The global populist wave is not necessarily a right-wing one

The global populist wave is not necessarily a right-wing one

The National Review makes an interesting point about the global populist wave rolling over Europe and the United States:

 

Most of these parties have only the occasional issue in common with each other or with the Trump insurgents. What unites them is not ideology or policies (which are usually responses to specific national situations) but a raw spirit of revolt. If they were to attain power, they would start to look very different as they put their ideas into effect.

Not to sugarcoat what’s happening in Europe, but it’s a mistake to reduce it to something as simple as a “far right” political takeover of the continent. Doing so limits one’s imagination of how the left can respond to it.

The five stars of the Five Star Movement in Italy, which is the clear winner in this week’s failed constitutional referendum led by soon-to-resign Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, stand for the following: publicly owned water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, right to internet access, and environmentalism. Not a single one of those planks can be mistaken for an inherently “right wing” or “conservative” value.

And yet the collapse of the Italian government (which is almost a yearly occurrence in that country) is widely understood as of a piece with Brexit, the popularity of Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France and the rise of the Alternative for Germany party next door, the ascendance of the Danish People’s Party, and other “far right” tides of change on the continent, as well as the election of Donald Trump in the United States.

And of course they are of a piece: each of them is a response to the failure of traditional political parties, with their bureaucracies and dogmas and entrenched leaders, to respond adequately to the complex and evolving cultural and economic changes brought by globalization.

But the way those failures, and the uprisings they provoke, look in each country varies widely by those countries’ respective cultures, political configurations, and economic circumstances. In no way is it pre-ordained that the outcome of a populist political shake-up in a given nation is a right wing takeover.

Even the Front National, so often castigated as “fascist,” has distinct left wing elements in its message and platform. Le Pen has put her party’s xenophobia, chauvinism and Islamophobia in the service (rhetorically) of defending the welfare state and safeguarding France’s commitment to tolerance and plurality. The FN may be a far right party, but only by co-opting parts of the left has it achieved the strength to seriously contend for national power.

The Five Star Movement, with its anti-immigrant bent, is hardly progressive (its leader is frequently compared to Mussolini). But nor is it “right wing.” It’s both, and it’s neither. To force it into one category or the other is to default to the antiquated political framework that parties like it are in the process of displacing. Doing so practically commits you to misunderstanding the whole phenomenon.

To an American observer, the lesson to draw from this puzzle is that there is nothing inherently right-wing about the populist wave that ushered in Trump, either. For a number of reasons that should set off alarm bells for Democrats, it was the right instead of the left that ultimately succeeded in capitalizing on the surge of discontent and organizing voters around it. But as Bernie Sanders’ unexpected success in the primary showed, racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant hysteria were far from the only vehicles with which to shape and direct that anger. The Democrats just happened to choose as their nominee the most prominent representative of the ancien regime at exactly the time when the old order was being toppled throughout the Western world.

 

Wedging Trump

wedge

Anthony Scaramucci — his friends call him “the Mooch” — is a blow-dried, gold ringed hedge fund trader straight out of Central Casting. Last summer, when Donald Trump dismissed finance people like him as parasitic swindlers who “move around papers,” Scaramucci snarled that Trump was “another hack politician” who would “probably make Elizabeth Warren his vice-presidential nominee,” considering his “anti-American” insults to the finance industry. “You’re an inherited money dude from Queens County,” the Mooch taunted Trump on the Fox Business Channel, doing his best impression of a guy asking another guy if he’d like to step outside for a minute.

Today, Scaramucci is a member of Trump’s presidential transition team.

Scaramucci’s journey from trash talker of presidential nominee Trump to economic advisor to President-elect Trump tracks Trump’s own abrupt transformation from firebrand populist outsider to Wall Street-friendly insider — an about-face that wasn’t just predictable but repeatedly predicted. As a man without an ideology, Trump is not a change agent but an opportunistic pragmatist. His goal is not to reshape the American economy or even the Republican Party, but to use the presidency to build his global brand and enrich himself and his family in the process. People like Scaramucci and Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s choice for Treasury Secretary, a former Goldman Sachs mortgage banker who made his fortune and his legend exploiting the pain of the foreclosure crisis, may have been odd choices for the grenade-lobbing, drain-the-swamp-and-burn-the-whole-system-down presidential candidate version of Donald Trump. But they’re just the right kind of advisors for the self-dealing, oligarchical, President-elect version of Trump: the real Trump, the one who will be crowned Leader of the Free World next month.

