Wednesday, May 24, 2017

How This White House Lies

Donald Trump is both one of the most gifted liars in American politics, a genius of dishonesty, and at the same time hopelessly bad at lying. His lawless firing of FBI Director Comey shows the ineptitude. Trump led with a story so weak that no one could pretend to believe it and then, within forty-eight hours had abandoned that story for one that was actually more incriminating. A White House that keeps changing its story is in crisis. A White House that changes it story to something more damaging is out of its mind.

The problem for Trump is that his approach to lying, which has been enormously effective for most of his career, is not working in this situation. The problem for Trump's press secretary and deputy press secretary, Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is not just that they are being sent out to lie, but that they are sent out to lie like Trump himself, without Trump's skill set, even in situations where Trump's approach is wrong.

There are two things that make a lie work. Some lies work because they are plausible. Others work because they are emotionally satisfying. Some lies are both, of course, but others work by being one or the other.

A plausible lie is one that seems believable from an objective standpoint. It's false, but the falsehood sounds likely: it's the kind of thing that actually does happen, it doesn't contradict any known facts, there's no real reason not to believe it. A stockbroker claims to be bringing in, say, 15% more money a year for clients than he really is; you would need to see his books to bust him on that lie, whereas if he claimed to be doubling clients' money every six months it simply wouldn't be plausible. If I pretended to be close buddies with some of the famous people I went to college with, it would take some time and effort, or some bad luck on my part, to bust me. A google search will show that I actually did graduate from the same college as those people did, in the same year, so for all you know we might once have had some deep conversation in the dining hall. The lie is plausible.

An emotionally satisfying lie, on the other hand, is one that satisfies the listener's emotional needs. It may not make them happy -- in fact, it may make them fearful or enraged -- but it hooks them. It fulfills their need to feel loved, it offers a way out of medical or financial trouble, it offers them a scapegoat for their failures, it confirms their belief that they have been persecuted. (See Michael Wolraich's Blowing Smoke for the addictive power of "feeling hard done by.") And if the listener wants or needs to believe badly enough, the lie doesn't have to be that plausible. If you really want to blame Mexican immigrants for losing your job, the fact that immigration for Mexico is actually declining does not matter a bit; you won't even take that fact on board. People on Twitter have been congratulating Trump for going to Israel when Obama did not, which is completely ridiculous. Obama did go to Israel, of course. It only takes five seconds to check. But the people the lie is aimed at don't want to check. They want to believe.

Most Washington Beltway types, the reporters and lawyers and Congressional staffers and so on who make up most of our political and chattering classes, tend to lie as plausibly as they can. If they're going to tell a falsehood, they will try to make that falsehood as probable-sounding and hard to check as they can manage. Sooner or later every White House Press Secretary has to tell a lie, large or small; when they do, they make it as plausible as they can, because they know they can't bank on their listeners' desire to believe. They're talking to an audience that wants to fact-check them, so they craft lies that can stand up to scrutiny from skeptical and dispassionate, or even hostile, observers. Washington, DC and New York City are cities of plausible liars.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, is an absolute master of the emotionally satisfying lie. His genius is telling people what they want -- no, need -- to hear, and getting them to invest their emotions in the lie. And like many people with a gift for emotionally satisfying lies, he has a tendency to believe his own falsehoods, at least some of the time.

Emotionally-satisfying lies are key for people who need small groups of people to believe in them intensely. That includes con artists, cult leaders, and domestic abusers. (I am not calling the President a domestic abuser, and certainly not calling him a religious leader of any kind. I'm just talking about how he lies.) Those liars get their targets deeply keyed up, and deal with attacks on their credibility with various rationalizations and counter-attacks. They are just saying that because they're trying to drive us apart, baby. Don't listen when your mother tries to break us up. These lies don't have to make any sense; they just have to give the believers some way to keep believing. The most successful lie in history, alas, is probably the abuser's special: I only hit you because I love you. That lie works, until it stops working, because the victim cannot bear the truth that the abuser does not love them.

