Monday, January 30, 2017

Assessing Donald Trump's First Week: Some Thoughts about Autocracy and "Alternative Facts"

Based on the first week of his presidency, Donald J. Trump appears to think he can use his office to do and say anything he wants, constitutional limits and norms be damned. The motivation for much of what he's doing and saying appears to be his own ego and need for power, and he's dragging our country with him into the alternative version of reality he uses to sustain his ego. This is worse than I imagined, but I fear it will have to become even worse before he will be meaningfully restrained.

The Deeds -- "Governing" by Fiat and Publicity Stunt 

Some of the more notable actions of Mr. Trump's first week include-
Collectively, this autocratic modus operandi flies in the face of our constitutional system of separation of powers, checks and balances, and deliberative government.

Executive Action

Executive orders and memoranda have been used by presidents of both parties and are neither new nor necessarily troubling. In Mr Trump's case, however, the content of his actions and the manner in which he promulgates them raise serious concerns.

Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Trump appears not to have vetted the substance, legality, or likely consequences of his actions with anyone except his closest White House advisors before proceeding. The immigration ban on people from Muslim countries and preference given to Christian immigrants appear unconstitutional on their face. The Department of Homeland Security's initial implementation of the ban, which prevented people with valid green cards from re-entering the country, has sparked worldwide confusion and already is being litigated. Some of Mr. Trump's orders also purport to make major changes regarding complex issues that are governed primarily by statute -- e.g., health care and immigration -- which makes one question what they truly accomplish and whether he is within the scope of his authority.

Mr. Trump appears to either not realize any of this or not care. His hasty issuance of unvetted actions on myriad topics looks more like a publicity stunt intended to allow him to say he fulfilled campaign promises than a serious attempt to govern. This unfortunately is not surprising coming from someone who claimed "I alone can fix it."

Governing by Bribe and Threat

During the transition, Mr. Trump used the carrot of tax relief to convince Carrier to keep 800 jobs in the United States. As president, Mr. Trump is using the stick of threatening to impose steep border taxes on some of America's prominent companies if they outsource jobs.

Micromanaging business decisions of individual companies, either by threatening them or promising them a reward, tends not to go over well in a democracy and is not a particularly effective way to implement economic policy.  As Paul Krugman explained in response to the Carrier situation, trying to stop jobs from going to foreign countries one company at a time will not have any meaningful impact in a $19 trillion economy that employs 145 million people. This, too, looks like a publicity stunt that allows Mr. Trump to appear to be doing something meaningful when in fact he is not.

Mr. Trump's attempts to intervene here also are glaringly inconsistent with his own decision to outsource the manufacturing of a significant amount of the merchandise bearing his name. It's unclear if Mr. Trump doesn't see this inconsistency or has somehow found a way to rationalize it. Either way, it is troubling to have a president who sees himself and his business interests as apart from the law he seeks to impose.

Muzzling Agencies that Disagree

Mr. Trump's administration has instituted polices at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Agriculture and Interior that prohibit various parts of those agencies from communicating with the press, and in one case also with lawmakers, without pre-clearing their remarks at the highest level.

We, the taxpayers, fund these agencies and deserve full and transparent access to their research and proceedings. We now instead will have ready access to only those portions of their work Mr. Trump chooses to share. In the case of climate change, one of the most pressing issues of the day, it is possible that Mr. Trump will try to bar the release of any information at all.

This is something one would expect from Vladimir Putin, not the President of the United States. It is, however, something we'd expect from someone with an incredibly large but fragile ego, who cannot abide to be challenged let alone contradicted.

An Inconsistent Stance on Election Fraud

Mr. Trump has vowed to launch a "major investigation" to look into his unsupported claim that 3 to 5 million people voted illegally. In so doing, he is ignoring state election officials of both parties, mostly his own, who say that ballot box fraud is exceedingly rare. Mr. Trump also apparently has forgotten that, when seeking to block vote recounts, his campaign asserted there was no credible evidence of voter fraud. 

Mr. Trump is poised to investigate a claim about ballot box fraud for which he sets forth no credible evidence yet continues to ignore well-supported claims of our intelligence community that Russia interfered in other aspects of our election. This wastes tax dollars by focusing on the wrong issue and undermines the integrity of an election process that is essential to our system of government. The end result likely will be to suppress legitimate voters. The public should be outraged by this.