Trump is doing so little to conceal his betrayal of the populist message that got him elected that some of his most hardcore fans — Breitbart readers — are already showing, in the words of one, “buyer’s remorse.” Here are a few comments from a recent Breitbart write-up about Mnuchin:

 

Donald Trump is a bankster puppet. Anyone who believes a Goldman Sachs, George Soros, and Bernie Madoff crony will do anything to help the middle class is a fool.

 

Remember back in the day when Trump held Goldman Sachs up as representative of the corrupt, manipulative, greedy Establishment?

Good times.

 

There’s this thing called “Buyer’s Remorse” that a lot of Breitbart readers are about to become increasingly familiar with…

 

It’s too early to be optimistic, but the cleave that Trump’s recent appointments have opened up in the conservative-populist coalition he built over the course of the campaign may be good news for those who have been fearing an enduring hard right realignment in American politics of the sort that has been seen in countries all across Europe.

As Sasha Polakow-Suransky reports in his indispensable and unsettling account of the rise of the European far right, parties like the Front National in France and the Danish People’s Party in Denmark have spent years, even decades, slogging their way out of the political wilderness by making themselves more palatable to former Social Democrats, the kinds of people who regard themselves as compassionate, tolerant, and committed to social justice, but who have grown disenchanted with the established, bureaucratic parties that were once the radical vanguard of those inclusive values. The FN and the DPP, Polakow-Suransky shows, have labored to jettison the baggage of anti-semitism, homophobia, and fascism and have re-positioned themselves, remarkably, as the guardians of progressive politics — by casting Muslims and immigrants as the true enemies, the barbarians at the gates of secular, humanist Western civilization. Like Trump’s analogue in the U.S., this disturbing configuration may be philosophically contradictory, but it wins elections.

The United States is not Europe, and there are many important reasons why the politics of reaction will take a different shape here than there. But if Trump were to follow the lead of his European counterparts, we could expect to see the emergence of a lasting electoral bloc of disillusioned Democrats that is economically left-wing but culturally chauvinistic and politically anti-pluralist and authoritarian. By now, that should be a familiar combination to American voters: a variation of it was mobilized by Reagan, and it was arguably a key part of the electoral coalition that won Trump his presidency. But unlike in Europe, it has never really outlived the fleeting mobilization of an election cycle and cohered into a stable, enduring political movement. Trump, with his orthodoxy-eschewing, cross-party appeal, could be the catalyst for that transformation, which could change American politics forever.

His cabinet appointments, however, suggest that he is choosing a narrower, easier, less transformative path, the kind of path that guys like Anthony Scaramucci and Steven Mnuchin and firms like Goldman Sachs can happily join him on, with none of the showy displays of contempt that the Mooch performed for the Fox Business Channel’s cameras last summer.

Yesterday, Scaramucci gave The New York Times his decidedly amiable take on the President-elect’s new, Wall Street-stacked economic cabinet:

 

The working-class people of the United States, they need a break. And we need to switch them from going from the working class into the working poor into what I call the aspirational working class, which my dad was a member of.

 

Scaramucci’s dad was a Long Island construction worker and a union member. His union wages paid for his son’s Tufts University education. Unions, now a sapped and withered version of what they were during Scaramucci’s childhood, will almost undoubtedly come out of Trump’s first term even weaker than they went into it (radically weaker, if a federal Right-to-Work law is passed). So will the economic power of the workers they represent, however “aspirational” they might be. The idea of a construction worker’s wages sustaining a middle class family and paying the private college tuition of a son who will go on to become a millionaire is already a distant and nostalgic memory. The redistributive postwar welfare state that made it possible was dismantled long ago; the economic team the Mooch is helping to put into place, along with Paul Ryan’s fiscal austerity measures, which Trump will undoubtedly sign into law, will ensure it is never rebuilt. Scaramucci’s rhetoric hits some vaguely populist-sounding notes, but they’re as empty as Trump’s.

For an angry electorate clamoring for change, Trump will have more of the same Wall Street poison that has kept wages stagnant or falling for four decades, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Immigrant scapegoating and stimulative deficit spending might keep his administration’s popularity afloat for the short term, but if he really goes down this road, eventually there will have to be a reckoning with his abandoned base. Those voters already feel betrayed by both the Democratic and the Republican establishments. When they find themselves jilted by Trump, too, they’ll have few places to turn.