Most journalists and politicians, because they are plausible liars, don't understand how Trump functions at all. Those are not the lies they would tell. That is not the model they follow. Trump's lies only make sense when you understand them as aimed at people who are already in his bunker, sipping his delicious Kool-Aid. This is fake news! This is just people who hate Trump! It's core emotional appeal to believers.

Trump's big problem is that lies designed for bunker-dwellers break down under the scrutiny of the wider world. An abuser's victim may believe he hits her because he loves her; she may need to believe that he hits her because he loves her. But the District Attorney never believes that shit for a second. An abuser who brings those lies into a court of law is in for a world of (well-deserved) hurt. Implausible but emotionally-satisfying lies don't work for an audience that hasn't bought into them emotionally. A cult leader talking to people outside the bunker just sounds crazy and sad.

Emotionally-satisfying lies to a core audience have gotten Trump where he is today. But it's always, always time for plausibility when the police show up. Emotionally-satisfying lie do not help when you're under investigation. They will probably hurt you. Cops don't want to believe you. Lawyers and reporters don't want to believe you. Judges do not want to believe you. They want to hear the truth, and if you can't give them that you need a lie they can't poke holes in.

Trump needed to switch gears when the investigations began. He didn't, because he's probably not capable. He is emotionally dependent upon the same lies that his believers are.

Sean Spicer and Sarah Sanders, on the other hand, have an even more intractable problem. They are forced to go out and tell the Washington press corps, the people for whom banal but plausible lies are designed, a series of Trump-like lies: emotionally satisfying to Trump, utterly implausible, and dead in the water to an audience who's not already strongly biased toward Trump. Largest inauguration crowd in history is a classic of its kind. Transparently false, but exciting for people who want to believe it. But that's a catastrophic lie to tell to the Post and the Times.

Certainly, with Trump seemingly in genuine legal jeopardy, his flacks should be sticking to the plausible fictions. But those obviously are not their orders. Instead, they are marched out with outrageously flimsy BS, like "Trump fired Comey for being unfair to Hillary," which not only fails to convince reporters but antagonizes them and makes them pay closer attention to everything you're trying to hide. Big, big mistake. And Spicer, for whom I feel the kind of pity I feel for some of the sufferers in Dante's Hell, is also forced to tell Trump-like likes without anything like Trump's talent for telling them. Spicer, really, should stick to believable bullshit. Trump's grandiose disregard for truth requires Trump's grandiosity and emotional conviction, his instinct for telling his rubes victims voters what they need to hear and his own deeply needy emotional commitment to his lies. These really are not the kind of lies you can hire a middleman to tell for you. You need to tell them yourself. But sooner or later, you will need to deal with the truth.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog



Friday, May 05, 2017

Today in Jedi Studies (Self-promotion Edition)

Yesterday, I had a small humor piece published by McSweeney's Internet Tendency.

It's called "Questions for the Jedi Vice-Chair of Graduate Studies"
Do I absolutely have to construct my own lightsaber to graduate?
Will you accept 30 hours of transfer credit from the Dark Side?
How will being at one with the Force prepare me for today’s job market?
You can read the rest here:

(Comments, as always, welcome at Dagblog)

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

The Moral Necessity of the Civil War

So, Donald Trump said some stupid and ignorant things about the Civil War. Not much of that is worth discussing: the man says stupid and ignorant things because, well, he's stupid and ignorant, so there isn't much to analyze. The one part we should stop to think about is Trump's conviction that the Civil War should have been avoided. That's not an idea that he came up with on his own. He doesn't come up with ideas on his own. He picks them up from outside. This idea has been around a long time.

Trump regrets the Civil War. He wishes that the Civil War had not been fought. He got those ideas from other people, and those people are very, very wrong.

Let me say, up front, that if there had been a way to free every American slave without bloodshed, that would have been great. I am not for American lives being lost at Gettysburg, any more than I am for American lives being lost on Omaha Beach. But I do not regret that the United States defeated the Confederacy any more than I regret that United States defeated the Nazis. I will say this clearly: the Civil War was a good thing.

