How to go after Trump

My wife doesn’t understand why I’m not more interested in the all the details of Trump’s Russia collusion.  Number one, I really don’t think we’ll have a good enough smoking gun.  But, also, because I think his everyday corruption is already so clear and that he’s ultimately the most politically vulnerable here.  Chait on the matter:

As the races pick up in earnest, some kind of narrative focus is going to be necessary to frame the case against Trump. Here, what appears to be an embarrassment of riches for Democrats may in fact be a collection of distractions. It is depressingly likely that several of Trump’s most outrageous characteristics will fail to move the needle in the states and districts where the needle needs moving. His racism and misogyny motivate the Democratic base, but both were perfectly apparent in 2016 and did not dissuade enough voters to abandon him.

The Russia scandal is substantively important, but it is also convoluted and abstract and removed from any immediate impact on voters’ lived experience. The reports of Trump’s affair with Stormy Daniels, even the possibility of hired goons to keep her quiet, is not exactly a disillusioning experience for voters who harbored few illusions to begin with…

Trump’s core proposition to the public was a business deal: If he became president, he would work to make them rich. Of course, the fact that Trump was able to reduce the presidency to such a crass exchange, forsaking such niceties as simple decency and respect for the rule of law, exposed terrifying weaknesses in the fabric of American democracy. But the shortest path to resolving this crisis is first to remove Trump’s party — and it is Trump’s party — from full control of the government in 2018, and then to remove Trump from the White House in 2020. The clearest way to do that is to demonstrate that Trump is failing to uphold his end of the deal. After all, the students at Trump University once constituted some of the biggest Trump fans in America. Until they realized Trump had conned them. Then they sued to get their money back.

Historically, corruption — specifically, the use of power for personal gain — has played a central and even dominant role in American political discourse. In the 1870s, revelations that public officials were caught lining their pockets with millions of dollars from alcohol taxes (the Whiskey Ring) and inflated railroad costs (Crédit Mobilier) exploded into spectacular scandals. One of the triumphs of the Progressive Era was establishing rules and norms of professionalism in government so that public officials would not be tempted to sell their favors. The far more petty corruption cases of the 20th century still roused public rage. Harry Truman was famously scorned in his time, owing to penny-ante scandals, one of which involved an aide’s acceptance of some freezers. Dwight Eisenhower’s chief of staff had to resign after he accepted a vicuña coat; George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, resigned in disgrace after using military aircraft for personal and political trips. There is a reason Trump labeled his opponent “Crooked Hillary,” and it stems from a law of American politics Democrats would be wise to remember: To be out for yourself is probably the single most disqualifying flaw a politician can have… [emphasis mine]

It is hardly a coincidence that so many greedy people have filled the administration’s ranks. Trump’s ostentatious crudeness and misogyny are a kind of human-resources strategy. Radiating personal and professional sleaze lets him quickly and easily identify individuals who have any kind of public ethics and to sort them out. (James Comey’s accounts of his interactions with the president depict Trump probing for some vein of corruptibility in the FBI director; when he came up empty, he fired him.) Trump is legitimately excellent at cultivating an inner circle unburdened by legal or moral scruples. These are the only kind of people who want to work for Trump, and the only kind Trump wants to work for him.

It should take very little work — and be a very big priority — for Democratic candidates to stitch all the administration’s misdeeds together into a tale of unchecked greed. For all the mystery still surrounding the Russia investigation, for instance, it is already clear that the narrative revolves around a lust (and desperation) for money. Having burned enough American banks throughout his career that he could not obtain capital through conventional, legitimate channels, Trump turned to Russian sources, who typically have an ulterior political motive. Just what these various sources got in return for their investment in Trump is a matter for Robert Mueller’s investigators to determine. But Trump’s interest in them is perfectly obvious…

Small episodes of corruption can play an outsize role in American politics, since the human scale of petty self-dealing is often easy to understand. And in Trump’s case, the smaller and larger scandals reinforce each other. Why is Trump giving rich people and corporations a huge tax cut? Why has he been threatening to take away your health insurance? Why is he letting Wall Street and Big Oil write their own rules? Above all, if Trump supposedly believed that “if I become president, I couldn’t care less about my company — it’s peanuts,” why are his children still running it? For the same reason he has let his Cabinet secretaries run up large travel expenses, and why his son-in-law met with oligarchs in China and the Gulf States whose money he was trying to get his hands on.