That moment will be an opening for the left, if the left is prepared to take it.

 

The dangers of a conviction-free presidency

It should be perfectly clear by now that Donald Trump doesn’t have a political ideology. His Republican primary campaign lacked the philosophical coherence even of a naked quest for power; it was a brand-building exercise for the Trump Organization. He won the primary and then the general election simply by reaching for the most galvanizing rhetorical weapons closest at hand  — nativism, Islamophobia, anti-elitism, et cetera — whether he actually believed what he was saying or not. The proof that his message was little more than rank opportunism is the bewildering and almost random series of backtracks and sidesteps of campaign promises and commitments that has characterized his transition process: his sudden indifference to investigating and prosecuting Hillary Clinton; his about-face on waterboarding; his newfound “open mind” to the Paris climate accords; his serious consideration of Mitt Romney as Secretary of State because he “looks the part.”

Liberals and moderate Republicans might find relief in these signals — maybe he’s not such a “fascist” after all! Conservatives might find reason to return to their erstwhile suspicions that Trump was a closet Democrat all along. But these conclusions would miss the point. A president with no ideology is much more dangerous than a highly ideological one, even when that ideology is precisely the inverse of your own.

A president with no ideology is a president without any philosophical constraint. He is free to pursue whatever goals he feels like pursuing on any given day and abandoning others on a whim, because he is effectively immunized from charges of hypocrisy. Sure, constituents who were promised one thing and then given another might feel betrayed, and their disillusionment will be reflected in polls and at the ballot box in 2018 and 2020. But that’s just politics, same as any other president has to deal with.

What sets apart an ideological empty vessel like Trump is that he has no broad set of governing principles to abide by, no philosophy to compel consistency. There is thus no measuring stick by which to gauge the integrity of his decisions, no intellectual scolds of any influence at places like the Hoover Institution and the National Journal looking over his shoulder, and no credible charge to be made that the president has abandoned his convictions and caved to special interests/the opposing party/media pressure/et cetera. He doesn’t have any convictions, so what’s to abandon? His only governing framework is his own impulses.

During George W. Bush’s first term and into his second, he assumed the posture of a principled (if “compassionate”) conservative. He embraced conventional conservative policy goals like school accountability, privatization of Social Security, health savings accounts, and tax cuts, even while overseeing developments ostensibly anathema to conservative orthodoxy, such as the dramatic growth of centralized state power, increased government spending, and the expansion of entitlements through the Medicare Modernization Act.

By the end of his second term — especially in light of his support for immigration reform with a path to citizenship and, later, the bank bailouts — the cognitive dissonance had caught up to him. His brand of conservatism was sufficiently discredited among the party’s ideological grassroots to trigger the emergence of the insurgent movement that, after the election of Obama and the introduction of the Affordable Care Act, would come to be known as the Tea Party.

This is the predictable dialectical pattern of politics when it is attached, as it always has been, to competing political philosophies: the party out of power clings to the moral high ground of political purity, which is the only thing it has to cling to; the leaders of the governing party necessarily compromise their purity in the name of Getting Things Done, exposing themselves in the process to attack from the Robespierres lurking in their midsts. The pragmatists make deals and achieve tangible victories for their constituents. The purists endeavor as best they can to keep the dealmaking pragmatists faithful to the party’s principles.

But Trump upsets the whole apple cart. He never had any political convictions to begin with, and, since nearly every member of the Republican establishment was against him at some point during his 17-month campaign, since the voters who ushered him into the GOP nomination were those who were most disaffected with the party’s leaders, and since he won on a message that savaged Republican orthodoxy on foundational issues of trade, national security, and monetary stability, he will owe nothing as President to the age-old ideological influence-brokering institutions of the Republican Party, be they magazines, big party donors, or Congress. And owing nothing means being free of accountability to them.

For those who oppose the Republican agenda, in some cases that will be a good thing: the Bush-era neocons, who by and large refused to rally to Trump and in at least one case voted for Clinton, would have no leverage to push Trump to reverse his reversal on torture even if they wanted to. Climate change rejectionists who bet on the wrong horse (twice!) can’t do much more than plead with the President-elect to close his mind again on the Paris agreement.