The public also should be outraged by Mr. Trump's inconsistent and ego-driven response to this whole issue. He dismisses allegations of election tampering when they call his electoral vote win into question, but simultaneously argues that election tampering is the sole reason he lost the popular vote. It is impossible to have it both ways here because a single election produced the divergent electoral and popular vote outcomes, but Donald Trump's ego blinds him to that reality.

As a friend recently said, "Mr. Trump's ego blinds him to most of reality," which brings me to what Mr. Trump and his closest advisers, namely counselor Kellyanne Conway and press secretary Sean Spicer, have been saying lately.

The Statements -- "Alternative Facts" and an Assault on the Truth

In his first week, Mr. Trump consistently has offered the American people "alternative facts." As "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd pointed out to Ms. Conway when she coined this phrase, "'alternative facts' are not facts, they're falsehoods."

The "alternative facts" given to date seem so ridiculous it's tempting to laugh them off. On deeper examination, however, the repeated reliance on "alternative facts" may be the single most insidious aspect of Mr. Trump's first week in office.

The "alternative facts" offered thus far are easily refuted with objective evidence. See NPR's fact checker and this New York Times video clip for a more comprehensive accounting, but some of the most striking examples are these--

Why would the President of the United States deal in such obvious falsehoods?

One theory is that Mr. Trump will say anything to protect his ego and actually believes what he's saying. Because he believes his own greatness, his crowd must've been the biggest ever and it could not possibly have rained while he spoke. His rocky relationship with the CIA must be someone else's fault. No one could possibly care about tax returns that might reveal he's not as rich or generous as he claims, or irrefutably show his conflicts of interest. He must have won the electoral vote fair and square, but Hillary Clinton can't possibly have won the popular vote fair and square. It's all about him, and the only "facts" he recognizes are those that affirm his greatness.

Another theory is that Mr. Trump and company understand that what they're saying is false yet choose to deploy falsehoods strategically to inject confusion into the public discourse, deflect attention from some of what they're doing, or avoid accountability and protect their power (or some combination).  Ultimately this theory also relates back to Mr. Trump's ego, particularly his need to win and maintain power.

By prioritizing the protection of his own ego and power over truth and responsible governance, Mr. Trump betrays the public trust. This betrayal is made worse because the "alternative facts" on which he relies range from the ridiculously petty to the critically important. This require us to devote a similar level of energy to matters large and small and fosters the impression that they are all equally important, when in fact they are not. Over time, it could prove challenging to hold Mr. Trump accountable for all his obvious falsehoods while keeping their relative importance in perspective.

When the media calls Mr. Trump out on his "alternative facts," he responds by saying, again with no evidence, that the media is lying and trying to demean and undermine his presidency. On the merits, the media clearly has the better of the "who is lying" and the "who is demeaning whom" arguments. Nonetheless, the administration's repeated berating of journalists and journalism has the effect of undermining the media's credibility at a time when Mr. Trump's propensity to disregard the truth makes the media's work more important than ever.

Perhaps most troubling is that a core minority of people has shown a willingness to believe Mr. Trump instead of their own eyes. If people continually prove willing to believe up is down and the midday sky is green simply because Donald Trump says so, then the media's job will go from difficult to nearly impossible. As the article referenced above states, "If a significant portion of Trump supporters are willing to champion obvious fabrications, challenging fabrications with facts will be difficult." Indeed. 

Don't laugh at or underestimate "alternative facts." They are potentially as powerful as they are untrue, they "frame" messages in a perverse and unproductive way, and the Trump Administration can use them toward all sorts of ends. "Alternative facts" do us a disservice at best and threaten our basic freedoms at worst.


We should continue to assess whether Mr. Trump and his advisors recognize that their "alternative facts" are false or instead believe they are true. Perhaps the answer depends on the specific issue, and either way is bad, but there's a difference between being cunningly manipulative and outright delusional. Determining which, on balance, they are will help inform how those of us who prefer to live in reality might seek to respond to them. Based on what I've seen thus far, my money says Trump is delusional and the others manipulative, but time will tell.

Speaking of responding to Mr. Trump, while I was drafting this post, some Republican members of Congress, including Mitch McConnell and John McCain, began speaking out against his immigration ban.  So far they have not taken concrete action to reject or reshape it, but it is early yet.