Trump is voicing the regret that the Civil War was fought at all, the regret that white Americans had to come to blows with one another over something as trivial as the freedom of black Americans. "No reason" for it, in Trump's words, as if the freedom of millions upon millions of souls were not a reason.

But history, our own history shows us that there was no peaceful bargain that could have freed the slaves, for the simple reason that slave-holders stubbornly refused to release their captives. There was no compromise on the table: the Confederacy rebelled rather than accept any further compromise.

And freeing the slaves, all of the slaves, is not a negotiable demand. Slavery is a terrible crime. It is inexcusable.

Now, somehow all of this has become impolite to say. You are supposed to be considerate of white Southerners' feelings about slavery. It is considered rude to speak about their ancestors' horrific crimes against millions of people without considering the delicacy of their feelings. In fact, you're supposed to say something polite about how awful Reconstruction is, which is like talking about how terrible the GIs who liberated the concentration camps were. I'm through with it. The truth is the truth.

Is this about regional pride? Okay then. As a Northerner, I take enormous regional pride in the defeat of the Confederacy and much deeper human pride in the abolition of slavery. Those are great and precious achievements. If you are an American but are not proud of these things, you cannot call yourself a patriot.

Now, saying this in such a crude way is considered "incivility." That was exactly how it was framed before the Civil War, as certain white people in both the South and the North deplored the rudeness and incivility of the slavery debate. By this, they meant the intemperate rudeness of the anti-slavery side. The same complaint echoes through the 1840s and 1850s: wasn't terrible that people couldn't just put aside their trivial differences and get along in harmony?

"People," in this formulation, means white people. What about the black people? They, and their human rights were the "trivial differences" meant to be put aside in the name of good manners.

Ever since the Civil War there has been a cultural and political project of reconciliation, meaning reconciliation between white Northerners and Southerners. This project, like the antebellum campaign for compromise and civility, focuses on solidarity between white Americans at black Americans' expense. Black citizens' rights are not only ignored, but deliberately kept out of the conversation as a potential obstacle to white people singing Kumbaya with each other.

This can't-we-get-along project fosters the ridiculous lie that the Civil War was somehow not about slavery, the explicit declarations of the Confederates notwithstanding.We're told that the Civil War was "complex" and had many subtle causes, as if the issue of slavery alone did not dwarf every single one of those causes. And the noble cause of white people's harmony requires Northerners to be tactful and nearly apologetic about the war. Northerners are expected to seek Southerners' forgiveness for stopping their ancestors' monstrous crimes against humanity.

To hell with that. The Civil War was about slavery, and it was the slavers' fault. No subtlety or nuance is important enough to change those basic facts. Those are the central truths, and the rest are details around the edges. The Civil War was never going to be fought over tariff policy.

But these are still the unwritten rules of civility in America, especially around discussions of race. No one expressly announces these rules, and no one could, because they are morally depraved. But they are carefully followed: you can observe them in our politics and our media. The unspoken rule is that white people are meant to be polite and respectful to other white people at all costs, and disrespect to a fellow white is mannerless incivility. Defending the rights (and basic humanity) of non-white people is never treated as an excuse for being "uncivil" to a white person, least of all a white man. Rather, "incivility" is treated as yet more offensive when performed on behalf of people of color. To impugn a white person, and disrupt the serenity of American intra-honky harmony on behalf of someone considered lower down the racial hierarchy is treated as a particular insult and outrage.

This is why in some conservative quarters calling someone a racist is considered the most horrendous and unpardonable offense. Not because the accused person is not a racist, but because they are, because (although this can not be stated) they consider it morally outrageous to violate a fellow white person's privilege or to embarrass them on behalf of anyone from another race. The "anti-racists are the real racist" response is built on the deep emotional conviction that blacks, Latinos, etc., are indeed inferior and that it is a mortal insult to be upbraided for the sake of a person that one does not accept as an equal.

Do you think I'm wrong? Watch cable news for a week. Listen to your loud uncle at Thanksgiving. Watch the tape of Mitch McConnell silencing Elizabeth Warren for incivility. The incivility is calling another white person to account for their racist words and deeds. Jeff Sessions's racist words and racist actions are matters of public record  It is treated as the greatest of sins. Shooting unarmed black children is deemed, by some, and honest mistake, but calling other people racist is treated as entirely beyond the pale.