Even the strong economy does not mean Democrats have no way to attack Trump’s economic management. After all, the reason public opinion about the economy improved almost immediately after his election is that the Republican message machine stopped bad-mouthing the recovery and instead rebranded the same conditions as a fabulous new era of prosperity. Rather than sit back and allow Trump to take credit for a recovery he inherited, Democrats can press the point that he and his allies are doing little more than skimming off the top of it.

So, whatever it was that Trump was up to in Russia, I think where he most suffers is when the Russia story is part of a larger narrative that focuses on Trump’s personal corruption (which is massive), rather than the more political corruption of the Russia story.

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Photo of the day

Love this lead photo from an Atlantic gallery of China from above:

People walk along a high cliff wall on a glass-floored sightseeing walkway in Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province, China, on August 1, 2016. 

Reuters

Quick hits (part I)

1) A little dated now (that happens fast these days), but I liked Jack Shafer’s take on Kevin Williamson and the Atlantic.

That Goldberg invested in a feral conservative like Williamson spoke well for the Atlantic. The last thing the magazine needed was another house-broken righty like David Frum who would speak nicely to its largely liberal and centrist readers. But as it turned out, Goldberg’s tent wasn’t big enough to accommodate somebody of Williamson’s swagger. The writer’s proximate undoing was a tweet and then the discovery of a podcast in which he proposed hanging as the proper punishment for women who have abortions—a perfect example of a writer going too far. In the internal email announcing the departure, Goldberg justified the dismissal by writing that Williamson’s “callous and violent” comments run “contrary to the Atlantic’s tradition of respectful, well-reasoned debate, and to the values of our workplace,” and hinting that Williamson may have misrepresented the offending tweet as a momentary lapse rather than a deeply held belief.

Without relitigating Williamson’s abortion views—which I don’t share—let’s agree that if he hadn’t been sent packing for his less–than-modern views on abortion, his critics would have griped about something else in his archives to engineer his removal. Let’s be real here: Kevin Williamson wasn’t sent packing for expressing strong language on abortion but for being Kevin Williamson. The very things that made him so appealing to Goldberg were destined to lead to his exit.

The loser here isn’t Williamson. Like other excellent writers who’ve gotten the ax, he’ll find a new job soon enough—and now he’s become the right’s latest free-speech martyr. The real losers are Atlantic writers and Atlantic readers—writers because they’ll become faint-hearted about their work (who wants to be the next Williamson?) and readers because the magazine will be less eager to challenge them.

2) Separate (by gender) and unequal in the Marine Corps.

3) Speaking of the Marines, I loved Eat the Apple by Matt Young.

4) My Jordan Peterson quasi-obsession has abated for the moment, but I came across again the Current Affairs article that first introduced to him.

5) The decline of local news is bad for democracy.  Hell, yeah, it is.

6) Nice article in Wired looking at the decline in teen driving by the numbers.  My 18-year-old is certainly indicative of this decline. “71% of high school seniors have a driver’s license—the lowest percentage in decades.”

7) Oh man this cartoon is awesome:

8) Nicholas Kristoff on “how to win an argument about guns.”  How sweet that he thinks you can win arguments with facts and reason.

9) NYT with 5 interesting case studies of plants and animals confused by climate change.

10) I was telling a new friend at last week’s PS conference about my undergrad’s honor’s research (which he presented in a poster at the conference) and she told me about this very similar research.  When it comes to a political campaigns, Southern accents are a decided disadvantage.  (And more on my student’s research in a later post).

For the study, the researchers had 757 participants from Alabama and Connecticut listen to a 1-minute campaign speech from a fictitious political candidate. The speech was either read by a male candidate with a Southern accent, a male candidate with a neutral accent, a female candidate with a Southern accent, or a female candidate with a neutral accent. But in all four cases the content of the speech was the same.

The candidate with a Southern accent was viewed as less trustworthy, less honest, less intelligent, and less competent. Participants also assumed the candidate was more conservative and rated them as less likeable when he or she had a Southern accent.

“The Southern accent can be a detriment to political candidates,” Cooper told PsyPost. “Surprisingly, the negative attributes associated with the Southern accent exist even among Southerners themselves. These accents also come with political assumptions about ideology and issue stances, which candidates should keep in mind when trying to communicate their agendas.”

