Clinton “winning” the popular vote doesn’t tell us much.

According to Snopes, as of yesterday (November 13) Clinton is currently ahead of Trump by about 630,000 votes, and it looks likely that number will increase as the ballots continue to be counted. This situation has lead to familiar calls to end the electoral college, and already I’ve seen plenty of angry posts from HRC supporters feeling they’ve been robbed. So a few points here:

1. At least as of now, statistically Trump and Clinton are actually tied.

So far, about 121M people voted for either Trump or Clinton. Previous research has suggested the error rate for uncounted votes in a presidential election is roughly between 1.1% – 2.0% (here’s the study and its tables). If those numbers hold, one of the candidates would need to beat the other by somewhere between 1.3M – 2.4M votes for it to be statistically significant. At least as of now, Clinton falls short of that, meaning the difference between them is in the margin of error. They’re tied.

2. Even if Clinton ends up above the margin of error, it doesn’t mean the electoral college has robbed anyone.

Politicians campaign and people vote with the electoral college in mind. Think of how many times you heard people discuss how everyone in swing states ought to vote, whereas if you were in a solid red or blue state, people didn’t care as much. Why? Because they knew how the electoral college works. Party hardliners were relatively forgiving of third party votes in the states already decided. I live in California, and no one seemed very worried about third party votes here. We all assumed (correctly) that Clinton would get all of California’s electoral votes either way. But if you went third party in Florida this year? Apparently the end of the world might be a bit your fault.

If the electoral college hadn’t existed, you don’t know how people would’ve voted differently. How many more conservatives would have bothered to vote in California? How many more liberals would have showed up in Alabama?

The same goes for the way the politicians campaign. They choose which states to pour their ads into, to get people on the ground, to hit hard, based on their knowledge of the electoral college–and those processes greatly influence people’s votes.

If the electoral college didn’t exist, campaigning and voting would have looked different, and we don’t know how different. We don’t know how the landscape would have changed, and so we don’t know which candidate would have received the “mandate” from the American people.


So it’s possible HRC will end up above the margin of error. And it’s possible if she does that would happen to represent what Americans would have wanted if they had voting absent an electoral college. It’s also possible it would have looked completely different. Especially when considering how unprecedented this election was and how surprised so many of us were by the results, it’s pretty hard to predict. It’s certainly not clear that the electoral college foiled the (overall) will of the people.

WSJ Survey: No White House Economists Openly Support Trump

Surprise, surprise:

The Wall Street Journal this month reached out to all 45 surviving former members of the White House Council of Economic Advisers under the past eight presidents, going back to Richard Nixon, to get their views on this year’s presidential election.

Among 17 Republican appointees who responded to Journal inquiries, none said they supported Mr. Trump. Six said they did not support Mr. Trump and 11 declined to say either way. An additional six did not respond to repeated messages. Among the 21 Democrats who responded to the Journal, 14 said they supported Mrs. Clinton, none said they opposed her and seven declined to say either way. One Democratic appointee didn’t respond to messages.


Check out the full article to see what the economists are saying.


There’s a lot more to Trump support than racism.

hillbilly elegy

I’m a conservative. Over the last 9 months or so the Trump campaign has sent me from incredulous to enraged to dejectedly resigned, and I admit I’m still trying to figure out what just happened.

To hear some of my leftist friends talk, the Trump phenomenon is the inevitable climax of an increasingly out-of-touch, racist, backwards party, a predictable extension of the “extremism” of Bush.

Those theories makes no sense to me. The conservatives I know who supported Bush hate Trump. In fact, Pew Research recently published a study showing the most religious and “very conservative” Republicans have been most resistant to Trump. This study echoes a Gallup poll last year that found the highly religious ranked Trump 12th out of 17 GOP candidates. But if the most religious and conservative Republicans dislike him, who has been supporting Trump from the outset?

In his article “Trump: Tribune of Poor White People,” Rod Dreher interviews J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, on the interplay between our current political parties and hillbilly culture.

The interview is a fascinating read. Vance discusses a variety of sometimes opposing ideas in an empathetic but honest way. For example, he talks about how the anti-elitist streak in hillbilly culture helps those who achieve financial success stay grounded, but it also pressures people not to become successful in the first place. Vance talks about  the problems with how, when it comes to the poor, there are opposing narratives suggesting either (a) the poor are helpless, with no power to affect their own lives or (b) the poor must simply bootstrap their way out of poverty. Both of these views fail to address important factors.

Vance uses his understanding of hillbilly culture to explain Trump’s popularity:

The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades.  From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues, a la Thomas Frank (more on that below).  Maybe they get a few handouts, but many don’t want handouts to begin with.  

From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican policy platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and paeans to the noble businessman and economic growth.  Whatever the merits of better tax policy and growth (and I believe there are many), the simple fact is that these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis.  More importantly, these policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother.

Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears.  He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas.  His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground.  He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.  

This part especially resonated with me:

The other big problem I have with Trump is that he has dragged down our entire political conversation.  It’s not just that he inflames the tribalism of the Right; it’s that he encourages the worst impulses of the Left.  In the past few weeks, I’ve heard from so many of my elite friends some version of, “Trump is the racist leader all of these racist white people deserve.” These comments almost always come from white progressives who know literally zero culturally working class Americans.  And I’m always left thinking: if this is the quality of thought of a Harvard Law graduate, then our society is truly doomed.

