Two ways to block/distract a 2020 Trump

Both ideas are essentially duplication.

  1. Convince something like him, but less odious, to run for the Republican nomination. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, is remarkably similar – a celebrity that shifted into politics, but not completely, with a caddish reputation to boot. He is not a natural-born citizen and thus technically ineligible, but that could be turned to his advantage. If not, maybe Chuck Norris is available…
  2. Convince Alec Baldwin to register as a Republican, change his name to Donald Trump, and run for the nomination in the usual SNL regalia, insisting throughout that he is the “real” Donald Trump and the man in the White House is an imposter from SNL. If he maintains the facade save for some tactical fourth-wall breaking, he will take away much of Trump’s oxygen – the media. And if he is nominated? Well, another four years of Trump…

The Problem with Executive Summaries…

…is that it takes some skill to write them, and our Attorney General doesn’t have that skill. I teach report writing, and after thousands of graded reports, I know a dodgy executive summary when I see one. They often are used to conceal relevant evidence that would contradict the agrument in the summary – said evidence is buried in the full report.

This case is curious, though, because Barr did not write the report. Rather than release the report, he ‘summarized’ it – without telling us much at all about what is in it. Most of it is legalese. The evidence and warrant are missing.

Of my earlier predictions, I retract only one – that we would not get to see the full report. I suspect the AG’s tepid opinion, provided by Trump, will not hold for very long. Mueller’s demurral to the AG’s judgment is very interesting…

Report is out

Some predictions.

1) We will not get to see the full report.

2) It will not recommend Trump be charged, impeached, or anything.

3) It will provide enough evidence to convict Trump after he leaves office in more than one jurisdiction. NY at least.

4) Democrats will howl.

5) Trump will announce he is vindicated.

6) It will be damning, regardless of 1-5.

7) It won’t matter to any Trump voter.

Precedent

One of my pet sayings about politics is that Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, is the most powerful person in Washington, more powerful than Trump or Obama before him.

One of the curious things abouut this arrangement, however, is that McConnell’s power does not come from the Constitution, or even the formal Senate rules. McConnell’s ability to determine what bills and nominations are allowed to go for a vote in the Senate is real power, but no legally bnding document grants him that power.

Rather, the Republican caucus allows him that power through something called ‘precedent’ – not legal precedent, mind you, but just an loose array of traditions where the caucus defers to him to be recognized first on the floor and thus control the room. This maximizes their collective power as the majority by having a centralized leader. On paper, all 100 senators are equal, but realistically, Mitch has around 50 votes most sessions, not 1. This subverts the original intent of the chamber where the states would be equals, of course.

A few GOP senators, with a little planning and a lot of guts, could slip past this arrangement if they wanted. A rebellious Senate President (usually a junior senator picked for the day) could choose to refuse to recognize McConnell first and instead choose another more freethinking ally who could, then, move to consider what bill/nomination they wanted. And then the GOP rank and file would have to close ranks quickly to prevent, say, a half-dozen GOP senators joining with the Democrats to pass, oh, I don’t know, a reopening of the government, or something else that would make too much sense.

It would take great timing and luck, certainly. Mitch would exact revenge of course, stripping the rebels of their committee assignments and possibly dooming their seats, but the illusion of his power being ironclad would be shaken. And the Senate might even start down the road to being less of an exercise in vote-counting.

Nah, never happen.

Gillibrand

It is good we have a female Democratic senator that is an avowed feminist and votes on the left. We need more. I just wish Kirsten Gillibrand wasn’t one, and that she wasn’t running for president in 2020.

While she has seemingly always been feminist to some degree, she hasn’t always been liberal. This makes her just another poll-driven pol like her mentor Clinton, and casts doubt on even her longer-held positions.

Her infamous takedown of Franken was not irksome because of its accuracy. Despite all the good he’s done in government, Franken needed to go. It was irksome because he was a ridiculously easy target among countless worse – just in the Senate alone! – who would have not so quickly folded. Denouncing him was no braver than announcing she was against kicking puppies, and served her more than any of #MeToo’s collective goals.

Her New York seat has never been in any risk; she was recently elected with 67%. It was just another career move, and a classic example of the right thing done for the wrong reason. This means she will, eventually, advance to doing the wrong thing in some other matter – most likely by following a poll.

Meanwhile, there are literally dozens, if not hundreds and thousands, of more consistent and trustworthy female liberals in politics. Several are running for President. They are all better choices.

This leads me to my main agrument. A unwise assumption that lurks behind the desire to elect more female office holders is that women do a better job in such offices, and the more there are, the more powerful the collective effect. I suspect that the numbers will continue to improve, but as they so, this assumption will fade and be replaced with cynicism.

