Ego Over Country

posted in: Debates | 0

We now have confirmation that Donald Trump may not accept the outcome of the election. When given the opportunity to say what should be automatic for any presidential contender, that he will of course concede the election if he loses, Trump instead told America to stay tuned. And so the Republican nominee for president effectively disqualified himself in front of the nation at the third and mercifully final debate of this election year.

Often contentious, at times surprisingly substantive, tonight’s bout featured a preternaturally composed Hillary Clinton alternately offering a vision for her administration and goading her opponent into fits of rage. If Donald Trump were capable of taking political advice, he would have controlled his body language, modulated his tone and trained his message on the doubts voters have about his opponent.

But Trump’s campaign has never been an exercise in rationality so much as a vehicle for channeling grievance. Trump won the nomination in part because of his ability to project a seemingly limitless capacity for feeling slighted onto a Republican electorate hungry for someone to acknowledge their anger. This characteristic has not worked with a general electorate looking for a candidate to articulate a positive vision for changing the country, and he has not been able to turn it off because it fundamentally reflects who he is.

As Trump’s campaign has gone into a tailspin these past weeks he has resorted to acting out in a desperate effort to assert his dominance. His behavior cannot be understood in terms of strategy or tactics because his words and actions make no sense if his objective is to appeal to voting groups he needs to win. As he loses voters he escalates his rhetoric, and as he escalates his rhetoric he loses more voters. So now he has talked himself into a corner where he has to consider rejecting the outcome because he cannot accept a loss of any kind. His campaign now is little more than a reflection of his ego.

Like an episode of a reality TV show that’s gone on too long, tonight’s debate left a weary nation ready to move on to the final episode where they get to vote the belligerent contestant off the island. For the sake of the republic, let’s hope he goes.

Electoral Map

posted in: Electoral College | 0


For the final weeks of the campaign, we’re adding a feature courtesy of our graphics designer Sharon Machlis. It’s the “tilegram” electoral map displayed on the left, portraying the state of the Electoral College based on aggregate state polling. I will update the map regularly and display it in the right sidebar, where you can click on the figure to see a full-page version. Expect polling to increase in volume as the election nears, and as we approach Election Day we should be able to project the likely outcome with increasing certainty.

The tiles reflect the number of electoral votes awarded to each state, allowing a clear visual representation of the state of the race without the distorting effect of geography. A glance at the map makes it clear, for instance, that the combined electoral value of the five interior states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho—all Trump strongholds—is equivalent to the value of Georgia, which is historically a Republican state but this year is too close to call. Mouse over the states in the enlarged version to find the percentage of the popular vote won by Obama in 2008, the last time there was an open seat.

The map depicts the regions where each candidate is strong: Clinton in the Democratic strongholds of New England, the Acela corridor, the upper Midwest and the Pacific Rim; Trump in Appalachia, the deep South, the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain West. Clinton’s base regions are more populated, so she has more tiles (and is more likely to be elected). The map also shows how Trump is underperforming in traditional Republican regions and in swing states. Ohio and Iowa are his best bets to win states carried by Obama, but this is offset by weaknesses in Georgia, Arizona and Utah (where he is deeply unpopular with the large Mormon population), and in the swing states of Florida, North Carolina and Nevada, where recent polling puts him at a disadvantage. And keep an eye on the states shaded light red (South Carolina, Indiana, Missouri, Texas and Alaska). If the election were held today Trump would win them narrowly, but we are one Access Hollywood video away from moving them to the contested category.

It’s Still A Change Election

I’d like to take a break from the ongoing Trump implosion and refocus for a minute on the fundamental forces shaping this election. Although the closing arguments of the campaign will be dominated by questions of basic human decency, we should remember that the primary political driver since early last year has been a cry for change. Dissatisfaction and disgust with politics as usual fueled the unexpected rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, this cycle’s two defining figures. Even if the electorate elevates a consummate insider to the presidency, the desire to shake up the political process will assert itself strongly after her inauguration. How she addresses it will determine the fate of the governing majority we elect on November 8 and quite possibly the fate of the nation.

The requirements of those crying out for change would be difficult to navigate under the best of circumstances, but the destructive quality of the presidential campaign will leave the winner with the political equivalent of the policy apocalypse that Barack Obama inherited in 2008. With Donald Trump dragging the country through a cesspool of conspiracy theories which threaten to undermine the legitimacy of the election, the next administration is going to lack buy-in from a large chunk of the country. Angry voters from across the political spectrum will make varied and incompatible demands. Left-leaning populists identify different problems and call for different solutions than right-leaning populists. There are racial, cultural and economic layers to the change mantra, all of which need attention. The next administration will inherit all of this.

