The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire afin
d'être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.

Posts about politics

The Boy Who Cried Wolf: A Fable

Wolf, wolf! he cried and we all came running because we are good villagers, but there was no wolf. We told him, why did you do that, everyone knows there are no wolves around here. He said, it was there I saw it, but he was lying.

Wolf, wolf! he cried and we all came running because we are good villagers, but the wolf was far away at the other end of the clearing. We asked him why did you do that, everyone knows that the wolves around here are scared of people. He said, it was right here, but he was lying.

Wolf, wolf! he cried and we all came running because we are good villagers, but the wolf was just walking around doing nothing. We told him, why did you do that, everyone knows that wolves are friendly. He said, it ate a sheep, but he was lying.

Wolf, wolf! he cried, and we all went back to work because we are good villagers with jobs to do. Everyone knows that there are no wolves around here, and the wolves around here are scared of people, and wolves are friendly, and he had lied to us three times already.

We went back up to the meadow the next day and the sheep were gone and the wolf had killed and eaten the boy. It was a terrible shame, because everyone knows we are good villagers, and would have come running if he hadn’t lied to us three times. It was all his fault for crying wolf.

Moral: The villagers warned the boy three times that they would not save him from the wolf, but he was too stubborn to listen and run away. It is better to be alive than right.

Repetition is Persuasion

I have a simple new model of how persuasion works. The more you hear a message, the more persuasive you find it. That’s it. That’s the model.

Okay, so it’s not entirely a “new” model. I suspect that many people already believe something like this – in part. They also think that the message itself matters. But what if it doesn’t? The radical claim of this model is that quantity >> quality. Consistency and coherence matter MUCH less than pure repetition. Notably, this theory that repetition is persuasion is inconsistent with the “marketplace of ideas” theory that good ideas tend to triumph over bad. If the bad ideas are repeated more, they will dominate.

The useful takeaway – and I hadn’t appreciated this until I thought it through today – is that how much you hear a message isn’t fixed. It’s something that both you and others can control. And it has some important corollaries:

  1. People are resistant to ideas that are incompatible with their existing beliefs because they don’t hear those ideas often – and they don’t hear those ideas often because they’re incompatible with their existing beliefs.
  2. Forcing or bribing people to listen to a challenging perspective for an extended time is actually effective, because you need repetition.
  3. Going out and repeatedly exposing yourself to a challenging idea can go terribly wrong, because avoiding repetition is our first line of defense against bad ideas. You could end up believing anything.
  4. Algorithmic nudges and filter bubbles have real impacts, because they can result in extended exposure to particular ideas instead of others over time.
  5. The most useful people to persuade are those who don’t already agree with you, but they are also the hardest to get to listen. Most political speech is preaching to the choir.
  6. Preaching to the choir is a central part of politics because it is how you hold a group together: through constant, unceasing yet ever-changing repetition of the same core messages.

Exercise for the reader: if this model of persuasion is true, what would an ideal system of free-speech law look like? Bonus question: what would an ideal system of content moderation look like?

Large Amounts of False News

“How can it be permitted,” the pro-Jacobin Journal des Hommes libres has asked, that even though terror is the order of the day, “–… large amounts of false news circulate from the centre of Paris … and carry uncertainty into the minds of patriots and serenity into the souls of aristocrats?”

–Colin Jones, The Fall of Robespierre 146 (2021)

Scouts Dishonor

In 2017, the Boy Scouts of America invited President Trump to address their Jamboree. It was early enough in his presidency that it was still possible to pretend that he might give a speech appropriate to the occasion. Of course, he did not. Instead, in the course of a typically partisan and petty performance, he got a crowd of tens of thousands of teenagers to boo a former President and a former Secretary of State.

The moment stood out for me as a symbol of the moral rot of American civic institutions. Adults in positions of trust and responsibility invited him to speak and stood by as the entirely predictable consequences unfolded. The BSA later apologized, but in the moment no one told him his speech was unsuitable, or tried to stop him. Everyone there from the BSA leadership either saw nothing wrong or was too timid to do anything about it.

In other news:

More than 82,000 people have come forward with sex-abuse claims against the Boy Scouts of America, describing a decades-long accumulation of assaults at the hands of scout leaders across the nation who had been trusted as role models.

The claims, which lawyers said far eclipsed the number of abuse accusations filed in Catholic Church cases, continued to mount ahead of a Monday deadline established in bankruptcy court in Delaware, where the Boy Scouts had sought refuge this year in a bid to survive the demands for damages.

I have known some outstanding former Scouts. In word and deed they are metaphorical, as well as literal, boy scouts. But the BSA has for decades been profoundly wrong about what values are worth defending. It filed for bankruptcy in February, but the moral bankruptcy happened long ago.

I'm Always Angry

For most of 2016, I lived in a state of growing dread. After the election, I alternated between numbness, depression, and the grim necessity of moving forward. But by now, mostly I am angry.

I am angry about the children in cages torn from their parents.

I am angry that my daughter will not have seen the inside of a classroom for an entire year.

I am angry about the tear gas and the bayonets.

I am angry about losing four years we didn’t have for dealing with climate change.

I am angry about the rampant foreign corruption and the petty domestic venality.

I am angry about the degradation of the Department of Justice into a partisan political tool.

I am angry about the Muslim travel ban, and even angrier that the courts went along with it.

I am angry about the decimation of the civil service.

I am grateful that no ill-advised tweet set off a nuclear war, but I am angry that this is even something I had to worry about.

I am angry about the racism, the sexism, the xenohobia, the casual cruelty.

I am angry about the replacement of civic ritual and civic duty with a personality cult.

I am angry about stolen Supreme Court seats, and a judiciary often unwilling to enforce the Constitution or the laws.

I am angry that the best defense against authoritarianism has been incompetence.

I am angry about Sheriff of Nottingham tax reform that steals from the poor to give to the rich.

I am angry that a man who should be condemning white supremacists and domestic terrorists gives them aid and comfort instead.

I am angry about the constant attempts to take away people’s healthcare, to poison their air and water, to take away their civil rights, their reproductive rights, their right to vote.

I am angry about the constant lies, and about the people who know they are lies but play along anyway.

I am angry about the 227,000 Americans who have died so far from a preventable disease, and I am angrier every day.

I am angry that there is no limit to Donald Trump’s stupidity, his depravity, or his evil—and no limit to what Republican voters, Republican politicians, and Republican media will put up with.

And I am angry about the transparent, blatant attempts to steal this election.

But the thing about anger is that you can channel it, and the things I am angry about are the kinds of thing I can do something about. Not alone, but together with my fellow Americans, because that is what it means to live in a democracy. Election Day is the culmination of years of work, by longtime friends and by people I have met along the way, all working together to fix the things we are angry about, to cut out the rotted flesh and begin to heal the wounds.

On November 3 (or before, for many of us), we vote. And on November 4 (or after, if needed), we stand ready to make sure the results of that vote are followed.

The Canons of Trump

For obvious reasons, I have been following the news, and the news as refracted through social media, very closely since mid-spring. Unavoidably, this has meant that I have been subjected to a much higher than usual dose of Trump nonsense, and nonsense Trump takes. He says and does stupid and terrible things on a near-constant basis, which are then surrounded and amplified by a fog of overinterpretation. There is much less there there than meets the eye.

Over the last four painful years, I have developed some rules of thumb for making sense of Trump news. Most of them are designed to keep me from overthinking things. I offer them up in the spirit of helping us make it to November, and to help in the process of driving Trump and Trumpism from public life.

Trump Speaks Only to His Base

“MAGA loves the black people” is not meant to persuade African-Americans that they should be Trump supporters. It is meant to persuade Trump supporters that they are not racist. The optics of driving off peaceful protesters with tear gas are not bad, in his view, because his supporters want peaceful protesters driven off with tear gas. Suspend all your normal reactions as a citizen or as a human being; they are not a useful guide to how he and his base think. Corollary: when Trump talks about suburbs under siege, remind yourself that this is what people who don’t live in suburbs think people who do are afraid of.