11) Weather in NC has finally March turned for the better this Spring.  But I’ve been somewhat unhealthily obsessed with just how unusually cold March and early April have been.  Turns out in Raleigh was 6.5 degrees colder than February.  That’s nuts!

12) Enjoyed this Sean Illing interview with Robert Sutton on how to deal with what I like to refer to as very-unpleasant-self-centered persons:

Sean Illing

Let’s get to the meat and potatoes of the book, which is about how to deal with assholes. So tell me, what’s your best asshole neutralization strategy?

Robert Sutton

First, it depends on how much power you have. And second, on how much time you’ve got. Those are the two questions that you have to answer before you can decide what to do. Assuming that you don’t have Dirty Harry power or you’re not the CEO and can’t simply fire people you don’t like, I think you have to do two things in terms of strategy.

To begin with, you’ve got to build your case. You’ve also got to build a coalition. One of my mottos is that you have to know your assholes. We already talked about temporary versus certified assholes, but another distinction that’s really important is that some people, and you mentioned this at the outset, some people are clueless assholes and don’t realize they’re jerks, but maybe they mean well.

In that situation, you can have backstage conversations, gently informing them that they’ve crossed a line. This is simple persuasive work. But if it’s somebody who is one of those Machiavellian assholes who is treating you like shit because they believe that’s how to get ahead, in that case you’ve got to get the hell out of there if you can.

13) Under a remotely normal presidency, EPA director Scott Pruitt’s fabulously corrupt behavior would be a much bigger story.  Drain the swamp?!  How about make it 6 feet deeper and throw in a broken sewer pipe feeding into it.

14) Yglesias on Paul Ryan, “House Speaker Paul Ryan was the biggest fraud in American politics.”

15) Action/thriller movies for grown-ups are such an endangered species now.  At least a few still managed to get made.  Looking forward to seeing Beirut.

16) Really enjoyed Thomas Frank’s book on success and luck.  Here’s his short version of how to reduce inequality in a nice Wonkblog compilation of expert takes (oddly, none of them advocate cutting taxes on the wealth):

Two of the biggest problems now confronting the nation are runaway growth in income inequality and crumbling infrastructure. That the best ways to address these problems are mutually reinforcing should therefore come as welcome news.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it would cost more than $4.5 trillion to bring our existing stock of infrastructure into serviceable condition by 2025. Given the incentives that engineers face, this may be an overstatement. But no one doubts that the task would be enormously expensive. Raising taxes on the nation’s top earners is the only feasible way to pay for it. That step alone would reduce the skewness of the nation’s post-tax income distribution.

But it would also reduce inequality by boosting the incomes of those further down the income ladder. As previous expansions of infrastructure investment — such as the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression and the Interstate Highway System initiative of the 1950s — have taught us, many useful tasks can be done by properly supervised unskilled workers. Infrastructure projects couldn’t employ all unskilled workers, but increased demand for such workers in some sectors invariably creates labor shortages and more rapid wage growth in others.

Top earners have historically resisted tax hikes, in the apparent belief that higher rates would make it harder to buy things they want. But that view is a garden variety cognitive error. Top earners, who already have everything they might reasonably be said to need, are like others in their desire to buy additional things that seem special. But “special” is a relative concept. A nice house is one that is nicer than most other houses. A high-performance car is one that performs better than most other cars, and so on. To get such things, we must outbid others who also want them. Successful bidding depends almost entirely on relative purchasing power. And because tax increases don’t affect relative purchasing power, they have no effect on our ability to buy special things.

Consider the following thought-experiment: Rich car enthusiasts in World A, which has low taxes, can afford to buy $300,000 Ferraris but must drive them on roads riddled with foot-deep potholes. Their counterparts in World B, which has higher taxes, can afford only $150,000 Porsches, which they drive on roads maintained to a high standard. In which of these worlds would rich motorists be happier?

17) Great piece from Vox’s Brian Resnick on “9 essential lessons from psychology to understand the Trump era.”  Lots of great political psychology here.

18) I’ll always be a Duke basketball fan.  But that doesn’t mean I have to like what they’ve become in the one-and-done era.  Loved this piece on the very real downsides for the players involved.

19) This is really, really interesting for those of us who grew up on John Hughes movies.  Molly Ringwald looks back through the #metoo lens.

20) Love this– in a great prank, Georgia high school somehow gets “What’s New Pussycat” stuck on the PA system in a loop for 45 minutes.

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