But in many other cases, this lack of even informal accountability will pose a grave risk not just to liberals, but to our entire system of government. It’s bad enough that President Trump will preside over a one party state, in which the very real possibility exists that outright violations of the law on the part of the White House will be met with impunity. But as Jonathan Chait has shown, a shocking proportion of the edifice of the presidency is composed of mere norms, not laws, and Donald Trump has close to zero compunction about ignoring those norms. If Trump began his primary campaign as a branding stunt, his ascendance to the Oval Office doesn’t seem to have changed that objective in the slightest. And the entire project of transforming the United States of America into a promotional vehicle for the Trump Organization, it appears, can be executed without breaking any laws at all — a fact that surprised even Trump himself — just a bunch of unenforceable customs and standards of conduct. This is worth repeating: If Trump chooses to, he can subordinate the state to his family’s private interests, and he can do so legally.

If Trump were a philosophical conservative, even as a political outsider, the ideological purists of the Republican establishment could exert some sort of influence over him, by threatening to blow the whistle on some of his more outlandish and deeply un-conservative impulses, such as refusing to honor NATO treaty obligations, or blowing up the deficit by cutting taxes while spending massively on crony infrastructure contracts and border militarization, or aligning the country with dictators who are openly hostile to the United States (but not necessarily to Trump hotels and condos), or disgracing the presidency by accepting thinly veiled bribes. (On other questions, such as immigration, they might admittedly play an enabling rather than a restraining role.) These things, they might say through their magazines and think tanks and cable news appearances, are anathema to true conservative governance, and a conservative President might shudder at the prospect of being held in contempt by the party’s ideological base, with all its donors and activists and evangelists and media spokespersons.

But Trump owes these people nothing. The judgment of the President-elect, a man who gets his news from InfoWars, will be checked by almost noone. He might feel beholden to some of his most stalwart anti-establishment grassroots champions, the ones who were with him from the beginning, but that was largely a hitherto unorganized mass of the disaffected that cohered into a movement under the force of his own personality; it will take a lot for them to rebel against their charismatic leader. Their presence compensates little for the absence of influence on the President by a conservative party base that has developed over generations of organizing and institution-building. And whatever you think of that base, their absence leaves a void that could be filled by the only organized ideological constituency whose loyalty to Trump — that prized virtue of the President-elect — dates back to the days when the rest of the world laughed at him: white nationalists.

To be clear, the lack of accountability I’m deploring is not so much accountability on a policy level; it’s unlikely, to put it mildly, that the current Republican Party’s ideological priesthood would temper the extremism of a Trump administration’s policy agenda rather than encourage it. What I fear we need is something we’ve barely even had to think about in the past, so much did we take it for granted: accountability sufficient to contain the White House within the boundaries of legal, constitutional, minimally transparent, minimally respectable governance. Because without any check on President Trump’s power whatsoever, whether legal, normative, or political, this is an administration that could easily spin into outright kleptocracy; indeed, that almost seems to be the plan. That’s the kind of unprecedented challenge we face with this incoming administration.

If you oppose Trump, wrap yourself in the American flag

On Saturday I attended a General Assembly meeting of the as-yet-unnamed protest movement against the incoming Trump administration. If you weren’t involved in Occupy Wall Street, a “General Assembly” is an open meeting of activists (or anyone else who wishes to attend), usually in some public area; here in Los Angeles they take place on the steps of City Hall.

The meeting was pretty unremarkable, save for one statement that, for me, set off alarm bells. A young-ish man in sunglasses, after giving an eloquent and impassioned speech on the dangers of a Trump presidency, declared that there was only one option for the movement: to stop Trump from becoming President. “We have 65 days,” he said.

He was short on specifics on how to achieve that. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard before, though, specifically on a Facebook group I belong to, in which one participant laid out a more detailed plan, for a massive civil disobedience to blockade the swearing-in ceremony and force it underground.

This is a stupid idea.

Civil disobediences are great. Radical activism is great. Shutting down a swearing-in ceremony is neither of those things. Forcing a presidential inauguration into a secure location is less like a CD against an unjust law than it is like an attempted coup. And that’s how it would be treated by the Secret Service.

More important, though, than the random bloviating of macho rads on Facebook is the more widespread sentiment behind this dumb idea, which is the notion that Donald Trump is an illegitimate president.

Donald Trump won the election. He may have lost the popular vote, but the popular vote isn’t how we elect presidents. If it were, then both campaigns would have been run in a completely different way than they were run, and it’s not a foregone conclusion that under those circumstances, Trump still would have lost the popular vote. So the fact that Clinton won more votes than Trump is irrelevant.

“Not my president” is a catchy and cathartic slogan. I don’t begrudge anyone who uses it as an expression of their emotional state at this extremely stressful time. But it’s a dangerous sentiment to take too seriously. First of all, like the conspiracy theories about voting machines after John Kerry’s loss in 2004, it shields people from facing the reality we’re living through, which is that our democracy and our electorate was capable of electing someone who takes his policy prescriptions from white nationalists.

But even more dangerous is that rejecting the outcome of the election is, ipso facto, a rejection of American democracy. And it’s democracy that a Trump presidency potentially puts at risk. It’s democracy that those who oppose Trump are supposed to be defending.

Nobody asked me for my opinion, but here it is: Trump’s presidency is a potential threat to political pluralism, individual rights, the divorce of public offices from private ownership, the separation (however imperfect) of public service from private gain, the protection of minorities from the tyranny of the majority, the rule of law over the people that make and enforce them, and the symbolic sanctity — and therefore the functioning — of democratic institutions. The specter of what could replace these things are the building blocks of kleptocracy and arbitrary rule.

This is all the stuff that the U.S. Constitution was drafted to safeguard. The opposition movement to Trump’s presidency is a defense of the Constitution. You can’t defend the Constitution by rejecting the outcome of the processes that it enshrines, including the election of a President. Saying that Trump is not our President is emotionally gratifying and constitutionally protected speech; it’s also an expression of a norm that is unconstitutional.

The protests I’ve been to here in L.A. appear to be extremely diverse — not just in terms of gender, class and race, but in terms of political ideology and expression. Alongside protesters waving the American flag are other protesters hanging the American flag upside down and holding up signs saying “America was never great.”

We should be doing a lot more of the former and a lot less of the latter. “Diversity of tactics” is something of a sacred virtue on the left, and there’s a lot to be said for it. But it doesn’t mean that some tactics are not better than others. And right now, when the things that the opponents of the incoming Trump administration are defending are as American as the Republic itself, where’s the value in flaunting your disrespect for the symbols of those things?

The American flag might be a symbol of oppression and imperialism to a lot of people, but it’s the symbol of the opposite to hundreds of millions — and when President Trump starts abridging due process rights, openly selling political favors, and deploying federal agents to track down, harass, and suppress his critics, a very large portion of those hundreds of millions of Americans, including a great many who voted for him, are going to be as reviled by the desecration of the norms and institutions that Make America Great as his opponents are. We need to make sure they’re not equally reviled by us.

The Beginning

Since the night of the election, beginning just hours after the votes came in and it became clear who was going to win, there have been daily protests against the incoming Trump administration in Los Angeles. It’s hard to know what the strategy is behind these protests; actually, it’s pretty clear there isn’t one. These aren’t centrally planned events. As far as I can tell, they’re spontaneous, organic, and bottom-up. They have less to do with trying to effect a particular agreed-upon change, and more to do with just expressing people’s emotions, and coming together with others at a time when people are feeling particularly anxious and insecure about what’s about to happen to our country, about eight weeks from now, when President-elect Trump becomes simply President Trump.

The first step in building a movement is simply bringing people together. That can happen online, but it’s much, much more powerful when it takes place in physical space and time. That’s what’s happening right now, in L.A. and in a lot of other cities. The next step, though, will have to be to devise some sort of strategy for the movement to follow, and as close to a consensus as possible on what exactly the movement believes is taking place in our democracy. Lots of protesters are chanting “Not my president,” and “We reject the President-elect.” That’s cathartic, but is it really what the movement, collectively, believes? Are we rejecting the decision that was made by the voters, according to our imperfect democracy’s imperfect rules, to elect this man President of the United States? That’s not just an emotional assertion; it’s a political statement, and one that has some pretty significant (and in my opinion, dangerous) implications. (And how would you reject him, anyway?)

At this point these are just slogans being chanted in the streets, not some formally drafted and signed manifesto, so they’re mostly just rhetoric. In a few weeks, I suspect, a more circumscribed critique of Trump’s legitimacy will emerge. Whatever it is, it will be highly controversial within the opposition movement: some will want to go much further, others will want to dial back. The unity of the movement will be tested by these fissures. But that’s all in the future. For today, you can go into the streets and say whatever the hell you want, whether it’s “Fuck Trump,” or “Let’s find what common ground we can while staying mindful of our pluralist principles” (nobody’s saying that). So for now, there’s unity in the opposition — but unity is easy when you’re not yet asking the really hard questions.

Anyway, here’s a video I made of the protests, shot by me and two other shooters over three different street demonstrations. I called it “The Beginning,” because that’s what it feels like to me: the start of a new, potentially historic, movement.

“We Reject the President-elect”

It happened. Donald Trump is the President-elect of the United States of America.

With all three branches of the federal government, two-thirds of state legislatures, and two-thirds of the country’s governor’s offices under Republican control, it’s basically a one-party state for at least the next two years. With no meaningful way to resist Trump’s agenda through conventional politics, and with the racial attacks that featured so prominently in Trump’s presidential campaign trickling down into the general populace, people are doing really the only thing they can, which is flooding the streets.

Last night, Los Angeles was one of ten cities in which thousands marched, rallied, and occupied freeways to disrupt daily life and express outrage at the dark path voters chose for the country on Tuesday. This video was from the demonstration in downtown L.A..

There was no prohibition on calling your opponent “unqualified” until political reporters invented it two days ago

There comes a point in every presidential election when the public debate moves away from issues and character and deteriorates into a self-referential shouting match over exactly where the proverbial belt is and who’s punching under it. In the 2008 Democratic primary, there were many of these moments: Obama’s “You’re likable enough” quip; Clinton’s “as far as I know” qualification to her affirmation of Obama’s non-Muslim-ness; everything that came out of Bill Clinton’s mouth whenever he opened it.

This week, we reached that nadir when Bernie Sanders uttered those now infamous two words: “not qualified.” By the media’s reaction to it, you’d think he had just accused Hillary of being a Manchurian candidate.

Let’s state the obvious outright: Hillary Clinton is clearly qualified to be President of the United States. Everyone knows that. She knows it. The Republicans know it. Bernie Sanders knows it. Jeff Weaver knows it. There may not be an American voter alive who doesn’t know that Hillary Clinton has an outstanding résumé for the office. This isn’t a subject that’s seriously up for debate.

Let’s acknowledge another obvious fact: when Bernie Sanders said that Hillary Clinton was “not qualified” to be president, he was speaking rhetorically. When you watch the video of his speech and hear the remark in context, it’s obvious. And by “obvious,” I mean that it is impossible for a sane person of normal intelligence to watch that speech and walk away thinking that the remark was the equivalent of Senator Bernard Sanders going on Meet The Press and saying, “Hillary Clinton’s negligible career has not sufficiently prepared her for the demands of the Oval Office.” In the context of the speech, in which he was responding directly to Clinton’s almost saying (more on that later) that he was unqualified for the presidency, the remark was the political equivalent of saying, “My mom’s so fat? Your mom’s so fat!” Which is a totally different thing from walking up to a classmate at recess, apropos of nothing, and saying, “Hey, Josh, I saw your mom the other day when she came to pick you up. Man, she’s really fat.” The second is mean, rude, uncalled for, insensitive, and inappropriate. The first is maybe a couple of those things too, but ultimately it’s just talking smack. Which is what Bernie was doing.

It’s so obvious that that’s what’s going on here that I find it impossible to believe that any normal person — Republican or Democrat, Team Hillary or Team Bernie — could have watched that speech at the time it was given and picked out anything in it that went beyond standard issue campaign trash talk without the drama-hungry theatrics of political reporters and the rehearsed histrionics of the Clinton campaign team to prompt them.

And yet, within a day of the Sanders speech, in the political press, the remark had gone from an allegedly low blow to the undoing of the Democratic Party. In one of the dumbest takes I’ve read — in the Daily Beast, not surprisingly, and by Michael Tomasky, surprisingly, but less so with every new column he writes — the conventional wisdom is laid out as plainly as I’ve seen it. Tomasky goes through the section of the Morning Joe interview transcript with Hillary Clinton that prompted the response from Bernie Sanders in the first place — the one in which she allegedly calls him “unqualified.” Here it is:

JS: In light of the questions he had problems with, do you believe this morning that Bernie Sanders is qualified and ready to be president of the United States?

 

HC: Well, I think the interview raised a lot of really serious questions, and I look at it this way. The core of his campaign has been break up the banks, and it didn’t seem in reading his answers that he understood exactly how that would work under Dodd-Frank and exactly who would be responsible, what the criteria were; and that means you really can’t help people if you don’t know how to do what you are campaigning on saying you want to do. And then there were other—

 

JS: So is he qualified?…And I’m serious, if you weren’t running today and you looked at Bernie Sanders would you say this guy is ready to be president of the United States?

 

HC: Well, I think he hadn’t done his homework and he’d been talking for more than a year about doing things that he obviously hadn’t really studied or understood, and that does raise a lot of questions and really what it goes to is for voters to ask themselves, can he deliver what he’s talking about, can he really help people—

 

JS: What do you think?

 

HC: Can he help our economy, can he keep our country strong…Well, obviously, I think I’m by far the better choice—

 

JS: But do you think he is qualified and do you think he is able to deliver on the things he is promising to all these Democratic voters?

 

HC: Well, lemme put it this way, Joe. I think that what he has been saying about the core issue in his whole campaign doesn’t seem to be rooted in an understanding of either the law or the practical ways you get something done. And I will leave it to voters to decide who of us can do the job that the country needs, who can do all aspects of the job. Both on the economic domestic issues and on national security and foreign policy.

Tomasky draws this conclusion:

I don’t know how you read that, but I read it as Scarborough trying four times to get Clinton to say outright that Bernie Sanders is not qualified to be president, and her refusing to do so.

There’s another way to read it, which is familiar to anyone who understands English like a normal person does, and not like a lawyer, politician, or political reporter. And in that reading, Scarborough asks Clinton four times whether Sanders is qualified, and four times, she says NO. She never explicitly answers “no,” of course, because she’s both a lawyer and a politician. But that is clearly her answer, four times over. If you doubt that, then go back right now and try to read “yes” between the lines of any of those answers (don’t cheat; it’s a yes or no question). You can’t, because it’s not there. And if her answer were “yes,” by the way, that’s what she would have said, as in, “Sure, he’s qualified, but…yadda yadda yadda.” Easiest thing in the world. But she doesn’t say that, because her answer is not “yes;” it’s “no.”

But that’s not what matters in electioneering. What matters is what you say explicitly, because what you say explicitly is on the record and impossible to deny. Campaign speeches and interviews are not unlike legal depositions. What you say in them can and will be used against you, so there’s a big incentive to not say much of anything at all, or to say what you want to say without actually saying it. Hillary Clinton is a pro at this. Bernie sucks at it. It’s why people love him, and it’s also why he’s gotten into a huge amount of trouble this week, basically on a technicality.

Anyway, whatever — that’s politics, and both Clinton and Sanders have chosen the field as their profession, so it’s their bed to sleep in. Political reporters, however, don’t work in politics; they cover it. It’s supposed to be their job to represent to their readers and viewers what’s really going on, beneath all the kabuki and subterfuge. If a candidate sounds a dog whistle, it’s their job to recognize it for what it is, figure out its tactical value to the campaign, and explain it to the public. It’s not their job to grab the whistle and blow on it with every breath left in their lungs. That’s the opposite of their job.

Before this week, there was no rule, spoken or unspoken, against calling the opposing candidate “unqualified.” There was no gentleman’s agreement among professional politicians never to utter those four syllables. There was no timeworn tradition to honor one another’s résumés. There was no etiquette guide that frowned on such scurrilous invective. That’s why in 2008, the Clinton campaign’s communications director asserted that “we do not believe at this point that Senator Obama has passed that key commander-in-chief test,” and ruled him unqualified for vice president. It’s why the Clinton campaign built its entire message that year around Obama’s thin résumé, with scary 3am phone call ads and side-eyed remarks about fairy tales and celestial choirs and magic wands.

But suddenly, this week, it’s the political Rubicon. Why? Because pundits and political reporters decided it was, basically. Compared to the GOP race, for months, the Democratic contest has been a bore. So, like the tyrants in the Hunger Games, they just made up a new rule. From the moment Sanders uttered the now forbidden phrase, it was fated to be a “tipping point,”“new low,” a “sharp pugilistic turn.” Everything was different now. There was no rulebook, common convention or historical precedent to make it so. There were just a bunch of political reporters willing to decree it as such to mix things up a little, and so it was.

Except it wasn’t. It was a half dozen throwaway lines in a stump speech. It was a clumsy parry in a verbal sword fight. It was a non-event. It was nothing.

But when campaign flacks and political reporters are allowed to make up the rules as they go along, huge piles of shit can be conjured from nothing. It’s the kind of shit that can change elections.

Donald Trump acknowledges under oath what we already knew: he’s a liar

I’ve got a new piece up at The Intercept, my favorite news site. This is the first story I’ve written for them and it won’t be the last. Very proud to have my work side-by-side with that of a few of the journalists I revere most in the world: Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, Laura Poitras, Lee Fang.

Short version of the story: Donald Trump is a scam artist and a liar. In case you hadn’t noticed.

This election is about confrontation versus capitulation

This morning on Democracy Now!, former NAACP president Ben Jealous, a Bernie Sanders supporter, said this about Hillary Clinton:

There are some things that she’ll be able to get done—simply because she’ll capitulate.

It was, obviously, a swipe at the candidate that he (like me) opposes. But it’s not unfair. In fact, it’s consistent with Clinton’s own campaign message, when you factor in the reality of divided government. Clinton’s most forceful argument for her candidacy is that she’s a pragmatic progressive, that she knows how to get things done in Washington, that her incrementalist approach to political change is the only realistic way to get anything through a Republican-controlled Congress. It’s a good argument.

But as long as we’re being realistic, let’s be honest about what “getting things done” means in the context of the next presidency. It means getting bills through a Congress controlled by a party the majority of whose voters are presently split between favoring Donald Trump and Ted Cruz for president. It means facing off against a congressional majority so conservative and so intransigent that the Obama administration has given up on the very idea of a legislative agenda, pursuing its policy goals instead solely through executive actions. It means negotiating with people who want to not just defeat you, but destroy you. Hillary Clinton knows this better than almost anyone on earth.

Sanders’ biggest critics routinely invoke this political reality as a reason to dismiss the soaring ambitions of his policy platform. But if the world-as-it-is rules out any possibility of a President Sanders enacting Single Payer healthcare, how will it allow for a President Clinton to “transform our health care system to reward value and quality,” whatever that means? If it’s delusional to imagine a Republican Congress passing a $15 federal minimum wage, is it any more realistic to expect it to get on board for $12? Does Clinton think that her adversaries are reasonable people who will meet her halfway, negotiating in good faith over her eminently sober-minded policy proposals? No, she does not. Hillary Clinton is not Barack Obama. She is many things, but politically naïve is emphatically not one of them. Look at her biography. She is maybe the least naïve politician ever to walk the halls of Congress.

The only way that Hillary Clinton is going to enact her agenda is to do what her husband did: triangulate, which is a fancy word for surrender. When the last President Clinton “got things done,” we ended up with a trade deal that poisoned the Mexican economy, clearing the way for the rise of transnational criminal cartels and the mass migration of economic refugees. We ended up with a welfare “reform” law that stigmatized poverty, pushed entire communities into oblivion, and accelerated mass incarceration. We ended up with a loosening of financial regulations that led directly to the 2008 economic meltdown. Bill Clinton did some good things around the margins. But his overall legacy was a Republican one. His serial capitulation to his political enemies in the interest of appearing at signing ceremonies secured his reputation as a master politician and a president who did consequential things. But for the country, the impact of his legislative achievements was far more malignant than the non-impact of the stalemate that has defined the last six years of Obama’s presidency. Given the partisan configuration of the present time, unless Hillary is hiding a magic wand up her sleeve, a second Clinton administration will have the exact same toolkit to work with as the first. That means either more gridlock, or it means a return to dressing up defeat as victory.

The alternative is confrontation. That’s what Sanders is campaigning on. And I’ll be perfectly honest: I have no idea what that looks like. I can’t imagine what kind of legislative strategy would accompany a “political revolution.” I don’t know what it means, in terms of things that are both non-symbolic and achievable, to “take on the billionaire class.” And I’m not sure anyone in the Sanders campaign knows, either.

That must be incredibly frustrating for Clinton, who is making a specific and concrete argument for her candidacy that is inescapably accountable to the current political reality. Sanders is not held to that standard, because his message flies miles above it. It must be more than a little reminiscent of her debates against Obama, whose magic words about transcending the partisanship of Washington have been replaced, in this cycle, with Sanders’ magic words about fomenting revolution. It’s an unfair fight, and I don’t blame anyone for siding with Hillary Clinton out of an aversion to the very real risk of lining up behind a vision without a plan.

On the other hand, the plan that Hillary Clinton brings to the table is capitulation. Unless she believes her coattails are long enough to defy arithmetic itself and take back Congress for the Democrats, then there are no other options but that or stalemate. A President Sanders would face the exact same scenario, but with a political mandate to go to war with the whole corrupt system. It could end in disaster. But judging by the standards of the last Clinton administration, no more of one than “success” would be under a second President Clinton.

Word.