keynote” speakers on Day 3, which was supposed to unify the party and trot out those few “establishment” characters who could hold their noses long enough to work for Trump.

Cruz may look like the 50s Red-baiting demagogue Joe McCarthy (except for Joe’s paunch). He may have the same nauseating smirk. But he’s much smarter and a much better speaker than Joe McCarthy ever was. So he’s infinitely more dangerous.

Midway through his delivery, an evil mix of humor and triumph suffused Ted’s smirk last night. There he was, speaking before masses of delegates over three-fourths of whom had voted against him. There he was, a man described by reporters as uniformly hated by all who know him, including his 99 Senate colleagues. And there, with good English and excellent delivery, he had been singing a siren song of vapid platitudes about “freedom” that had put the entire audience in the palm of his hand.

Ted relished every minute of it. You could see it is his face. A couple of times he couldn’t contain himself and almost laughed out loud.

Ted was polite enough to congratulate Trump for winning at the outset of his speech. But his smirk of irony and triumph only grew and grew as the end of his allotted time approached, and the still-smitten audience slowly began to realize that he was never going to endorse The Donald. He left the stage without doing so, after advising listeners to vote their consciences.

It was not true, as some reported, that the audience booed him off the stage. Ted finished his demagoguery just as he had planned it, like a precision instrument of verbal retribution. There were some boos, but he was in control of the audience for every minute of his allotted time. There was even an audible undertone of yeas amidst the boos.

If you like the Kevin Spacey character in “House of Cards”—if the politics of vengeance is your idea of democracy—you will love Ted Cruz in 2020. But gentler souls quail at the prospects of what might be the first genuine US tyranny.

Newt Gingrich spoke more quickly and less formally, but with equally good English and confident delivery. A has-been who knows it, Newt adopted the pose of gray eminence. In less than twenty minutes, he made the case for a full-scale, global, hot war against radical Islam. He “reasoned” that, by avoiding such a war, the President and Hillary have lied us into a trap that will ultimately destroy your home and family.

Hyperbole? You decide. But the cowboy-hatted delegation from Texas seemed to eat it up.

Again, the demagoguery was near-perfect. Newt’s skill at oversimplifying and misleading was a luminous thing.

But there again, like a poisonous snake in the grass, arose the question of character. Newt is, after all, a man who served his ex-wife divorce papers in the hospital where she was being treated for terminal cancer. And Ted, it seems, is the type who would like to crush his political enemies with his bare hands, just to see their blood ooze through his fingers.

It’s telling, is it not, who the heavy hitters were in Day 3? You would expect they might be the “establishment,” beloved party regulars, trying to mend fences and build the unity that every pol knows a party must have to win. But, no, they were in two ways clones of the Donald: men of execrable character and skilled in demagoguery.

They did do The Donald one favor. Compared to them, he almost looks human. It’s hard to like him, but it’s not hard to pity him—his scattered brain, his inability to maintain a coherent thought, his puerile desire to annihilate every midget who nibbles at his knees, and his adolescent compulsion to have the prettiest woman, the largest penis, and the biggest hands. If you had to choose between Trump, Cruz and Gingrich on character alone, Trump would win. Indeed, he has.

But a favorable comparison with the most dangerous man in American politics and a has-been who was once the most vile is not particularly compelling. Tonight, on Day 4, The Donald must give ordinary people something to like about him, something to trust in him, and some reason to believe that, after his presidency, our nation will look better than Trump University. The lukewarm support of low-life demagogues didn’t help him much, but it didn’t hurt him much either. Trump remains as he has been from the beginning: entirely on his own.

Day 4: Trump’s Speech

It’s been a long and often boring convention, so I’ll cut to the chase. Trump’s style was shouting and his speech far too long. As an English composition, it deserved a D. But as instrumental oratory—getting people to vote for Trump or to consider voting for him—it was pretty effective. My estimate of the probability of Trump becoming our next president is now over 40%.

One thing amazed me about PBS’ coverage of the event: how much its pundits’ attitudes mirrored the smugness and complacency described in my post above. Here David Brooks was the principal Pangloss, but not the only one. He kept referring to how “dark” (i.e., pessimistic) the speech was, implying that Trump had missed a big chance to declare optimism, i.e., “morning in America,” just like Reagan.