Dominance Politics

Josh Marshall: “[T]he entirety of Trump’s political message is dominance politics. … Trump attacks, others comply and submit.” David Auerbach: “[F]or him, the only acceptable outcome is the one where he wins and you get screwed. … Trump always defects because he wants to maximize how much worse you do than him–not because he wants to maximize his own payoff.” Trump always pushes the button.

The Cruelty Is the Point

Trump’s policies are unnecessarily cruel, not by accident but intentionally. Tearing migrant children from their parents is his signature policy, precisely because it is so terrible. Trump’s natural meanness is a perfect fit for supporters who want their government to violate human rights. (Source: Adam Serwer)

The Stupidity Is Also the Point

Most Americans are not idiots. But most Americans devote very little attention to politics. Nuking hurricanes and injecting bleach are astonishingly terrible ideas. But they sound plausible enough to someone who is barely listening. Trump is an idiot savant of political communication because his limited intelligence matches many people’s limited attention. His inability to formulate complex thoughts comes across as authenticity.

Trump’s Razor

Josh Marshall: “[T]he stupidest possible scenario that can be reconciled with the available facts” is probably correct. Too many examples to list, but nothing tops, “If we stopped testing right now, we’d have very few cases, if any.” Trump doesn’t believe that tests make him look bad by finding cases; he believes that tests make him look bad by causing cases.

Ten Minute Increments

Maggie Haberman: “He will say whatever he has to say to get through ten minute increments of time.” Trump does not think ahead. There is no long-term plan when he speaks. He likes rallies where he can riff and ramble for as long as he likes. He likes friendly interviews. In any other situation, when he is being pressed for any reason, he will say anything that comes to mind that seems like it will make the immediate problem go away. His notorious word salad is one coping mechanism; so is making big but impossibly vague promises.

Trump Is a They, Not an It

Kenneth Shepsle’s “Congress is a ‘They,’ Not an ‘It’” argues that it is a category mistake to attribute intentions to a multi-member body. Legislators voting for a bill may not share the same purpose, or even the same understanding of what it does. Reader, I am here to tell you that the same thing is true of the shambling mess of rage, impulses, and distractions that is Donald Trump. A Trump tweet might reflect his own deliberations, but just as often is something he saw on Fox, or someone said to him on the phone, or something that Dan Scavino wrote.

From God to Fox to Trump

There is a close correlation between whatever is on Fox News and what Trump says and tweets, often in real time. If something seems like a non sequitur, look for a source upstream.

Trump is Chaff

Leon Wolf: “Donald Trump is the political equivalent of chaff, a billion shiny objects all floating through the sky at once, ephemeral, practically without substance, serving almost exclusively to distract from more important things – yet nonetheless completely impossible to ignore.”

Low-Pass Filter

A low-pass filter blocks signals that change quickly, only significant long-term changes get through. This is the opposite of how the press and social media work. Social media amplify things that are already being shared widely right now, and journalists compete online by trying to be first. But most Trump tweets, quotes, and leaks are noise. It’s okay to ignore the latest bit of chaff; anything important enough to pay serious attention to will be repeated, many many times.

Trump Doesn’t Want to Be President, He Wants to Be King

Trump’s vision of leadership isn’t so much authoritarian as medieval. He wants people to bow down and praise his royal splendor, his brilliance, his feats of prowess. He doesn’t have a cabinet or political allies; he has courtiers and nobles. He doesn’t understand or care how bureaucracy works, even when he would be far more effective working through it. His daily routines are straight out of Hilary Mantel’s portrait of Henry VIII.

Toddler in Chief

Daniel Drezner: “I’ll believe that Trump is growing into the presidency when his staff stops talking about him like a toddler.” Drezner (now in book form) gets at two points. First, Trump behaves like an ill-behaved small child: bad temper, poor impulse control, short attention span, demands for praise, constant need to be the center of attention. Second, his staff see their job as nannies.

The White House is a They, not an It

Jay Rosen: “There is no White House. Not in the sense that journalists have always used that term. It’s just Trump— and people who work in the building. That they are reading from the same page cannot be assumed. The words, ‘the White House’ are still in use, but they have no clear referent.” Other administrations worked hard to send a unified message. Not this one. Trump doesn’t even tell his own staff clearly what his policies are, and he frequently changes his mind, so the presumption that a statement from a White House official–even from Trump himself–reflects official policy does not hold.

Working Toward Trump

Historian Ian Kershaw observed that (especially in contrast to the workaholic Stalin) Hitler was just about the last person you would expect to be able to lead a bureaucracy capable of waging a world war and carrying out the mass murder of six million. He was lazy, easily bored, and cultivated administrative chaos. Instead of waiting for clear and specific orders, his supporters “worked toward the Fuhrer”: they tried to anticipate policies he would approve of. (More detail here.)

Dignity Wraiths

Josh Marshall: “Rosenstein’s public reputation, which was formidable, has been destroyed. He now joins a legion of Trump Dignity Wraiths, men and women (though mainly men) of once vaunted reputations or at least public prestige who have been reduced to mere husks of their former selves after crossing the Trump Dignity Loss Event Horizon.” Corollary by Josh Barro: “[Trump] has stripped only the dignity from people who surrendered it willingly.”

To the Cornfield

The Twilight Zone: “They have to think happy thoughts and say happy things because, once displeased, the monster can wish them into a cornfield or change them into a grotesque, walking horror.” Trump takes every revenge he can on those who criticize or undercut him. His underlings live in fear of his displeasure, praise him elaborately in public, and generally abase themselves to avoid being sent to the political cornfield. As a result …

The Republican Party is a Personality Cult

The phrase is Ezra Klein’s, but William Saletan said it first: “Donald Trump is the GOP’s warlord. The Republican Party is officially a failed state.” On the one hand, Trump is the GOP: Never Trumpers and Trump critics have been effectively sidelined and deligitimized as not real Republicans. On the other hand, the GOP is Trump: the official 2020 platform of the Republican Party is, in its entirety, “the President’s America-first agenda.”

Working Toward the Führer

I was inspired by a tweet by @nycsouthpaw to read Ian Kershaw’s well-known essay “Working Toward the Führer”: Reflections on the Nature of the Hitler Dictatorship. I was not disappointed; Kershaw gives a compelling analysis of the internal workings of a particular kind of authoritarian regime. In the interests of space, I will not quote the whole thing, so you will need to read the original for Kershaw’s observations on Stalin, Max Weber, succession planning, and other peripheral topics. But a number of passages about Hitler and how he ruled struck me as quite illuminating.

Kershaw opens by observing how detached Hitler was from the work of running a government:

Hitler’s way of operating was scarcely conducive to ordered government. Increasingly, after the first year or two of the dictatorship, he reverted to a lifestyle recognisable not only in the party leader of the 1920s but even in the description of the habits of the indolent youth in Linz and Vienna recorded by his friend Kubizek. According to the post-war testimony of one of his former adjutants:

Hitler normally appeared shortly before lunch, quickly read through Reich Press Chief Dietrich’s press cuttings, and then went into lunch. … When Hitler stayed at Obersalzberg it was even worse. There, he never left his room before 2.00 p.m. Then, he went to lunch. He spent most afternoons taking a walk, in the evening straight after dinner, there were films. … He disliked the study of documents. I have sometimes secured decisions from him, even ones about important matters, without his ever asking to see the relevant files.

He preferred to act by personal fiat, relying on individuals rather than on institutions:

Hitler seems to have had no deliberate policy of destabilisation, but rather, as a consequence of his non-bureaucratic leadership position and the inbuilt need to protect his deified leadership position by non-association with political infighting and potentially unpopular policies, to have presided over an inexorable erosion of ‘rational’ forms of government. And while the metaphor of ‘feudal anarchy’ might be applied to both systems, it seems more apt as a depiction of the Hitler regime, where bonds of personal loyalty were from the beginning the crucial determinants of power, wholly overriding functional position and status.