That is the logic that imagines the Civil War an unnecessary tragedy: a world view that imagines white folk as fully alive and human, meant to live in untroubled harmony together, and views the problems -- even the most basic rights and needs -- of other races as insignificant issues that must not be allowed to disrupt white folks' mutual amity.


But the Civil War, although tragic in its means, resulted in triumph. The liberation of millions of human souls from bondage is one of the greatest victories of all time. Would it have been better if those millions of Americans had been freed voluntarily? Yes. But that was not going to happen. And they had to be freed. I thank God for that victory. And I bless the Republican Party that did it, a Republican party that we my never see again.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Brexit vs Breakfast: Food and Free Trade

The United Kingdom officially triggered Article 50 today, meaning the two-year march to Brexit has begun. The UK is leaving the European Union, and leaving without any concessions, any deals, any accommodations. It's the "hard Brexit." There are many reasons this is a bad idea, but let's keep it simple: the United Kingdom cannot feed itself.

Britain does manage to grow somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of the food it eats. The last numbers I saw were 54 or 55 percent. So better than half, but not nearly self-sufficient. And Britain does export some food and drink (read: beer), exporting things that its farmland and climate are good for and importing other things that it can't grow, or can't grow well. (If there are any British grapes, there should not be.) But the UK imports more than twice as much food as it exports. Britain depends on imported food from its neighbors, and has throughout its modern history.

Why is this? Because Britain's population is too large for Britain's own farmland too feed. Too many people on too small an area, with a good chunk of that area unfarmable. (Britain has plenty of lovely mountains.) They couldn't feed themselves if they tried. In fact, they have been trying, very very hard, and they can't.

This is not a question of farming more land: just about all the arable land is being farmed already. England has no field untilled, no stone unturned. And it is not a question of efficiency, because British farmers are already incredibly efficient, already wringing the absolute maximum yield from each acre. That they can feed more than half their massive population from that amount of land is actually pretty impressive. They cannot do better than they are already doing. In fact, they're getting close to some ugly short-term/long-term tradeoffs, where they could increase this year's harvest by a few percent at the cost of making the land less productive later. That is not a way out of their problem.

Now, the British are obsessed with British farmers. UK supermarkets slather their products with labels for British beef, British cream, British etc. etc. But that obsession just masks the basic problem that Britain doesn't produce enough beef, butter, and so on. The imperative to buy and cook home-grown products functions to distract the public from the larger problem that there's not enough home-grown food.

Likewise, British farmers are heavily subsidized by the EU, and this deal -- or rather, complete lack of deal -- kills those subsidies, which may or not be replaced. So this may hurt British farmers, too. But that complicated and murky policy question is much less important than the far simpler problem of not being able to feed your own population without buying food from other countries.

Where does most of that imported food come from? All over the world, but about half of the gap is made up by European Union farmers. Remember, England's traditional breadbasket is Ireland. It's been dependent upon Irish farming throughout its modern history. (Yes, even during the Potato Famine; Ireland exported food to England during the Potato Famine, and met its quotas, while the Irish themselves starved.) And of course, England's other nearest neighbor, France, is an agricultural powerhouse, blessed with acre after acre of prime farmland. So the EU produces more than a quarter of the food the British eat.

Now, I'm no economist. But it strikes me that if your country is dependent upon imported food, you never, ever want to leave a free-trade agreement. Tariffs on agricultural goods can only drive up the price of food for your people. God forbid you ever get into an actual trade war with the people who sell your citizens at least five meals a week.

Throwing up trade barriers on food makes that food more expensive, obviously. And, free markets being what they are, making one quarter of the country's food more expensive makes all food prices rise. If Irish beef is more expensive because of taxes, then people can charge more for British beef too, and will.