Didn’t unwarranted optimism among the elite help bring on the French Revolution and our own Crash of 2008? Brooks and his fellow pundits just can’t seem to understand that there are millions of people in this country who don’t have their income, their job prospects (or any job at all), their family, their kids’ prospects (or debt-free college) or their clean, crime-free and often gated communities.

Of course people who live like Brooks are not going to vote for Trump. But 14 million people living very different lives already have. The question before us is how many more like people there are, and how many still more Trump’s “pivoting” can attract.

The honest answer is that no one knows. So complacency is not in order, especially when polling analysis reveals a significant reluctance of Trump voters to admit their preference to pollsters.

Anyway, to say that Trump’s speech did not “pivot” toward the general election is nonsense. In fact, he pivoted in at least four ways.

First, Trump threw his formerly overt racism mostly out the window. When mentioning Latinos and African-Americans by name, which he did several times, it was only in the context of commiserating with their plight and promising to make it better. When calling out crime by illegal immigrants, Trump was careful never to identify their ethnicity. And when beating the drum of immigration reform, which he did vigorously, he stayed within the context of obeying and enforcing existing laws, which no one denies are being flouted daily. Probably under professional advice, Trump has wisely stopped demonizing immigrants and started complaining of widely unenforced laws and the economic and social effects of massive illegal immigration.

In so doing, Trump may have followed a tried and true GOP tactic of pandering to racists in the primary and toning the pandering down in the general election. It’s not clear whether that overused tactic will still work in the age of ubiquitous mobile video recordings. But it might if the economic picture or terrorism get much worse in the four months of campaign remaining. Trump was very careful—and often explicit—in including everyone in his promises to improve economic circumstances and safety.

Trump’s second pivot was probably his most important. He made repeated, direct appeals to Bernie voters. He didn’t just make a plea for votes. He adopted Bernie’s key pitch, repeating several times that the economy and politics are rigged and that he knows how to unrig them. Bernie himself was never that explicit about how to unrig the system, and neither was Trump. But undoubtedly there are some voters, including many young ones, whom a mere recognition of the rigging could attract. (This is especially so when Hillary, as Trump oft remarked, appears to love the status quo.)

Perhaps Trump’s most substantive pivot was on his most serious disagreement with GOP orthodoxy: trade. He dropped any mention of imposing tariffs, which would be calamitous. Instead, he merely promised to re-negotiate trade deals and make them more advantageous for American workers. He specifically mentioned NAFTA, China’s role in the WTO, and the TPP, including the abomination of “pay for rules.” If you believe these deals are renegotiable and that Trump can do it, that’s about as far as anyone could promise to level the playing field and maybe even get some lost jobs back.

Trump’s fourth and final pivot involved the “LGBT-Q” (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and “queer”) community. After lamenting its devastation by terrorists in the Orlando massacre, Trump noted the following applause. Then he thanked his party for recognizing this community’s humanity. It was Trump’s “Sister-Souljah” moment, a mild, implied rebuke to his own party, and a clear act of leadership. I wish I could remember something similar that Hillary has done.

As for Brooks’ so-called “darkness,” most of it derived from Trump’s early emphasis on recent terrorism. Brooks may be right that dwelling on “existential” risks to safety and life is a standard tool of demagogues. But pundits like those on the PBS stage don’t go to edgy nightclubs in the wee hours or spend time in public celebrations of Bastille Day. In just a few months, the kind of people who do have been subjected to two terrorist attacks here at home, two big ones in France, and one in Belgium, not to mention systematic executions of police, some by trained snipers, in several US cities.

To think that these events don’t weigh on the minds of ordinary people, especially those with too much time on their hands, is to belie human nature. Public safety and “law and order” will be issues in this general election. If there’s another 9/11-scale attack before it, they may be the dominant issues. Trump may have taken a risk of over-emphasizing these issues in his speech, but it was a calculated risk with a good chance of paying off. Neither ISIS nor justly aggrieved minorities at home are going to disappear before November.

Like his eponymous son the day before, Trump’s daughter and business partner Ivanka did a beautiful job of humanizing him. Like his son, she portrayed him as familiar with and sympathetic to working people. She also raised so-called “women’s issues,” such as equal pay and workplace discrimination against mothers, and she promised that Trump would do something about them.

