In 1704, Jonathan Swift published his first major work, the satire A Tale of a Tub – admittedly thorny and difficult but worth the work, because it’s a brilliant exploration of where what sounds so reasonable turns in on itself and becomes absurd. That is explained in the tale’s Digression on Madness (A DIGRESSION CONCERNING THE ORIGINAL, THE USE, AND IMPROVEMENT OF MADNESS IN A COMMONWEALTH) which might have been written for our political world today:
For if we take an examination of what is generally understood by happiness, as it has respect either to the understanding or the senses, we shall find all its properties and adjuncts will herd under this short definition, that it is a perpetual possession of being well-deceived. And first, with relation to the mind or understanding, it is manifest what mighty advantages fiction has over truth, and the reason is just at our elbow: because imagination can build nobler scenes and produce more wonderful revolutions than fortune or Nature will be at the expense to furnish.
That’s why politicians say what they say, and Stephen Colbert got to the same place in 2005 when he invented the word Truthiness – named Word of the Year for 2005 by the American Dialect Society and for 2006 by Merriam-Webster, to Colbert’s delight:
Now I’m sure some of the “word police” – the “wordinistas” over at Webster’s – are gonna say, “Hey, that’s not a word.” Well, anybody who knows me knows I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true. Or what did or didn’t happen.
Colbert had won – the word was useful for describing the political advantages fiction has over truth. It was a one word compression of what Swift said way back when. Some things feel true so they must be true, because your gut tells you so, in spite of all empirical evidence to the contrary. That one thing feels right, and thus happiness, or smug satisfaction, has to do with the perpetual possession of being well-deceived – and this year Marco Rubio actually won the Iowa caucuses and Donald Trump is toast.
What? There’s that despairing last line of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises – “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
It is, but Ted Cruz won – the nasty and vindictive and clever little man who is loathed by everyone who has ever had to work with him, especially every Republican in Washington – had the most votes. The Iowa voters stuck it to the Republican Party. More than half of those Republicans out there in Iowa are evangelicals who have long felt used and abused by the party – betrayed – promised no more abortion, and government-mandated Christian prayer in public schools, and no more of this gay marriage nonsense and who knows what – only to find the party wanted tax cuts for the rich and no more regulation of Wall Street and an end to the EPA and maybe Medicare too.
That was never their fight and Ted Cruz was, he said, just as evangelical as they were. Donald Trump, the thrice-married billionaire from New York City, just couldn’t fake that. All the late polling showed Trump leading – he was a winner who would make America great again. That notion seemed irresistible – but then that seemed absurd. How was he going to do that? He never said. The folks in Iowa must have sensed bullshit – and Cruz was a man of God. Trump ended up pretty much tied for second with Marco Rubio, the young senator from Florida with that frightened look in his eyes, all the time, the man-child who had memorized all the right things to say. Push the button and he recites all those right things, but he’s the establishment candidate – the national party loves him – and a few people in Iowa must have decided he was far more electable than Trump or Cruz. And really, Cruz has maxed out – there are no more than a handful of full-Jesus states left out there for him. What else has he got? And he really is a nasty fellow, but Trump said he, Donald Trump, was a winner – he never loses and he’d make sure America never loses, ever again, on anything – and he lost. What else has he got?
So Rubio won. That was the talk of the day after the Iowa caucuses. The frightened young kid won.
At Slate, the thoughtful (read, establishment) conservative Reihan Salam said not so fast:
Monday night’s outcome means less than you might think for Trump’s prospects going forward. Cruz often speaks of his fight against “the Washington cartel.” Yet it is Trump who has violated almost every tenet of movement conservative orthodoxy and who has maligned professional politicians, Republican or Democratic, as the pathetic cat’s paws of billionaires like himself. He has demonstrated that there is a large constituency of Republicans who are indifferent to the fight against Obamacare and the battle to cut capital gains taxes, and who are instead passionate about restricting immigration and protecting America’s industries against Chinese competition. Trump is threatening to transform the ideological configuration of the GOP, and all his Republican rivals can do is react to his erratic moves. This dynamic won’t suddenly come to an end because of Iowa, and it has allowed him to shape the Republican race to fit his strengths.
In short, don’t count Trump out:
There is a widespread belief that because Trump so often emphasizes his talent for winning, any setback will prove devastating to his all-important aura of invincibility. Keep in mind, however, that Trump lost his lead on more than one occasion in the months leading up to Iowa, yet he kept pressing ahead. Trump’s reality distortion field proved even more powerful than the polls, and it may yet prove more powerful than the Iowa caucuses.
The truth is that Iowa was never the most favorable terrain for Trump’s brand of populism. Indeed, one could argue that Trump would have been wise to play down expectations for the caucuses, though doing so would have been very off-brand for a man loved and admired for his brashness. His real strength lies not among the devoutly religious Republican caucus-goers of Iowa, 61 percent of whom identified as evangelical or born-again Christians in an entrance poll conducted on Monday night. Rather, Trump appeals most to working-class Republicans in rural stretches of the Deep South, Appalachia, and the Northeast, and in particular to those of a more secular bent.
Face it, Rubio is just a kid, and Trump will do fine in New Hampshire:
For one thing, New Hampshire voters are far less religiously observant, and there is at least some reason to believe that Trump’s aggressive style doesn’t appeal to all God-fearing Christians. And though much has changed in New Hampshire since 1996, it is worth remembering that it’s the state where Pat Buchanan’s nationalist challenge to the GOP establishment enjoyed its greatest success. Unless something dramatic changes between now and next week, there is every reason to believe that Trump will defeat Cruz and Rubio in New Hampshire, where he enjoys a wide lead in the polls, and there is an excellent chance that he will do the same in South Carolina, where he fares almost as well.
Add to that, Rubio has a target on his back:
Despite his abysmal performance in Iowa, Jeb Bush continues to have considerable resources at his disposal, and the super PAC allied with his campaign has already devoted vast sums of money to savage attacks on Rubio, Bush’s erstwhile mentee. John Kasich and Chris Christie are not nearly as well-situated financially, but they also have nothing to lose. What reason do they have not to join Bush in savaging Rubio in the days to come?
Rubio is going nowhere. Salam prefers truth to truthiness, and so does Hillary Clinton. She’s not one of the perpetually well-deceived. She’s not worried about Rubio. Politico reports that her team is devising a careful plan to go after Donald Trump:
“There’s plenty of material out there,” said longtime Clinton confidant James Carville. “We just have to figure it all out.”
And that’s exactly what they’re trying to do:
With her campaign intensely focused on fending off an unexpectedly strong challenge from Sanders, the man tasked with leading off an eventual anti-Trump offensive is David Brock, the former Clinton foe turned ally who spearheaded the first sharp attacks against the Vermont socialist.
In November, a subsidiary of the Democratic National Committee paid the Brock-run American Bridge $144,000 for “research services,” according to elections filings. That research was devoted almost entirely to building a “Trump Book,” a compendium of clips and other records that could be used for future attacks, a campaign official familiar with the situation told POLITICO. In early December, the Clinton campaign paid the group a further $22,000 for similar work, the official added, and another David Brock-affiliated group, Correct the Record, began a cursory vetting of Trump over the summer.
The emerging approach to defining Trump is an updated iteration of the “Bain Strategy” – the Obama 2012 campaign’s devastating attacks on Mitt Romney’s dealings with investment firm Bain Capital, according to a dozen Democratic operatives and campaign aides familiar with the accelerating planning inside Clinton’s orbit. This time, Democrats would highlight the impact of Trump’s four business bankruptcies – and his opposition to wage hikes at his casinos and residential properties – on the families of his workers.
One Obama ally who helped frame the 2012 Bain strategy added another line of likely attack: “He’s a landlord. Everybody fucking hates their landlord.”
So, Trump is a great businessman, worth billions? Attack your opponent’s strengths. That’s the ticket:
“Why didn’t the Republicans do this against Trump already? The business stuff is really good fodder,” says veteran Democratic consultant Hilary Rosen, a Clinton supporter who is close to the campaign. “Look, there are real people who have been hurt from his multiple business dealings – real people with real problems. … Those are charges the Republicans were reluctant to make. Democrats won’t make that mistake. Think Bain.”
Or don’t, because Trump isn’t Romney:
One former Obama campaign and White House adviser said that Romney was wounded by the attacks on his business practices because it contradicted his compassionate-conservative pitch to swing voters. “We nailed it because it nailed Mitt on his motivation: He wasn’t this nice guy he claimed to be,” the former staffer said. “Trump never claimed to be nice. … No, the way to attack him is on temperament – a guy like this just isn’t fit to be president.”
The Clinton team will have to work this out, and that may not be easy:
Trump has confused pundits, reporters, political professionals, his opponents, and not least Clinton and her army of operatives. “The truth is we are as puzzled by this as everybody else, and have no idea what the hell is going to happen with him,” the Clinton insider said. “Democrats knew what they were getting in 2008 with McCain; they knew early in 2012 they’d be getting Romney. You could plan for those guys. You can’t really plan for Trump yet because he’s so unpredictable.”
Clinton’s top advisers, moreover, are still divided over how to deal with him: Initially, she and her team viewed him as a clamorous godsend, an unelectable party-buster who, along with Ted Cruz, would ensure her victory.
But Trump’s rising appeal with white, working-class voters and his willingness to bring up the ugliest Clinton scandals of the 1990s have unnerved the former first family, according to people in their orbit.
A Clinton-Trump contest would feature two candidates with disapproval ratings traditionally deemed too high for national electoral success: Clinton’s disapprovals hover around the 50 percent range, while Trump’s have rocketed as high as 60 percent, an unprecedented number that should preclude the possibility of his winning a general election.
Add too that the guy fights back:
When NBC’s Chuck Todd asked Trump how he would respond if the Clintons attacked him, he suggested he’d delve more deeply into their personal history.
“Well, I don’t want to say it’s a threat. But it is a threat,” he said on “Meet the Press.”
Even if Trump doesn’t follow through on the threat – or if America yawns – Carville thinks that the Republican front-runner is wily enough to figure out a new way to get under Clinton’s skin.
“Trump’s got talent. He can hold the line when he’s attacked. He uses irony,” he added.
Oh no! Irony! Team Clinton wants to attack Donald Trump with truth, but they know his truthiness is more powerful. The Huffington Post now appends this to every item that mentions Donald Trump:
Note to our readers: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims – 1.6 billion members of an entire religion – from entering the U.S.
That’s unlikely to change any minds. The minds they want to change don’t ever go to their site. They don’t like smug liberals. No one does, and at Vanity Fair, Tina Nguyen adds this:
A strategy that paints Trump as a ruthless capitalist isn’t entirely without merit. The Club for Growth claimed to cause a slight dip in the front-runner’s poll numbers when it attacked him with the message that Trump “literally bulldozed over the little guy to get his way.” But other outside spending groups failed to join in the attack, and Trump’s electoral juggernaut continued on its way, unimpeded. …
An attack on Trump’s temperament could be more successful, highlighting Clinton’s competency and grace under pressure, as during the nine-hour-long Benghazi hearings. And it could remind voters that the presidency is too serious to entrust to a candidate who boycotted a debate rather than face a moderator he disliked. But Trump’s Republican opponents have all tried to attack his personality, and so far, they’ve all failed. Trump has turned rudeness into a virtue and political correctness into a four-letter word. He has already brought up old rape allegations against Bill Clinton, and the attacks will only get dirtier if the two face off in a general election.
And then everyone will be well-deceived, and as for the most recent attacks on Hillary Clinton, about those emails, Josh Marshall offers this:
Over the weekend there was a stir because a New York Times reporter, Peter Baker, told CNN’s Sunday morning show that Democrats are “quietly absolutely petrified” of a mid-summer indictment. This ‘hot take’ was immediately picked by Mike Allen’s Politico Playbook. The stage was then set for yet another DC bubble derp freakout. Are Democrats “petrified”? I think that’s an overstatement. But are some nervous? I have no doubt they are. But I know people are stocking up on ammo for when ISIS mounts an operation against their house. For most people fear is generated by press coverage, often ignorant or tendentious press coverage. And with the breathless coverage of developments that more or less obviously have no legal impact whatsoever, I don’t doubt that many are nervous.
They shouldn’t be – this will just be another derp freakout, but perhaps that needs clarification:
Roughly defined, derp is an onomatopoeic exclamation uttered in response to a boneheaded action of some kind. Its adjective form, derpy, describes someone who is prone to acting like an idiot. Derpitude is the persistent state of being derpy. Over the past few years, the political class on Twitter has appropriated the term as a pejorative to point out an obtuse or stupid argument.
Jonathan Swift’s language was more elegant, in the days before Twitter, but Marshall has a point:
Here’s the reality. Who knows what we will learn in the future? And this has nothing to do with the political impact of the “emails controversy”. But as a legal matter, the chances of Hillary Clinton facing any kind of indictment are very, very low.
Start with the fact that as far as we know, she is not actually even being investigated for anything, let alone facing a looming indictment. The simple facts, as we know them, just don’t put her in line for an indictment. The first reason is the facts, which rest heavily on intent and reckless negligence. The second is tradition and DOJ regulations which make professional prosecutors very leery of issuing indictments that might be perceived or in fact influence an election.
This was my thinking. But as the press coverage has become increasingly heated, I started trying to figure out if there was something I was missing – some fact I didn’t know, some blind spot in my perception. So I’ve spoken to a number of law professors and former federal prosecutors – based on the facts we know now even from the most aggressive reporting. Not like, is this theoretically possible? Not, what the penalties would be if it happened. But is an indictment at all likely or is this whole idea very far-fetched. To a person, very far-fetched.
But that has not stopped the perpetually well-deceived:
So why the press coverage? I think it’s a combination of reasons. The most irreducible and perhaps most significant is simply prestige reporter derp and general ignorance of the legal system. Second is journalists’ perennial inability to resist a process story. And third, let’s be honest, wingnut page views.
As I’ve said, the political calculus and potential political damage is a different matter altogether. There is little doubt that this whole on-going controversy, along with stuff in the background about the Clinton Foundation, has hurt Clinton badly on public estimations of her honesty and trustworthiness. But again, on the possibility of an indictment, most of this chatter is just plain ridiculous – a mix of ignorance and tendentiousness.
But there’s more:
Do we need to put up a Trump Wall along the Canadian border to keep out the terrorists? In the closing days of the Iowa caucus campaign Ben Carson and Marco Rubio have been pushing the national security threat the US faces along its northern border. Yes, from Canada. Particularly, terrorists infiltrated the US along the generally porous US-Canada border.
According to The Wall Street Journal, a man at a Rubio townhall on Friday asked the senator, “Once the wall is placed down in Mexico, you and I know terrorists will try to come through Canada. What’s going to be done about that?”
Rubio was totally on board. “The threat to the Canadian border is real as well, we need an additional 20,000 border agents. Not just on the southern border, but to partner with the Canadians on the northern border.”
Added to the hysteria are the 25,000 Syrian refugees who Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has very conspicuously welcomed into the country. According to Ben Carson on Wednesday, “We also have to, you know, harden our defense at our seaports and our air terminals, everywhere. Our northern border in Canada, you know, because Trudeau is taking tens of thousands of Syrians. Believe me, those people, the radical Islamists… they will infiltrate those people, just like they will infiltrate them if we bring them here.”
One must almost become a full-fledged archeologist of derp to dig through the many levels of evidence-less assumptions upon which these fears are based. The assumption is that ISIS, al Qaeda or just “the terrorists” more generally are routinely infiltrating terrorists into the United States to mount terror operations. We need to secure the Southern border against terrorist infiltration. And having cut off that entry way they will focus instead on the northern border.
This is quite simply an entire edifice of bullshit.
Marshall goes on to prove that with a devastating array of actual facts – truth versus truthiness – but imagination can build nobler scenes and produce more wonderful revolutions than fortune or Nature will be at the expense to furnish. That’s derp – being perpetually well-deceived. That’s also our politics now. There may be no fixing this. Donald Trump might be our next president.