The likelihood that a man or a woman will become corrupted by power is, in my experience, identical. This will become more obvious only after something resembling equality in numbers is reached. Roughly equal gender representation in elected office is ideal, but let’s not pretend this, if even reached, will lead to better decision-making. It will lead to a better reflection of the diverse nature of the citizenry, certainly. But as more women gain political office, it is inevitable that many will become like the men already there – corrupt and craven and driven more by ambition than ideals.

This is not to say that Gillibrand is at that point yet. Perhaps she will redeem herself during her campaign. At minimum she would have to attack Trump far more directly than Clinton ever did, with the same condemnation that she gave Franken. She should have an easier time of it now that he has a dismal record to defend, but he will not resign. She, like any female candidate. will have to find a simple, brutal way to weaken him without getting the b-label.

I assume here that Trump will get to the election, of course. He might not. Right now, I suspect he will, no matter what is in Mueller’s report.

Would I vote for her? Doubtful. But let’s see what happens.

Are We To Blame For Trump?

As I write in October 2018, criticism of Donald Trump’s competence and respect for the law as President of the United States has ceased to be a partisan affair and has become a duty of the citizenry. But all he is is a symptom, I’d argue, of a larger problem. From my perspective as an university professor, colleges haven’t been successful enough at iberal arts education in the last 40-50 years to prevent a Trump-like political event.

Consider these numbers.

First, 50% of voters in the 2016 exit polls claimed a college degree or higher, with another 32% “some college.” Pew has corrected this to 37% of voters having degrees. Either is higher than the national average of college degree holders, which is 33.4% as of 2016. Overall, 39% of registered Democrats have degrees and 31% have some college experience; 28% of registered Republicans have degrees, with another 35% having some college experience. Thus, I submit that less than one-third of the electorate had no college experience, one-third had some, and one-third graduated. I further suggest, then, that the majority of voters had encountered the basic required curriculum of any college, including a composition/writing course like the ones I teach.

Second, according to Pew, among white voters with a college degree, Clinton took 55% to Trump’s 38%, with initial exit polls claiming the reverse of Trump winning 49%-45%. Overall, among all college graduates, Clinton took 52% and Trump 42%, with a gender split among whites: white women with degrees, Clinton 51%, Trump 41%, and white men with degrees, Trump 53%, Clinton 39%. I cannot find numbers on non-white degree holders. I find these numbers incredible, whether or not you favor Pew or the exit polls.

Third, the default explanation that Trump voters were left behind economically is partially mistaken; rather, “growing domestic racial diversity and globalization contributed to a sense that white Americans are under siege by these engines of change” – a polite way of saying those same voters tended to be (but were not necessarily) racist, anti-immigrant, and isolationist.

Fourth, there were about 18 million college-degree-holding Trump voters; my estimate based on 36% of degreed voters being affiliated with the GOP. In accordance with the third point, they tended to view diversity as threatening, immigrants with fear, and their culture – predominately white – as under siege.

These four points form prima facie evidence that college, as the supposed champion of critical thinking and citizenship, has been a crapshoot for fostering critical thinking or citizenship. If those core courses, like composition, had reliably done the citizen-building job that they claimed to do, the degree holders voting for Trump would much be closer to zero. This failure is more apparent when factoring in the millions of graduates that did not vote at all. Turnout for college-educated citizens was about 70% and post-graduate was 80%.

Writing classrooms in 2016 were not the lone culprit, of course; this was a failure to vote against an authoritarian candidate that has its deep origins in previous decades, as most degree recipients got their degrees many years ago. Still, past Republican candidates – Romney, McCain, Dole, the Bushes, Reagan, McCain – were all moderates, worthy of some democratic consideration, compared to Trump’s odious strongman.

I could blame history or philosophy or political science – how can one get a post-WWII college degree without knowing that electing an authoritarian demagogue is undesirable? But no. Few undergraduates take many courses from these disciplines, but exposure to composition is almost guaranteed. My discipline must share some blame, too. We could have done more.

I used to think my teaching was formative of critical thinking and ethics and built at least a motte and bailey defense against the worst excesses. Writing needed teaching to all comers as a communicative civil right. All that seems dangerously stupid now. Increased writing skill does not magically lead to responsible citizenship. If you knew 42% of your composition class was going to note your citizen-building pedagogy and vote for Donald Trump, would you not change your strategy? Or would you “do your job” to “teach writing” like thousands of others, especially as an adjunct or lecturer if you did not have a reasonably secure job or control over your curriculum?

Repeatedly, we have thrown the difficult and lengthy task of teaching skilled writing to instructors that were underprepared, underpaid, and overworked. When we surrendered collectively and unconditionally to the conclusion that the task was not important enough for the best trained, best paid, and best-motivated instructors – who got to become “scholars” with minor teaching responsibilities – that was when the seeds were planted. Now the entire country pays for our neglect; a constitutional crisis that makes Nixon look like a paragon of integrity. If we could have taught just 1% more responsibility – just 1% – Trump would not be president.

Facing our miserable 58% showing (and I refuse to count those college degree holders that didn’t vote for Trump but didn’t vote; that’s sin by omission), we could salvage our idealistic faith in citizenship-building with a dose of realpolitik. Yes, I have the glimmerings of a solution. Still working it out, but I think writing classrooms, at least, need to explore and learn the techniques of the direct opposites of “ethical” citizenship – falsehood, obfuscation, and emotion. Our link between the teaching of writing and the promotion of citizenship has clearly failed to prevent the development of  “anti-citizens” that willfully voted in a demagogue without critical reflection as voting one into the highest office of the land undercuts the purpose of the system.We could teach writing as a neutral tool used for good, evil, and all the gray points in between, as much as we did the practice of democracy and the performance of citizenship – a marriage of realpolitik and idealism. We could study how to compose “unethical” communication through not just the increasingly prevalent examples, but practice, and thus stress the real-world consequences of rhetoric and writing used for nefarious purposes, particularly in civic/political contexts, using the lessons of history – and starting with Trump as Bad Example #1. We have to stress the consequences of dishonest communication and condemn them when we see them.

Or, is it too late? Have we bled out from a self-inflicted wound, and my musings here are part of the last flickers of a dying brain? Certainly, waiting passively for Robert Mueller to save America is a losing bet. The poison has settled in, and the problem is now long-term. Behind Trump is Pence, and behind Pence are other emboldened strongmen, many overseas in parallel tracks. Times are dire.

A college education, on the front lines of voting, may be the best hope for holding the democratic line, but blind idealism, our old pedagogical strategy, is not enough in the face of an evil that conceals its true nature all too well. There are many “anti-citizens” out there that think Trump is the second coming. Lower taxes, reduced immigration, tough trade talk, white male Supreme Court justices, racism and sexism carefully enshrined – all the little things they want, and at what they think is a great price, their souls bundled with the future.

You may note that I used the word evil. I did so purposefully. This is a path of evil we’re on. The election of Trump in 2016 was not a blip. It was a game-changer, a culmination of decades of poor education and careful politicking. Whatever happens in the midterms next month, even a Democratic takeover of both the House and the Senate, will not reverse it. It takes decades to make this kind of mess, and it will take decades to change it. I wonder, though, if we have decades left.

The Link Between Competence and Character

Tiger Woods’s recent “comeback kid” storyline and the ongoing accusations against Judge Kavanaugh remind me that America has an obsession with linking competence to character.

Americans understand competence in two ways. The first is as a minimum. Competent means you mean the minimum requirements for your job or role or sport. You can use it as a pejorative – “He’s just competent,” or as a compliment, “I think you’re competent,” signaling that we ourselves don’t quite know what to make of the concept.

The second way, which is much more insidious and worthy of analysis, is that competence signals good character; a competent person is a good person. When Woods was struggling on the links, it was far easier to link that struggle to personal failings of will, talent, or ethics. But when he’s winning, those concerns are forgotten and replaced by their opposites. He is “mentally tough” and “brilliant” and “disciplined” now, an object of celebration and adoration, a victim of his injuries rather than ruled by them, if he was still losing.

Kavanaugh, too, is a litmus test for how competence is viewed. On one hand, Republicans tend to point to his long career as evidence of competence, and this is extended, by the second definition, to his character. He could not possibly be an attempted rapist because he is competent professionally, the reasoning goes. On the other hand, Democrats reverse this – because he is competent in Republican eyes, they reason, his sterling resume is just the mask of a sexual offender. Either way, it’s a logical mistake. Kavanaugh’s competence as a judge does not cause better personal behavior, or the reverse, that an ethical life leads to competence.

Think over your life, of the many people you’ve known, and you’ll recognize many other examples. The selfless saint that can’t hold down a job, the crack businessman that made his fortune cheating customers, the immature star athlete, the idealistic employee passed over for promotion yet again. And yet we insist to ourselves that there must be a link between behavior and competence. There must be. But there isn’t.

All Trump voters in 2016 knew this very well, even though they might not admit such in public. Trump was rich and famous, with all the trappings of success, and a reputation, at least, of business acumen, but no one is seriously going to point to him as a paragon of moral character. And yet, even with his glaring, obvious example, this doesn’t change how we view Woods or Kavanaugh in the slightest.

Disengagement from this kind of thinking is difficult. Among the professoriate of which I am a member, the professors who publish often are seen as hardworking and industrious, and many sins are forgiven. The ones that don’t get as much in print are viewed as lazy, goldbricking deadwood. This happens despite the inherent randomness of the academic publishing process and despite all the other things professors do, like teaching and administrative work. We’re supposed to be the smart ones, but we can’t easily escape the fallacy either.