Read the full interview here.


Brexit, Trump, Sanders

If you Google “Trump” and “Brexit” you’ll get an avalanche of articles suggesting that the explanation of the UK’s vote to leave the EU is an expression of populist outrage, resurgent nationalism, and an admixture of xenophobia to boot. That might not be accurate. Walker’s post highlighted an alternative view.

But let’s roll with it for a minute. Let’s say the headlines like Victory For Brexit ‘Leave’ Shows Us Why Trump Is Succeeding In America or Brexit Should Be a Warning About Donald Trump are on to something. If so, then what?

Well, in that case then we need to add someone else to the list: Bernie Sanders. Because–on issues of nationalism, protectionism, and even xenophobia–Trump and Sanders are reading from the same script.

What am I talking about? Well, let’s look at Sanders’ take on NAFTA.

NAFTA, supported by the Secretary, cost us 800,000 jobs nationwide, tens of thousands of jobs in the Midwest. Permanent normal trade relations with China cost us millions of jobs. Look, I was on a picket line in early 1990’s against NAFTA because you didn’t need a PhD in economics to understand that American workers should not be forced to compete against people in Mexico making 25 cents an hour. … And the reason that I was one of the first, not one of the last to be in opposition to the TPP is that American workers … should not be forced to compete against people in Vietnam today making a minimum wage of $0.65 an hour. Look, what we have got to do is tell corporate America that they cannot continue to shut down. We’ve lost 60,000 factories since 2001. They’re going to start having to, if I’m president, invest in this country — not in China, not in Mexico.

Sound familiar? It should. Sanders might stay away from some of the more visceral rhetoric that Trump revels in–he doesn’t slander Mexicans as rapists or promise to build a wall–but his targets (Chinese and Mexican workers) are also two of Trump’s favorite targets and his hawkish stance on trade wars matches The Donald’s.

Of course, that isn’t the only similarity. His grasp of reality is equally as tenuous as Trump’s on this issue, as this article from the Foundation for Economic Education elucidates with charts like this one:


As Daniel Bier puts it:

Not content to merely keep Mexicans from working in the United States (where, thanks to US capital and infrastructure, they could earn three or four times more than they make in Mexico), Bernie Sanders now objects to the right of Mexicans to work in Mexico, if they dare to sell goods and services to Americans — or, God forbid, try tocompete with American firms.

On the specific topic of economic policy, how is this different from Trump? How is it different from the populist outrage that purportedly led the UK out of the EU?

Then again, we could just ask Bernie Sanders how he feels about Trump’s policies. From Slate:

Daily News: Another one of your potential opponents has a very similar sounding answer to, or solution to, the trade situation—and that’s Donald Trump. He also says that, although he speaks with much more blunt language and says, and with few specifics, “Bad deals. Terrible deals. I’ll make them good deals.”

So in that sense I hear whispers of that same sentiment. How is your take on that issue different than his?

Sanders: Well, if he thinks they’re bad trade deals, I agree with him. They are bad trade deals. But we have some specificity and it isn’t just us going around denouncing bad trade. In other words, I do believe in trade. But it has to be based on principles that are fair. So if you are in Vietnam, where the minimum wage is 65¢ an hour, or you’re in Malaysia, where many of the workers are indentured servants because their passports are taken away when they come into this country and are working in slave-like conditions, no, I’m not going to have American workers “competing” against you under those conditions. So you have to have standards. And what fair trade means to say that it is fair. It is roughly equivalent to the wages and environmental standards in the United States. [emphasis changed from the Slate article]

Jordan Weissmann writes:

It is one thing to argue that we should not do business with nations that actively manage or manipulate their currencies… It’s also entirely reasonable to support workers’ rights to unionize abroad or push for stricter environmental protections… But a blanket rule against trade with low-wage nations is different.

Weissmann is right. Sanders’ and Trump’s position makes no sense, morally or economically. Economically, a major benefit (maybe the key benefit) of trade is to allow countries to specialize where they have a comparative advantage. If there’s no comparative advantage and no specialization… what does he think trade is for? And, morally, the idea that you’re going to help people who earn very low wages by taking their jobs away is questionable. It’s about as useful as helping the homeless by making sure they can’t sleep where you can see them.

But I digress. The main point of this post is not to enumerate all the ways in which protectionism is bad. We’d be here all day. The point is to note just how similar Trump and Sanders are on these matters, and to also observe–based on the results of the Brexit vote–that these forces might be globally ascendant.

In many ways, we–all of us humans–are on the threshold of a brighter future. Never has global poverty fallen so rapidly. Never have so many been lifted out of the depths of abject deprivation. Never has the promise of prosperity and peace and freedom been brighter for the entire planet. But–if the Brexit vote and the populist movements of Sanders and Trump are any indication–we might just slam that door shut instead of walking through it, and return to the tribalist, zero-sum mentality that treats trade as a competition to win instead of a policy of mutual benefit.

It’s not clear how far down that road we’ll walk, but we already know where it ends.

Quick Thoughts on Trump and Predictions

Now that Donald Trump has wrapped up the GOP nomination, there are two kinds of articles flooding the national conversation:

  1. Surely this is a sign of the End Times.
  2. Pundits are dumb!

I can’t really contest #1 because, in a nutshell, I agree.

But let me talk about #2 for a second. First: yes, articles like this one and this one and this one that are full of  screenshots of pontifications about how Trump has no chance are funny now that he is the winner of the primary after all. But hold on a second. Does the fact that somebody was wrong about a prediction actually mean that they were dumb? That their prediction was a stupid one? Not necessarily.

If you bet your life savings on being able to flip a coin 5 times in a row and get heads every time, I am going to say you have made a dumb decision. You’ve got about a 97% chance of losing everything and only a 3% chance of winning. But lets say you ignore me, place your bet, and you manage to get lucky and win. This doesn’t make you a genius. It makes you an idiot who got lucky.

People are terrible at statistical reasoning. We like reality simple and we like it deterministic. That means we like to believe that if Y happened, then it’s because of X and obviously X had to cause Y and couldn’t have caused W or Z or coconut soup.

But reality is messy. Sometimes good predictions fail because there was systematic information that nobody had access to. Sometimes good predictions fail because of just plain old dumb luck (like in my example with coin flips). The point is just that even someone who is right 95% of the time is going to get it wrong 5% of the time, and that doesn’t mean that in those 5% of cases where they get it wrong there was actually anything they could or should have predicted differently.

Take a guy like Nate Silver. Unlike your average pundit, he’s got a track record of getting things right by using objective, transparent, quantitative methods. He was largely right in 2008, 2010, and 2012. And this year, he was one of the leading voices telling people to calm down and not worry too much about Trump. As a result, he is now being singled out by name by, for example, Business Insider: NATE SILVER: ‘We basically got the Republican race wrong’ as one of those silly propeller heads we never should have listened to in the first place.

Not so fast.

First, this is actually a meaningful question. Journalistic credibility is already at historical lows, and that has dire consequences for society. A strong, free press is a bedrock institution of democracy, and if the press is perceived to be hopelessly biased or suborned or just plain old incompetent, that’s bad for our nation. And it matters whether the perception is real or false. In reality, it’s probably a little of both. My read on Nate Silver (who fulfills the role of a journalist even if he doesn’t fit the old, pre-21st century conception) is that he’s an honest guy doing good work. On the other hand, there is a legitimate argument that journalism is fracturing into a thousand click-bait seeking echo chambers. If we, the reading public, don’t discern between episodic mistakes and systematic corruption, then we can’t provide the necessary incentives for the good ship Free Press to right herself.

It’s also meaningful because we need to know what happened with Trump. Yes, obviously Silver (and most everyone else) predicted the wrong outcome. But the question is why were they wrong? Was it incompetence? Was it information nobody had access to? Or did Trump keep getting heads every time he flipped the coin? Almost none of the articles I’ve read address this question. They just assume that if your prediction fails it was a bad prediction. In other words, they are assuming incompetence. And this means we’re likely to draw all the wrong conclusions about what Trump’s victory means.

So–even though he got it wrong–I strongly recommend reading Silver’s take. In it, he raises this important question explicitly:

What’s much harder to say is whether Trump is a one-off — someone who defied the odds because a lot of things broke in his favor and whose success will be hard to repeat — or if he signifies a fundamental change in American politics.

In answer, he notes the three ways his prediction was systematically off:

  1. Voters are more tribal than I thought.
  2. GOP is weaker than I thought.
  3. Media is worse than I thought.

It’s not clear if these are things Silver should have known or if these are new facts that we only know now because of Trump’s victory, but the point is that–because they are systematica rather than merely random–these are new facts that can help us understand and predict the world going forward.

But there is also room for randomness. Take a look at this chart:



Prior to the New York state primary, Trump had never taken a majority in a GOP primary. Since then, he’s never not taken the majority. What happened? Silver’s guess is that voter rationally and deliberately evaluated Trump’s argument that whoever gets the most votes should get the nomination (even if they fall short of a majority) and so decided to make sure Trump got the majority to avoid a contested election. To me, this makes very little sense, because “rationally and deliberately” are not adverbs I usually apply to voter action. And I’m not making a dig at Trump’s voters, I just mean that group action seldom has that kind of rational, deliberate nature without some kind of elaborate infrastructure to support it.

My guess? Well, two of the big stories leading up to New York were Ted Cruz’s statements about “New York values” and his machinations to win delegates without winning elections in Colorado and Maine. So, what do you think happens when a populist demagogue leading a movement of voters who feel bitter, dispossessed, and disenfranchised by a corrupt, elitist system gets to tar his top challenger as a conniving insider using questionable technicalities to steal votes? Oh, and he insulted you, too. Cruz walked face-first into Trump’s zeitgeist, and that–I am guessing–fueled Trump’s unprecedented win in New York state which, in turn, snowballed into his further victories after that.

Who knows if I’m right or not, though, and that’s my point. This is basically the blind luck category. If I’m right, then it took the coincidence of Cruz and Trump being pretty much right where they were leading up to New York in the polls, plus the rules being what they were in Maine and Colorado, etc. You can find explanations for all of that, but at a certain point we’re just making stories up after the fact to explain what is, in reality, an essentially chaotic reality. Or hey, maybe I’m wrong, in which case nobody knows.

Either way, this matters a lot for the big question: is Trump a one-off? Or a sign of the new reality? I don’t know the answer definitively, but I do know the shallow and vapid articles where some pundits make fun of other pundits for not punditting well enough are just a distracting waste of time.

Have Mormons Checked Out of the Political Process?

On the very large sample size of my Facebook friends and my own personal feelings (so clearly, sound and publishable data), I’ve noticed that Mormons (read: my Facebook feed and myself. Except, I guess, not me at this moment.) are kind of quiet about the election this year. I’ve never seen it happen (on my Facebook feed).

I’m going to extrapolate from this great sample of data: I wonder if this silence has to do with the following.

This year we have a super rich guy with multiple marriages, multiple failed businesses, no government experience, no experience turning around a failed business, no (previously) conservative values, who is vulgar, rude, hates immigrants, hates women, speaks without learning, and is doted upon by the media (even when they are making fun of him its with a gentle glee that their (read: Democratic) nominee will surely beat this buffoon).

Mitt-MissMeYetOnce upon a time we had an amazing anti-Trump candidate (other than he was also rich, but only 1/18th as rich as Trump). But this candidate had this YUGE personal problem. He was a Mormon. And that just won’t do. The media, Republican establishment, and core Republican (conservative? evangelical? INSANE?) voters just could not allow a stand-up guy like this to be the nominee, unless of course it was against a sitting president, a set-up for failure.

This is what you have done to us media (Democrats?) and Republicans. But they haven’t just done it to Mormons. They’ve done it to America.

The Populist Trade Problem

A recent article in Vox outlines the problem of anti-trade populism:

Bernie Sanders sells himself as a champion of the little guy. But talk to economists and development experts, and you hear something different: Sanders’s policies on trade would hurt the very poorest people on Earth. A lot.

Here is the basic issue. Sanders has, correctly, recognized that freer trade with countries like China has hurt a subset of American workers (while benefiting others). As a result, he opposes most efforts to open American markets to more international competition, and promises to roll back a number of previous trade agreements the US had made.

There’s one big problem, according to development economists I spoke to: Free trade is one of the best tools we have for fighting extreme poverty. If Sanders wins, and is serious about implementing his agenda, he will impoverish millions of already-poor people in China and Central America.

What’s worse is that the actual ways Sanders might roll back these agreements could lead to serious reprisals from the affected countries. The nightmare scenario, experts say, is a global slide toward protectionism, wherein China and other countries take cues from the US and impose their own retaliatory tariffs. That would devastate economies in the developing world, dooming many more millions to a lifetime of crushing poverty.

The piece demonstrates how trade has benefited the global poor, while recognizing it may negatively impact some American jobs (though the benefits of increased purchasing power through cheaper goods may outweigh the costs). However, Sanders is not the only candidate with backward policies when it comes to trade. Donald Trump, according to The New York Times, “is bringing mercantilism back. The New York billionaire is challenging the last 200 years of economic orthodoxy that trade among nations is good, and that more is better. He is well on his way to becoming the first Republican nominee in nearly a century who has called for higher tariffs, or import taxes, as a broad defense against low-cost imports.” These positions show why Trump and Sanders are far more conservative and far more alike than some would care to admit. This is perhaps why some political scientists are recognizing Trump supporters as populists: a label usually reserved for Sanders supporters. “Trump supporters share anti-elitism with only one other group: Sanders’s voters,” write one pair of political scientists in The Washington Post. “But where Trump is a populist, we would argue that Sanders is not. Despite the fact that Sanders often gets called a populist, his voters do not conform to the populist stereotype. They generally trust experts and do not identify strongly as Americans.” This may be true of Sanders supporters in some cases, but when it comes to economics, they reject the expertise and consensus of economists and embrace U.S.-centric protectionist policies.

From Gregory Mankiw’s Principles of Economics, 7th ed. (pg. 32).

A socialist Democrat and a Republican businessman drawing from the same economic playbook. I’m sure most didn’t see that one coming.


Romney and Trump: Saying What Needs to Be Said

If you weren’t aware, Mitt Romney gave a speech this morning attacking Trump’s candidacy. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Mitt Romney, and I have been since his unsuccessful primary run in 2008. So I was looking forward to this speech enough that I queued it up on my iPhone and played it through my car speakers live as I drove. It was a great speech, in my mind, but you can see for yourself:

The New York Times also has a full transcript.

Obviously Trump fans don’t like it, but lots of Republicans and conservative are also criticizing the speech for two things: first, being pointless and second, giving ammunition to the left. So here are some thoughts.

I agree: this speech didn’t persuade a single Trump supporter. That’s not the point. Think about Trump supporters for a moment. Is there a speech that could have had an impact on that audience? No, there is not. Trump has basically two kinds of supporters at this point. There are those who take his provocative, bigoted statements at face value and approve of them. There is no decent or reasonable way to appeal to these people, because they are supporting Trump explicitly because of his lack of decency and his lack of reasonability. The Republican Party neither needs nor wants this dead weight. Then there are those who are so cynical and jaded that the content of Trump’s statements–and the content of the attacks on him–are irrelevant. These people hear political debates the same way that Charlie Brown listens to his teacher.

These folks, I believe, do not share the extreme and noxious views that have become the hallmark of Trump’s campaign. But they are still completely and totally beyond rational appeal because all they care about is who is talking not what is being said. If you come from “the establishment,” then whatever you say is a lie, no matter what you say. The point is: nobody in Trump’s corner would have listened to anything that Romney had to say, no matter what it was.

Give the man some credit. That wasn’t his goal. It’s clear from the speech that none of it was addressing Trump supporters. What was his goal, then? Who was he addressing?

If the other candidates can find some common ground, I believe we can nominate a person who can win the general election and who will represent the values and policies of conservatism. Given the current delegate selection process, that means that I’d vote for Marco Rubio in Florida and for John Kasich in Ohio and for Ted Cruz or whichever one of the other two contenders has the best chance of beating Mr. Trump in a given state. [emphasis added]

Romney is addressing Republicans and conservatives who are already leery of Trump’s campaign, and his goal is to encourage these people to get out and vote (part one) and to do so strategically (part two). We can’t know just yet what effect this appeal will have, but it is certainly more tactically aware than a tone-deaf appeal to an audience defined by having their fingers jammed into their ears.

So let’s talk about this idea that Romney is giving ammunition to the left. That he represents “the establishment.” That he’s a RINO. This is the response of, for example, Rush Limbaugh and his audience, although I’ve also seen more reasonable and sophisticated Republicans (who don’t like Trump) make a similar claim.

First, I don’t think these people paid very much attention to Mitt Romney’s words. Romney was not attacking the right from the center. His attacks related primarily to the realism of Trump’s proposals and, even more so, went to Trump’s character and temperament. These are apolitical attacks. Secondly, Romney included an extended take-down of Clinton:

Now, Mr. Trump relishes any poll that reflects what he thinks of himself. But polls are also saying that he will lose to Hillary Clinton. Think about that. On Hillary Clinton’s watch, the State Department, when she was guiding it and part of the Obama administration, that State Department watched as America’s interests were diminished at every corner of the world.

She compromised our national secrets. She dissembled to the families of the slain. And she jettisoned her most profound beliefs to gain presidential power. For the last three decades, the Clintons have lived at the intersection of money and politics, trading their political influence to enrich their personal finances.

They embody the term, “crony capitalism.” It disgusts the American people and causes them to lose faith in our political process. A person so untrustworthy and dishonest as Hillary Clinton must not become president.

Of course, a Trump nomination enables her victory.

There is precious little evidence in Mitt Romney’s speech of the alleged base / establishment divide. And that’s something that we really need to emphasize with great force here: Trump does not speak for, represent, or enjoy the support of the GOP base in some kind of glorious crusade to purge the GOP of ideological heretics. Exhibit A in this case is Glenn Beck, who refers to Trump as “a pathological narcissistic sociopath,” Beck is far from the GOP establishment: he’s a social values populist who supports Cruz over Rubio, and who has little love for Romney. Or consider Matt Walsh, another representative of the social values populism that truly reflects the GOP base, and who has been attacking Trump and Trump supporters for months. He wrote articles in July 2015, Aug 2015, January 2016, and yet again last month.

Trump’s rise is not a reflection of some kind of broad-based populist revolt by ideological pure conservatives against an elite cadre of moderate establishmentarians. If that were the case, Trump would be pulling in more than a paltry one third of Republican primary voters. If that were the case, Trump would have strong, consistent, clearly articulated positions on the key conservative issues: abortion, the second amendment, limited government, and religious liberty. Instead, Trump’s positions on all of these issues are farcically out of touch with the base of the conservative movement. He keeps defending Planned Parenthood, has no credible history on gun rights, consistently threatens to abuse executive power if he gets it, and is laughably ignorant of even basic religious cultural touchstones.

As The Atlantic covered, there is a “clear ‘soft spot’ in Trump’s [evangelical] support: weekly church attendance.” In other words, the evangelicals who actually go to church, don’t trust Trump. That’s the template for every issue down the line. Politically informed conservatives who are pro-life, or pro-second amendment, or are for limited government are all skeptical of Trump because they have the depth of knowledge (on their respective issues) to spot a liar and a phony. Jonah Goldberg, writing for the National Review, has come to the same conclusion:

Until Trump descended his golden escalator, the “conservative base” generally referred to committed pro-lifers and other social conservatives. The term also suggested people who were for very limited government, strict adherence to the Constitution, etc. Most of all, it described people who called themselves “very conservative.”

While it’s absolutely true that Trump draws support from people who fit such descriptions, it’s far from the entirety of Trump’s following. According to polls, Trump draws heavily from more secular Republicans who are more likely to describe themselves as “liberal” or “moderate” than “conservative” or “very conservative.” Ted Cruz draws more exclusively from the traditional base.

One thing should be crystal clear: the Trump phenomenon is not a conservative revolt against the establishment or anything else because it’s emphatically not conservative.

So where does it come from? What’s fueling Trump’s rise? This is an important question, because it will get back to Romney’s motivation for his speech.

I believe the story goes like this:

Since the 1970s, journalists have increasingly shifted towards the left. This led to slight but universal anti-conservative bias. It was subtle because standards of professionalism kept it from getting too extreme, but it was also pervasive. Rush Limbaugh was the reaction to that. He was conservatives saying, “Fine, if our views aren’t going to get a fair hearing in your media, we will make our own.”

Party Affiliation of JournalistsUnfortunately, Limbaugh is an unprincipled, egotistical, self-aggrandizing rabble rouser. He responded to a grievance that was genuine, but the solution he proffered made things worse. This isn’t accidental, Limbaugh—as an avatar of retribution—tied his fortunes to the continuation and exacerbation of the media-bias.

