The State of the Union, According To Trump! Hallelujah (Sort of)!

The fact that the usual suspects responded in the usual ways to President Trump’s State of the Union speech does not make their analyses wrong – it just makes them predictable, and thus a less useful barometer for how the speech played outside the NYC-DC pundit beltway.  Initial polling by CBS suggests that it was received relatively favorably by those who watched it – fully 75% of respondents “approved” of the speech – although it is worth remembering that audiences for these speeches are a self-selected group – something I was reminded of at my weekly politics luncheon yesterday when almost all of my “senior” (and left-leaning) students informed me they had no intention of watching Trump’s address. In this vein according to CBS, only a quarter of those they surveyed identified as Democrats – presumably they made up the bulk of those who disapproved. (My current undergraduates, on the other hand, promised that they would watch the speech – cue surprise quiz!) It is not clear as yet how large the television audience was, but for what it is worth Twitter reported that, fittingly, the Tweeter-in-Chief’s speech was the most tweeted about State of the Union speech to date.  Focus groups also reacted in a somewhat positive manner to the speech, although sentiments were by no means uniform.  Of course, public opinion may shift during the next few days in response to how the speech is characterized by cable news talking heads and other pundits. If a dominant theme or characterization of Trump’s speech takes hold, it can alter public perceptions at the margins.

If there is anything pundits might agree on, it is that Trump’s speech was long – one of the longest such speeches in history, according to some sources, clocking in at about an hour and 20 minutes, or only slightly shorter than Bill Clinton’s 2000 SOTU.  Surprisingly – at least to some – he appeared to stay on script, more or less, although at times he seemed to dare Democrats in the audience to take issue with what he was saying.  For the most part, however, they were content to sit on their hands and glower, with the exception of some scattered booing when Trump purported to explain what “chain migration” meant.  Who knows how he might have reacted had a Democrat accused him of lying, for example?

Perhaps we should not have been surprised by his restraint; as I reminded my hosts in my pre-speech interview with KCBS radio when they asked me whether Trump would go off script, he proved quite disciplined in his first address to a joint session of Congress last year.  So there was precedent for him to recognize and rise to the gravity of the moment, and to resist giving in to his coarser, bullying twitter-driven persona. Moreover, his delivery last night was relatively smooth and somewhat understated, with little of the nasal snorting that occasionally mars his public addresses.  For the most part, he directed his remarks toward his left, where the Republican majority sat, and only turned right when he expected Democrats to respond positively to something he was saying.  Republicans, in turn, reacted in a quite favorable – at times almost giddy – manner, standing and wildly applauding at all of the scripted moments, and for some unscripted ones as well judging by Trump’s evident surprise at their response. As far as one can judge from audience reactions, this speech was a huge hit with them, which of course made Democrats glower all the more.

While some critics noted the lack of detail in his discussion of policy, particularly in reference to his call for legislation totalling $1.5 trillion in spending on infrastructure, Trump correctly recognized that State of the Union addresses are best remembered for the thematic chords they strike, and the degree to which those chords are in harmony with broader public opinion.  It is not a time for spelling out proposed legislation in detail. Consistent with that approach, he made frequent, and for the most part, very effective use of his invited guests in order to illustrate broader themes and related issues, ranging from parents of victims of the MS-13 gang, a victim fleeing North Korean persecution, military veterans, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, first responders to hurricanes and wildfires, and business owners and employees benefiting from Trump’s tax legislation. Indeed, the story of Ji Seong-ho, the defector who lost limbs while struggling to survive under the North Korean regime, and who responded to Trump’s shout out by raising his crutches as a symbol of what he endured, was perhaps the most emotional tribute during the entire night.

Collectively, these guests, and the issues they symbolized, provide a window into Trump’s world view – one he sought to articulate in his speech last night. As I tweeted at the speech’s conclusion, Trump’s message was neither as fearful or gloomy as David Brooks and other critics asserted, nor as uplifting as Trump’s supporters proclaimed. Instead, Trump sought to  remind his listeners that America serves as a beacon of hope in a sometimes very dark world; he appealed to “the better angels of our nature” while warning us that the devil lurks at America’s borders.   Unity, he suggested, and with it security and prosperity, can only come by recognizing the reality that much of the world seeks to injure us, or to take advantage of our ideals.  He praised the American experiment in self-government, but also warned that it cannot succeed if we do not correctly identify its enemies, and act accordingly.  As he put it near the end of his speech:

“It was that same yearning for freedom that nearly 250 years ago gave birth to a special place called America. It was a small cluster of colonies caught between a great ocean and a vast wilderness. But it was home to an incredible people with a revolutionary idea: that they could rule themselves. That they could chart their own destiny. And that, together, they could light up the world.

That is what our country has always been about. That is what Americans have always stood for, always strived for, and always done. Atop the dome of this Capitol stands the Statue of Freedom. She stands tall and dignified among the monuments to our ancestors who fought and lived and died to protect her.

Monuments to Washington and Jefferson – to Lincoln and King.

Memorials to the heroes of Yorktown and Saratoga – to young Americans who shed their blood on the shores of Normandy, and the fields beyond. And others, who went down in the waters of the Pacific and the skies over Asia.”

For Trump, America endures because Americans have been willing to pay an often steep price to insure its survival.  It is no surprise, then, that his guests were individuals who succeeded, or at least soldiered on, despite enduring great hardship – even personal tragedy. To his critics, of course, Trump’s vision is that of a bygone era; he seeks a return to a largely white America dating to the 1950’s, or before – one that has little place for people of color or immigrants from “sh*thole” countries.  For his supporters, however, Trump’s America is one that transcends divisions based on race, ethnicity or other elements of identity politics – it is a place that focuses on the ideals we have always shared, rather than on what sets us apart. I suspect last night’s speech, while generally effectively delivered, did little to change those competing perspectives.

Trump also sought to take credit for the positive aspects of the state of the economy, highlighting low unemployment, a growth in manufacturing jobs, workplace bonuses, and a booming stock market, and linking those results to his deregulation efforts and tax reform legislation. As Trump put it, “In our drive to make Washington accountable, we have eliminated more regulations in our first year than any administration in history. We have ended the war on American Energy – and we have ended the war on clean coal. We are now an exporter of energy to the world. In Detroit, I halted Government mandates that crippled America’s autoworkers – so we can get the Motor City revving its engines once again.” (Interestingly, in his State of the Union rebuttal, Bernie Sanders sought to address those claims head on by returning to his familiar diatribe against uneven economic growth that benefits the 1%.)

The centerpiece of Trump’s speech, however, was his four-point immigration plan.  On paper, it has something to appeal to both Democrats, with the path to citizenship for anyone qualifying for “Dreamer” status, and to Republicans, with the call for strong border security and a slowing in immigration levels and a movement toward skills-based entrance standards. However, early indications are that it is meeting the same headwinds emanating from the extremes of both congressional caucuses that doomed previous immigration legislation.  If Trump can get major immigration legislation through Congress without enduring another government shutdown, it will be huge accomplishment, transcending even the tax bill in terms of significance.  But that is a big “if”, and as I told WCAX’s Darren Perron earlier this month, I’m not optimistic.

History suggests that State of the Union speeches are perhaps most effective at raising the salience of issues, rather than helping forge congressional coalitions that lead to legislative successes.  Still, if last night’s speech serves to focus public attention on the details of Trump’s immigration proposal, it might serve as a rallying point for moderates such as Susan Collins (R-ME) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) to find some common legislative ground.  Whether that will be enough to overcome partisan resistance from the wings of both congressional caucuses remains to be seen.  As Trump acknowledged in the traditional pre-SOTU meeting with correspondents, Republicans likely can’t pass immigration legislation on their own – they are going to require Democrats’ support. To get it will likely require further concessions by raising domestic spending caps.  Of course, one speech does not a bipartisan coalition create.  To get immigration through a deeply polarized Congress will require a lot more legislative wizardry than Trump has demonstrated to date.  Still, his speech last night didn’t hurt the effort, and it probably helped – at least a little. But there’s a long way to go, and not much time in which to get there. Stay tuned.  I’ll be on local television (WCAX) this evening to discuss Trump’s speech.  In the meantime, let’s all remember what truly unites us (h/t to Andy Rudalevige!)