The almost inevitable result of this management style was that his administration existed in a perpetual and increasing state of chaos:

I have just used the word ‘system’ of Nazism. But where Soviet communism in the Stalin era, despite the dictator’s brutal detabilisation, remained recognisable as a system of rule, the Hitler regime was inimical to a rational order of government and administration. Its hallmark was systemlessness, administrative and governmental disorder, the erosion of clear patterns of government, however despotic.

This was already plain within Germany in the pre-war years as institutions and structures of government and administration atrophied, were eroded or merely bypassed, and faded into oblivion. It was not simply a matter of the unresolved Party-State dualism. The proliferation of ‘special authorities’ and plenipotentiaries for specific tasks, delegated by the Führer and responsible directly to him, reflected the predatory character and improvised techniques immanent in Nazi domination. Lack of coherent planning related to attainable middle-range goals; absence of any forum for collective decision-making; the arbitrary exercise of power embedded in the ‘leadership principle’ at all levels; the Darwinian principle of unchecked struggle and competition until the winner emerged; and the simplistic belief in the ‘triumph of the will’, whatever the complexities to be overcome: all these reinforced each other and interacted to guarantee a jungle of competing and overlapping agencies of rule.

He was able to be a such a weak head of government because his base of support wasn’t dependent on the quality of his administration:

Since the mid-1920s, ideological orthodoxy was synonymous with adherence to Hitler. ‘For us the Idea is the Führer, and each Party member has only to obey the Führer,’ Hitler allegedly told Otto Strasser in 1930. The build-up of a ‘Führer party’ squeezed heterodox positions onto the sidelines, then out of the party. By the time the regime was established and consolidated, there was no tenable position within Nazism compatible with a fundamental challenge to Hitler. His leadership position, as the font of ideological orthodoxy, the very epitome of Nazism itself, was beyond question within the movement. Opposition to Hitler on fundamentals ruled itself out, even among the highest and mightiest in the party. Invoking the Führer’s name was the pathway to success and advancement. Countering the ideological prerogatives bound up with Hitler’s position was incompatible with clambering up the greasy pole to status and power.

And yet, despite Hitler’s incompetence at pulling the levers of formal governmental power, he was quite successful at getting the state to do the insane things he wanted. Kershaw points to three mechanisms: Hitler was a unifier, an activator, and an enabler. First, he was a symbolic and ideological figurehead for his supporters:

As unifier, the ‘idea’ incorporated in the quasi-deified Führer figure was sufficiently indistinct but dynamic to act as a bond not only for otherwise warring factions of the Nazi Movement but also, until it was too late to extricate themselves from the fateful development, for non-Nazi national-conservative elites in army, economy and state bureaucracy. It also offered the main prop of popular support for the regime (repeatedly giving Hitler a plebiscitary basis for his actions) and a common denominator around which an underlying consensus in Nazi policy could be focused.

Second, he energized them to act out on their own:

As activator, the ‘vision’ embodied by Hitler served as a stimulant to action in the different agencies of the Nazi Movement itself, where pent-up energies and unfulfilled social expectations could be met by activism carried out in Hitler’s name to bring about the aims of Leader and Party. But beyond the movement, it also spurred initiatives within the state bureaucracy, industry and the armed forces, and among the professionals such as teachers, doctors or lawyers where the motif of ‘national redemption’ could offer an open door to the push for realisation of long-cherished ambitions felt to have been held back or damaged by the Weimar ‘system’. In all these ways, the Utopian ‘vision’ bound up with the Führer – undefined and largely undefinable – provided ‘guidelines for action’ which were given concrete meaning and specific content by the voluntary ‘push’ of a wide variety of often competing agencies of the regime.

Third, he used his power to ratify their actions:

Perhaps most important of all, as enabler Hitler’s authority gave implicit backing and sanction to those whose actions, however inhumane, however radical, fell within the general and vague ideological remit of furthering the aims of the Führer. Building a ‘national community’, preparing for the showdown with Bolshevism, purifying the Reich of its political and biological or racial enemies, and removing Jews from Germany, offered free licence to initiatives which, unless inopportune or counter-productive, were more or less guaranteed sanction from above. The collapse in civilised standards which began in the spring of 1933, and the spiralling radicalisation of discrimination and persecution that followed, were not only unobstructed but invariably found legitimation in the highest authority in the land.

The title of the essay comes from a remarkable quote from “the sentiments of a routine speech from a Nazi functionary in 1934”:

Everyone who has the opportunity to observe it knows that the Führer can hardly dictate from above everything which he intends to realise sooner or later. On the now contrary, up till now everyone with a post in the new Germany has worked best when he has, so to speak, worked towards the Führer. Very often and in many spheres it has been the case – in previous years as well – that individuals have simply waited for orders and instructions. Unfortunately, the same will be true in the future; but in fact it is the duty of everybody to try to work towards the Führer along the lines he would wish. Anyone who makes mistakes will notice it soon enough. But anyone who really works towards the Führer along his lines and towards his goal will certainly both now and in the future one day have the finest reward in the form of the sudden legal confirmation of his work.

I found this to be one of the most illuminating things I have ever read on the dynamics of the Trump administration.

The Kill and Eat You Party

I go back to this tweet a lot:

This election is like if your friends pick dinner and 3 vote pizza and 2 vote “kill and eat you”. Even if pizza wins, there’s a big problem.
— Andrew Shvarts (@Shvartacus)
August 9, 2016

Three months later, “kill and eat you” won the 2016 election. Three years on, “kill and eat you” is an established feature of the United States political system. To continue the metaphor:

  • One person wants plain cheese pizza.
  • One person wants vegan fig and mushroom pizza.
  • One person wants to kill and eat you because the talking lizards living under his bed told him that you have delicious space aliens hiding under your skin.
  • One person wants to kill and eat you because anything else would be better than pizza again.
  • One person hasn’t been paying attention, isn’t really hungry, and doesn’t really believe in killing people or talking lizards, but says you have to admit that the talking-lizards guy makes some valid points about the aliens.

Living together in this house is impossible, and yet it goes on. You can’t make the talking-lizards guy move out; he has too many friends. (Even if he did, could you ever really trust your other friend who went along with him?) You can’t move out; you have nowhere else to go. The fact of the matter is, dinner – and your life – depend on the person who knows and cares the least about either.

The model is simple, but it explains much that is maddening about contemporary political life. One substantial segment of the electorate has suffered the political equivalent of a psychotic break; another has not, but cynically accepts that playing along is the best way to achieve its preferred policy goals. Together, they make up the modern Republican Party, and they have discovered that yelling insane things at the top of their lungs is a viable political strategy.

It also highlights the structural factors that make intra-Democratic debates over policy and strategy so deeply frustrating. “Say no to killing and eating people” is a point of undisputed agreement. It is a necessary minimum for coexistence in society. As against a party whose de facto platform includes killing and eating people, it ought to be politically sufficient, and yet it plainly is not.

It matters deeply what kind of pizza we get when the shouting ends and things go back to normal, but there is no assurance that they ever will. Maybe the perfect set of pizza toppings will capture the imagination of the muddled middle – or then again maybe actual pizza toppings are no match for the false promise of fried space alien. Offer to compromise on burgers, or is that just giving up any hope of ever making a majority for pizza rather than being killed and eaten? Start shouting too, or keep trying to be the reasonable one? Maybe there’s a right choice, or maybe there isn’t and all roads lead to ruin.

In conclusion, impeach Donald Trump.

Impeach Donald Trump

I set out to write a longer post, but there is really no need. The readout of President Trump’s July 25 telephone call with Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy shows him committing an obviously impeachable offense. The President of the United States personally asked a foreign nation to investigate a political rival, and he used nearly $400 million in American aid as a bargaining chip. This is corruption of the most basic sort: using his office to serve his personal interests. Nothing more need be said.

I agree that there should be an immediate investigation. But the point of this investigation is not to dig at some further factual questions of what exact words Trump used or what he meant by them. Trump himself has admitted that the conversation happened as described, and thee meaning is the meaning is clear enough. If Trump is too confused to express his demands more clearly, or too amoral to understand why they are so deeply wrong, these facts make him more impeachable, not less. They amount to a defense that he can’t be impeached because he is unfit for office in the first place.