If Democrats win, they would be wise to remember Bernie Sanders’ core critique of the economic and political process as favoring the interests of the super-rich, and Sanders’ followers would be advised to keep the pressure on a Democratic administration to do something about it. For all the multi-layered problems marking this political moment, Read More

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Reporters this week discovered a full-fledged Republican civil war. They are several years late. It should surprise precisely no one that Donald Trump is directing his rage at Paul Ryan for instructing members of the House Republican caucus to oppose the nominee if it will help them hold their seats. The self-described unshackled Donald Trump now taking aim at party leaders is the same candidate who rose to prominence by giving voice to Republican voter anger at party elites, which for years had been expressed in Congress by the rump “Freedom Caucus” that checkmated Ryan and his predecessor John Boehner. What we see now is an emotionally unstable candidate escalating his rhetoric against those elites in order to construct a defense against his own failures as his campaign falters. But his supporters have long been furious with party leadership, so they are willing consumers of his rage. Coming as it is during the final weeks of a national campaign, Trump’s assault is putting excruciating pressure on fault lines years in the making.

Wolves and Sheep readers know that my Premise A about this political moment is the Republican Party has long been two incompatible parties living under one roof: a traditional conservative party and a radicalized reactionary party. This represents an unhealthy change in the Republican coalition of the Reagan and Bush years because the two groups want opposite things. As a general rule, conservatives wish to preserve while radicals want to destroy. In the current context, Ryan and his caucus would like to preserve their House majority. Trump and his angry followers are more than willing to tear it down.

This portends an all-out party split if the result of the election is total defeat up and down the ballot. But what would such a split look like? The winner-take-all nature of the American electoral system argues against the long-term viability of multiple parties. The Republican Party minus its radical faction would be too small to compete nationally and in many states, while a reactionary party would be even smaller and unable to expand its appeal. A three-party arrangement would cede tremendous political territory to the Democrats and over time would generate intense pressure for reunification. But it would have to be reunification on terms other than what we see today because the two Read More

Dead Man Stalking

posted in: 2016 Election, Debates | 0

If you want to convince voters you are not a sexual predator, there are better ways than spending ninety nationally televised minutes stalking your female opponent around a debate stage. Donald Trump’s body language during Sunday night’s tense, ugly exchange with Hillary Clinton reinforced the disturbing dialogue contained in the Access Hollywood tape leaked last Friday, and, along with attempts to dismiss his references to sexual assault as simple locker room talk, did nothing to reverse the rapid collapse of his support that started over the weekend. By Monday morning, professional athletes who make their offices in locker rooms had taken to Twitter to denounce the candidate and his claims.

With angry facial expressions and the same mysterious, chronic sniffle he had during the first debate, the Republican nominee paced around the town hall stage, following Clinton as she spoke and invading her personal space. His words were as disturbing as his nonverbal communication. He gave voice to every dark conspiracy theory about the Clintons, emptying a sewer of unsubstantiated allegations at his opponent that reached its ugly apex with the chilling promise that once in power he would instruct his attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her and throw her in jail. It was a measure of how threatened Trump feels that he needed to escalate his attacks to this point. And it was a symphony for core supporters who have been hungering for a direct attack like this on the Clintons. Everyone else could be forgiven if they felt they needed a shower.

This assault may have assuaged Trump’s damaged ego but it did nothing to advance his candidacy, which remains in free fall. Hillary tacitly acknowledged as much by largely ignoring her opponents’ tirades and attempting as best as possible to engage those undecided voters who asked a relatively small share of the evening’s questions. By offering Read More

Can the Republican Party Ask Itself to Step Down?

By now you’ve seen the video that’s sending shockwaves through the Trump campaign and the Republican Party. To hear Donald Trump express his entitled belief that his celebrity status permits him to assault women at will shouldn’t be surprising by now. This is who he is. But that doesn’t make it any less nauseating to watch.

In the immediate aftermath of the tape’s release we witnessed a familiar cycle of condemnation from Republicans trying to walk an impossibly fine line between distancing themselves from the candidate’s words and behavior without distancing themselves from the candidate. These are the same Republicans who have drawn the meaningless distinction between not endorsing Trump and still planning to vote for him, the same Republicans who when repeatedly presented with evidence disqualifying their candidate have refused to abandon him out of fear of the wrath of his supporters. How many times have they said the candidate’s words or actions are unacceptable, but not unacceptable enough to put country over party and call for his defeat?