This makes daily living more expensive for everybody, but it hits poorer people much harder, because more of their income is taken up on basic necessities. Rich people spend a much smaller percentage of their income on food; even if they buy more expensive groceries, or go to fancy restaurants, it's a much smaller part of their monthly budget. (Having excess money for things beyond basic needs is what being rich is.) But if, say, one-third of your monthly income goes to the groceries, a spike in grocery prices can be truly painful.

The "elites" that Brexiteers love to jeer at are not going to be hurt by this; they will still have their French wines and their long lovely dinner parties. They will just pay a small surtax on those pleasures. It's the poor and hard-working Little Englanders, the people who voted for Brexit to stick it to the London elites, who will get it stuck to them at the supermarket checkout. They are the people who are going to be bringing home less bacon, and paying more for what they bring.

If this all seems like a stupid and self-destructive idea, well, Britain has never been Europe's farming superpower. But in the EU it's become the banking superpower, making enormous money as the financial capital of Europe because the whole bloc could locate its premier financial services in one city without worrying about financial borders. And now that those borders are returning ... oh, wait. What was the plan here again?

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog


Saturday, March 04, 2017

DC Spy Novel Roundup: March 4 Edition

Do you ever feel like John Le Carre's writing a novel called "American Politics?" Because U.S. politics are looking seriously Le-Carre-ified right now. Let's try to catch up on the story so far, leading up to the President's Saturday-morning tweetstorm accusing Obama of illegally wiretapping Trump Tower. (Boy, does Jared Kushner have a surprise coming when he gets back on line tonight.) Okay, let's walk through the last few weeks of front-page counterespionage. 

1) Michael Flynn ousted as Nation Security Adviser after lying about meetings with Russian ambassador.

What's interesting about this is the way Flynn got caught in the lie. He got on the phone with the Russian ambassador, multiple times, and started talking about Russia sanctions. Why Flynn, who used to head the Defense Intelligence Agency, did not stop to think that US intelligence routinely records all of the Russian ambassador's calls is a mystery. I mean, of course they do.

The Russian ambassador to the United States is presumably involved in espionage against the United States, and American intelligence would be negligent not to presume that. So if American intelligence were not watching and listening to the Russian ambassador (just as Russian intelligence surveills our ambassador to Russia) it would be a dereliction of duty.

What interested me at the time, if Flynn was acting on Trump's orders, was how Trump would replace that line of communication to Russia.  Flynn got caught not because he was being watched, but because Kislyak was. The FBI caught the message boy because they were watching the mailbox. So anyone else Trump sent would also just get caught immediately. I did not realize that POTUS already had another problem:

2. Jeff Sessions gets caught lying about meeting Russian ambassador. Then Jared Kushner also turns out to have met with Flynn and Kislyak.

It turned out, of course, that more of Trump's inner circle had already met with Kislyak. And so when Flynn was burned, those people also had to know they were burned, for the same reason. US intelligence always watches the Russian ambassador. If he takes steps to avoid observation, they only get more interested. So US intelligence had seen everyone else from the Trump camp who'd met with the ambassador.

Jeff Sessions knew that American intelligence knew he'd met with Kislyak. And he knew he'd lied to Congress about those meetings. But he did not come clean. He waited for the story to hit the newspapers. Jared Kushner did basically the same thing. The not-coming-clean-when-you-know-they-have-you is interesting, and not fully explained yet.

What is clearer to me is why POTUS was so angry about "leaks" and so eager to denounce them around this time. He knew, by this point, that US intelligence had at least some information on his inner circle that it hadn't released yet. He wasn't worrying about what investigators might find out, or not just about that. He was worried about information that investigators already knew, but had not released yet.

3. How about that Jeff Sessions lie?

The strangest thing about Jeff Sessions's, errr, inaccurate testimony is, as others have mentioned, that he volunteered a dishonest response to a question he had not been asked. Al Franken asked what he would do if it turned out Trump campaign people had met with the Russian government, Sessions volunteered that he was part of the Trump campaign and had not met with anyone from the Russian government. No one had asked about him, actually.