This is not the first obviously impeachable thing that Trump has done. The Mueller report lays out, with painstaking clarity, multiple instances of impeachable obstruction of justice. The only difference is that this new story broke all at once, rather than being dribbled out over the course of years, so that the political shock of seeing everything so clearly in focus landed with full force. The financial self-dealing also probably rises to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors, although the facts there have been a little better obscured. The articles of impeachment should include obstruction of justice, and the financial investigations should continue.

With an urgent official impeachment inquiry underway,, it is time for the House to use all of its powers to compel documents and testimony, and to ask the courts for the most expedited rulings they are capable of giving. The nation has no more important business than this.

This is a moment of clarity. Trump’s conduct here is fundamentally incompatible with democratic self-government. To stand aside – or worse, to defend it – is to give up on the republic. Donald Trump must be impeached, so that the United States can survive.

Optimized for Cults

It occurred to me today, while reading a story about a person targeted by anti-vaccination activists, that her ordeal was very much like that of the Sandy Hook parents targeted by InfoWars, which was very much like … you get the picture.

It’s a commonplace that the Internet is conducive to online mobs: people come together and temporarily find shared purpose swarming a stranger. Each participant individually metes out a small share of what seems like justice, but there are far too many of them, result misery.

But what if that’s not exactly right? Social media can bring millions of people together, but it takes a much smaller group to light the match and fan the flames. If that group has shared values, private networks for coordination and mutual reinforcement, a common vocabulary and rhetorical toolkit, a lot of free time, and an overriding sense of purpose, it will be that much more effective.

In other words, maybe the Internet isn’t optimized for mobs, so much as it’s optimized for cults.

Bleak Reflections

American democracy received a stay of execution on Tuesday. But it is still on death row.

I blame the Framers, although to be fair, they may not have had much choice. The Constitution was designed to protect small (by population) states by giving each state equal representation in the Senate, by feeding the count of Senators into the count of presidential electors, and by insulating the Senate from the ordinary Article V amendment process. These provisions are obviously anti-democratic, but they were also considered a necessary compromise. The Framers saw quite clearly that fewer people would have more political power if they lived in small states. That was the point.

We are accustomed today to think about national politics in terms of political parties, and from that point of view it can seem like the Senate arbitrarily and unfairly favor Republicans. Unfairly, yes, but there is nothing arbitrary about it. Small states are rural states. To the extent that one party is a rural party and the other is an urban party, it will be the rural party that benefits from equal representation in the Senate. This is sectional politics, and it would have been perfectly familiar to any 19th-century politician who witnessed sectional fights over internal improvements and over slavery. The conflict between urban and rural factions is as old as history: just ask the the Romans and the socii.

One aspect of Donald Trump’s political genius is that he intuited, was advised, or stumbled into the realization that the American constitutional system gives an immense structural advantage to the rural party. He has knocked the Republican party off of its traditional ideological axes and remade it as a thoroughly rural party. This was not a large shift: it was already the more rural of the two parties, and has been tipping further in that direction for some time. He just gave it a hard shove.

The white male identity politics that Trump has been stoking are the politics of rural resentment. The unifying theme is a hatred of urban elites. You can call them Democrats, or libtards, or globalists, or Jews. You can see them in the universities, in government bureaucracies, in the professions, or anywhere else that still has its head above water. The policy specifics are less important than the sense of shared identity and commitment. There are an Us and a Them, and They live in the cities – cities that are full of crime, depravity, and brown people.

Trump discovered, quite possibly accidentally, that a rural Republican party can take and hold electoral power even if it represents a minority of the population and receives a minority of votes. 2016 set up the hypothesis, and 2018 confirmed it. Even without the House (where the urban party also is at a structural disadvantage, but less of one), the Presidency plus the Senate is enough to staff the agencies and to stack the courts.

The Republican party has been almost completely purified into the Trumpublican party. Many of the retired or defeated Republican House members were suburban “moderates,” and many of the Republican Senators who would publicly rebuke him (even if they generally voted with him) are now retired or dead. Those who remain are either vocally loyal or have made their peace and will go along with whatever.

Of course Trump is moving immediately to fire Sessions and stop the investigations. He can, and the Senate won’t interfere. He’ll still get his replacement attorney general, his judges, and whatever else he demands. He’ll still get his political cover.

In fact, the lesson of 2018 is probably that the investigations don’t matter politically. It’s hard to imagine what else could now come out that would be enough to sway someone who wasn’t persuaded already. The United States of America now consists of 45% Gryffindor, 35% Death Eaters, and 20% people who are uncertain between the two. There are no more surprises. Even if his aides and family members are tried, convicted, and imprisoned, do you really think that will make the difference politically? Imagine what Fox News, Gateway Pundit, and Infowars will say. Is there anything, anything at all, that would make them turn on him? Can you imagine any cruelty, any mistake, any disaster, or any scandal that they would not ignore, explain away, or lay at the feet of those perfidious Democrats?

The global trend is clearly in the direction of populist right-wing authoritarianism: it’s visible on every continent and in every major election. Trump himself was a fluke: he accelerated what was already coming. And he was so extreme, so corrupt, so heartless, that there was at least the possibility that he would trigger a backlash that would discredit the reactionary movement in the United States for a political generation. But it didn’t happen in the primaries, it didn’t happen in the general election in 2016, and it didn’t happen in 2018, either. It’s not going to happen, not in the way we need. It is easily possible to imagine that Trump will lose the 2020 election. It is inconceivable that Trumpism will be put back in the bottle.

Emotional Mobilization, or Old Man Yells at Death of Reason

One thing that’s been especially exhausting for me over the last two years is the increasingly unshakeable sense that the basic architecture of personal participation in democratic self-government is broken beyond repair.

By this, I don’t mean that government has been captured by a powerful and wealthy elite that shuts everyone else out: it has, but only at times and only in part. I don’t mean that people with bad values are in power and pursuing bad policies: they are, but throughout history they often have been. And I don’t mean that the people in power are threatening to destroy basic democratic institutions: they are, but even if formal institutions like voting rights, an independent judiciary, and anti-corruption laws were in perfect shape, there would still be a much deeper rot.

Instead, I mean that “democracy” assumes and depends on a set of stories about how individuals do and say things that collectively determine what government does. These stories involve words like “debate,” “public opinion,” “influence,” “deliberation,” “activism,” “demonstrate,” “support,” and so on. There are lot of variations, of great interest to political theorists and no much interest to anyone else, but the basic thrust of them all is more or less the same. People think and talk about values, government, and the world; they try to persuade each other and government officials; they vote to support the policies they believe in. There is a crucial link in there from words to action: people figure out what they want from government, which then translates (however imperfectly) into government action.

This older and dying narrative of political participation asked people to speak thoughtfully, act deliberately but with conviction, and to practice in their daily lives the values they wanted their government and society to embody. This is a sustainable way of living politically; politics is a source of social sustenance. The exact mechanisms by which this authentic mode of living reasonably translated into political impact were always a little bit tenuous, but it was clear enough they existed. The foundation of collective self-government was individual civic virtue.

Now, unfortunately, it is increasingly obvious that this style of personal engagement with politics simply doesn’t work at all. The mass media won’t cover it (not when there’s another Trump tweet to write about it), and it won’t go viral on social media. It might be personally enjoyable, but it is essentially ritualized play, rather than a form of actual politics.

Instead, the mechanism of control over government is no longer reasoned persuasion but emotional mobilization. This is partly a function of living in a partisan age: Trump may have revealed that base-activation is the dominant electoral strategy. But I’m becoming convinced that it’s even more a function of living in a social-media age. The way to build mass political power is to get something emotionally powerful and politically activating go viral among people who agree with you.

Again, this may seem like a rant against polarization. But this rant, at least, is not. The important phrase in that sentence is not “among people who agree with you”; it is “emotionally powerful.” Effective political participation requires sustained collective emotional commitment to a cause much more than it requires sustained collective reasoned commitment.