Curiously, when it comes time to fire someone, the two concepts of competence and character separate a little. Either can be used to fire you without recourse to the other, but there is always an implication that you failed in both areas. Many positions are apparently supposed to be better than the average Joe, character-wise, given employment clauses detailing the requirements of proper behavior. Behind this is the assumption that you can’t really do your job competently if people don’t view you as competent because your behavior suggests otherwise… even though your behavior has no necessary logical connection to your job performance. It is the appearance or performance of competence, then, that matters.

With Woods and Kavanaugh, we can see one figure ascendant, with his competence and character simultaneously restored; with the other man, both concepts are crashing rapidly because they are so closely linked. I am not suggesting that we do away with linking competence to character, or even if we could, given how hardwired it seemingly is to the American mindset, but we might want to start thinking about applying it more carefully and questioning whether the claims it makes are really warranted.

In Defense of Cheap Rhetoric

I agree with Meghan McCain’s recent eulogy of her father on whether Donald Trump partakes of “cheap rhetoric.” I would go further, though, and say his style is the cheapest kind of cheap. But I am also compelled, as an academic that studies rhetoric, to defend the word ‘rhetoric’ and even ‘cheap,’ when used to describe rhetoric.

Rhetoric as a word comes from ancient Athens, where philosophers such Plato and his student Aristotle, among many others, were deeply interested in how Athens’s democracy functioned through public persuasion, which they called ‘rhetoric.’ It had a bad name then, too, as empty and deceptive discourse, but some, such as the philosopher Isocrates, thought skill at rhetoric was at the very core of being a citizen. After all, it is hard to govern, especially in a citizen-state like Athens that chose its public officials by lot (random, essentially) if you cannot get people to accept your positions and ideas.

Aristotle recognized rhetoric as happening only in specific venues such as the assembly (Athens’s thousands-strong forerunner of our Congress), jury trials, and the eve of battle. Most rhetoric and communication scholars today have expanded upon these categories, though, and subscribe to some version of a “big rhetoric” concept, which states all communication is rhetorical, or, in other words, persuasive, down to the simplest “hello” or “how are you doing?” asked in public. Every instance of communication, according to this model, is trying to get its audience to do something, even if just to pay attention and accepting what the speaker or writer is saying to think is important. Modern advertising is probably the easiest to understand manifestation of this idea. Rhetoric is always a curator, selecting and deciding what to present.

But we do not need the “big rhetoric” perspective to see Meghan McCain is a wielder of rhetoric herself, and her powerful eulogy is a great example of what rhetoricians like myself use a ten-dollar Greek word to describe, epideictic, a ceremonial rhetoric that “praises or blames” at occasions like funerals or church services. An epideictic speech like a eulogy celebrates the values we hold and assaults the ones we detest. Mrs. McCain does both with her carefully chosen words. The subject of her blame is obvious.

Watch the video of her speech online. Her rhetoric is not cheap. Like her father, who had earned a massive amount of ethos – a Greek word that blends character and reputation – through his biography and statesmanship, Mrs. McCain has her own powerful ethos simply as a daughter who has lost a father.

I could mention the rhetorical techniques she used in her speech – her use of repetition to stress McCain’s fatherhood, her impassioned delivery, her stinging rebuke of Trump’s lame fundamentalist slogan – but I will not. I will just mention paralipsis, the technique I just used, where I said I would not say something, but did anyway. It is one of Trump’s favorite devices – an inherently dishonest maneuver. In other words, cheap rhetoric.

Unlike Donald Trump, who has acquired everything that he has with money, John McCain, while far from poor himself, or perfect, had many qualities that cannot be purchased with money. These qualities were learned through painful experience, won through tough conflict, and expressed through measured deeds. But the one I want to mention here, which ties most closely to the Athenian idea of rhetoric, is his renowned ability to be bipartisan in Congress. Like Isocrates, who I mentioned earlier tied skill in rhetoric directly to ideal citizenship, McCain understood better than perhaps any currently serving member of Congress that government cannot function effectively without eloquence that aims to help all (or at least most) and not some.

In this political age, ideas are rarely viewed on their merits. They are automatically checked for approval against one’s party line. Whether or not the idea is helpful or not is irrelevant. Good rhetoric, in the Isocratic view, is to be employed in support of the citizenry, not in the maintenance of power. And that is the difference between John McCain and Donald Trump – one sought to help Americans and embody virtue; the other seeks to defraud Americans and embodies vice. That’s another Greek device, antithesis, of course.

Perhaps I am reading too much into Meghan McCain’s remarks. Perhaps she subscribes to the usual view of ‘rhetoric’ as always being deceptive and cheap. But her father stood for decades in Congress as an example of how rhetoric is supposed to work. So, I hope she does not think only that. And, by writing this, I hope you do not think only that either.