In his speech, Trump made far too many promises. If you add them all up and include his promised massive tax cut, you have to conclude that he will explode the federal deficit.

But never mind the details. Dubya beat Kerry by making plausible promises without the slightest proof of their possibility. The average voter is no more likely to call Trump on his many promises than to call Hillary on her many unspecified “comprehensive plans.” And in any event, most Trump voters are unfortunates desperately grasping for straws.

As an example of elegant oratory and detailed command of policy, Trump’s speech may been dismal. But as an entree to and pivot toward the general election, and as a deft show of Trump’s possible leadership skills, it was effective. Anyone who thinks that Hillary will win in a cakewalk has total amnesia about the man whom every “insider” with “experience” never expected to get anywhere near this far.

Morning-After Addendum

Three thoughts arose in the light of the morning after the Trump Convention. First, I had forgotten yet a fifth point of Trump’s pivoting: his thanking evangelicals for their support and his implied promise to both lead and accommodate them. It was a small thing, but a clear sign that we are now dealing with a “new” Trump: one who understands that politics requires politesse and that a big tent provides a better chance of winning.

Second, it occurred to me that there has been some method in Trump’s “madness.” With his puerile antics and his insults, he has not only alienated all his more “serious” GOP rivals. He has also marginalized them. Ted Cruz may have thought he had the convention floor in the palm of his hand on Wednesday, but his refusal to endorse the clear winner left him without a viable constituency, except perhaps in 2020. Trump’s “scorched-earth” clearing of the field has left no doubt who’s now boss.

That’s the way Trump likes things. But it’s also the way the entire South (one-third of our nation) likes things and the way that hurting people from the French Revolution, through the Russian Revolution, to Nazi Germany have liked things. This state of affairs leaves Trump far more agile, flexible and unbound by dogma or personal loyalty than any GOP candidate has been in decades. The leadership of his party—and perhaps the nation—is now his to win or lose.

Finally, and by far most important, Trump has made a full-throated claim to be the change agent, painting Hillary as an apologist for Wall Street, a rigged political and economic system, and the status quo. His overt and apparently sincere outreach to Bernie’s voters was the most important point of his acceptance speech, by far.

The men and women of our political “establishment” have spent their entire careers acquiring loyalties and dogmas like barnacles on a ship’s hull. As a result, they are close to unmoveable. They appear to be so stunned by what has happened in the last year as to be unable to assess its significance, let alone assimilate it. Hillary is one of them.

In the last year, two men—both national unknowns—came from out of nowhere to capture the nation’s hopes and spirits and astonish everyone. That single fact is most of what you need to know to assess America’s current political prospects.

One of those men (Trump) is now the GOP nominee. He needs to work on his tone and pacing, and he needs to get someone who can write to prepare his speeches. But the substance of his acceptance speech showed that he gets the nation’s current position and the middle-class’ wholly justified angst. It also shows that he can learn to “do” politics and win friends.

The other newcomer to national prominence (Bernie) nearly upset the applecart of a woman who has aimed for the presidency for two decades and, since 2007, has considered it her birthright. She carries with her the most marginalized majority in the history of American politics: women. For Bernie to have nearly thwarted her drive, when Hillary has the putative majority, the longevity, the money, and the strong support of minorities, is no small thing.

The people want change. They want it in both parties. One way or another, they will have it. They want new, more honest faces, who recognize and reject the rigged system that has hurt them and are willing to fight it.

Trump’s hit last night on security, safety, and “law and order” is no head fake. It’s a tried and true bit of GOP demagoguery that both Nixon and Reagan used as a stair step to national power. But for Hillary to focus on it, and not on the primary change-seeking message of the rank and file in both parties during the last year, would be a fatal mistake from which she could never recover.

Hillary may need some experienced national-security advisers. But she can get them down in the bowels of the national-security establishment where few in the public but wonks look.

What she needs to win this thing is the people’s known friends in her Cabinet, and she needs to name them next week. If names like Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz don’t drop from her lips—and names like Martin O’Malley for climate change—I believe there is a fifty-fifty chance that she will lose. Then all the aspirations of women, all Hillary’s decades of preparation, and our nation’s chance for methodical, competent non-“gut”-based government will be toast come this November.



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