 

43 comments

  1. This is a good analysis. DJT’s statement the “Americans are Dreamers” struck a chord with our group of observers – reinforcing the broader theme of unity. I was struck by the comments at the end reminding Congress of their responsibilities to the People – I don’t recall any other Presidents stating that so clearly (at least since Ike). In my view, the “Skutniks” reinforced the theme of adversity overcome, individual responsibility, and a realism in viewing the risks in the world. They came across as genuine and sympathetic. The conduct of Congress was largely without grace – the Dems were petulant boors and the Repubs were enthusiastic boors – nothing unexpected there. If Trump can secure agreement reconciling the immigration issue it will be a great accomplishment – although it sounds like the Dems would rather maintain this as an issue through at least Nov’18.

    A final point – You note that the “Seniors” in your politics lunch were not going to watch the speech!?! What’s up with that? How does one study Politics without watching speeches? Is it “signaling virtue” to consciously avoid listening to the President? This is disturbing…

  2. John – I should be clear what I mean by my reference to “seniors” – they are, for the most part, literally seniors agewise, with most over 65 years old. It’s great having them in discussions with undergraduates because they often bring a different perspective to the table – the conversation regarding changing norms of what constitutes sexual misconduct was a fascinating illustration of generational differences. They are also predominantly left-of-center, so they have no interest in listening to a Trump state of the union address. And since they aren’t formally enrolled in a course (this is just a weekly luncheon), I can’t force them!

  3. Matt – I should have figured that out myself – mea culpa! I’m sure it is useful and interesting to broaden the age range and deepen the experience – as at any discussion. I’m still a bit surprised that those attending a Politics discussion would not have an interest to hear the other side but perhaps that expectation is too idealistic in this age. It strikes me as unfortunate…

    btw, we really enjoyed the Amen-dola video – Go Patriots!!

    Kind regards.

  4. (Interestingly, in his State of the Union rebuttal, Bernie Sanders sought to address those claims head on by returning to his familiar diatribe against uneven economic growth that benefits the 1%.)

    That is a canard as I have come to understand. It is not the 1% that are the problem, it is the top quintile, all of them (to which many people reading this belong, anyone with an income over $115,000 per year is in the top quintile). I have just finished two books —“Dream Hoarders” and “The Captured Economy”. Recommend them strongly to anyone who wants to truly understand where the wealth and income fracture occurs in our economy and why. It isn’t the 1%. It’s the top 20%. It’s a Gordian Knot, for sure. The Captured Economy really shows the ill effects of regulations, for one, along with three other major issues, and their minor offspring. Dream Hoarders also shows the effects of regulation and licensing, land use regulations, etc., on insulating the top 20% from the hoi polloi and thus drawing up the ladder of economic ascent for most people (the bottom 80%). Very sobering reading, for sure.

    I’ve also finished Scott Adams’ book “Win Bigly” where he wakes up anyone willing to listen about why Trump won the presidency. It’s not what most pundits write about. Trump, it turns out, is a Master Persuader—the kind that come along in politics once or twice in a generation. Scott Adams recognized it immediately (he’s the creator of Dilbert) and even before the nomination he predicted, with a 98% probability, that Trump would win the nomination and the Presidency. Other pundits were giving Trump a 2% chance. It cost Scott half his friends and a lot of income from speaking. His mostly leftist crowd could not stand his prediction. Scott also recognized that Steve Jobs was an MP and bought a ton of Apple stock and is thus independently wealthy, so it doesn’t really matter. And, being right about Trump has silenced some of his critics and erstwhile friends.

    How does he recognize MP’s? He took a 10-week course in hypnosis early on in his life and it ‘changed me forever’, as he writes. His other recent book is “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big”. Exciting reading. If I were young again (recall I’m 80) I would be taking a course in hypnosis, for sure. Hypnosis is NOT what you think, as he lucidly explains.

    Anyway, Matthew, et. al., I watched the Trump speech last night with new eyes and saw him use his MP skills extremely effectively. It is the first SOTU I’ve watched in 24 years. I’ve always considered them a huge waste of time, with all the jumping up and down, constant clapping, etc. I think the Dems didn’t know what was hitting them but their glowering said volumes about their state of mind. I thought Ms. Pelosi’s face would twist up into a prune before it was over. I found it hilarious. Anyone thinking that Trump doesn’t know what he is doing is sadly misled.

    Some of you may enjoy Scott Adams’ blog, I’ve become a huge fan. Here are four URL’s for your perusal. The two about N. Korea (nuclear button, becoming Switzerland of the East) illustrate Scott’s ability to see clearly what is going on.

    http://blog.dilbert.com/2018/01/24/persuasion-reading-list-updated-1-18/#more-16745

    http://blog.dilbert.com/2018/01/03/president-trumps-nuclear-button-tweet-sign-insanity/

    http://blog.dilbert.com/2018/01/09/president-trump-earns-highest-presidential-approval-level-time/

    http://blog.dilbert.com/2018/01/17/north-korea-can-become-switzerland-east/

    Hope this finds everyone well, enjoying life, and understanding that even more than is realized, each day is a gift.

    https://mobile.nytimes.com/2018/01/29/health/heart-disease-mutations-stem-cells.html

    So, I do this each morning:

    When you wake up each morning, instead of rising mindlessly, sit for a few moments and contemplate your good fortune: “How wonderful-I’ve lived through the night!” Many people go to bed healthy and never wake up. Death is very simple. We breathe out and don’t breathe in again.

    Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche

    And an example of why it matters.

    http://www.seattletimes.com/business/retail/costco-co-founder-brotman-has-died-at-74/

  5. J. Paul Everett, I enjoyed your comments and appreciate your including some urls to peruse. You will have seen Mr. Adams’ opinion piece in yesterday’s (1/31) WSJ (here: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-mystery-of-trumps-lousy-polls-1517355689 – behind paywall).

    I also appreciate your suggestion to reflect on our blessings and opportunities.

    However, and meaning no disrespect, I awoke this a.m. thinking “I know what you did!” as I reflected on Prof. Dickinson’s inclusion of the Amendola video in his post. Conflating the game of football; with its violence, teamwork, individual grace, pageantry, team identification, emotional appeals, disruptive demonstrations and deleterious health consequences, with the “game” of politics – and life. Achieving a broader “Unity” in either the NFL or politics, is probably utopian. The hat or jersey you choose to wear signals your loyalties. But there must be two teams to play a game and without rules we are left with war. I’m hopeful that most people recognize this.

    Breathe in and breathe out, repeat.

  6. John – I was interviewed by a journalist yesterday who is writing an article examining previous periods of constitutional crisis in America, and whether we are experiencing one now, and if so how it compares to the previous crises. I told her that the crisis we are encountering now is not one of disillusionment with the rules of the game. By and large, Americans still respect the Constitution, and the rules, institutions and processes that grew out of it. What they don’t like is the players, at least those at the national stage. And the reason, I think, is that the system doesn’t appear to work when the players try to distort the rules, or use them to question the legitimacy of the other team. That’s what is going on today – our political class is increasingly unable to disagree without turning every difference into a matter of principle. From this perspective, yielding becomes tantamount to abdicating one’s belief system, and neither side is willing to do that. She asked me how I thought we would get out of this crisis. My answer? The people, acting through elections – they must choose politicians who agree to abide by the spirit of the rules. I don’t think this is going to happen overnight. But I think it is the only way out of this mess. And yes, slow, steady breathing is key to surviving!

  7. @J. Paul Everett:

    The problem with Scott Adams’ view is that if Trump is a Master Persuader, he must be the worst one ever born. First, he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million to the candidate who continually called him out as a liar and a fraud. Which means, he failed to convince people he wasn’t those things. Then, despite a good economy and the usual “honeymoon” conditions for new presidents, he struggled for a year to maintain a job-approval rating in the vicinity of 40%. Meanwhile, his party was losing (or losing ground in) special elections across the country by double-digit margins, culminating in Trump’s own endorsed candidate losing a Senate seat in Alabama. Apparently the master persuasion failed there too somehow.

    Basically, the evidence for Adams’ thesis depends entirely on the weird idiosyncracy of the Electoral College. Almost uniquely among Western democracies, this 18th-century institution sometimes awards the presidency to the vote loser. If not for that, nobody would think Trump was anything but a gigantic blowhard, and Scott Adams anything but an easily duped lickspittle. (Although a good cartoonist, back in the day.)

  8. Jeff,

    I tend to agree that, so far, Trump’s bargaining skills vis a vis Congress leave something to be desired. I think this is mostly because of his ignorance regarding how Congress works, which led him to defer to what Ryan and McConnell wanted. We saw this in the decision to move on health care reform first, rather than tax reform which was the easier (but by no means easy) nut to crack. I think it also reflects Trump’s own failure to articulate a set of core principles to guide his bargaining – it often seemed he didn’t know what he wanted beyond some vague goals. However, I would give him higher marks than you do for his performance on the campaign trail. He vanquished 16 Republican opponents when very few (including me!) gave him very much hope of winning. He did in part, I think, by recognizing very early on that this was an anti-establishment year, and he crafted a message that took maximum advantage of that dissatisfaction. So here my view may be closer to Dilbert….er……Adams’. And while it is true that he didn’t overperform the forecast modes in terms of the popular vote, he did make a number of tactical decisions near the end of the campaign that arguably helped him to victory in key states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and which led to his Electoral College victory. And one might argue that he’s getting better at working with Congress – in this regard, immigration legislation will be an important test.

  9. jeff: John gave a url from the WSJ that has a post by Scott Adams on the issue you bring up on “popularity”. I can’t access it because I don’t subscribe.
    https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-mystery-of-trumps-lousy-polls-1517355689 If you do, maybe you’ll get it and post it in its entirety here. Would love to read it. I’d better check his Blog, he may have posted it there.

    As for the rest of your post, if there were no Electoral College, there would have been NO USA because the small states/colonies, would never have agreed. There were several contending policy proposals on how to set up congress and count votes. The Electoral college was the compromise proposal based on ancient history, principally Greek. https://uselectionatlas.org/INFORMATION/INFORMATION/electcollege_history.php

    I think it is crucial for the Electoral College to remain as we small states do not want to be ruled by California, Florida and New York, thank you very much. I saw a recent post about some NY University students, when asked about Trump’s SOTU, said it was definitely “racist” A DAY BEFORE HE HAD GIVEN IT. That is how aware they were. Terrifying.

    Be well, and breathe.

  10. “However, I would give him higher marks than you do for his performance on the campaign trail. He vanquished 16 Republican opponents when very few (including me!) gave him very much hope of winning.”

    Right, 16 cookie-cutter Reaganites. Trump had a different message than they did, it’s true, but one that he’s done almost nothing to follow up on and in some cases has actively betrayed. (He promised to protect entitlements, provide much better and more affordable health care to all citizens in lieu of Obamacare, stop fighting endless unwinnable wars in the Mideast, renegotiate trade deals to America’s advantage, and bring back manufacturing and coal-mining jobs that have been lost in recent decades. In office, he has shown no sign of any plan to do any of these things, and in some cases has done the opposite.)

    One thing I’ve noticed from reading Scott Adams’ comments on Trump is that the same praise that he bestows could equally well be applied to any effective demagogue. I mean, by Adams’ standards, Adolf Hitler was an admirable figure too because he was a “Master Persuader.” Or at least, I haven’t seen Adams explain yet what the difference is. When people point this out to him, he just gets angry and says it’s not his job to evaluate the morality of the “master persuasion” — that people who bring that up are asking for him to be their “pope,” which he isn’t. He strikes me as a deeply immature individual.

  11. J. Paul,

    The other point I would add about Trump’s electoral victory is that while it is true that he lost the popular vote, both candidates understood the rules of the game, which is that to become president one had to win the Electoral College. To argue that he was a bad candidate because he lost the popular vote, which is what Jeff is doing, I think is a bit misleading – he was a good enough candidate to win where it counted. As for whether we need the Electoral College – well, that is another issue to debate. In my elections class, I assign a nice debate on this topic between George Edwards and Judith Best – if I find the link I’ll post it here.

  12. J. Paul: I’m afraid I have the same problem accessing the WSJ that you do. However, I’m pleased to see that Adams got enough pushback on his claims that he felt obliged to respond.

    You are right that the Electoral College was (unfortunately) essential to creating the US Constitution, given the conditions of 1787. That’s neither here nor there, though. If you lose the national vote to an opponent who claims you’re a liar, a fraud and an avatar of neo-Nazis, then you might still be the President, sure, but you’re not a “Master Persuader.” The phrase describes a special ability or talent FOR PERSUADING PEOPLE, which Trump didn’t — Hillary Clinton was apparently better at it.

  13. “To argue that he was a bad candidate because he lost the popular vote, which is what Jeff is doing, I think is a bit misleading – he was a good enough candidate to win where it counted.”

    Fine, but the question was whether he was a “Master Persuader.” It’s a very weird definition of that term that assigns it to a guy whose chief critic got more votes, no matter how you choose to slice the salami.

    Also, as I pointed out above, Trump campaigned on numerous promises that he not only hasn’t fulfilled, but hasn’t even taken any steps to TRY to fulfill. If I promise every voter a million dollars tax-free, and I thus win the presidency, but they never get their million dollars, does that make me a Master Persuader? No, it makes me an Egregious Liar.

  14. Well, I’ve addressed the congressional side of his persuasive skills (or lack thereof) elsewhere, so I won’t repeat that. In terms of the campaign, however, I think the response to your argument is that it depends on the target of his persuasive skills. You are looking at the national popular vote, and believe he came up short in the persuasive category. But if you look at targeted populations in key states, you might come to a different conclusion. Cue the Electoral College!

    Again, I haven’t actually read Adams’ piece(s) and generally do not think I would describe Trump as a “master persuader”. But I think he ran a pretty good campaign.

  15. “But I think he ran a pretty good campaign.”

    Sure, if saying whatever comes to mind at the moment, regardless of any intention to follow through, is good campaigning, then he ran a brilliant campaign. Absolutely.

    A few more years of brilliance like that from a few more candidates, and we won’t have to have these discussions anymore because American democracy will be R.I.P. So Trump should also get some credit for simplifying matters, I suppose.

  16. Well, that’s a different argument. By pretty good campaign, I mean he persuaded enough voters in enough key areas to vote for him. You may think they made a bad choice, and you made be right. But for better or for worse, those are the rules we’ve laid out, in the belief (mistaken perhaps) that voters are free to make bad choices.

  17. I’m not talking about whether voters made “a bad choice,” I’m talking about whether they were actively conned. You’re a political scientist, so I understand that you try to suspend judgment on the moral questions that necessarily surround political acts. So let me put it this way: Is there ANY campaigning tactic or decision you would consider wrong? Would absolutely any lie be justified if it “worked” in the sense of persuading “enough voters in enough key areas”? Is effectiveness the only measure, or is there any other basis on which we ought to be drawing limits? Would it be OK to win (this is totally hypothetical) by secretly accepting help from a foreign power? Of by destabilizing the other side’s campaign through a program of burglaries, wiretapping and “dirty tricks”? If your answer is no, there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed, then where would you draw them? Or do you just assume that the American system is robust enough to ensure that nothing like what I’ve just described would ever happen?

  18. The Mystery of Trump’s Lousy Polls
    If he’s so persuasive, why is his approval so low? Well, Michael Jordan missed a lot of baskets.
    By Scott Adams
    Jan. 30, 2018 6:41 p.m. ET
    1363 COMMENTS

    For years I’ve been arguing that Donald Trump is a world-class persuader. So why is his job-approval rating so low? The short answer is that the old rules about presidential approval no longer apply.

    Do you remember a few decades ago when one of the main complaints about politics was that Democrats and Republicans were not so different? Not anymore. The news industry has found that polarization is a strong business model. The first group of pundits claim many times a day that Republicans are right about nearly everything and Democrats are stupid and evil, while the second group do the reverse. Voters tend to consume news that agrees with their opinions, thus reinforcing them. In this environment, you can’t reasonably expect the folks who voted for the losing candidate to warm up easily to the winner. In the past the differences between victor and vanquished in the political arena were mostly questions of policy. To partisans today, Hillary Clinton and Mr. Trump are a lying, cheating murderer and a crazy, impulsive, lying, racist, homophobic, sexist narcissist. That’s a big gap.

    And it’s not as if Mr. Trump’s opponents are eager to close it. Michael Jordan missed about half of the shots he attempted. That isn’t because he lacked skill, but because the opposing players were highly capable at defending. Likewise, the political and media professionals who oppose the president are playing unusually strong defense, and that works against his job-approval ratings.

    Example: Anti-Trumpers take it as a given that this president is a racist. As evidence, they point to a series of news stories and quotes that seem to support that position. Your common sense tells you that even if some of the claims are exaggerated or taken out of context, there are so many of them that they can’t all be wrong.
    Confirmation bias looks exactly like a mountain of evidence.
    Confirmation bias looks exactly like a mountain of evidence. Illustration: Scott Adams

    But as any cognitive scientist will tell you, they can all be wrong, and that wouldn’t be unusual. Confirmation bias looks exactly like a mountain of evidence. If that sounds crazy, consider how much solid evidence the press gave us in 2016 that Mr. Trump could never get elected. Let’s consider three bits of so-called evidence about Mr. Trump’s alleged racism to illustrate my point:

    • Birtherism. Critics of Mr. Trump point to his questioning of President Obama’s birth certificate as obvious evidence of racism. But imagine if Hillary Clinton’s birth certificate had been questionable in any way. Do you seriously think Candidate Trump would have ignored that easy line of attack because she was white? In 2016 he did make an issue of Ted Cruz’s Canadian birth.

    Mr. Trump has attacked every white male who opposed him, including Republicans, on a daily basis, using every persuasion tool at his disposal. But the birther issue still feels racist because you see it in the context of all the other evidence of his alleged racism.

    • Charlottesville. Critics believe Mr. Trump took sides with the torch-carrying racists who were chanting anti-Semitic slogans in Charlottesville, Va., and called them “fine people.” The implication is that he publicly betrayed his Jewish daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren—while also inexplicably recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. That doesn’t make sense.

    The more ordinary explanation is that Mr. Trump spoke about the protests without having all the details about who attended and why. It was reasonable for him to assume some people were there because they agreed with his position that toppling Confederate statues is more about political correctness than racism. (For the record, I regard those statues as offensive decorations we can live without.) In any event, Mr. Trump later disavowed the Charlottesville racists in clear terms.

    • “S—hole countries.” If you don’t think Mr. Trump is a racist, you probably interpreted his scatological reference as applying to Third World countries that are not producing as many educated citizens as economically advanced places like Norway. If you think he is a racist, you probably believe he was calling the people in those countries a nasty word.

    Now consider these three bits of evidence combined. I just offered compelling rebuttals to each, but when partisans weave them together in a quilt of confirmation bias, they feel deeply persuasive.

    Candidate Trump offered his own explanation for his offensive statements. “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” he said in the first Republican debate in August 2015. “I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness.” When he proves it time and again, critics cleverly reframe his offensiveness to “he’s a racist!” With that sort of persuasion working against him, even his supporters are likely to be wary of admitting it to pollsters.

    Moreover, much of the public understands “job approval” to include liking Mr. Trump’s style in addition to his accomplishments. A better measure of presidential approval might be the National Federation of Independent Business’s Small Business Optimism Index. That captures a lot of variables: growth, jobs, foreign policy, domestic risks. The NFIB index’s monthly average hit an all-time high in 2017, even as Mr. Trump’s job-approval ratings hovered around 40%.

    Anyway, 40% is better than the press’s approval rating, and a lot better than Congress’s. That sounds about right for the best persuader in the world. He’s very talented, but he isn’t magic—and the other team is playing too.

    Mr. Adams is the creator of the comic strip Dilbert and author of “Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter.”

    Appeared in the January 31, 2018, print edition

  19. Well, yes – I can think of any number of campaign acts – most of them illegal! – that I would consider “wrong”, including burglaries, wiretapping and dirty tricks. But, again, that’s a slightly different argument from saying voters were “conned”. They may have been “conned” in the sense that they believed what Trump was saying when in fact Trump had no intention of fulfilling his promises. (I actually think he was sincere in his desire to make good on these promise, albeit hopelessly naive regarding his ability to do so.) But that’s the choice we make when we allow voters to call the shots in elections – there’s always the possibility that they will believe something that turns out not to be true. However, I think most of them knew pretty well what they were getting with Trump, and opted to vote for him anyway, partly in opposition to Clinton, whom many of the voters I talked to did not trust in the least. And Trump is not the first candidate to overpromise and fall short in delivery, and he likely won’t be the last. So I guess our differences come down to defining “actively conned”. I’m willing to live with a system that allows voters to decide whether to believe a candidate who makes claims regarding what they will accomplish in office, and to choose accordingly.

  20. Jeff, I’d like to respond to several of your comments:
    (1) DJT bested a diverse field in the primaries ranging from a CEO of indeterminate political persuasion (Fiorina) to political neophytes (Carson) to the R center (Rubio, Bush) to the R right (Cruz) etc, etc. Hard to characterize these all as “Reagan wannabes”
    (2) DJT campaigned as an outsider; and Salena Zito summed up his contradictions noting that “the press takes him literally but not seriously, while his supporters take him seriously but not literally”.
    (3) He eschewed political correctness, but his prevarications and claims were well within the bounds of political campaigns and discourse – e.g. “you can keep your doctor”, “I did not have sex with that woman”… The press has been so opposed (90% of coverage of DJT has been negative by some measures) that even former President Carter has commented on it.
    (4) DJT is not a principled political actor – he is not of a Party. He appears to be interested in “wins” and “progress” rather than ideologically pure stances that largely useful for rallying the party faithful. So he invites Schumer and Pelosi for talks – alone! And then he brings McConnel and Ryan in with them again for more discussions. This is very unusual for the President, but completely consistent with his stated aim to “get a deal”. I suggest that it is this unorthodox approach that his supporters see as having potential to resolve long standing and intractable issues (and they like his Court appointments).
    (5) the polls today are reporting up to 80% approval of his SOTU!
    (6) and to address your questions/concerns about what limits there might be to a campaign – would you include a candidate usurping the Party functions and cash box and disadvantaging the other primary candidate? “Unmasking” of U.S. citizens subject to surveillance? The AG meeting with the candidate’s husband? You see where I’m leading.

    I don’t see much benefit in trying to decide whether DJT is a Master Persuader. I do think there is great benefit in employing critical thinking to cut through the distorted Press coverage and assess this Presidency carefully. The institution of the President is important and the citizens have a responsibility to hold their leaders accountable. They also have a responsibility to be mature, diligent, careful and honest. They are not well served by an “emotionally enthusiastic” Press corps, nor by Party extremists counseling “Resistance” and dividing people by asserted “identities” (I reference extremists on both sides).
    We should wish our President well, demand that he conduct himself honorably, and expect the same of our Press and our fellow citizens. Hopefully we can all contribute to more clarity and harmony in our communal endeavors.

    Oh, and breathe – in and out and in… ;=)

  21. I came across this:
    “We cannot continue to allow people to enter the United States undetected, undocumented, and unchecked. The American people are a welcoming and generous people, but those who enter our country’s borders illegally, and those who employ them, disrespect the rule of the law. We need to secure our borders, and support additional personnel, infrastructure, and technology on the border and at our ports of entry. We need additional Customs and Border Protection agents equipped with better technology and real-time intelligence. We need to dismantle human smuggling organizations, combating the crime associated with this trade.”

    Sounds like President Trump doesn’t it? And yet it was the DNC platform in 2008 on immigration.

    http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=78283
    The more things change…

  22. Thank you very much, John. Great to read that bit. Scott does a great job, imho. Confirmation bias at work, probably. I think he is very intelligent. Here’s a couple of his blog posts that I think are powerful insights.

    http://blog.dilbert.com/2018/01/03/president-trumps-nuclear-button-tweet-sign-insanity/

    http://blog.dilbert.com/2018/01/17/north-korea-can-become-switzerland-east/

    Jeff—I strongly suggest you get Win Bigly so you will understand what Scott means by an MP. It’s complicated and has a lot of elements. And you will come to understand why Scott can recognize a true MP when he sees one.

    Here is the URL on the NFIB ratings Scott refers to in his WSJ piece, near the end, and a blog piece by Scott on the same subject for your information.

    https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2018-01-09/ive-never-seen-anything-2017-average-monthly-optimism-sets-all-time-record-2017

    http://blog.dilbert.com/2018/01/09/president-trump-earns-highest-presidential-approval-level-time/

  23. Trump was the only candidate in the GOP primaries who openly challenged the Reaganite orthodoxies that have such an iron grip on that party. He would not have won otherwise. If I give him credit for anything, it’s for recognizing that unfilled political niche and driving ahead into it. His careless way of speaking was helpful in that regard, because it relieved him of framing everything he said within some kind of continuing homage to Reagan, like all the other candidates felt they had to do.

    Of course, it wasn’t true: In substantive terms he has followed essentially the same policy script that any of them would have. That’s why the GOP Congress and leadership now loves him after all. He spoke many times, for instance, about wanting to raise taxes on the wealthy, not lower them. Then he signed a bill massively lowering them. This was typical. He talks about renegotiating trade agreements, but isn’t doing it. He talks about “clean coal,” but doesn’t seem to have any idea what it is, let alone a policy related to it. And so on.

    With a guy like this, it’s almost beside the point to talk about whether he’s “sincere.” He probably thinks at some level that everything is true at the moment he says it. That’s no help, though, if he is completely unconcerned with the facts, or oblivious to what would be involved in following through, or uncritically willing to outsource policymaking to others (like the GOP leadership) whose priorities are completely different from his and who aren’t going to do what he’s momentarily claiming he wants done.

    While the MAGAmen here wheel out Obama’s line about doctors for the four millionth time because it’s apparently the only such example they’ve got, I’m faced with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Trump’s…. OK, not lies: his careless misrepresentations, let’s say. So here’s one of my personal favorites. For years, Trump crabbed about how real unemployment was much higher than the government’s official numbers. These, he said on many occasions, were “phony,” “a hoax,” “a joke,” “totally fiction,” and a result of someone having “cooked the books.” (Actual quotes.) In August 2015, by way of decrying the unemployment problem, he said, “We have 93 million people out of work.” He got that number by counting as “out of work” all retirees, all students, the disabled, stay-at-home parents, etc. So this was a wild misrepresentation, of course, but patience: it gets worse.

    The following month, he said “the [official] number isn’t reflective”:

    “I’ve seen numbers of 24 percent — I actually saw a number of 42 percent unemployment. Forty-two percent.” He continued, “5.3 percent unemployment [the official rate] — that is the biggest joke there is in this country. … The unemployment rate is probably 20 percent, but I will tell you, you have some great economists that will tell you it’s a 30, 32. And the highest I’ve heard so far is 42 percent.” (Of course, “great economists” were saying nothing of the kind.)

    A few months later Trump won the New Hampshire primary, and said this in his victory speech:

    “Don’t believe these phony numbers when you hear 4.9 and 5 percent unemployment…. The number’s probably 28, 29, as high as 35. In fact, I even heard recently 42 percent.” (The actual number that month was 4.9.)

    This continued throughout the campaign. Trump made similar claims days before the election and even once, at least, afterwards but before he took office, at which point he had undoubtedly been briefed by actual professionals.

    Twenty percent! Thirty-five percent! Forty-two percent! It was the Great Depression in America again, or maybe much worse.

    Then in March last year, the jobs report came out for his first full month in office. It showed unemployment at 4.7 percent. That was consistent with where it had been for months — in fact, up a tick, 0.1 percent, compared to the day Trump was elected.

    So, having spent years lambasting the Bureau of Labor Statistics for cooking the books and producing phony numbers meant to hide the fact of a Great Depression (or maybe, the theory in his head was that somehow the Obama White House was forcing it to), what does Trump have his spokesman say about the numbers now? This:

    “Yeah, I talked to the president prior to this, and he said to quote him very clearly, ‘They may have been phony in the past, but it is very real now’.”

    There was no difference in who was calculating the unemployment rate or how it was calculated. All that was different was that it suited Trump’s convenience to completely reverse himself on this central question about the state of things in America.

    No president or serious presidential candidate has ever done this before. As long as we’ve had professionally generated government labor statistics, all candidates and presidents have acknowledged them as real and taken their bearings from them. There are occasional disputes on the margins over which of several unemployment rates is most meaningful for which purposes, but the apples-to-apples comparisons involve the “U3” rate, which is the one cited above and the one that Trump trashed as a “hoax” but now embraces as “very real.” This is the thought process of a small child: anything is true if it helps me, and phony or fake if it doesn’t.

    Fortunately, it isn’t actually Master Persuasion. Scott Adams’ pathetic special pleading amounts to defining “masterful” and “persuasive” down, so that even when Trump isn’t fooling people he’s somehow a Master Persuader. Adams’ basketball analogy — with Trump’s opponents “playing unusually strong defense” — is ridiculous: it amounts to saying that Master Persuasion doesn’t require overcoming those obstacles. By that logic, I’m as good a basketball player as Michael Jordan in his prime; no, of course I wouldn’t sink a single basket against NBA opponents, but I can’t be expected to against such a strong defense! Give me an open court with no opponents and I’ll make a basket. Absurd. Almost makes me feel sorry for Adams.

    The truth is that if Americans thought that the advent of Trump had somehow ended a Great Depression and brought the unemployment rate down by somewhere between 15 and 37 points, as he in effect claimed, he wouldn’t even need Master Persuasion; he’d already be on Mt. Rushmore by now, not still struggling with underwater approval ratings and having problems getting candidates he endorses elected. The best thing to be said about him as a persuader is that while he might want to be the kind of silver-tongued demagogue that Scott Adams admires, he’s terrible at it and it’s not working. The day that a leading politician really can conjure massive unemployment rates out of thin air, then magically make them vanish when it suits him — and get people to believe this — that’s the day we’re in real trouble.

  24. Sorry, meant to address this also:

    “the polls today are reporting up to 80% approval of his SOTU!”

    I’ve seen 75%, but OK. Let’s go with 80. Wow. That must be the hugest approval ever. Well, except for almost every other State of the Union speech: approval of Obama’s in 2010 (i.e. at the equivalent point in his presidency, one year in) was 83%. For George W. Bush’s in 2002 (again, equivalent point): 85%.

    The simplest way to lie with statistics is to avoid comparing like with like. (That’s what I was just talking about in the post above.) You need a baseline of comparison for the numbers to be meaningful. Is 80% a high number? Not in this context, because most viewers of SOTUs are the president’s supporters already. Plus, the speeches themselves are crafted to make viewers feel good, with lots of nifty-sounding applause lines about how great America is and how it’s all going to get even better.

    What’s needed, if you want to be serious about this, is a comparison over time. For instance, the SSRS “instant polls” reported by CNN have been done in a consistent way since 1998. That means they could not have been designed to disadvantage Trump, who wasn’t even in politics yet then. Here are those numbers over time; responses to Trump’s SOTU are in the ballpark of others, but a bit weaker than most:

    http://cdn.cnn.com/cnn/2018/images/01/31/cnn.topline_.01.30.18.pdf

    But I’m sure Scott Adams could explain that this is still somehow Master Persuasion. Maybe he would complain that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had the unfair advantage of being, y’know, popular, having actually won more votes than their opponents and so forth.

  25. Jeff – I agree with your emphasis on the importance of context, and this was the point I was trying to make by comparing DJT’s statements with those made by other Presidents. My selections were obvious only to raise the question of whether DJT’s statements and assertions are outside of the historical bounds of Presidents’ assertions. I don’t reach a conclusion but am raising the question. I don’t even know how to limit the subjectivity of such an analysis, although I suggest that it is worth trying. There is so much polarization – which results in passionate assertion – that engaging in careful analysis/questioning is dismissed as partisan excuse for DJT – that is unfortunate.
    I have not read Scott Adams’ book so can’t speak to the definition of Master Persuader. I suspect we could find agreement on certain talents/skills that DJT has in communicating – anyone who can win the Presidency is clearly somewhat skilled in communicating (although the example of GWB may undermine my case…). Of course, as students of Political Science we try to characterize and compare and analyze specific behaviors and strategies that are successful or not. I have great difficulty with using standard analytical tools with DJT – as I said above, he is not of a Party, and he is not concerned with adhering to Party orthodoxy or platforms (as you have noted). Whatever characterization we choose to employ (MP or other) must be judged by how effectively it helps us understand and anticipate DJT’s actions.
    With strong employment numbers this a.m., Rasmussen reporting 49% job approval, middle of the pack (as you have advised) SOTU numbers – is DJT “finding his feet”? Adams points to Small Business optimism at historic levels and sees optimism – Dems are “sitting on their hands” and see Constitution “breaking” malfesance and worse. I don’t know which is correct, although I strongly suspect the “truth” is somewhere in the middle.
    We will see in November which narrative/belief is more compelling to voters. Until then, it is interesting to share analysis, perspective, and ideas – political scientists love nothing more than to parse data and evaluate context – most especially with worthy disputants!
    Kind regards

  26. One of you – John? J. Paul? -cited that Salena zito quote regarding Trump: “When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” I think that goes a long way toward explaining whether one thinks Trump has persuasive skills or not. For what it’s worth, I saw the same discrepancy in views toward him on the campaign trail. When I asked Trump supporters about his use of language, including his penchant for distorting the truth, they dismissed it as Trump being Trump. Reporters, meanwhile, spent a great deal of time fact checking his statements and documenting the falsehoods, but in the process they were very late in understanding his appeal.

  27. The question I struggle with is; How unusual, and in what parameters, is the behavior of DJT?

    The corollary to this question is; How much distortion of perspective is there and from where does it arise (e.g. social media, MSM, elite opposition, Party apparatchiks, Big Donors etc. etc)?

    I posit that there has been a confluence of so many significant factors, and many of these factors are significantly more powerful and distinct from 8 year prior, that it is exceedingly difficult to evaluate their individual impacts. Individuals are left stunned, angry, frustrated and default to “tribal” associations and declarations of loyalty.

    Scott Adams describes endorsing HRC as a choice of “self-protection”; students at universities are polarized and suspicious; my university educated friends are reluctant to discuss politics – even those educated as political scientist and philosophers; the “Seniors” at Matt’s weekly gathering choose not to watch the SOTU. This is the most concerning aspect of the post 2016 era – the self-censorship, fear, the diminishment of rigorous thinking in favor of impassioned assertion.

    This is where the leaders, educators, and influencers need to exercise care and restraint. It is too easy to score points and develop influence with gullible voters by proclaiming nonsense – and there’s a lot of blame to spread around. I hope that there are enough concerned people of goodwill to ratchet down the conversation and provide examples of constructive engagement that can address our pressing problems.

    When Cohen in the NYT says he is not, but then basically equates DJT to Hitler [https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/02/opinion/trump-corruption-republic.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-left-region&region=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region] – we are flirting with real trouble…

  28. The big problem I have with Scott Adams’ analysis, which I first read in some article-length form several months ago, is that it boils down to nothing but praise for demagoguery as long as it’s effective. I could not detect any point he made that couldn’t equally well have been made in defense of Hitler (at least early Hitler, before he started losing a world war). Other critics pointed this out, and Adams’ defense was that he was merely talking about technique, not morality. He got kind of indignant about it, suggesting that people who raised moral questions or asked whether effective demagoguery is an unmitigated good were demanding a “Pope.”

    At the same time, that defense reeked of disingenuousness, because Adams clearly ADMIRES Trump for his alleged persuasive talents. He wasn’t just neutrally observing them. It seemed to me that Adams lacked what should be a part of any decent liberal-arts education: an awareness that yes, of course, public opinion is rather easily manipulated, that evil and power-hungry leaders have exploited this fact for a very long time, and that serious political thinkers have spent literally millennia, from the ancient Greeks through Shakespeare, James Madison, Hannah Arendt and on up to the present, trying to figure out how it works — not to applaud it, as Adams does, but to try to defeat it, because it’s extremely dangerous.

    As I said above, having discovered the wonders of shameless demagoguery, I think Adams has hitched his wagon to the wrong demagogue. Trump is just transparently bad at this. No question, he is persuasive to some: He seems to have a reasonably reliable core of about 35% support, at least as long as economic conditions are good. But a “Master Persuader” would have a clear shot at a majority. Rasmussen’s polling has always had a Republican “house lean,” but I wouldn’t dispute that Trump’s approval might be somewhere in the 40s at this point. Compared to other presidents under similar conditions and at similar points in their terms, that’s an improvement from catastrophically bad to merely terrible. Adams’ bleating that this is because the opposition is still criticizing him is, as I said above, just pathetic — it refutes Adams’ own case. A true Master Persuader would persuade at least a narrow majority to believe him and NOT his critics.

    I also think that the roughly one-third of the country that seems truly devoted to Trump is a faction that has always been there — literally, throughout American history — and that at various times has attached itself to other demagogues (George Wallace comes to mind), but that the two-party system had managed for a time to absorb into a more conventional style of politics. That absorption strategy failed, or partly failed, in 2016. A man with pre-existing celebrity and name recognition won the nomination of a major party essentially by running against that party and its orthodoxies. This positioned him to win the presidency in a weirdly convoluted system that sometimes awards the office to the runner-up instead of the vote leader. (Which by the way, Matthew, is the answer to your point about trusting the people to decide. They did, in this case, but the system overruled that decision.) Various accidents and other interventions broke his way, and here we are. The story I recounted above demonstrates very clearly, I think, how horrible a president this man is. Anyone who seriously cared about the country would not announce that there was a Great Depression underway and then just casually revoke that announcement when it suited him. He would try to find out what actual economic conditions were, would insist on real numbers if he thought he wasn’t getting them, and would apply himself to relieving the suffering they reflected if his initial view proved to be true. Trump made clear that he doesn’t care about any of that; he wants bad numbers when they reflect on his opponents and good numbers when they reflect on him, and that’s the entire length and breadth of his concern. It’s all about him.

  29. John,

    The NYT has been so virulently anti-Trump that I, who have a digital subscription, have simply stopped reading anything they print about Trump. Can’t trust it or stand their slants anymore. Krugman is absolutely foaming at the mouth. My lawyer brother asks me why I continue to subscribe (he does the WSJ). I say for the good articles on wellness, etc., that they still publish. I’ll have to go look at the Cohen piece because in the past I have enjoyed his perspective (before Trump).

    You, John, and Jeff and Matthew are clearly a step or two above me in your thinking about politics. I appreciate the discussion. My only thought is that the serious issues we are facing in our country stem from a confluence of factors, some of which are the massive wealth/income inequality, generating a very real perception of “system” unfairness;

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stan-sorscher/inequality—x-marks-the_b_7881768.html?imm_mid=0f5cef&cmp=em-business-na-na-newsltr_econ_20170901

    https://www.amazon.com/Dream-Hoarders-American-Leaving-Everyone/dp/081572912X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1517605008&sr=1-1&keywords=dream+hoarders+how+the+american+upper+middle+class

    an undeniable failure of the family structure—over 40% of children are now born to unmarried mothers; the consequent loss of male role models for the sons and the intractable hold of the consequent poverty;

    https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/unmarried-childbearing.htm

    http://www.nbcnews.com/id/39993685/ns/health-womens_health/t/blacks-struggle-percent-unwed-mothers-rate/#.We566YXB2Hk

    The failure to see that the future begins at conception and to implement a nationwide Marshall Plan of a generation or two long to correct this. I hypothesize that were we to do that, the societal IQ would rise by at least 15 points, or more. This is, imho, a Root Cause of our troubles, long term. We have some models that are working well on a relative small scale, such as the Nurse Family Partnership. (http://www.nursefamilypartnership.org/)

    Here is an undeniable consequence of poverty and neglect on the brain:

    https://www.yahoo.com/news/two-brains-both-belong-three-120608571.html

    The failure of our education system to teach critical thinking, to enable EVERY child to read as fluently as they talk (70% of felons in prison are crippled or non-readers), and to provide serious alternatives to college post high school along the lines of Europe and Britain.

    I am happy to see that some portion of the public is waking up to the seriously detrimental sport called football, right down to Jr. High. Probably soccer is there, too, but perhaps less so over time. Only one of my four sons wanted to play it in high school but I forbid it. He became a top skier instead.

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-nfl-is-losing-its-core-audience-a-wsj-nbc-news-poll-finds-1517569200

    http://www.cnn.com/2017/07/25/health/cte-nfl-players-brains-study/index.html

    http://www.bu.edu/cte/files/2011/11/Stern-et-al-2011-PMR-Long-term-Consequences-of-Repetitive-Brain-Trauma1.pdf

    Anyway, Jeff, we differ on our view of politics, but, I suspect not on some of the more essential agreements needed to have a well-functioning country. Of course, those have to be gained thru political agreements. We can’t seem to do that anymore, largely because of the items I’ve posted above, maybe.

    Breathe, everyone, it’s important. (It’s why the sages use the breath as meditation). Mass General has had a 30 year program of meditation to deal with the serious problems of people facing intractable health issues or death. Created by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD. Highly recommend looking him up.

  30. One of you – John? J. Paul? – cited that Salena zito quote regarding Trump: “When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”

    Must have been John, I don’t recall it.

  31. J. Paul,, thank you for your post and the links.

    I agree that there have been profound changes in the structure of our families, our terms of work, our fraternal organizations, and institutions of religion and education. Underlying all this is a shift in values that is probably unprecedented in history. I wonder if the pace of this change has been more disruptive than the shift itself?
    In the post war era we have substantially eliminated poverty, the threat of epidemics, increased life expectancy and educational attainment and living standards. Warren Buffett is one of my favorite optimists and his annual shareholder letters are a great tonic for offsetting the more bitter prognostications of pessimists.

    I note that the non-marital births have been on a decline from reaching 52% in 2007 to 43% in 2015 – still much too high, and I support effective efforts to reduce it further. Similarly, teen pregnancy has been declining even more precipitously. Living standards are generally improving although this is somewhat segregated. Recent improvements in black employment are heartening and may provide some ideas for fostering further improvements. The rapid advances achieved by women in the post war era are most welcome. The same positive trend for acceptance and assimilation of gays has been much more recent – interesting to note that Obama was publicly opposed to gay marriage until 2010 while DJT has been supportive of gay rights for decades.

    My point is that there has been a tremendous change in values but it is a mixed bag – very positive in some ways and extremely disruptive and psychologically traumatic in many other ways. And it is affecting different demographics differentially. The pace of social change is an important element in determining the level of violence and disruption and angst that results. The U.S. may need a long pause in immigration to permit some assimilation to take place.

    In researching some ideas I came across this obituary of von Hoffman [http://reason.com/blog/2018/02/02/nicholas-von-hoffman-rip?utm_medium=email] – it offers an important perspective on our current difficulties and is amusing at the same time – I commend it to you. I suggest that a dash of humor with a deep breath is a relaxing nightcap! Cheers.

  32. from Andrew Sullivan’s (RIP) Blog – The Daily Dish
    …the more things change…

    The Daily Dish Awards

    Throughout the year, the Daily Dish and its readers nominate various writers, politicians, pundits, celebrities for various awards. At the end of the year, winners and runners up are announced. In the past, a blue ribbon panel has selected the winners. Its membership has been kept secret. As of 2007, the winners are picked by Dish readers in a poll.

    The Hewitt Award – named after the absurd partisan fanatic, Hugh Hewitt, is given for the most egregious attempts to label Barack Obama as un-American, alien, treasonous, and far out of the mainstream of American life and politics.

    The Malkin Award – named after blogger, Michelle Malkin – is for shrill, hyperbolic, divisive and intemperate right-wing rhetoric. Ann Coulter is ineligible – to give others a chance.

    The Moore Award – named after film-maker, Michael Moore – is for divisive, bitter and intemperate left-wing rhetoric.

    The Poseur Alert is awarded for passages of prose that stand out for pretension, vanity and really bad writing designed to look like profundity.

    The Yglesias Award is for writers, politicians, columnists or pundits who actually criticize their own side, make enemies among political allies, and generally risk something for the sake of saying what they believe.

    The Von Hoffmann Award This award is given for stunningly wrong political, social and cultural predictions.

  33. I vaguely remember Van Hoffman but the background on him was fascinating – thanks for the link. Wasn’t aware of Sullivan’s “awards” either – I’m assuming now that he’s shutdown his site that this are no longer awarded?

  34. Right, no more Sullivan awards. The way it used to work was this: The old “Daily Dish” blog carried about 50 new posts a day (he had a small staff helping with this), and every so often one of them would be titled “Such-and-such Award Finalist,” referencing one of those named categories. At the end of the year, if I recall correctly, Sullivan would then link back to these and have his readers vote on an overall winner in each category for the year. Nowadays, in his semi-retirement, he blogs just once a week at New York magazine, typically including three short items in each post.

  35. Interesting. We were in grad school together – then he was just a nerdy theorist. No one had an inkling that he’d go into punditry. Is it your read that his effort to make money off his blog through a subscription service fell short of turning a profit?

  36. No, I don’t think Sullivan’s semi-retirement was about profit. I take his own explanation at face value: He was killing himself with exhaustion. You can see how that would be; the Daily Dish was a firehose of material, more active than any ten other blogs, almost a kind of effort to cull and curate the entire English-language web on a daily basis. It had to be not only a huge amount of work, even with a staff, but a project that just completely took over all of one’s mental and much of one’s emotional space.

    Second, anyone who read Sullivan regularly would recognize that he’s a man of a certain kind of temperament — one that even he, I think, has often described as “excitable,” or words to that effect. He would get very wound up about things, kind of panicky at what seemed like bad political news, etc. (Classic instance: his alarm at Obama’s tepid performance in the first 2012 debate with Romney. I think he was certain that Obama had just blown the election.) He didn’t have much of a filter and tended to go with first reactions, calming down later and thoughtfully reflecting but only after what must have been a fairly serious spike in his blood pressure. Having been HIV-positive, he’s attentive to his health, and I think he just felt he was wearing himself out.

    It’s interesting that his new format, the three short items in one blog post per week, is fairly rigidly formulaic. It’s as if he feels he needs to impose a strict limit on himself because otherwise, once he gets started reacting to and commenting on things, there’s no other way to stop.

  37. This from today’s WSJ – it’s a bit long but goes some way to address my question as to whether Trump is sui generis or within the historical bounds of political discourse and debate. It’s useful context for assessing our current divisions and angst.

    Polarization Is an Old American Story
    Gordon Wood, the noted historian of early America, says Adams’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans were far more divided than today’s political parties.
    By
    Jason Willick
    Feb. 2, 2018 6:22 p.m. ET
    Providence, R.I.
    He’s been called the “dean of 18th-century American historians,” but Gordon Wood’s biggest claim to fame is that Matt Damon once mentioned him in a movie. In a barroom scene from 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” a haughty Harvard grad student bloviates in a bid to impress two women. Mr. Damon’s character, a working-class prodigy, cuts him down to size: “Next year, you’re gonna be in here regurgitating Gordon Wood, talkin’ about, you know, the prerevolutionary utopia and the capital-forming effects of military mobilization.”
    Mr. Wood says a student told him about the mention immediately after the film’s Cambridge, Mass., premiere. But he is fond of pointing out that he isn’t the historian Mr. Damon’s character most admires: “If you want to read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s ‘People’s History of the United States,’ ” Mr. Damon says in another scene. “That book will really knock you on your ass.”
    And the truth is that today the pompous grad student would be likelier to quote Zinn’s progressive indictment of America than Mr. Wood’s work. “I’m considered on the wrong side,” Mr. Wood, energetic and alert at 84, tells me over lunch at the faculty club of Brown University, where he is a professor emeritus. “American history is now a tale of oppression and woe. And if you don’t say that . . .” he trails off.
    Mr. Wood graduated from Tufts in 1955, served in the U.S. Air Force in Japan—“I was lucky, I was between two wars”—and enrolled in Harvard’s graduate history program in 1958. He had hoped to study with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. , but the latter was gearing up for the Kennedy presidential campaign. Mr. Wood enrolled in a seminar with Bernard Bailyn, a just-tenured early-American historian, and never looked back.
    Over six decades of work on the colonial period, the Revolution and the Founding, Mr. Wood has accumulated virtually every award available to historians—the Bancroft Prize for “The Creation of the American Republic,” a Pulitzer for “The Radicalism of the American Revolution,” and the National Humanities Medal, which President Obama presented him in 2010.
    But as his star rose, his field suffered an extended decline amid the late-20th-century backlash against “dead white males.” Experts on revolutionary politics retired and weren’t replaced. Social history—“bottom up” accounts of marginalized groups—gained prestige. The New York Times reported in 2016 that in the previous decade universities posted only 15 new tenure-track openings for American political historians of any kind.
    “I understand what they’re doing, and it’s important,” Mr. Wood says of the social historians. “We know more about slavery than we ever did.” But he argues the academic literature has grown unbalanced, neglecting crucial questions, including about the political divisions that shaped the early republic. “It’s not that they’re wrong about the killing of the Indians and slavery, but there are other things that happened too, and it’s a question of which ones do you emphasize.”
    He describes the attitude of some of these scholars: “I want to show how bad things were so people will wake up and do something about the present.” Many Americans tune out instead. Weary of “one tale of oppression after another,” they turn to popular historians, many of whom have no formal training in history.
    Meanwhile, many scholars retreat further into narrow subspecialties and esoteric jargon. These days, he says, professional history is “almost like a science” in that the work is unintelligible to laymen. But whereas “physicists can show us what they’ve done” by engineering real-world applications, historians’ work must stand on its own. They have a responsibility to make it vivid and meaningful for the broader public.
    What happens when they abdicate this responsibility? For one thing, a lack of historical perspective can lead to apocalyptic thinking about the present. “History is consoling in that sense,” Mr. Wood says. “It takes you off the roller-coaster of emotions that this is the best of times or the worst of times.”
    His latest book, “Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, ” provides an illustration. The antagonism between Adams’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans in the 1790s was far more fundamental, and therefore more threatening, than American partisanship today: “I think we’re going to survive easily,” Mr. Wood says.
    By contrast, Adams, Jefferson and their coalitions came close to killing the republic in its cradle. They disagreed on as fundamental a question as whether the new republic should be democratic. Jefferson had a romantic faith in democracy and the wisdom of ordinary people; Adams predicted that “democracy will infallibly destroy all civilization.”
    Jefferson’s view was partly self-serving. “The leadership of the Republican Party, which is the popular party, is Southern slaveholders,” Mr. Wood says. “They don’t fear the people,” because the gentry-aristocracy effectively controlled electoral outcomes. Jefferson was akin to today’s “limousine liberal” in that he was insulated from the policies he promoted. (Eventually, his ideas would prove potent in arguing against slavery.) Meanwhile, Adams’s Federalists “are coming from New England, where you have far more egalitarian societies, far more democratic societies,” he says. “But for that very reason, the leaders are more scared of populism, of democracy.”
    That may make Adams sound like a member of today’s “establishment.” Yet some of his other ideas would be more amenable to populists like Donald Trump. Adams said to Jefferson, in Mr. Wood’s paraphrase: “You fear the ‘one’ of monarch, I fear the ‘few,’ meaning the aristocrats.” Adams argued that domination by oligarchs was a grave threat to liberty. “It’s his way of justifying the strong executive who will act as a check on the few,” Mr. Wood says. Adams wanted the executive to have some of the powers of the Crown.
    That was anathema to Jefferson, whose life mission was “the elimination of monarchy, and all that it implies, which is hereditary rule, hierarchy and corruption.” He saw around him “a world of privilege in which ordinary people are abused. . . . From our point of view, he’s very sympathetic because he’s destroying that world,” Mr. Wood says.
    The Federalists feared that Jefferson’s leveling vision would prove destructive to mediating institutions. Mr. Wood cites a recent book by political scientist Patrick Deneen, “Why Liberalism Failed,” which argues that the West’s commitment to individual autonomy—in both markets and culture—has undermined communal connections, leaving people lonely and isolated. That’s what the Federalists feared—“this awful kind of world, where the individual is alone and without any kind of connections with anyone.”
    Another Jefferson-Adams disagreement that still resonates is what we now call “American exceptionalism”—the idea that “we’ve transcended the usual definition of a nation, and that we had a special responsibility in the world to promote our way of life.” Jefferson strongly believed it. He thought that “war is caused by monarchs” and “republics are naturally pacific,” so peace would follow if the American model were adopted everywhere. In that sense, he sounded very much like today’s liberal internationalists and neoconservatives. To Adams, meanwhile, America was “just as sinful, just as corrupt as other nations”—a view both Presidents Trump and Obama have sometimes echoed in different ways.
    The most poignant comparison, however, is the bitterness of the divide. For much of the 1790s, neither Adams’s Federalists nor Jefferson’s Republicans “accepted the legitimacy of the other,” Mr. Wood says. “And of course, the Federalists never thought that they were a party. They were the government,” and Jefferson’s Republicans a malignant faction trying to take the government down. The Republicans, for their part, “thought that the Federalists were turning us into a monarchy and reversing the American Revolution.”
    We hear plenty of similarly apocalyptic rhetoric today, but much of it is cynical and self-consciously exaggerated. What was striking about the 1790s, Mr. Wood emphasizes, is the extent to which each party sincerely believed the other posed an existential threat.
    The differences came to a head as Americans split over the French Revolution, which Jefferson saw as vindicating his idea of human liberation and Adams as confirming his fears about how a society might be rent apart. The Federalists alleged Republican collusion with France—and unlike today’s skirmishes over Russian meddling, there was then an acute fear of invasion and mass defection. There was organized violence in Philadelphia, the capital, which to Federalists “seemed to be dominated by all these Frenchmen.” The terrified Federalist Congress enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts to suppress dissent. “We came close to a civil war in 1798,” Wood says. “It didn’t happen, and therefore historians don’t take it seriously.”
    Adding to the chaos were Alexander Hamilton’s imperial designs. “Hamilton is full of visions of what he’s going to do with this army,” Mr. Wood says. He’s going to “go into Mexico maybe, and he’s going to ally with some of the leaders in South America” in a grand anti-French alliance. In a swipe at popular history, Mr. Wood says the “Hamilton” musical offers a “distorted” picture of a man who was really an antiliberal “Napoleonic figure”: “Things might have gotten to a point where Hamilton actually sends an army into Virginia,” the Republican stronghold.
    In the campaign of 1800, Adams’s allies viewed Jefferson much the way opponents saw Donald Trump 216 years later—“stirring up trouble” and “destroying legitimate leaders.” Jefferson won, and Adams declined to attend his successor’s inauguration—to this day, the only such snub in history. The transfer of power was so momentous that Jefferson called it “the Revolution of 1800.” At that point, Mr. Wood observes, the Federalists “assume that he’ll fail so badly that they’ll be back into power before long.” They assumed wrong—the Federalists never won the presidency again and faded altogether by 1820.
    Mr. Wood has written that most of the Founders “who lived on into the early decades of the nineteenth century expressed anxiety over what they had wrought.” Federalists rued the excesses of democracy, which undermined their aspirations for classical deliberative politics. “People began saying, look, if I don’t have people of my own kind in the government, I don’t feel confident,” Mr. Wood says. “You don’t trust people who aren’t like you, and that’s what feeds the anti-elitism,” which today takes the forms of populism and identity politics.
    As for the Republicans, the federal government grew beyond anything they imagined. Today, limited government is associated with conservatism, “whereas in the late 18th century, it’s the radical position.” Jefferson believed a strong state would exacerbate unearned privilege and lead to monarchy. Yet America’s sprawling government today—the welfare state at home and military abroad—largely exists to promote Jeffersonian values of equality and American exceptionalism.
    The ways in which both Adams’s and Jefferson’s visions have been frustrated illustrates one of Mr. Wood’s broad insights about the value of history. “History is a conservative discipline in that the one lesson that comes out of it is, nothing ever works out the way you think it’s going to,” he says. “That’s why Nietzsche said if you want to be a man on horseback, forget history, because it’ll stifle you—you’ll get full of doubts.”
    History could teach today’s partisans on both sides that their ideas are less radical than they think, that the American republic is stronger than they fear, and that the nation’s divisions are more surmountable than they imagine. At a time when serious historians are proving less and less capable of reaching the wider public, Americans could do worse than to regurgitate lessons from Gordon Wood.
    Mr. Willick is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal.
    Appeared in the February 3, 2018, print edition.

  38. Fascinating stuff – well worth the read. It does prove somewhat reassuring in terms of realizing we’ve been down this road before. On the other hand, I find the decline in appreciation for the type of scholarship Woods does somewhat unsettling. I confess that it afflicts political science as well, particularly the study of American politics. Our graduate programs are becoming increasingly specialized, particularly in terms of teaching different methodologies, and the cost has been a failure to introduce students to history. As Wood shows, a basic grasp of history would go a long way toward putting Trump’s presidency and the current state of American politics in a better and perhaps more reassuring context.

  39. Thank you, John, for that great piece from the WSJ. I found it fascinating. My brother, the lawyer, was a student of ancient history at the U of Chicago and Oxford before having a serious accident (motorcycle hit him and shattered one of his legs while in England). He decided to return to the USA to get better medical care (never got to talk with his doctor) and to make sure one leg didn’t end up being shorter than the other. While recovering, he contemplated teaching ancient history at $14 grand a year (this was in the early 1970’s) and decided to do law instead. He passed the bar exam in the top 98th percentile. Became partner in Skadden Arps at age 35 making 7 figures most years. He is not longer there because a major client asked him to do something bordering on illegal and he refused. That led him to leave.

    Anyway, that’s a long family story. He hits on me for reading the NYT. He sent me this note in response to my comment on what I pay for the digital subscription: “I would gladly pay $15 per month NOT to receive the New York Times. It once was the newspaper of record but now it is just the newspaper of the Democratic Party. It’s taking up the European tradition of papers explicitly tied to a political party, sub silentio.”

    We really have our lives crammed so full of immediacy that we have none left over for study and contemplation.

    Thank you again, John. Great read!!

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