These acts of cowardice are largely responsible for normalizing the candidate’s behavior and preventing him from being held accountable for a campaign built on a foundation of fraud. Only now, when the political cost of being associated with him may finally be too high do we hear rumblings from party leaders considering what might happen should Trump step down from the ticket. These discussions are motivated by fear. It is now harder than ever to hide from the candidate, but to drop him means defying that plurality of the Republican base which carried him to the nomination and who would leave with him in the unlikely event that he were to abandon the race. This is the Republican dilemma in bold relief, the dilemma of a party that radicalized its voters and can neither live with nor without them.

It is an unsustainable situation and tonight we are one step closer to Republicans having to decide whether to sacrifice an election or their longterm viability.

Worth Repeating

posted in: Supreme Court | 0

After failing to prevent Donald Trump from claiming the Republican nomination, party loyalists have tried hard to prop him up while distancing themselves from his words and ideas. That dance has proved difficult, and the decision not to oppose him will have lasting consequences. Now, as Trump’s post-debate behavior threatens to send Republicans running for shelter, I thought it would be worth remembering why so many Republicans have fought hard to advance the candidacy of someone they find abhorrent, and why a Trump defeat will be a watershed event for our politics. The following was originally published in February under the title “The Whole Ballgame.”

News reports had barely confirmed the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that his chamber would neither offer its advice nor consent to any nomination made by President Obama to fill the suddenly vacant Supreme Court seat. The timing of McConnell’s proclamation may have been distasteful, but his effort to get in front of the coming confirmation battle was telling. By staking out an absolutist position – no hearings, no vote, no compromise – he was telegraphing how he cannot afford to have a Democrat make this pick. Court appointments in recent years have been contentious as a matter of course, but this one is different because it could fundamentally alter the structure of political competition, striking a lethal blow to conservative hopes for majority status in a new political alignment.

Not surprisingly, McConnell’s rejectionist approach rapidly became the de facto party position. Republican senators and leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination lined up behind him to demand that the next president appoint Scalia’s replacement because, after all, it’s an election year and we have to wait for the people to speak before the president can act. While the implication that the people didn’t speak three years ago when they elected the current president surely plays well in partisan circles where questions about Obama’s legitimacy are not new, McConnell and company must have realized they were saying these things out loud where everyone could hear them. Why take such an extreme position and risk being painted as obstructionists during an election year when it was possible to sound accommodating, go through the motions of considering the president’s nominee, and then vote no? Because McConnell doesn’t want to personify this fight by placing a potentially sympathetic nominee in the spotlight or lose control of the nomination process by holding unpredictable hearings. Republicans control the senate calendar but that is the only card they hold, and everything is suddenly, unexpectedly on the line.

When movement conservatives were engaged in their decades-long march from obscurity in the 1950s to control of the Republican Party and the country decades later, they learned that if you want to change social conditions you have to control the courts, and if you want to control the courts you have to run the executive branch, where Read More

The Psychological is Political

posted in: 2016 Election, Debates | 0

We are now living in Donald Trump’s psyche and it is a frightening place.

In my late-night reaction to Monday’s debate, I wrote:

It will be interesting to see how Trump deals with the aftermath of being humiliated on such a large stage. His history suggests he will try to strike back angrily to reassert his dominance, potentially compounding the damage he did tonight. As we said yesterday, debates historically do not determine elections. The structure of this contest has been stable and the electorate remains deeply divided. But too many people watched Trump reinforce the doubts they harbor about him for tonight’s fiasco not to move the polls in Clinton’s direction, and for someone who is incapable of losing that will be a heavy burden to bear.

The stress of Monday’s beating caused Trump to unravel as predicted. He initially claimed victory by pointing to Internet polls stuffed by his supporters, but when every scientific survey released mid-week made it clear he had lost ground to Clinton he abandoned his denial and started lashing out. Because there is no model in Trump’s world for losing, and certainly no model for losing to a woman, his words and actions betrayed a desperate attempt to restore equilibrium. The redirected object of his rage was Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe whose weight and ethnicity had been derided years ago by the candidate, as Clinton pointedly noted at the close of Monday’s debate. Trump spent the better part of the week re-litigating his relationship to Machado, culminating in a bizarre Twitter rant in the early hours of Friday morning, where he called Machado disgusting, urged Americans to check out her (nonexistent) sex tape, and accused Clinton—once again cast in the role of “Crooked Hillary”—of helping Machado become an American citizen in order to use her as a debate prop.

Trump’s actions baffled political professionals who accurately regarded them as self-destructive. But it should be clear by now that Trump’s campaign is a deeply personal representation of his inner life. Actions that make little sense in conventional political terms can be understood as gratifying his gaping emotional needs. He is a deeply aggrieved Read More

Well That Was Different

posted in: 2016 Election, Debates | 0

There have been presidential debates in every election since 1976, but there has never been a spectacle like what we saw this evening because we have never seen a candidate as fragile and unprepared as Donald Trump. I said yesterday that the bar for Trump was set so low it was glued to the floor, yet he was unable to surpass it. Trump showed up for an episode of reality TV but what he found was a formidable opponent who came prepared for a job interview in front of one-hundred million people. Set aside for a moment Trump’s word salad answers, turn off the volume and look at body language and facial expressions. Trump was angry and defensive to the point where he couldn’t control his rage. Clinton was poised, practiced and in charge. She looked like a president. He looked petulant. If there had been a mercy rule, this debate would have been called by 10 pm.

We said yesterday that Hillary faced a challenge in debating an unpredictable and unconventional candidate, and I suggested that her best strategy might be to pick at Trump’s ego with calculated putdowns without appearing overbearing. She did that and more, controlling the debate from start to finish and aggressively attacking Trump’s character and accomplishments. We said Trump would have to refrain from being overly aggressive to avoid coming across as hostile, and I expected him to exercise some restraint, at least at first. But he couldn’t control himself. He spent the debate with his face contorted in anger, and he constantly interrupted and lashed out at Clinton. He appeared the bully while Hillary remained calm. To say this will not go over well with the white educated women he needs to win Pennsylvania is a bit of an understatement.

I was surprised by how much this debate resembled the primary debates where Trump avoided policy specifics and self-restraint. Only this time his opponent dominated him, and he reacted by becoming increasingly unhinged. Much can and will be written about the questionable content of many of his answers in contrast to Clinton’s cogent responses, but I think the biggest takeaway will be the contrast between Clinton’s presidential cool and Trump’s disqualifying temperament. It will be interesting to see how Trump deals with the aftermath of being humiliated on such a large stage. His history suggests he will try to strike back angrily to reassert his dominance, potentially compounding the damage he did tonight. As we said yesterday, debates historically do not determine elections. The structure of this contest has been stable and the electorate remains deeply divided. But too many people watched Trump reinforce the doubts they harbor about him for tonight’s fiasco not to move the polls in Clinton’s direction, and for someone who is incapable of losing that will be a heavy burden to bear.

Debate Prep

posted in: 2016 Election, Debates | 0

Here are a few points to help you survive the debate phase of the campaign, which starts Monday and ends October 19:

  • They are not debates: At best they are joint press conferences. At worst they illustrate everything that’s wrong with style-over-substance election coverage. Although the candidates may at times engage one another, nobody is keeping score, and they will talk past each other if that’s what their strategies require. The public gets to see the candidates side by side, which can facilitate useful comparisons, but don’t expect them to stay on topic or answer questions if it doesn’t suit them.
  • Watch for nonverbal communication: Except for those rare viral moments, we won’t remember much of what’s said on the debate stage. But we will internalize how it was communicated, and we may not be fully conscious of our reactions. Clinton is not a natural orator but she can be effective in small group settings, and she will need to have those interpersonal skills working for her. Communicating in an easy, relatable manner is the best way for her to address her significant trust issues and “surpass expectations” with a press corps expecting her to come across as wonkish and aloof. Trump, on the other hand, has a showman’s sense of the moment but lacks self-control. He will certainly be advised to modulate his presentation to look respectable, but he will have to maintain that posture for a very long time.
  • Gender will be an ever-present subtext: As the first female major party nominee, Clinton will be confronting deeply engrained biases about how women communicate strength and competence. She will not have the latitude to go after Donald Trump the way Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden would, will almost certainly have to suffer through commentary about her clothing choices, and may face a replay of the Matt Lauer commander-in-chief interview where she was repeatedly interrupted. At the same time, Trump will have to refrain from being overly aggressive to avoid coming across as hostile. In a 2000 senate debate, Clinton’s male opponent left the podium and walked into her space on the debate stage. She was effectively elected at that point.

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