To be sure, my Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled, morning to night, with reasons to oppose the Trump administration’s policies and to mobilize against them. And the reasons are usually excellent ones. But the reasons are just the popsicle sticks: the supporting armatures for the emotional payload that does the real work.

Because the thing about emotional mobilization is that it works. The left wins when it mobilizes on the basis of mass outrage: against the travel ban, against taking away people’s healthcare, or now against tearing children from their parents. These are awful policies and the mobilization against them is effective in blunting them and laying a foundation to win enough votes to fix them for real.

But this new mode of political engagement is profoundly exhausting. Keeping up with the news requires struggling through a firehose of attempts to activate your passions. They’re pretty effective attempts, too, since the people making them share your values, goals, and premises. They know how to hit you where it hurts, and you count on them to. People who you disagree with are activating too. Deliberately or not, they make you mad at their stupidity and immorality – and the people who agree with you are great at digging up and highlighting the things most likely to make you mad.

Add another emotion: guilt. Every encounter with politics on social media makes me feel guilty if I sit it out: I’m not helping with a worthy cause. It makes me feel guilty if I join in: I’m degrading public discourse. And don’t even get me started on trying to post with nuance: I couldn’t tell you how often I’ve deleted a post because I expected to be yelled at or because I didn’t want to distract from useful yelling.

We are living in a crisis. Hugely consequential things are being fought over and settled daily. The most important election of anyone’s lifetime is probably the one coming up in November. This is the time to act; this is the time when it matters most. But it has never hurt like this.

The usual cliche about politics is that it compromises your values: you have to do bad things in the service of a greater good. Ordinary citizen politics now increasingly requires a different kind of compromise: you have to live an unvirtuous life in the service of a greater good.

I don’t think this can go on for very long. And I fear it will not.

Ideologues and Grifters, Douchebags and Snowflakes: A Theory of the Trump Administration

I’ve read a lot of confused takes trying trying to make sense of the Trump administration through a traditional left-right lens. I’m sure you have, too. They use words like “pivot” and “establishment” and they struggle to explain when and why Trump does things other Republicans complain about. I find this particular style of Kremlinology unhelpful. Whether “conservatives” or “moderates” are winning is less than half the story.

The biggest division in the Trump White House is between ideologues and grifters. Ideologues care about policy; grifters don’t. Ideologues sometimes fight viciously among themselves over their policy commitments, but they’re united by having commitments at all. Grifters are driven only by the enrichment of the Trump family and the appeasement of Trump’s ego.

Within the ideologue camp, the starkest contrast is between ethno-nationalists (economically populist, isolationist, and sometimes overtly racist) and globalists (economically libertarian, cosmopolitan, and not necessarily racist). There are also disagreements about military policy, but the overall distance between hawks and doves is much narrower.1 There are no analogous divisions within the grifter camp; any side cons they have going are small and personal. The grifters, as I said, are unconcerned with policy for its own sake, but are happy to go along with whatever position is more expedient at the moment.

The other deep division is a matter of style rather than substance: there are douchebags and there are snowflakes , with drones somewhere in between. The key here is shame: the douchebags are psychologically incapable of feeling it, the snowflakes struggle with it constantly, and the drones keep it at bay by crossing their arms and scowling at the floor. Douchebags call up reporters for lengthy profanity-laden tirades; snowflakes call up reporters to say how embarrassed they are; drones call up reporters but ask not to be quoted by name. Douchebags don’t quit because they can’t take a hint; snowflakes constantly wring their hands about quitting but never go through with it; drones quit when asked but never on their own. Douchebags make Trump angry by stealing his headlines; snowflakes by public signs of disloyalty; drones by telling him ‘no’.

Within the Republican party over the last two decades, there has been a rough correlation between ethno-nationalist ideologues and douchebags on the one hand (“conservatives”) and globalist ideologues and drones on the other (“moderates”). But this alignment of substance and style has always only been rough and partial, and one of the things that Trump did during the campaign was to expose, in literally spectacular fashion, how hard it is to pin down a grifter on the conventional political spectrum.

Trump himself is a douchebag grifter, and at the extreme on both axes. But consider some of the other players, past and present, in his administration:

  • Steve Bannon: douchebag ideologue, subtype ethno-nationalist
  • Sebastian Gorka: douchebag ideologue, subtype ethno-nationalist
  • Reince Priebus: snowflake ideologue, subtype globalist
  • Jared Kushner: snowflake grifter
  • Gary Cohn: snowflake ideologue, subtype globalist
  • Anthony Scaramucci: douchebag grifter
  • John Kelly: drone ideologue, subtype hawk
  • Jeff Sessions: drone ideologue, subtype ethno-nationalist
  • Mike Pence: drone ideologue, subtype globalist
  • Michael Flynn: drone grifter

With this multi-dimensional taxonomy in mind, some of administration’s personnel gyrations make more sense. Consider the linked fates of Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus. In January and February they were at each other’s throats, fighting over policy. But by July, as ideologues working for a grifter increasingly hostile to ideologues, they found common cause in fighting for policy at all. Priebus, of course, went out on his ear – but that was primarily for being a snowflake in a position where Trump wanted a douchebag. He got one par excellence in the person of Anthony Scaramucci. Then Scarmucci flew too close to the douchebag sun, so he was one of the first go when Kelly started firing douchebags of all stripes.

In conventional political terms, it looks as though the White House lurched away from Priebus’s pro-business Republican establishment towards Bannon’s insurgent right-wing populism, and then quickly back. Those shifts are to some extent real – a collateral consequence of Kelly’s housecleaning is that the globalist ideologues have (or perhaps had) an open shot on goal in getting Trump to push their tax agenda. But it would be a mistake to see the back-and-forth primarily in those terms, not when so often the motivations are personal rather than political, driven entirely by personalities and rhetoric.

At least when it comes to setting policy, the palace politics of the Trump court are less important than they seem. Trump may swagger and rage like a medieval monarch, but unlike them he lives in a modern media environment. His ministers can keep the courtiers out of the throne room, but they can’t keep the king from seeking the counsel of Vulpes et amici or from listening to the tweeting of a million birds in his ear. The flow of information – both the raw “facts” and the all-important framing – to the current president depends less on White House staff filters than at any time in living memory. James Murdoch’s personnel decisions matter in a way that John Kelly’s don’t: more turns on whether Hannity keeps his job than on whether Bannon does.

The place in which it matters more who survives each successive purge is not in who has Trump’s ear at the moment but in who is there to take orders from him. The Office of Legal Counsel is of the view that the President could scrawl a legally binding executive order on a napkin, but Trump’s tweets are deeply underspecified. Someone has to translate them into directives specific enough to implement on the ground and defend before a judge. When that someone is a Steve Bannon, you get the first Muslim ban: malevolence tempered by incompetence. When that someone is a James Mattis, you get the transgender ban: malevolence subjected to a slow rollout. When that someone is a Leonard Leo, you get Neil Gorsuch.

This is why the current apparent depopulation of the White House staff is significant: Trump’s capacity to execute is dependent on having the cadres to embrace his vision, such as it is, and carry it into effect. One reason the “Reagan revolution” deserves the name is that it swept into Washington a large and ideologically coherent cohort of conservative officials and bureaucratic professionals capable of leaving their stamp on every significant government program. To the extent that anything like this is happening under Trump, it’s a bumper crop of grifters and douchebags with an ethno-nationalist streak – and there are only enough of them to destroy existing programs, rather than to create enduring alternatives. This is the future of your Republican Party, ladies and gentlemen.

Except for this: shift your attention from the White House to the agencies and things look rather different (with the notable exception of the State Department under the singularly ineffective Tillerson). The left may mock and disparage, but the reaction from every conservative I’ve talked to has been consistent: Trump’s cabinet is a conservative dream team, and they’re moving quickly and confidently across a wide range of issues. Perhaps simply because Trump has neither a personal financial stake in nor any actual knowledge about most of what the agencies do, he’s been content to leave things up to a crop of appointees who are mostly ideologues and mostly drones.