What Sessions did is the equivalent of being asked, "If we make you sheriff, what will you do about the stalled investigation into Laura Palmer's murder?" and answering, "I want to make clear that I was absolutely not with Laura Palmer on the night she died." Not what you were asked, but potentially pretty illuminating, especially if proven inaccurate.

I can't explain Sessions's weird error and maybe no one, including Sessions, can. But one hypothetical way to read it is as a tell: Sessions may have been so anxious to fend off certain lines of questioning that he jumped to parry an attack that hadn't been made. It's strange.

4. Trump apparently gets angry over Sessions's recusal

Sessions recusing himself from any election-related investigation is obviously the absolute minimum concession required to call off the hounds, which even Republicans were calling for, and it's not clear that it will be enough. But it evidently, it was too much for Trump, who had publicly said that Sessions need not recuse himself a few hours before it happened, and who allegedly lost his temper at his own White House counsel yesterday over Sessions's decision.

This is really odd, because after the met-with-Kislyak shoe dropped, Sessions's recusal was basically the only play. Keeping him officially in charge of an investigation where he was now implicated would have brought worlds of hurt. That Trump has not grasped this suggests that he either has absolutely no sense of strategy or tactics here or that he feels that he's in serious jeopardy himself. It could be both. It's hard to tell.

That brings us to this morning, before breakfast:

5. President Trump tweets accusations that President Obama illegally wiretapped Trump Tower.

So much going on here. First of all, this play carries two major risks. One, it risks making the President of the United States look crazy and paranoid if it turns out no such wiretap existed. (That may sound like we've hit the proving-a-negative problem, but if there is no wiretap, there are actual people who do know that. They are called the FBI and the NSA.)

Second, and worse, it calls attention to the possibility that there may actually have been a legal "wiretap" approved by a FISA court based on real probable cause. That is basically the first thing Twitter thought of this morning, on the assumption that the President of the United States knew what he was talking about when he mentioned a wiretap. And Trump does not need people thinking about the kind of evidence that would convince a FISA judge, appointed by Chief Justice Roberts, that there was probable cause to treat Trump Tower as a threat to national security. Wow. Why would you bring that up, ever?

Now it turns out that the President did not learn about this alleged wiretap from sources inside the federal government, who report to him and actually know whether or not this happened, but from a highly speculative Breitbart News story. And here I'd like to pause to marvel at President Trump's relationship to the news media. Not his attacks on it, which is another story. What's odd is his attempt to use the news media as a source of news when he actually has better access to information than journalists do. The President of the United States doesn't watch CNN to find out what the FBI has been doing. He can just ask the FBI. Other Presidents watch the news to see how the coverage is being slanted, and to gauge exactly what reporters have or haven't learned. But on most things, the President is in the position of knowing more about the subject being covered than the reporters do. Taylor Swift doesn't read the tabloids to find out who she's dating. She knows. That a sitting president would look to a speculative Breitbart story as a source of information about secret government surveillance programs is very strange.

Now, the strategy here may simply be to go on the offensive. If Trump has accepted that the Russia story is going to keep coming, he may have decided that his best or only play is to try to turn the accusations around so that the investigation into his behavior itself is somehow the criminal act. That isn't going to persuade anyone in the corridors of DC power, but it gives his faithful a storyline to grab on to and maybe muddies the water for a bunch of low-information swing voters.

But Trump's decision also does something odd to any investigations into his Russia ties. Those investigations are mostly about pressuring smaller fish and flipping them into cooperating witnesses. And here's the weird part. There may never have been a wiretap. Maybe no FISA warrant was ever approved. Maybe, if one was approved, it had nothing to do with phones. (It may have been a warrant for information on ... wait for it ... an internet server in Trump Tower that communicated with two servers at a Russian bank.)

But even if there was no tap on the Trump Tower phones, Donald Trump just told everyone who might be questioned in the investigation that there WAS. If you get questioned by the FBI next week about the Trump/Russia thing, Trump just basically told you that the FBI already has you on tape. The feds don't even have to bluff anymore. Potential witnesses will come in the door pre-bluffed. I can't imagine that this is going to work out well for Trump.

But then, none of this is working out well for any of us.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog