I was reviewing some old blog posts and such and came across the following. Remember this beautiful exchange?
Awww, yes. The “evil corporations” trope, i.e. the “confusion between abstract categories and flesh-and-blood human beings.” Explaining the fallacious nature of this thinking, Thomas Sowell writes,
Abstract people can be aggregated into statistical categories such as households, families, and income brackets, without the slightest concern for whether those statistical categories contain similar people, or even the same number of people, or people who differ substantially in age, much less in such finer distinctions as whether or not they are working or whether they are the same people in the same categories over time. Abstract people have an immortality which flesh-and-blood people have yet to achieve.
What Romney’s hecklers (affiliates of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement) and critics seem to have missed is the abstract nature of “greedy corporations.” The rhetoric invoked by these individuals often describes corporations as quasi-personal, transcendent entities that exist above and beyond flesh-and-blood people. As one writer notes, “Romney doesn’t mean that corporations are entitled to some of the legal rights of people in the Citizens United sense. He means it in the sense that the money made by corporations flows in and out of human hands—or pockets, in the language of the heckler who hoisted himself on his own metaphorical petard.” The abstractions of “corporations” and “the rich” are frequently linked, if not synonymous. Yet, empirical evidence suggests that corporate taxes negatively impact actual people. And not the rich ones you would hope for.
A 2010 working paper explored international tax rates and manufacturing wages across 65 countries over 25 years. It suggests that a 1 percent increase in corporate tax rates decreases wage rates by 0.5-0.6 percent. “These results also hold for effective marginal and average tax rates” (pg. 22). A 2012 study looked at over 55,000 companies in 9 European countries between 1996 and 2003. It found that every $1 increase in tax liability leads to a $0.49 decline in wages. This suggests that about 50% of the increased tax burden is passed on to the labor force over the long run. A 2007 Kansas City Fed working paper used cross-country data between 1979 and 2002 to find that a 1 percentage point increase in the average corporate tax rate led to a 0.7% decrease in annual gross wages; a decrease that was more than 4 times the amount of the corporate tax revenue collected. Furthermore, the “burden of the corporate tax on wages is shared equally across skill-level, suggesting that the corporate tax may not be as progressive as many politicians assume. Also, as the economy becomes more global, raising the corporate tax may result in lower than predicted corporate revenue increases due to the ability of firms to avoid taxes more effectively” (pg. 22). Another 2007 paper looked at a panel of U.S. multinationals across 50 countries over a 15-year period. The authors found that 45-75% of the corporate tax is shouldered by labor, with the rest falling on capital. Similarly, a 2013 study finds that a $1 increase in corporate tax liability leads to decreases in wages by about $0.60. The authors conclude,
Our findings suggest that labor shares a significant part of the burden of corporate income taxes. A direct calculation of the mean marginal effect of the corporate income tax from our estimates suggests that a 10 percent increase in the tax rate would decrease the average wage rate by 0.28–0.38 percent. Labor shares at least 42 percent of the burden of the corporate tax and possibly more. The average labor share of the corporate tax burden is around 60–80 percent (pg. 233).
A 2016 study of state corporate tax rates concluded that 25-30% fell on landowners and 30-35% fell on workers. A 2016 paper for the Federal Reserve looked at 131 tax increases and 140 tax cuts across 45 states going back to 1969. It found that “a one percentage-point increase in the top marginal corporate income tax rate reduces employment by between 0.3% and 0.5% and income by between 0.3% and 0.6%, measured relative to neighboring counties on the other side of the state border. These estimates are remarkably stable: they remain essentially unchanged regardless of local characteristics such as the flexibility of local labor markets, income levels, population density, or the prevalence of small businesses in a county. They are also stable across the business cycle and little changed when we control for localized industry-level shocks by comparing employment and income in bordering counties within the same industry” (pg. 3). A 2009 study by economist Robert Carroll found that across state lines “a one percent drop in the average tax rate leads to a 0.014 percent rise in real wages five years later.” In other words, wages rise $2.50 for every dollar reduction in the state-local corporate income taxes. The opposite also occurs: every dollar increase in tax rates leads to a $2.50 loss in wages. Drawing on recent research, Carroll suggests that “the least mobile factor of production is likely to bear the burden of a tax. In an increasingly global economy, labor is the least mobile because capital can flow freely across borders…When workers have more capital to work with, their labor productivity and wages will rise” (pg. 1). An abstraction is unable to pay its demanded “fair share” and instead places the economic burden on individuals. “After all, businesses are merely convenient ways of organizing economic activity,” writes Carroll, “so while businesses write checks to pay the corporate tax (and other taxes), the burden of those taxes falls ultimately on the individuals who depend on the corporations, in their roles as investors, workers, or consumers” (pg. 2). This is why Carroll finds numerous benefits to cutting corporate taxes, including higher long-term growth, higher wages and living standards, lowered tax burdens on low-income taxpayers and seniors, and boosted entrepreneurship, investment, and productivity.
The point of this review is to remind us that policy is complicated and often counterintuitive. We need to look at the empirical evidence. And if there isn’t much, perhaps we should wait until there is. The effects are real and they impact real people. The problem is that rarely will you achieve a utopian outcome. As I’m fond of saying, “There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs.”
Donald Trump was interviewing Mitt Romney for secretary of State in order to torture him… To toy with him.
That might be all there is to it. Far be it from me to put pure pettiness past Trump. But whatever the motives, the move comes with an important fringe benefit for Trump. From now on, whenever Romney criticizes Trump, the Trump team can spin it nothing more than sour grapes.
I’m loathe to give Trump credit as some kind of political savant just because he won. I’m more inclined to give credit to larger political forces and sheer dumb luck. But that kind of sabotage doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility. It’s a petty, but useful, way to neutralize the most visible and respected #NeverTrump Republican.
It didn’t happen. When the dust settled, not only had Trump carried the presidency, but he’d also carried Utah by a wide margin: he took 46.8% of the vote, compared to 27.8% for Clinton and 20.4% for McMullin. So much for the “Mormon problem,” I guess.
Not so fast.
As my friend Nate Oman wrote a couple of days ago, one way to look at how Trump fared in Utah this year is to compare how much of the vote he got in 2016 vs. how much the Republican candidate (Mitt Romney) got in 2012. You could call this gap the “vote swing,” and if you really want to know if there’s any substance to the idea of a “Mormon problem,” you’ve got to compare Utah’s vote swing to the vote swings for the rest of the country. This is how that looks:
This is definitely an interesting chart. You can see, for example, that Clinton had a negative swing in almost every single state, whereas Trump had a mixture of positive and negative swings. But–for the question at hand–we can see quite clearly that Trump’s negative swing in Utah is unlike anything else (for either candidate) in this election.
Quick technical note before we move on. If there were only two candidates in 2016 and in 2012, then one candidate’s negative swing would equal another candidate’s positive swing, but that’s not the case. Although third parties didn’t have a major impact on the national level, McMullin took over 20% of Utah’s votes. That’s why Trump has such a starkly negative swing for 2016, but Clinton’s positive swing is quite small.
Now, before we move on, you might be suspicious. After all, Mitt Romney wasn’t just any Republican candidate in 2012. He was a specifically Mormon candidate, so maybe it’s not so much that Trump has a huge Mormon problem as it is that Mitt Romney just did unusually well in 2012. Well, based on the data, that’s not really the case. Romney took 74.6% of Utah’s votes in 2012 and McCain took only 64.5% in 2008, but in 2004 Bush did just about as well as Romney with 73.3% of the votes, and he also did quite well in 200 with 68.3%. So the Romney-Trump swing was 27.6%, but if we used the average of non-Romney Republican candidates over the previous few elections, the swing is still 21.7%, much higher than any other swing in 2016. In short: Mormons disliked Trump a lot more than they liked Romney.
Nate was curious to get a bit more historical context, however, and so he sent me a data set containing the electoral results for every presidential election going back to 1828. I ran some very quick analysis at the time, and he posted an addendum here. I’ve had a bit more time to go through the data since then, however, and so I want to share a few more observations of my own.
First, a couple more notes. I couldn’t actually use all of the data from 2016-1828 because in several cases there were third parties (or even fourth parties) that attracted significant votes. The whole idea of “vote swing” only works if you’re dealing with basically two candidates from the same parties. So I only included pairs of consecutive elections where:
Third parties captured 5% or less of the national vote in both elections
The candidates from the primary two parties were from the same party in both elections
Doing this left me with 20 pairs of elections to look at. Since the data is older than some states, I ended up with 971 individual elections. Finally, to keep things a little simpler, I only used one vote swing for each year. In those years where there were no third party candidates at all, this was simple, because whatever votes one candidate gains come from the other candidate, and so the vote swings are equal anyways. (One is positive, one is negative.) Since I included some elections where third party candidates took up to 5%, I couldn’t rely on the vote swings being identical, so instead I just took the absolute value of the maximum vote swing.
OK, methodological notes aside, here’s what the histogram of vote swings looks like for all the eligible elections between 2016 and 1828:
From this chart, you can see that the vast majority of vote swings are less than 10%, and that a vote swing of over 27% is very rare but not unprecedented. To be exact, there were 932 vote swings less than Utah’s 2016 swing and 38 vote swings more than Utah’s 2016 swing. That puts Utah’s vote swing this year in the 96th percentile.
So that makes the 2016 defection from Trump very unusual, but far from unprecedented. There were larger swings than Utah’s 2016 swing in elections from 1976, 1964, 1952, 1948, 1932, 1920, and 1900. However, when we look at those years, something else pops out of the data that makes the Utah swing this year even more unusual.
So the thing that should be sticking out in both of these charts is that in the other years with major vote swings, these were national or regional phenomena. I’ll make a few annotations to see if I can draw that out:
So, in the years where there were bigger vote swings than Utah’s in 2016, there were much bigger vote swings across the nation as a whole and there were significant spikes in multiple states (usually states in the Deep South, for obvious historical reasons.) What sets Utah apart is not just that the anti-Trump vote swing was very high, but also that it happened in a year where the rest of the vote swing was actually pretty mild and that it was localized in just a single state.
There’s another way to measure that, by the way, which is to look at the difference between the maximum vote swing and the 2nd highest vote swing. So the all-time greatest vote swing was in Mississippi in 1948 at 83.5%, but during the same election Alabama had a vote swing of 81.7%. So the gap between the highest vote swing and the second-highest was really small: just 1.8 percentage points.
Contrast that with 2016. Utah had a 27.6% swing and the next-highest was 11.9% in North Dakota. The gap between the two was 15.6%. It turns out, that was higher than the gap between the largest and second-largest swing in any other election year.
So that “Mormon problem” that everyone was talked about? Even though Trump managed to take Utah, it’s still totally a thing. He suffered a historically large election-over-election vote swing as Utah voters abandoned the GOP for third parties, for the Democrats, or to just stay home. It’s not the resounding repudiation I’d hoped for with an Evan McMullin win, but it’s still a pretty clear signal.
And, before we wrap this up, it’s worth noting that when it comes to Mormons’ anti-Trump sentiment, the feeling is mutual. Just yesterday, Trump picked Steve Bannon as his senior adviser (think: Karl Rove). Bannon was the CEO of Trump’s campaign and, before that, he took over Breitbart after founder Andrew Breitbart passed away and turned it into the alt-right mouthpiece it is today. Along the way, he’s taken pot-shots at Mormons more than once, including calling Mitt Romney’s sons out for serving full-time missions and running an anti-Mormon, anti-immigration piece from Tom Tancredo. With Evan McMullin continuing his conservative insurgency and Trump placing anti-Mormon advisers in top positions, the Mormon/Republican rift is unlikely to narrow–let alone heal completely–any time soon.
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).
Once 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.
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:
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.”
Unfortunately, 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 Maherlaunched 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.
It 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.
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 …
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.”
Turns out, there’s even a site–DraftMit.org–where you can go and sign up to do your part to try and drat Mitt into the 2016 campaign. Yeah, I went and signed up.
The reality is, there are several GOP contenders that look promising to me: Rubio, Fiorina and yes, even Jeb Bush. But as long as none of them are even seriously challenging Trump, why not hold out hope for my favorite?
While we’re at it: Rubio or Fiorina would make really great VP candidates.