An outlet like the National Review tries to provide some balance to the left-leaning conversation, but it does so while buying into the fundamental premise that the Fourth Estate is a noble calling with an accompanying sense of duty, and of pride, and of responsibility. Limbaugh could care less about any of that. From his perspective, the more outrageous he is the better, because that provokes the mainstream media into attacking him, and those attacks are the red meat he feeds his audience.

This kicked off a feedback loop of mutual polarization. Mainstream media in the 1990s was significantly more anti-conservative than in the 1980s in no small part because they were reacting to Limbaugh. This in turn fed the conservative response, leading to Fox News. This was basically just Rush Limbaugh on an industrial scale. All the commercial polish of a cable news network was used to funnel paranoia and tribalism and sophistry from the AM radios onto HD TVs.

And then the left upped the ante once more. Two examples: Although MSNBC had been founded in 1996, the shift to becoming the Fox news of the left started around 2000, and Real Time with Bill Maher launched on HBO in 2003. By this time, the mainstream media was already overwhelmingly left-leaning, and President Obama’s 2008 campaign showcased the extent to which the media had all but completely abandoned the ideals of objectivity, responsibility, and criticism that had once differentiated them from firebrands like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.

This represents just one aspect of the overall trend. Polarization has also continued apace in both academia and in social networking, with titans like Twitter engaging in “shadowbanning” of conservatives and other politically-slanted tactics. Together, this means that the public sphere in the United States today is incredibly hostile towards conservatives, as Business Insider reported.

Political Bias by Economic SectorIt is pretty common to use allegations of media bias to excuse conservatives or advocate for their perspective, but that’s not where I’m going today. Instead, I want to consider how the asymmetry of this conflict effects how it is prosecuted by both sides. It is an immutable law of human conflict that asymmetric conflicts are among the  nastiest and most vicious. The side with less conventional power is not constrained by conventional norms of conduct (because they have less to lose)  and is more willing to adopt proscribed tactics (because they can be rationalized by appeal to underdog status and also because there are fewer options to “approved” methods of fighting.) The side with greater conventional power is initially constrained in its response but–over time–begins to use the bad conduct of the insurgent force to excuse violations of their self-imposed constraints.

Case in point: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel acts with relative restraint because it has a lot to lose: a fairly prosperous, stable economy and government, Palestinian terrorist organization are classical insurgents, however, with nothing to lose they are willing to engage in reprehensible, violent tactics such as suicide bombings and indiscriminate targeting of civilians.

The same thing has unfolded in the American political arena (albeit largely without literal violence thus far). The American left, despite being outnumbered (according to most polls) occupies the position of strength: professional journalists, tenured professors, and (at least on social issues), Silicon Valley billionaires. As a result, they have often prosecuted their war with relative restraint.  Bias was omnipresent, but often extremely subtle, for example, and news outlets continued to–in word and to some extent in fact–pursue fairness and objectivity. The American right, despite broad public support, has subsisted at the margins of the public sphere and they have adopted proscribed tactics accordingly. The rhetoric is nastier and more provocative, and there is often not the slightest pretext to objectivity or, in some cases, even basic civility. At a very abstract level, the strategic logic that differentiates the tactics of Hamas and the IDF also differentiates the tactics of NPR and Rush Limbaugh.

What we have been witnessing, at least since the 1980s, is an escalating cycle of mutually-reinforcing rhetorical violence. I do not want to trivialize the horror of actual warfare, but the strategic analogy is sound. This a tribal blood feud, and such a feud will continue to spiral out of control–threatening the fabric of our entire society–unless and until the belligerents can begin to exercise self-control. One side can never browbeat, humiliate, or intimidate the other side into submission. Nobody ever wins a fight of this nature but, if we are to preserve our civil society, someone has to lead their own sides back from the brink. That–even more than the immediate tactical implications–is what Mitt Romney’s speech was truly about.

There is one last thing that we need to keep in mind. As much as folks are (understandably) transfixed by the juggernaut of awful that is the Trump movement, the man himself is irrelevant. Trump is not a demon, a genius, or an angel. He had to be rich enough, famous enough, and outrageous enough to fulfill a certain role but he’s essentially just a guy who happens to fit a costume that was already laying around, waiting for someone to put it on. Or, to use another metaphor, he’s just a guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time to hitch a ride on a particularly vicious political current. And it’s the current that’s carrying Trump along—not the man hitching a ride on it—that merits our long-term attention. Because, no matter what happens with Trump in 2016, the political forces that have brought us to this point are unlikely to dissipate any time soon. My sobering word of caution is this: as bad as you think Trump is, there is room for things to get much, much worse if the underlying political dynamics don’t change.

A two-front war is every general’s nightmare, but that’s what we have. As a committed conservative, I have two goals in mind. The first is to advocate for policies that I believe will make our country–and the world–better. I believe that all human beings deserve first and foremost the fundamental right to life, and so I am pro-life. I believe that free markets empower our economy at home and lead to poverty-eradicating growth world-wide, and so I am a capitalist. I believe that power tends to corrupt, and that corruption leads to misery and injustice, and so I support limited government. For these, and other reasons, I am a conservative. But I also believe that it is possible for decent, reasonable people to differ with me on these issues and/or to have their own legitimate agenda with their own competing priorities. And I believe that resolving the conflict should happen in a social and political atmosphere of tolerance, respect, and peace.

I am not naive enough to believe that political conflict will ever be swept away by mutual respect and admiration, and that Democrats and Republicans will all roast smores together and hold hands and sing songs while finding painless compromises to solve all our problems. But that doesn’t mean that I have to just accept an unlimited amount of vitriol, tribalism, and intolerance as the cost of doing politics. It is not only possible to fight over the direction which the good ship United States should sail without threatening to sink her, it is necessary. That, more than anything else, is what I drew from Mitt Romney’s speech, and it is why I am such a fan.

Trump and Fear

749 - Anti-Mormon Political Cartoon
Religious discrimination. Mormons have been there, done that, and got the political cartoons to prove it.

Let’s talk about Donald Trump.

Believe me, I don’t like it any more than you do. I find Donald Trump’s success in the GOP primaries exasperating and depressing. I haven’t written about it very much because I don’t like to think about it very much. I changed my mind when he announced that he thinks we should ban all Muslims from entering the country. The Hill reported:

Trump, in a formal statement from his campaign, urged a “total and complete shutdown” of all federal processes allowing followers of Islam into the country until elected leaders can “figure out what is going on.”

This was very, very far from the first ignorant/crazy/fear-mongering thing that Trump has had to say during this campaign, and I am sure that it will also be far from the last. Up until this point I didn’t see much point in writing about them. If I wrote a blog post every time Trump said something execrable,  I”d never write about anything else.

But that one was just so egregiously bad that–much as I dislike bandwagons and outrage porn–I made up my mind to go on the record with exactly what I thought of his proposal.

I am a Mormon. My people understand what it is like to be targeted because of our religion. Some of my ancestors survived the massacre at Haun’s Mill, our prophet was murdered by a mob, and in 1838 Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs issued an executive order which read, in part, “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.”

So, as a Mormon, I’m sensitive to issues of religious persecution. We’ve been there. We didn’t like it very much, and we don’t think anyone should have to go through it. That’s more than just a matter of bad historical experience, however. For Mormons, religious pluralism and freedom of conscience are matters of doctrine. The 11th of our Thirteen Articles of Faith states:

We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.

After I had already started work on this blog post, I was incredibly happy and proud to see that my Church, which doesn’t often weigh in explicitly on political matters, had found Donald Trump’s statement worthy of formal, public repudiation. In a short, pointed press release the Church quoted Joseph Smith:

If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a “Mormon,” I am bold to declare before Heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves. It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul — civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race.

They also found an ordnance from Nauvoo that specifically mentioned Islam in the context of religious freedom:

Be it ordained by the City Council of the City of Nauvoo, that the Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Latter-day Saints, Quakers, Episcopals, Universalists, Unitarians, Mohammedans [Muslims], and all other religious sects and denominations whatever, shall have free toleration, and equal privileges in this city …

Additionally, I’ve been very proud of Utah Governor Herbert for being the only Republican governor in the nation who has refused to bar Syrian refugees from entering his state. I thought I couldn’t be more proud of Utah then when Bill Clinton came third in 1992, but they’ve topped it.

So that is what I think of Donald Trump’s suggested policy on banning Muslims: don’t. And that pretty much sums up most of my responses to his policy proposals. Since I’m writing about Trump now–and since I hope to do that as infrequently as possible–I might as well include some related notions.

1. Is Trump Going to Win?

Short answer: probably not.

Trump’s apparent dominance of the GOP race is very misleading, according to Nate Silver. He made his view clear in November with: Dear Media, Stop Freaking Out About Donald Trump’s Polls. His main point was that primary polls have very little predictive power (which makes them quite different from general election polls), in part because so many voters are undecided until the last minute. Once you include the undecideds, for example, the poll numbers look more like this:

754 - Trump Hope

I had some fun with that 5% number by contrasting it with a report from Public Policy Polling about American opinions on various conspiracy theories. In ascending order, here are the conspiracy theories that have at least as much (or much more!) support among Americans than Donald Trump currently does among GOP voters:

  • 5% believe that contrails are “actually chemicals sprayed by the government for sinister reasons”
  • 5% believe Paul McCartney died in a car crash in 1968
  • 6% of Americans believe Bin Laden is still alive
  • 7% believe the moon landings were faked
  • 9% believe that fluoride is added not for dental health but for “more sinister reasons”
  • 14% believe in Bigfoot.
  • 15% believe that TV broadcast signals contain mind-controlling technology
  • 20% believe there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism
  • 21% believe the US government covered up a UFO crash landing in Roswell, New Mexico

In case you’re curious, basically all conspiracy theories have more support among Americans than Donald Trump does among Republicans. In fact, there was only one conspiracy theory that had less support than Trump. That was one the one about “shape-shifting reptilian people” who “control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies.” It came in at 4%. And that one isn’t even a real conspiracy theory! It’s just a 1980s TV miniseries. The primary difference is that, for example, Bigfoot believers don’t attend boisterous rallies and wave signs and get massive, wall-to-wall coverage.

So, writing back in November, Silver said flatly that although Trump’s chances are more than 0, they are “(considerably) less than 20 percent.” Harry Enten (also writing at Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site), took up the issue again on Dec 4: Donald Trump Won’t Win Just Because More Voters Are Paying Attention. Enten was rebutting a theory that–because more voters are paying attention to this primary season–the polls might be more predictive than usual. His response? “The hypothesis is possible, but there’s no evidence to support it.” The FiveThirtyEight gang weighed in again on Dec 8 in a group chat: What If Ted Cruz Wins Iowa? Although the talk wasn’t specifically about Trump (obviously, from the title), they did mention some interesting data points. The conversation starter was this:

A Monmouth survey came out yesterday showing Ted Cruz leading in Iowa — the first poll to show Cruz atop the GOP heap there. And overall, Cruz has crept into second place in the RealClearPolitics Iowa aggregate.

Nate Silver himself pointed out that, although it’s still possible for Trump to pull out a win in Iowa, his chances of bringing home the nomination are slim.

We’ve been saying for months that Trump could win Iowa or another early state. What we’ve said is that he’s quite unlikely to win the nomination. And he’d still probably be an underdog conditional on winning Iowa, although that depends on a lot of things.

Silver also conceded, however, that if Trump pulls off a win in Iowa, “that’s an epistemological game changer.”

So, I doubt Trump wins in Iowa. If he does, I doubt he wins overall in the nominations. There’s no way he wins in New Hampshire, for example. If he does win the race, I still very much doubt he has a majority, and that means we have a contested convention. Instead of just corronating the nominee, which is what most DNC and GOP conventions are about, the GOP convention would actually be a political fight to the death to see who wins the nomination, and I doubt Trump survives that. Even if he passes all these “I doubt it” moments, the reality is that the Republican establishment will not accept him as the nominee, period. If he somehow walks away with the nod, then the Republican Party will run Mitt Romney (or someone else) rather than allow Trump to run uncontested. Make no mistake: Hillary Clinton wins in that scenario so it’s all symbolic, but the GOP will not accept Trump ever. Not after his remarks about banning Muslims from entering the US. That was the final straw for the establishment GOP.

2. What Does Trump Mean? How Did We Get Here?

There are basically two options that matter to me here. Either Trump’s fear-mongering is a genuine reflection of the GOP party, or there is some other explanation for his rise.

Clearly, I’d like to believe the latter. The fact that Trump is only polling at 5% (once undecideds are accounted for) combined with the fact that you can basically find 5% of Americans to poll in favor of any given wacko conspiracy theory makes this plausible. I would also add that a lot of Republicans view Trump as a way to lash out after decades of being pilloried as bigots. There is a very large degree of self-righteousness in left-wing condemnation of the right before and during Trump’s rise. Let me give you one example of this. Here’s a Facebook status from an individual who attended the same high school that I did:

750 - Allies

In this case, he was responding to some particular incident in Virginia (I don’t know which) that seems pretty analogous to Trump’s statements. So, I agree with his stance against religious bigotry.

But look at that last, highlighted sentence. Somehow in the space of just 4 paragraphs he manages to make an attack on his Muslim neighbors about him. The mind boggles. And yet, on the other hand, this is what an awful lot of the criticism of the GOP looks like to me (and to other conservatives) going back for as long as we can remember. It’s ostensibly about standing up for minorities, but somehow in the end it ends up as a self-righteous ego-trip for the upper-middle class more often than not.

In short, there’s a mixture of immature backlash from the conservative base and also a kind of “boy who cried wolf” dynamic. After being called bigots no matter what they do for 20 years, Republicans seem to have become desensitized to the point where some (at least 5%) are supporting an actual bigot.

But there is also the second, much darker and more depressing possibility. Trump might really represent where a significant portion of the GOP base is located right now. That’s what this poll from Bloomberg Politics seems to indicate:

748 - Muslim Immigration Poll

Nearly two-thirds of Republicans support Trump’s proposed ban. That is way, way more than the 5% who support Trump directly. This is a potential sign that fear might be much more deeply entrenched in the Republican base than I would have believed possible.

I hope that this poll is anomalous. It is, after all, a single poll taken fairly recently after a terrorist attack in a highly toxic political environment about a temporary ban. I’m not defending the folks who answered in favor. I think they were wrong, and I couldn’t be more clear about that. But I’m expressing hope that this is not truly reflective of where the GOP base is at. That this poll reflects symbolic belief and/or a short-term reaction.

More polls will come out in the coming months, and we’ll also have the GOP primary to continue to keep an eye on. We will learn more. If it is an anomaly, then I have hope that the GOP voters will resoundingly reject Trump in the end. He might peel off enough support to spoil the election, but if that’s what it takes to lead this specific fringe out of the GOP tent then it might not be a bad thing in the end. On the other hand, if it is not an anomaly, if it reflects the long-term view of a vast majority of likely Republican primary voters, then I am very disappointed indeed. I’m with Paul Ryan: “This is not conservatism.”


Donald Trump: Plant for the Dems

donald-trumpWell someone with more legitimacy (at least in the political world) has picked up my theory that DT is a plant for the Democrats.  I believe this theory because he has actually made me consider voting for Hillary, and that is a turn of events I find hard to believe.

Carlos Curbelo, a Republican congressman from Florida, has stated,

“Mr. Trump has a close friendship with Bill and Hillary Clinton. They were at his last wedding, he has contributed to the Clintons’ foundation, (and) he has contributed to Mrs. Clinton’s Senate campaigns. All of this is very suspicious.”

Along with the fact that Trump has said he will run as an independent if he doesn’t get the nomination, everything points to: plant.  Even his hair.  Or especially.

Please, spread this theory.  Make all your friends suspicious of DT, not just the sane ones.