Defying a major policy action by a president of one's own party is very rare and comes with numerous political risks, particularly if Mr. Trump remains popular with the party base. It will be interesting to see if, and at what point, a conscientious core of Republicans will conclude that the risks of not defying Mr. Trump outweigh the risks of defying him and choose to seriously challenge him. I think there will need to be a clear and persistent track record of irresponsibility before enough Republicans will get to that point. However, Mr. Trump's early attempts to wield his power without regard for its limits, norms, and implications, along with his adherence to to a set of "alternative facts" wholly of his own making, are laying solid groundwork for opposition from Democrats and Republicans alike. And that, all things considered, is a very sad state of affairs for our country.

* This blog post consists solely of the views and opinions of its author.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Thoughts on Sexism, the Election, and the Worldwide March

The Women's March on Washington, DC, as evidenced by this New York Times photo album, turned out to be a Women's March Everywhere. Accordingly, this post explores sexism as a pervasive force, our 2016 presidential election result as prima facie evidence that sexism continues to exist in the United States, and yesterday's march as a monumental and transformational global statement that sexism is unacceptable and must stop.

Mr. Trump's campaign exploited many classic dividing lines among people, including class, race, national origin, religion, and gender.  While there are many classes, races, religions, and nationalities throughout the world, there are only two genders. We humans have had our entire history to practice sexism, and in my observation all classes, races, religions, and nationalities have done so to varying degrees. In some cases sexism is blatant and obvious, but in others it has worked its way beneath the surface so that we sometimes don't easily recognize it. Sexism is a dividing force that lacks the demographic limits of the other "isms," and this potentially universal scope is what makes it so powerful and pernicious.

The United States has a history of discrimination against women but also has made great strides to overcome that. Women fought for and won the right to vote. Women went from severely limited job opportunities to entering traditionally male-dominated professions, such as law, medicine, finance, politics, science, engineering, and the military. Women fought for and won reproductive freedom.

In spite of this progress, challenges remain. Preserving reproductive freedom is an ongoing struggle. Workplace discrimination persists in many forms, including the under-representation of women in some fields and specific institutions, and the lack of equal pay for equal work. A tendency also persists among some to blame sexual assaults on the victim.

Much of the foregoing is well-understood and openly discussed. The elephant in the room is the role sexism played in our 2016 presidential election.

My first blog post attempted to explain how we elected someone like Donald Trump, and a few commenters noted that that I hadn't addressed the point that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, was viewed by many as a deeply flawed candidate. Putting aside for the moment that Mrs. Clinton received nearly three million more individual votes than did Mr. Trump, it does appear to be the case that there were many "Never Hillary" voters, including some Democrats, who refused to vote for her because they viewed her as some combination of dishonest, untrustworthy, corrupt, and self-serving.

While that might explain an unwillingness to vote for Hillary Clinton, it does not adequately explain why Mr. Trump was a better alternative.  Based on his own direct statements and additional information that presented itself throughout the campaign, Mr. Trump, when judged by any objective measure of these integrity-focused criteria, should have been deemed equally objectionable.  Although I don't know anyone who personally cited the candidates' respective genders as the main reason for their decision on whom to vote, the striking double-standard used to evaluate them with respect to this set of "general integrity" issues suggests the possibility that latent sexism was indeed at work.

Perhaps there are some Trump voters who would disagree that there was a double-standard with respect to these integrity-focused criteria because they genuinely believed Donald Trump to be honest, trustworthy, free from corruption, and motivated by a desire to further the common good.  Even if we give Trump voters the benefit of the doubt regarding their analysis of this set of issues, we still must examine the role of the overt sexism that was so prominent in Mr. Trump's campaign.

By election day, it should have been beyond dispute that Mr. Trump had a pattern of repeatedly denigrating women as individuals and as a group. His pattern went beyond sexism into the realm of misogyny, which involves not only discrimination against women but also a downright contempt for them. Most people are familiar with Mr. Trump's track record here, so instead of rehashing all of it I will simply point you to the Telegraph's Donald Trump "Sexism Tracker" for a running tally.

One example that is worth highlighting is the Access Hollywood footage from 2005, during which Mr. Trump said, “I’ve got to use some Tic Tacs, just in case I start kissing her [referring to the woman he and host Billy Bush were about to meet]. . . . You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. . . . And when you’re a star, they let you do it. . . .You can do anything. . . . Grab them by the pussy. . . . You can do anything.” Mr. Trump tried to downplay these comments by characterizing them as private "locker-room banter" from many years before, but that excuse (1) rang hollow in light of his overall history and (2) did not render the underlying comments any less revolting.

This one piece of footage alone should have ended Donald Trump's campaign on the spot.  In a country with a low tolerance for sexism, these comments would have prompted even the most ardent partisans and "Anybody Except So-and-So" voters to say "enough is enough" and find another choice.  Instead, someone who repeatedly denigrated women and even bragged about sexually assaulting them amassed enough electoral votes to become President of the United States.  Sit back for a minute and think about what it means when the person who holds the highest office in the land, and the only elected office for which all of us vote, can get by with that kind of behavior. How soon will others feel free to follow his example?

Thankfully, some among us did not have to think about it for more than a second.  The call for the Women's March on Washington, DC, went up almost immediately. Anyone who was halfway paying attention knew this was going to be a big event in DC and other major US cities. Nonetheless, I'd venture to say that even those of us who were paying attention were stunned at the sheer magnitude and global scale of the response.

On January 21, 2017, an estimated 500,000 people marched on Washington, and collectively another 500,000 are estimated to have marched in other cities and towns throughout the United States. It didn't stop at our shores. Large crowds abroad stood with the women of America and marched in scores of other places on every continent on this planet. Yes, there was even a show of solidarity on a vessel in the waters just off the coast of Antarctica (this for me was one of the most compelling photographs in that New York Times photo album I mentioned above).

Because sexism's divisive potential knows few bounds, neither does our potential to unite against it and say we won't have it, or other forms of division that so often accompany it.  When the world's most powerful nation finally went too far down the path of fear, division, and negativity, it's women rose up, and men and women at home and around the world rose with them, to say, "This is wrong. We will not tolerate this. Together we must overcome this, and to that end oppose those who would stand in the way of progress."  This kind of worldwide, simultaneous, organized mass protest of a domestic election outcome is unprecedented in my lifetime.

Donald Trump inflamed the basest aspects of human nature to win an election in the United States, and the entire world responded by telling him, and indeed all of us, that our shared sense of human dignity and decency is greater than that. Although the worldwide marches were prompted by and focused on Mr. Trump's derisive treatment of women, the signs and chants and speeches and other forms of expression within the crowd touched other issues such as LGBTQ rights, climate change, racism, religious intolerance, and, at the London march, Brexit.  The common thread that coursed through all these various issues was that the forces of equality, justice, freedom, openness, and love can and must prevail against the baser aspects of hate and fear of "the other."

An election that seemingly divided one country 10 ways to Sunday has inspired the world to unite for all the right reasons and focus on our common humanity! What a beautiful and encouraging silver lining this is.  I suspect yesterday was not a one-time event, but rather the beginning of a movement. Oh, how I hope that will be the case, because that is exactly the kind of force required to overcome the sexism and other divisive forces that have weakened us as a country and a community for far too long.

As Dr. Martin Luther King tried to tell us long ago, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hatred cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." Yesterday wide swaths of the world told us they were choosing to be the light and the love.  May that continue to be so, in our organized protest moments but even more importantly in our daily lives.

*This blog consists solely of the views and opinions of its author.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Donald Trump Is a Party of One (which Might Help Heal the Partisan Rift)

The last post argued that Donald Trump won the presidency by leveraging the forces that dominate our culture, including the tools used in an extreme and highly toxic form of partisanship, and that his election therefore could be viewed as a natural product of that culture. This post will explore the paradox that Donald Trump is not really a part of the partisan political culture that spawned him, and how that might provide an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to heal their partisan rift.

Ours is basically a two-party system, in which Democrats battle Republicans in an "Us vs. Them" game with familiar partisan tactics, which they wield within unwritten yet recognized bounds. Candidates run as individuals, but the vast majority of them have a political identity that is integrally linked to a major party. They are in it to win one for their team, not just themselves.

Politics as a team sport is not inherently bad. Elections by their nature are competitive events, and party affiliation helps guide voters' choices by providing a fairly reliable indicator of where a candidate will stand on many important issues. Party affiliation also holds politicians accountable based on a core set of beliefs. It is expected and proper that a thinking politician will disagree with the party line at times, but there are negative consequences for doing so repeatedly.

Neither are the parties themselves inherently bad. I'm a Democrat, but I fully support the Republican Party's right to exist and have policy positions different from mine. It has produced some of our most extraordinary presidents -- e.g., Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt -- and a number of great legislators, judges, and statesmen. Conversely, there have been members of my own party with whom I have disagreed.

I think most of us, both those in political power and the citizens who support them, want to make our country better and stronger. That we disagree about how to do this is not a problem, but rather a strength. By allowing competing views, our system helps us identity the most desirable goals and means for achieving them. The problem lies in the manner in which we have been disagreeing.

Our system functions best when it has two healthy parties each of which will win some and lose some, when elections and governance proceed according to discernible norms, and when the parties generally manage to work together in good faith. Since the mid-1990s, the "working together in good faith" part of the equation has fallen by the wayside, and the norms have changed for the worse.

Partisanship has become so extreme that it involves not only advancing a party's own goals but also actively seeking to thwart the other party simply because it is the other party, without examining the merits of its proposals or the quality of the individuals its president nominates. Winning has become more important than governing, and demonizing one's opponent and preying upon the public's fear have become the norm in both the electoral and governing phases.  This is not OK.

This toxic level of partisanship among the party leadership, to which many citizens claim to object even as they debate politics amongst themselves in a similar fashion, has completely outdone itself by contributing to the election of a president who ultimately is of neither party. Donald Trump ran ostensibly as a Republican and his campaign leveraged the Republican Party's familiar partisan tools and some of its rhetoric, but two remarkable things set him apart from a typical partisan--
  • although he behaves as if all aspects of life are a competition, to him the relevant competition does not appear to be the familiar "Us vs. Them" variant so prevalent in our politics, but rather "Me vs. Everyone Else," including members of his own party; and 
  • he doesn't play by any set of discernible rules, but rather does or says whatever he wants and thus far has been accountable to no one.

Donald Trump is a Party of One, playing by his own rules for his own benefit.

We began to see evidence of this during the Republican primary, as Mr. Trump didn't merely disagree with the positions of his opponents but also mocked and bullied them. Mr. Trump's message throughout his campaign did include some classic Republican goals, like repealing Obamacare, tightening immigration laws, and cutting taxes. However, his foreign policy and national security positions largely went against the party line, as did his proposals to increase infrastructure spending and preserve Medicare. Throughout the process, he maintained his trademark bombastic style and offended one demographic group after another.

Donald Trump didn't sound or act like a typical Republican candidate, yet the party brass were unable to prevent his rise and eventual nomination. He beat them at their own game by leveraging their tactics and portions of their message. In so doing, he paradoxically presented himself as an anti-establishment candidate and won the votes of people frustrated with politics as usual.

By sharing a partisan label with Republicans but not really being one of them, Mr. Trump tests the limits of their partisanship. A number of prominent Republican officials and members of the media objected to Mr. Trump on principle early in the campaign and have stood by their stance. Others criticized him sharply during the primary but went on to support him, sometimes reluctantly, in the general election. Some supported him all along. Others opportunistically distanced themselves when it seemed inevitable that Mr. Trump would lose and take their party down with him but have cozied up again since he won one for their team.

Those Republican leaders who are reveling in Mr. Trump's victory are in for a rude awakening when they realize that Donald Trump didn't really win one for their team. He co-opted their brand to win one for himself.  Now he is poised to do many things they don't like. They should be concerned for the future of their party.

More troubling is what a Trump presidency will mean for our country. When Mr. Trump won, many people, myself included, hoped that he would choose to govern more responsibly than he campaigned.  His behavior so far is not encouraging.  Off-the-cuff calls with foreign leaders. Currying favor with Russia while simultaneously dismissing the US intelligence community. Claiming that he by law cannot have conflicts of interest because one provision of federal ethics law doesn't apply to the president, when it is obvious that his conflicts are real and significant. Not fully vetting cabinet nominees. Continuing to communicate primarily by tweet. Denigrating a CNN reporter at his one press conference. The list goes on.

Our government, which is based on laws, institutions, and norms, is about to be led by a president who seems unlikely to be guided or constrained by those laws, institutions, and norms. Mr. Trump appears to think that because he has been elected president he can now do anything he wants. Such imperious tendencies are antithetical to our system of government, with it constitutional checks and balances and other legal and cultural norms.

If Mr. Trump in fact attempts to disregard our constitutional checks and balances, or if he attempts to do something patently ridiculous or dangerous, Republicans and Democrats alike should oppose him and hold him accountable. Similarly, the Republicans should oppose him when he does something contrary to their party's conservative principles. The ultimate test of the limits of the Republicans' partisanship, therefore, will be how they respond to President Trump when he does one or more of these things. Will they stand behind him no matter what he does because he has an R after his name, or will they attempt to stop him when he starts to go too far?

Also of critical importance will be how the Democrats choose to respond. Will congressional Democrats embrace the "Politics of No!," which the Republicans consistently used against President Obama, and oppose President Trump at every turn solely for the sake of obstructing him, or will they choose to "go high" and base their positions on substance?  In many cases their opposition will be substantively justified, but when it isn't will they work with the Republicans? Although in the minority, will they demonstrate initiative and affirmatively reach out to the other side to try to find common ground, particularly on issues that until recent decades were not particularly partisan? Ending the toxic partisan rift is not a one-party exercise; it will require the Democrats to adopt a more constructive approach, too.

Maybe I am deluding myself because I am optimist who always looks for the silver lining, but I think the Trump presidency could bring about positive changes in our political culture.  Having just elected a president who ultimately is of neither party, each party would be well served by conducting an honest assessment of what it stands for and how it presents its message.  If President Trump starts to go off the rails, as I suspect he inevitably will, that will provide a perfect opportunity for the parties to abandon the current brand of partisanship that has hamstrung our government and replace it with a model in which they work together in a more principled way, motivated by their mutual concern for this country, its rule of law, and its constitutional principles. If the Trump presidency inspires such changes, it could help right the badly broken political culture that helped produce it.

*This blog post consists solely of the views and opinions of its author.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Understanding and Responding to the Election of Donald Trump

Like many Americans, I have been struggling to understand how we recently elected Donald Trump as our next president, dreading what his presidency will mean for our country and the hard-won progress it recently has made, and pondering what we as citizens might do to limit the damage and ensure we do not elect Mr. Trump or anyone like him again. This blog will be dedicated to those topics.

My opinion of Donald Trump is as follows: By any traditional measure used to judge fitness for the office of President of the United States, Mr. Trump is stunningly and unprecedentedly unqualified. He has no prior public sector experience, and his private sector record is difficult to judge because his businesses and business dealings are largely opaque and he refuses to release his tax returns. Moreover, it is unclear when or how he will ensure that his substantial private dealings do not conflict with his new public duties. He shows contempt for the institutions, rules, and norms that comprise the constitutional system of government he will soon lead. He has an unpredictable and highly narcissistic personality. Like a petulant child, his skin is so thin that even the smallest criticism or challenge unsettles him, and his reflexive response is to insult and humiliate the messenger without examining the message. He appeals to the baser aspects of human nature, such as misogyny, xenophobia, religious intolerance, racism, and mocking the disabled. In the process, he normalizes and legitimizes these undesirable characteristics that civilized societies generally seek to overcome rather than entrench. He curries favor with a hostile foreign government and simultaneously dismisses the intelligence agencies of his own country. He repeatedly makes false statements, some of which aren't merely indifferent to the truth but completely turn it upside down.

Any one of these traits in a president would be troubling. In combination they are downright dangerous to our country and the democratic institutions and principles on which its continued existence relies. I am a Democrat, but this view of Mr. Trump is not unique to Democrats. Many Republicans, including former officials from recent Republican administrations and conservative members of the media, have expressed deep concern about a Trump presidency. For a brief moment, as the election neared and Mr. Trump's defeat seemed certain, even some in the current Republican leadership began to distance themselves from him (although, as I will discuss in my next post, most of them unfortunately changed their tune when he unexpectedly won).

Before it happened, hardly anyone thought Mr. Trump could win. Since it did happen, experts and laymen alike have been attempting to explain how and why. Hillary Clinton received nearly 3 million more individual votes than Mr. Trump did, so many have focused on how the Electoral College system effectively disenfranchised Clinton voters, particularly in populous and solidly Democratic states. Blaming the Electoral College system misses the point. We've seen wide divergences in the popular vote and electoral vote before, including cases as recent as George W. Bush's election in 2000 in which the winner of the electoral college lost the popular vote. That the electoral vote and popular vote produced different results in 2016 is unfortunate and unfair. It does not, however, answer the underlying question of how someone who comported himself as Mr. Trump did was able to amass the requisite votes to win under the Electoral College system, or indeed under any voting system.

Others characterize Mr. Trump's election as a fluke attributable to his over-the-top personality. It seems more likely, however, that Mr. Trump won in spite of his personality than because of it. For most of the lengthy campaign, Mr. Trump was widely regarded as more of an entertaining sideshow than a serious candidate precisely because of his showmanship, lack of preparedness, and many outlandish statements. Any one of those outlandish statements ordinarily would have been a campaign ender. Based on traditional norms that apply to the behavior of those seeking our nation's highest office, Mr. Trump's personality should have doomed his candidacy many times over. That it did not suggests something besides personality was at work.

Still others argue that Mr. Trump's election marks the triumph of populism, which has long been present but never before dominant in our politics. Populism unquestionably played an important role in this election, but that does not begin to explain how a self-proclaimed billionaire managed to emerge as its standard bearer. What constitutes a "populist" is a complicated question, however, by any definition of which I am aware, Donald Trump is not one.

After reading and reflecting on these and other competing theories, my tentative conclusion is that our country's election of Donald Trump was neither a fluke nor a transformative populist moment. Rather, it was a natural outcome when the forces that have dominated our partisan political culture for the last two decades collided with several broader cultural forces. Donald Trump was an unconventional candidate, without question, but he won by harnessing, at times even personifying, very familiar threads of our political and cultural fabric.

Our political culture has recently been dominated by the following forces:
  • a reflexive, yet pervasive, contempt for government and the act of governing;
  • a rampant and unprincipled partisanship, marked by an extreme "Us vs. Them" mentality that says "We" must win at all costs and toward that end encourages--
    • demonizing "Them," at both the party and individual opponent level;
    • brazen counterfactualism, in which fiction, if repeated forcefully and often enough, takes on the mantle of truth, and demonstrable facts are categorically dismissed when they threaten one's existing beliefs; 
    • basing one's assessment of an idea or action on the party affiliation of the person espousing or doing it, rather than the merits of what is being said or done;
    • communicating through short and catchy sound bites, which are at best overly simplistic and at worst completely untrue;
    • convincing Americans to vote in ways that directly conflict with aspects of their self-interest, frequently by pitting them against each other based on some combination of party affiliation, race, gender, wealth level, ethnicity, national origin, and religious affiliation; and
    • attempting to disenfranchise those most likely to vote for the other party; and
  • shameless obstructionism -- the politics of "No!" -- which says that when elected to office "We" must oppose "Them" at every turn instead of constructively participating with "Them" in the act of governing. 

These aspects of our political culture are exacerbated by the large sums of money that are spent on elections thanks to the Citizen United case, which gives the very wealthiest among us, liberal and conservative alike, an obscenely disproportionate influence over our politics. The worst tendencies of our politics are exacerbated further still by broader cultural developments, including the following:
  • a 24-hour news cycle, in which journalism is conflated with entertainment and the news is fragmented into partisan "echo chambers" that reinforce pre-conceived views;
  • the instantaneous speed with which information can reach the masses, which has promoted a public discourse that is highly reactive and lacks reflection;  
  • significant economic and social change, which has been too fast or too painful (or both) for some people, and as a result has provoked a kind of populist backlash; 
  • an eroding of the quality of primary education and increased limits on access to higher education in a world in which lifelong learning is a necessity; and
  • anti-elitism, a hallmark of populism in which people of intelligence, education, and experience are characterized as out touch with, perhaps even hostile to, so-called "ordinary people."

With all these forces at work simultaneously, is it any wonder that our country eventually elected a president who shows contempt for the very government he seeks to lead; has no experience governing yet claims that "[he] alone can fix it" and "make America great again" by substituting his corporate deal-making experience; appears to view all aspects of life as a competition he must win; communicates primarily through tweets and sound bites; receives huge amounts of media coverage because of his theatrics; seeks to divide people along deplorable, yet unfortunately common, dividing lines; and, throughout it all, utters a steady stream of false statements? While we should be deeply troubled that our politics has come to this, we should not be surprised by it.  

To me, the most troubling aspect is this:  if we accept as true the theory that our political culture made Donald Trump's victory possible, then that means in the future we could elect someone equally unqualified, or God forbid even less so, unless our political culture itself changes.  We, the People, are the ones who must change it. I intend to devote the coming months to examining how we might go about doing that, in order to form the more perfect union our founders envisioned. There has never been a better time to engage in such an exercise, and I invite all concerned citizens, regardless of party or ideology, to join me.

*This blog post consists solely of the views and opinions of its author.