But while Mitt Romney doesn’t back the Trump agenda, Robert Costa of The Washington Post reports that his check-in with close Romney advisers produced no evidence the former Massachusetts governor is heeding any of the calls for him to reconsider the race. Not yet, anyway.
“He’s very surprised that Jeb Bush hasn’t got a lot of traction,” said Costa. “He thought Jeb would be better at this point. He also thinks the race doesn’t really start until January and February.”
“In terms of ruling out a run, he’s not running. But he thinks the race begins in January and February, and he’s watching it very closely, and people just kept telling me the same thing — he’s keeping an eye on it.”
Look, I’m not a political expert or a pollster. I got pretty suckered during 2012 by the folks who thought the polls were systematically skewed and Romney had a better chance than he actually did. That experience left me pretty humble, and I’m out of the political prognostication business. I am not making any predictions or even guesses. Here, instead, are some thoughts.
I’ve liked Romney going back to 2008 when, in the presidential primaries, he wanted to talk about serious social security reform. It’s boring, but it’s important. That’s the kind of person I want to run the executive office: someone who has integrity, competence, and a willingness to focus on things that are boring but important. Candidates like Ron Paul or Bernie Sanders are fun, but are they actually good matches for the job description? Ideology has a very important role, but ideologues may do better work outside the Oval Office than from within it.
Romney is a lot more popular now than he was in 2008 or 2012. The question is: how much of that evaporates the moment he becomes a candidate again? As long as he’s on the outside he’s no threat to Democrats or competing Republicans. As soon as he’s a contender again, all his enemies come back to remind us why he’s terrible. I think at least some of the new popularity is permanent. Folks have seen another side of Romney and they won’t forget that. As NY Mag notes:
“When people were polling this stuff back in January, what was striking was not his popularity but the breadth of it,” says Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief 2012 strategist. “Unlike a lot of candidates, his support wasn’t siloed. The non-tea-party folks liked him, and the tea-party folks liked him. It’s unique.”
But how much? I have no idea.
Then there’s the tactical question: you don’t just decide at the last minute to run a serious national campaign. You need a whole apparatus for that. Romney can’t summon one up out of thin air. But then, does he have to? The Romney apparatus is somewhat dismantled and distributed among other campaigns, but not entirely. NY Mag again:
Romney’s vast donor network is a coveted asset, and Romney’s finance wizard, Spencer Zwick, who raised $1 billion for him in 2012, remains unaffiliated with any campaign (Zwick now chairs the super-pac America Rising). “Mitt actually attracted new donor groups,” says the Romney veteran. “They’re in the Mormon community, the Bain Capital community, and the private-equity community. Most of them are not going to jump in for anyone else until they get guidance. Romney delivers them.” This is why six GOP presidential contenders went west to prospect for millions at Romney’s three-day Utah summit in June. “With Romney, it’s just so bizarre,” the veteran said, marveling at Romney’s power to organize a cattle call. “Imagine Bob Dole. He’s out of office and he says, ‘I want all my donors to come to some hard-to-reach place.’ That’s just never going to happen.”
Anybody else talking about getting into the race now would be a very, very long shot at best. But Romney? He might be an exception to that rule.
My dream scenario is that Romney gets more or less drafted to come in and take out Trump. Right now everyone else is either failing to make any headway (like Jeb Bush) or starting to pander to Trump supporters in the hopes of picking them up after someone else takes Trump out (like Ted Cruze). Maybe it takes an outsider to come in an be the grown up. That’s a good role for Mitt. That’s a narrative he can sell. I hope he gets that chance.
Americans are so down on President Obama at the moment that, if they could do the 2012 election all over again, they’d overwhelmingly back the former Massachusetts governor’s bid. That’s just one finding in a brutal CNN poll, released Sunday, which shows Romney topping Obama in a re-election rematch by a whopping nine-point margin, 53 percent to 44 percent. That’s an even larger spread than CNN found in November, when a survey had Romney winning a redo 49 percent to 45 percent.
Yes, as the article says, you should take the polls “with a grain of salt,” but at the same time the list of things Romney was right about is both extensive and depressing.
Well, we’ll never know what could have been. But hey, maybe in 2016 we’ll get a chance at the next best thing. It’s not likely–and I’m not sure it’s politically wise–but I’m still hoping.