The current status of the Trump administration, then, might be described as an administrative inversion. The White House, ordinarily the center of policy direction, is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and dignity wraiths die like dogs. The real action is in the agencies. Trump, in this view of things, functions primarily as an electoral rocket car: destructive and uncontrollable, but at least capable of getting things moving. Some Republicans are sticking with Trump because of his style rather than in spite of it – better a right-wing douchebag than a left-wing snowflake – but even those driven by ideology still have something to like. Trump himself may be less than worthless in pushing the policies they care about, and his White House may be a badly-written daytime drama, but as long as he can sign bills and judicial commissions, he’s better than any available alternative. 2

There are ways this alliance of convenience could fall apart, but they are less direct than, “Trump says something else utterly indefensible,” or “The White House staff keep on murdering each other with pickaxes.” These are daily occurrences now, and they are not really news when they happen. Anyone who is ever going to have an experience of total moral clarity about Donald Trump has already had theirs by now. One possibility is that high-profile failures of the conservative agenda in Congress undercut the hope that legislative (as opposed to merely administrative) success is possible under Trump. Another is that Trump’s own appetite for drama and domination – something that is both innate in his personality and strongly encouraged by his preferred media diet – causes him to act out in ways that sabotage the political prospects of his supposed allies and the policies they care about. This is what it takes to get Congressional Republicans upset. Better to have the douchebag grifter inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in, they reasoned during the election, but now here he is in office, inside the tent and still pissing inside it. It’s enough to make a drone ideologue go full snowflake.

The reason is that Trump’s path to power as a Republican outsider effectively fenced out both Give Peace a Chance leftists and Carthago Delenda Est neoconservatives of the second Bush administration – that is, anyone committed to significant and sustained departures from the status quo. Trump himself defines both ends of his administration’s military Overton window: tough-talking swagger and fear of getting blamed if something big goes wrong. ↩︎

Mike Pence is technically unavailable, even though he’s next in the line of succession. The only plausible way to remove Trump without party-destroying revenge would be a massive stroke – or something else disabling his ability to yell and tweet. ↩︎

The Impeachment Red Line

If President Trump tries to stop the Russia probe by firing Robert Muller or by issuing pardons, the House must impeach him and the Senate must remove him from office.

This is not complicated. It does not matter what happened in the past. A President who uses his powers this way cannot be trusted in the future.

The message that shutting down such an investigation sends to people around the president – his family, his business associate, his staffers – is that they can act with absolute impunity because he will protect them absolutely. Even if there was no collusion with a foreign power, no bribery, no shakedowns, no hacking, no corruption, and no obstruction of justice, there will be. A pardon pen that has been used once can be used again. Everyone knows that if the investigations start up again they will be shut down again, and some of them will act accordingly.

An executive branch whose members know they operate completely outside the law is not a presidency; it is a dictatorship. A presidential guarantee of immunity for political and personal crimes is completely incompatible with American democracy.

Republicans cannot indulge in waffling about whether their policy agenda is worth it. No policy agenda is, because sustained executive lawlessness destroys the structure that makes any policy agenda possible. And Democrats cannot indulge in waffling about whether a President Pence (or President Ryan, etc.) would be better or worse. Any President who respects the rule of law and lets investigations run their course would be better.

This is fundamental to the American political system, and it does not depend on whether you think Muller’s investigation has found anything criminal or is likely to. It is about having a President who can do the most basic thing the Constitution requires of him: “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

Douglas Adams on Contemporary Politics

Rain type 17 was a dirty blatter battering against his windscreen so hard that it didn’t make much odds whether he had his wipers on or off.

He tested this theory by turning them off briefly, but as it turned out the visibility did get quite a lot worse. It just failed to get better again when he turned them back on.

–Douglas Adams, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

Anti-Authoritarian Book Club: Twitter and Tear Gas

Amazon recommends that customers who buy Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest also buy a two-factor authentication hardware security key. It’s a fitting connection: anyone serious about activist organizing in today’s pervasively networked world should probably have both. The security key is to keep the government from hacking your email and Face accounts; the book is to tell you how to use them effectively. Twitter and Tear Gas is an academic book, not an on-the-ground organizing guide like Indivisible. But it provides the best framework I’ve seen for thinking about how the Internet changes the dynamics of protest movements.

The short version of Tufekci’s argument is that social media provide powerful ways for activists to organize and to get their messages out, but that the types of activism have their own drawbacks. Ad hoc movements can assemble quickly, both in physical space (Gezi Park) and online (#BlackLivesMatter), and they can deploy powerful viral messages (the Battle of the Camel). This helps them leapfrog over repression, interia, and mass media censorship – but also over much of the institution-building work that allows protest movements to enforce message discipline, switch up their tactics, and lever their momentum into other realms. Their heavy use of platform-based social media also leaves them vulnerable to algorithmic fragmentation, pervasive surveillance, and disinformation campaigns.

None of this is to say that activists should turn their backs on networked protest. Instead, just like police pressure, counter-protests, mass-media indifference, and all of the other familiar challenges protests face, these new characteristics of networked protest are simply part of the landscape protesters have to work with. To be an activist today is to worry about these things, and sometimes to find ways to do something about them.

I could summarize the argument in slightly greater detail, but to be honest, Tufekci’s introduction and epilogue do a better job than I could, and if you want anything longer than that, you should just read the book. Instead, I want to pull out a few ideas and assertions that brought me up short. They’re not the only insights in the book by any means; they’re just the ones I found especially powerful.

  • Social media is not itself the cause of protests or even just a tool; it is a pervasive fact of modern life. Tunisia, Facebook allowed protests that would have taken place anyway to go viral, and enabling them to serve as a focal point for widespread dissatisfaction with the Ben Ali regime. Activists were ready and able to amplify the images of protest and crackdown on social media, which also made it possible for Al Jazeera to broadcast them, and with that, the regime’s control over information collapsed and with it the regime. (This isn’t a new story. The key difference between Jan Hus and Martin Luther was the printing press.)

  • Leaderless networked ad-hoc organizations can adapt very quickly to get necessary things done, whether it’s recruiting new participants through existing social networks, cleaning up their spaces, or obtaining the necessary supplies to run field hospitals. But they have trouble coordinating changes in their tactics, interfacing with more tightly-coupled institutions (both on their own side and on the other), and even in making basic local decisions like who will speak at an assembly. This results in what Tufekci calls “tactical freeze”: they can do the thing that brought them together very well and at scale, but they don’t learn new tricks.

  • Relatedly, the process of organizing builds “network internalities.” These are the social bonds, group wisdom, and organizational structure that protests groups build up by solving logistical challenges. It’s convenient not to have to print up detailed flyers telling rally participants exactly what bus to arrive on and where to march as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’s organizers did, and makes it easier to put on a protest. But precisely because Bayard Rustin and his colleagues had built up an organization capable of doing that, the civil rights movement had an immense advantage in its ability to harness the momentum from the March and to shift its tactics in the face of resistance.

  • Big protests rarely do anything by themselves. They matter because they signal that the social movement behind them is capable of more: it has the capacity to shape public narratives, to disrupt the smooth functioning of the establishment, and to swing elections. Officials aren’t afraid of protests; they’re afraid of losing control of the narrative, the streets, and the electorate. Big turnout is a signal, but it’s a cheaper signal than it used to be. (So is calling your Senator or filing an FCC comment.) The Tea Party was effective at turning its protest energy to electoral power. So far the jury is out on how effective the various anti-Trump protests will be at making this transition. (Tufekci is skeptical: she observes on Twitter that the Tea Party was well-funded and that so far major Democratic donors have not been opening their checkbooks to support grassroots electorally focused organizing.)

  • Platforms are complicated. Algorithmic filtering, real-name rules, anti-abuse policies, and hate-speech rules all have context-specific effects on the ground – ones that thinly-staffed social media platforms rarely understand well outside of the U.S. Any policy directed at users creates an opportunity for censorship by political opponents: report their accounts for having fake names, or for spamming, or for hate speech, or for copyright infringement, and the platform will spring into action on your behalf. But the failure to deal with abuse also leaves activists vulnerable. A coordinated assault from Twitter eggs can leave a victim unable to use Twitter for anything but impersonal broadcast.

  • Censorship is denial of attention. Anything that keeps the people who could be affected by a message from paying attention to it is effective as censorship. That includes preventing speech from happening, filtering it out from the media, persuading people to ignore it (e.g. by demonizing the media that carry it, as the AKP did in Turkey with Twitter), burying it in haystacks of distracting competing messages (some would say this is the normal condition of modern life), or by sowing enough doubt and confusion that people aren’t sure what to believe (Hi, Vladimir!). This is a listener-focused theory of censorship, and I find it more helpful than traditional speaker-focused theories for understanding the last year in political media.

  • Authoritarians survive by thwarting collective action. It’s sufficient for them to preserve the status quo against bottom-up attempts to change it. Leaving people uncertain of what to trust and skeptical about everything is a common authoritarian media strategy: they even don’t need to suppress dissenting messages or get their own messages out if they can leave people with a feeling of paranoia and confused helplessness toward the media. This can come from attacks on the media, from the spread of disinformation, and from creating conditions of general chaos in which people don’t know what to believe. Sometimes these can be emergent features of contemporary media, but often they are deliberately cultivated. (I will say this for filter bubbles: at least their positive feedback can be good for producing coherent shared beliefs and goals.)

Read Twitter and Tear Gas and think about it. Highly recommended.

Bubble Work

Suppose that most people live in partisan informational bubbles. Without more, what can we say about effective political tactics? I can think of four types of things to do:

  1. Mobilize your own bubble to turn out politically. You already know the kinds of arguments that will work, and making them to people generally disposed to agree will be satisfying. So this is easy and sustainable, but that also means everybody is already doing it. Maybe there will be an occasional shift in media or a new tactic that will provide a temporary boost, but for the most part this is a Red Queen’s race. Mobilization is the price of admission; if you don’t, your bubble isn’t competitive.

  2. Direct your own bubble along a better or more effective path. You already know the kinds of arguments that tend to work, which makes this almost as straightforward as mobilization. Having these kinds of debates helps you and your bubble figure out what you stand for, which is satisfying, but since you’re pushing people to change their views, there will be some resistance, which can get frustrating. In the worst case, the bubble’s self-defense mechanisms will kick in and treat these attempts as alien infection, sometimes resulting in fission into sub-bubbles. Direction is also necessary, both to develop new arguments for acquiring political power and to use it effectively once acquired.

  3. Expand your bubble by persuading people to join it. The problem here is that anyone you’re trying to recruit, except for the young, is probably already part of a bubble. So proselytizing effectively requires building a smooth onramp from their bubble to yours. That’s hard. First, the arguments that are persuasive within your own bubble are typically not as persuasive outside of it, so you need to step outside yours to learn how the other bubble thinks and talks. Second, you risk activating the other bubble’s self-defense mechanisms: who is this outsider coming in and telling us what to do? And third, you risk activating your own bubble’s self-defense mechanisms: so-and-so says she’s trying to make them more like us, but what if she’s really trying to make us more like them? So this work can have big payoffs, but it can be unpleasant and personally dangerous.

  4. Disrupt an enemy bubble by demoralizing it (the opposite of mobilization) or pushing it to make it less effective (the opposite of direction). As with expansion, this requires speaking the other bubble’s dialect – but passing for a local well enough to avoid triggering the bubble’s self-defense mechanisms requires fluency, not just proficiency. (Even harder!) On the other hand, this operational need for secrecy also reduces the risks from your own bubble; no one needs to know where you’re spending your time. So while this kind of work may be hard, in some ways it can be less personally frustrating than expansion. Disruption is never necessary, but it can be alarmingly powerful when done well.

Broadly speaking, these four types of bubble work will appeal to different personality types. Mobilization produces feelings of solidarity and belonging; direction brings the satisfaction of being right. Expansion takes empathy and patience; disruption takes a special kind of cynicism.

The application of these categories to recent political news is left as an exercise for the reader. The development of an optimal strategy is an unsolved research problem.

I’m sure there are problems with this taxonomy. But it seems to me that if you think bubbles are real (which certainly is the conventional wisdom) and you want your own bubble to win (and who doesn’t?), it’s a mistake not to be thinking about them in adversarial terms. After all, those bastards in the other bubbles will be.

I'm Donald Trump, I Am

There’s an interesting – and amusing – parallel between Donald Trump and Henry VIII. From @KngHenryVIII:

There are some feelings that are useful to the true leader. Things like confidence, aggression, and volatility. If you ever even once have felt emotions such as regret, guilt, or embarrassment, that’s God’s sweet and gentle way of letting you know you’re a peasant. Look, if I felt regret could I have married Jane Seymour 10 days after having Anne Boleyn beheaded? Could Donald Trump today ask for the support of black voters after spending months upon months energetically seeking the support of semi-literate racists? Of course not. Let me put it this way, you know that feeling of anxiety and fearful remorse that can steal over you in the darkest hours of the night? I don’t have that. Neither does Trump.

From Tom Slee:

So when I see people saying that Trump understands them (the Canadian government, the technology leaders who paid court), that – in the words of the tech leaders – they will set him straight if he goes off-course, I think: you have no idea how this works. Of course he and his crew will flatter you, tell you how brilliant you are, how much he admires you. Until he doesn’t. Until he decides that you have disappointed him. And then you will hear about it second hand, or maybe through Twitter. You’re out, and the axe will fall, and you’re not so special after all.“

A few quick observations:

  1. History is full of fickle kings, emperors, and tyrants who didn’t have “that feeling of anxiety and fearful remorse.” Henry just happens to be more famous.
  2. Courtiers have always known that their position is precarious and that favor is fleeting.
  3. Courtiers have always also known how to project confidence even when they don’t feel it.
  4. For good or for bad, Henry did an extraordinary amount as king. He fundamentally reoriented English Christianity. Sure, it was mostly so that he could remarry and raise money, but he got a lot done.
  5. Some of the ministers who rose in his favor were remarkably successful at pushing through ambitious administrative agendas before they fell from it. Yes, it ended badly for them, but they were also right about their ability to steer him for a while.
  6. Under Henry, England fought some exceptionally pointless wars.

Be Prepared: Protecting Your Digital Privacy Before Trump Takes Office

I’ve been posting a daily series of step for my Facebook friends to secure their digital lives before Trump takes office. The idea is that each step is specific, concrete, actionable, and small: something you really can do in a day. By the time Trump is sworn in, you’ll be reasonably secure against a lot of threats, public and private. I’ll update this post with links as I add new entries.

General Resources:

The Nation Learns to Move On

I have been thinking about presidential elections and presidential succession, and about the adage that the United States has had the longest uninterrupted history of peaceful transitions of power in the world. What does it take to lay down a track record like that? A lot of choices by a lot of people.

  • The election of 1788 was the first under the new Constitution, immediately after the Articles of Confederation had failed badly. The Constitution created a much stronger executive; George Washington had a lot of freedom to decide what the presidency would look like in practice. He chose to limit his own power. He didn’t have to.
  • The election of 1796 was the first orderly succession from one president to the next. Washington chose to retire. He didn’t have to. It was also the first seriously contested partisan presidential election. Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans accepted the results. They didn’t have to.
  • The election of 1800 was the first orderly succession from one party to another. John Adams and the Federalists had tried to suppress the Democratic-Republican press while in office, and the lame-duck Adams administration tried to stuff the federal judiciary with the “midnight judges,” touching off the near constitutional crisis of Marbury v. Madison. But they accepted the results and Adams left office without a fight. He didn’t have to. The election of 1800 was also by far the most closely contested election to date: the Electoral College vote was a tie, and the House of Representatives required thirty-six ballots over seven days to settle on Jefferson instead of his nominal running mate, Aaron Burr. While serving as vice-president, Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel; he was charged with murder but never tried. I’m not sure whether letting Burr walk counts as a contribution to or against governmental stability.
  • The election of 1804 was not itself closely contested or controversial. But the Democratic-Republicans used the election to replace Burr with George Clinton as vice-president. After the election, Burr traveled and schemed extensively in the West, was tried for treason and acquitted, and lived in exile for several years. Both Burr and Jefferson accepted an outcome that must have satisfied neither.
  • The election of 1808 made a genuine precedent out of Washington’s choice to limit himself to two terms. Thomas Jefferson chose to retire. He didn’t have to.
  • The election of 1812 took place during the War of 1812. James Madison went ahead with the election during wartime. He didn’t have to.
  • The election of 1824 was the the first election in which the winner of a clear plurality of the popular vote and of the electoral vote was not elected president. The Twelfth Amendment (which had been enacted to prevent messes like the one of 1800 and only partially succeeded) sent the election to the House, which chose John Quincy Adams. Andrew Jackson’s supporters denounced the “corrupt bargain,” but Jackson accepted the outcome. He didn’t have to.
  • The election of 1840 itself was not a crisis, but it created one when William Henry Harrison died barely a month after taking office. The rest of the government accepted that John Tyler would be the president, rather “Vice President acting as President.” It didn’t have to. Then Tyler provoked his own crisis by vetoing legislation to create a national bank. His cabinet resigned in an unsuccessful attempt to force his own resignation, and the Whigs expelled him from the party. But they didn’t try to push the issue further. They could have.
  • The election of 1852 featured a candidate who was an active-duty general. Winfield Scott was Commanding General of the United States Army when he ran as a Whig. He didn’t order soldiers to put him in office after his defeat. He could have.
  • The election of 1860 is the exception that proves the rule. After Abraham Lincoln’s victory, the southern states refused to accept the legitimacy of his presidency and seceded from the union. It took the Civil War to settle that Lincoln really was the president of all of the United States.
  • The election of 1864 featured a candidate who was an active-duty general during a major war. George McClellan resigned his commission on Election Day and then accepted his loss to Lincoln. He didn’t have to. Andrew Johnson, who became president after Lincoln’s assassination, so thoroughly botched and obstructed Reconstruction that the House impeached him. He was acquitted in the Senate by one vote. Although he was Commander-in-Chief, he didn’t call in the Army to take his side and keep him in power. He could have.
  • The election of 1868 took place without Texas, Mississippi, and Virginia: the former Confederate states had not yet been readmitted to the union. They could perhaps have resisted the results, but military occupation would have made that difficult.
  • In the election of 1872, the runner-up, Horace Greeley, died after the popular vote but before the electoral vote. Greeley’s electors split among four living candidates, plus Greeley himself. He hadn’t received even close to a majority, so no one raised much of a stink. In theory, someone could have.
  • The election of 1876 was either stolen or sold. Democrat Samuel J. Tilden won a outright majority of the popular vote and perhaps a majority of the electoral vote. But in three states, claims of fraud and violent intimidation put the states’ electoral votes in doubt, and in a fourth, there was a dispute over an elector’s eligibility. Congress appointed an electoral commission, which voted 8-7 to give the disputed electoral votes to the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. Despite referring to him as “Rutherfraud” and “His Fraudulency,” Democrats accepted the outcome thanks to a back-room deal in which the Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction. They didn’t have to.
  • In the election of 1888, Grover Cleveland won a plurality of the popular vote but lost to Benjamin Harrison in the electoral college. Cleveland, the incumbent, accepted his defeat and left office. He didn’t have to.
  • In the election of 1912, the Republican incumbent William Howard Taft and the former Republican ex-president Theodore Roosevelt together took over half of the popular vote, but thereby handed Woodrow Wilson the electoral college victory by splitting the vote. Taft and Roosevelt accepted their (loosely defined) party’s defeat. They didn’t have to.
  • In the election of 1940, Franklin Delano Roosevelt broke Washington’s precedent by being elected to a third term. His popularity kept anyone from making too big a deal of it.
  • In the election of 1944, Roosevelt broke the precedent even further by being elected to a fourth term. His popularity, during a major world war, kept anyone from making too big a deal of it.
  • In the election of 1960 there were allegations of significant voting fraud in Illinois and Texas. John F. Kennedy won both, and with them the election, but if Richard Nixon had won them both, he would just barely have eked out an electoral college victory. Although Republicans unsuccessfully tried to challenge some of the counts, Nixon made and kept a promise to accept Kennedy’s election. He didn’t have to.
  • In the election of 1972, Nixon won handily. But less than two years later, he resigned in the face of an impending impeachment when his administration’s attempt to manipulate the election – and then cover up its tracks – came to light in the Watergate scandal. (This is not the place to discuss all of the constitutional crises Nixon created while in office and being driven from it; my focus here is only on presidential succession.) Gerald Ford, who Nixon had appointed to replace Spiro Agnew (after Agnew’s own resignation in the face of tax evasion and bribery charges), pardoned Nixon a month after taking office – leading to claims of a new corrupt bargain. Prosecutors treated the pardon as conclusive. They didn’t have to.
  • The election of 1984 was a landslide victory for Ronald Reagan. But during his second term, senior members of the administration sold arms to Iran and used the proceeds to fund the Nicaraguan Contras; both halves of the scheme were illegal. Reagan’s own involvement was a major question in the ensuing investigations, which continued into the presidency of Reagan’s vice-president, George H.W. Bush – and Bush’s own diaries were sought as evidence. Bush brought the investigations to a close in 1992 by issuing presidential pardons. As with Ford’s pardon of Nixon, this was the end of things. It didn’t have to be – and Reagan and Bush didn’t have to let it run that long.
  • The election of 1992 was a walk-off victory for Bill Clinton. But in 1994, Robert Fiske was appointed as a special prosecutor to investigate the death of Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster and whether Clinton’s administration had interfered with an investigation into the failure of a bank connected to Clinton’s earlier Whitewater real estate investments. Fiske’s interim report found no wrongdoing, but the D.C. Circuit replaced him with Kenneth Starr as independent counsel. The Starr investigation expanded to cover other matters, and concluded that Clinton lied under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Clinton was impeached by the House on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, but acquitted by the Senate. As with the Burr treason trial and the Johnson impeachment, both sides allowed the process to play out and lived with the outcome. They didn’t have to.
  • The election of 2000 was decided by the Supreme Court. Al Gore won a plurality of the popular vote, but George W. Bush at first appeared to have won a majority of electoral votes. Gore called Bush to congratulate him on election night – and then called back to retract his concession when it appeared that Florida, which held the decisive electoral votes, was becoming too close to call again. Bush’s narrow margin of victory in Florida triggered a recount of the tabulation, followed by litigation over whether and how to conduct a full manual recount. The Florida Supreme Court ordered a recount by a vote of 4-3; the Supreme Court then halted the recount by a vote of 5-4, leaving Bush with a margin of 537 votes in Florida and with it the election. Gore left it there. He didn’t have to.

It is mostly true that the United States has had peaceful transitions of national power throughout its history. But there was nothing inevitable about it. We don’t have peaceful transitions just because the Constitution provides rules for elections: there have been plenty of times those rules failed or ran out. Instead, we have peaceful transitions because the losers – or those who didn’t even run but think they have something at stake – have chosen to accept the outcome and move on. I have emphasized the elections in which something genuinely new happened, but the same is true even in the seemingly uncontroversial elections, like 1816 and 1936.

Every American experiment sets a precedent, but to quote E. Donald Elliott:

No decision, not even a unanimous decision of the Supreme Court, is a precedent on the day it is decided. It becomes a precedent if it is recognized and accepted as authoritative to resolve other controversies.

The perceived legitimacy of elections matters in preserving the republic. It creates the conditions under which the losers in elections stand down because they know that if they fight on they fight alone. The last time that principle failed was the Civil War, which lasted four and a half years and killed at least 750,000 people. But neither the Confederacy nor the Union had automatic rifles, tanks, jet fighters, and nuclear weapons.