Category Archives: Donald Trump

donald trump authoritarianism

The Alpha Male of a Chimpanzee Colony

The Primal President

Donald Trump appealed to millions of Americans through sheer primal dominance.  His bluster, his unpredictable and easily inflamed temperament, his agenda driven by extreme narcissism, and his story of (white) American warriors constantly fighting in a Hobbesian world of (racial and cultural) change made him appear as an alpha male, a force with which to be reckoned.  But really, Trump’s psychological appeal that preys on those who lust for authoritarianism makes him the alpha male of the chimpanzee colony that is now the Republican Party. 

Prestige Psychology and Statesmanship

In an ideal polity, humans embrace prestige psychology, a somewhat recent evolutionary gain that has prepared our brains to respect honor those with culturally valued skills.  These skills usually contribute to a society’s well-being and are wielded for benevolence.

Prestigious individuals apply their talents not for self-aggrandizement, but to help others.  Members of society respond by elevating these individuals to positions of leadership and revere; they seek to emulate these cherished individuals and to respect the prestigious leader’s proclivity to collaborate with other experts (prestigious themselves) and act with degrees of “magnanimity, generosity, forbearance, and dignity in their leadership roles.”

Today, we would call those individuals patricians, or statesmen.  Such qualities can be attributed to some of our best presidents, including, namely, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, two men whose actions created and saved the Union while furthering liberty for all.

Donald Trump, of course, shuns statesmanship and his appeal did not draw on prestige psychology.  He won because his rhetoric appealed to primal human psychology: Social dominance.

Chimpanzee Politics

To understand Donald Trump’s appeal, we have to look at chimpanzees.  Chimpanzee societies are dominated by a single top-chimp – the alpha.  He earns his position through a mix of aggression, intimidation, and threat (which will often devolve into outright violence to squash insurrections and to completely assert social dominance through physical injuries).  The alpha chimp also manages to forge coalitions of pragmatism, allying himself with other forces to maintain leadership or, once dethroned, instantly supporting the new alpha in order to keep some vestiges of power.

Humans often act in similar ways.  Affinity for social dominance hails from from our ancient history – whereas prestige psychology developed around 100,000 years ago, social dominance became engrained some 5 to 7 million years ago.  It’s this truly primal psychology that explains Trump’s appeal.

Trump’s intemperance and (mental) instability means he’s constantly at risk of exploding – he often does this while watching Fox News in the mornings or evenings.  His looming aggression and stalking during the second presidential debate show an aggressive man lusting to pounce or charge his opponent.  Early morning Twitter tirades insult opposition (often with violent undertones), vent, and relentlessly self-promote such that the uninformed are almost bullied into believing Trump’s competency.

Primal Fear

Fear, too, permeates chimpanzee politics – and Trump’s success.  Alpha chimps must instill in their potential challengers a sense of fear, a belief that any attempt to overthrow the existing regime would be futile, resulting in pain and even death.  Trump uses fear in two ways: To solidify standing among his base and to bully other Republicans into acquiescence.

Trump portrays certain minorities as rapists (Mexicans) and terrorists (Muslims) who hope to destroy the American experiment and undermine Western civilization.  By identifying entire groups – large groups, nonetheless – as existential threats to continued existence, he instils in his base a sense of fear.  They obviously want to alleviate this fear and so flock to Trump because of his harsh rhetoric towards those groups.  And, when irrationally scared, the ends always justify the means.  That’s why people supported Trump even after his announcement that he would ban Muslims from entering the country and floated shutting down Mosques and establishing a Muslim database.  Anything would be justified to make us safe.

With a solid base unwavering in their support, Trump can bully Republican lawmakers by the implicit (or explicit) threat of a primary challenge.  Politicians are cautious creatures.  They fear losing and will go to great lengths to avoid real challenges, even if it means compromising on principles (as with most Americans, politicians don’t understand statistics and thus greatly overestimate the probability of losing to a primary challenger).  Trump can threaten to endorse and campaign for a rubber-stamp challenger and his base, so the argument goes, will follow him.  To avoid that, Republican legislators, in fear of the chimpanzee base, rally behind the president.

Transactional Coalitions

This same alpha will also be willing to enter coalitions so long as they benefit himself.  He views all relationships as transactional and will end any connection once it ceases to be useful.  Hence why Donald Trump ran as a Republican despite having little in common with the party – he needed its resources.

Similarly, after spending months denigrating the RNC and his competitors, he gleefully accepted their endorsements and help; most notably, after claiming that Ted Cruz’s father had been a part of the JFK assassination, Trump accepted Cruz’s endorsement when Cruz ignored his own “vote your conscience” convention speech.  It also explains why Trump abandoned Jeff Sessions after the latter’s recusal from the Russia probe: Sessions no longer had anything to offer Trump.


Trump’s appeal, in its primacy, relied on authoritarianism.  As mentioned, Trump’s hostile rhetoric towards minorities created a good versus evil false choice in which members of the proposed in-group – (white, Christian) Americans adhering to traditional values – came into conflict with the out-group, bad people (Mexicans and Muslims) who wanted to end the American way of life.

At worst, authoritarianism results in the utter dehuminziation of the out-group.  This is how violence and genocide happen.  The out-group becomes a subhuman with no natural rights and which must, by all means, be destroyed.

As humans think about conflict with out-groups – whether naturally or at the prompting of a malicious actor – support for highly dominant, authoritarian leaders increases. 

Authoritarian Personalities among Voters

Authoritarianism defines the alpha as well as his followers.  The (right-wing) authoritarian personality – the best predictor of Trump’s electoral support – desires nationwide values that revolve around traditional norms, submission to (strong) authority figures to either embody or reinforce those norms, and virulent antipathy to those who dare challenge the existing social order.

Trump perfectly fits the needs of those with authoritarian personalities.  His extraversion (social dominance, gregariousness, reward-seeking) and low levels of agreeableness (humility, altruism, care, empathy) cultivate a strongman image seemingly dedicated to a strict and traditional social order.

With no political philosophy, Trump acts out of pure narcissism.  He wants, above all, to promote himself.  This plays into the authoritarian dynamic as those looking for salvation and safety in an authoritarian figure feel vindicated in their choice when the leader believes himself to be a savior, that his “his superior intelligence, his charismatic dominance, his single-minded devotion to a grandiose self will triumph in the end.”  That, of course, perfectly defines Trump, a man who constantly (and wrongly) brags about his intelligence.


Donald Trump is the primal president, a man whose support and ascent to power can best be understood by studying chimpanzee politics.  He’s an authoritarian who seized the fascination of those with authoritarian personalities and expanded that solid base through fear, intimidation, and coalitions of practicality.  His support does not come from political philosophy or long-held ideology.  It’s not because of his prestige and skills or natural statesmanship.  It’s because Donald Trump tapped the tribal dominance that we evolved millions of years ago but thought we had left behind after the Enlightenment and with the embrace of civil, democratic societies.

trump north korea

North Korea is Rational. Donald Trump is Not.

Kim Jong Un is a Rational Actor

Kim Jong Un has the rap of an irrational madman hellbent on leading his rogue state into a disastrous war with the United States.  The North Korean leader feeds that narrative by continually threatening the United States and her outlying territories with missile strikes.  He ignores the plight of his own people and instead invites more sanctions with each new missile test and provocative stunt.  But Kim Jong Un and the North Korean state are rational, coldly so.  Donald Trump is not, and the clash of a rational and an irrational actor heighten the risks of armed conflict.

When it comes to international relations, rational does not mean sensible.  Rational means capable of making logical calculations to boost a country’s goals and interests given its available resources.  Foremost among those interests is survival.

North Korea Wants to Survive

Survival is high on Kim Jong Un’s mind (as it was for his predecessors).  The best means of survival for a nation-state detested by almost all other countries is to ensure that any move to destroy the existing leadership has catastrophic consequences for the assailant country.

(Of course, the easiest means of survival is to integrate one’s nation in the society of states wherein openness and interconnectedness – globalism – greatly decrease the chance of war and national destruction.  North Korea has no interest in doing that.)

North Korea fervently believes that nuclear weapons will forever dissuade the United States and her allies from overthrowing the existing regime.  While the proximity of American troops in South Korea, as well as millions of South Korean allies all easily killed, has so far deterred the US from retaliating to North Korean aggression with military strikes, North Korea sees the others collapsed authoritarian regimes – Libya and Iraq, and the potential for the United States to still attack Iran despite its compliance with the nuclear deal – as warnings of what could still happen without a well-developed nuclear arsenal.

Kim Jong Un views nuclear weapons as the means by which his totalitarian regime will continue, not as weapons of aggression.  He knows that any real act of war – and invasion of South Korea or missile strike against the US – will instantly result in his overthrow and death.  That’s why North Korea hasn’t invaded South Korea and has largely kept its threats rhetorical (since the Korean War, the state has acted aggressively, capturing and even killing US soldiers, but has not acted decisively enough to warrant a full military pushback).

Trump Doesn’t Understand Kim Jong Un’s Rationality

Donald Trump, and many members of Congress, don’t understand North Korean aims.  They don’t see the game theory decisions Kim Jong Un makes; instead, they see a madman rushing towards a disastrous confrontation with the United States.  And because they see us and North Korea as on an inevitable path to war, they’re willing to preemptively attack the evil regime.

That’s why Trump keeps floating a missile strike on the state or stating that continued North Korean threats would result in the United States unleashing “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”  At the United Nation’s, Trump cautioned Kim Jong Un by saying the United States will “totally destroy” you, rhetoric not lobbied by previous administrations – administrations that understood North Korean goals.

Facing the threat of total annihilation, North Korea will only redouble its efforts to develop nuclear weapons because the sooner it does so, the sooner it might deter the unpredictable wrath of Donald Trump.  North Korea doesn’t trust the United States to uphold a deal in which the regime gives up its nuclear weapons – Qaddafi did so and died in an American-backed revolution and though Iran did so as part of a nuclear deal to which it’s complying, Trump still assails the deal and indicates he wants to pull out of it.  So Kim Jong Un will hasten nuclear development.

The Rational Actor Meets the Irrational Fool

Trump isn’t predictable.  He campaigned on an isolationist platform and frequently attacked the “stupidity” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (the former of which he supported, despite what he says).  Yet in the span of 24 hours, he went from steadfastly refusing to condemn Bashar al-Assad for a chemical gas attack to launching an (illegal) airstrike on Syria.  And over the course of a couple months, Trump entirely flip-flopped on Afghanistan and will now increase our troops in the state.

He’s not rational and he’s not predictable and that pushes North Korea into a further and better armed state while increasing tensions with the United States as we amp our rhetoric and keep threatening action.  As General David Petraeus argues, “you do not want the other side thinking you are irrational in a crisis. You do not want the other side thinking that you might be sufficiently irrational to conduct a first strike or to do something, you know, so-called ‘unthinkable'” because that encourages the adversary to take matters into its own hands.

Trump’s blather and foolish posturing towards North Korea demonstrates he doesn’t understand what Kim Jong Un hopes to achieve – survival.  It also shows that Trump doesn’t know how to address a rogue yet rational state and Trump’s unpredictability and general intemperance only heighten the risks of a military conflict with North Korea.

trump coast guard

Donald Trump: Hurricanes Have Improved Coast Guard’s Brand

Human Tragedy? No. Coast Guard Opportunity.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have killed dozens, left millions without power, food and water, and have caused many billions in damages, but President Donald Trump manages to overlook human suffering and instead focus on what matters: Branding.

Trump and branding go hand-in-hand.  Throughout his largely lamentable business career, he sought to cultivate a tough-guy brand that enabled world-class deals and enforced efficiency through his love of firing people (the “Celebrity Apprentice” president).  Never mind that Trump has never actually showed dealmaking acumen, whether in real estate or as president.  And as far as firing people – truly the core of a tough-guy persona – he hates to do it, instead having others drop the axe or, to avoid contact, simply refusing to look someone in the eyes.  Real alpha male.

Despite the clear hypocrisy between action and deed, Trump obsesses with brand and appearance (see his justification for appointing Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court: He looked straight out of central casting).  So when disaster struck Texas and Florida and the Coast Guard responded as it’s responded to every natural disaster that affects matters of the coast, Donald saw an opportunity for the Coast Guard to improve its brand.

“If you talk about branding, no brand has improved more than the US Coast Guard,” Trump said.

I, for one, am glad we have a president that focuses on what truly matters.  Why mourn the dead or speak to reconstruction efforts or spend time thanking first responders and other civilian heroes who risked their lives to save others?  That’s a beta cuck move.  Only true alphas recognize that in disaster comes unique opportunity and only the bravest and truest of those alphas willingly comment on that opportunity when others focus on human plight.

Bravo, Donald!


(His proposed budget would cut $1 billion from the Coast Guard, canceling the production of a ship and cutting from services that focus on human and drug trafficking and monitoring Russian activity in the Arctic.)

Hillary Clinton’s “What Happened”

hillary clinton's what happened
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Hillary Clinton’s “What Happened” Explains Why She Lost

Months after her shocking defeat to Donald Trump, Clinton has released a new memoir detailing how she lost the election.  Hillary Clinton’s “What Happened” offers a raw look into her mind, both as a candidate and after deep reflection of her campaign and its tragic ending.  While there are many reasons that Clinton lost last year — many, if not most, related to the candidate herself, to which she owns up — the blame must also fall on one particular group: Voters.

Blaming voters for an undesired outcome may seem elitist, or simply whiney, but to avoid casting even an inkling of guilt on the actors who knowingly and willingly decided to vote for a charlatan ignorant of American values and laws would itself be an act of the utmost condescension by ignoring the agency inherent in everyone’s decision making.  We’re all responsible for our choices and those choices, especially when they affect hundreds of millions, invite critique.

Ignoring History

The Founding Fathers despised demagoguery and populism, fearing both (though especially the latter) would undermine the Constitutions and the institutions put in place to protect it.  A demagogue would corrupt the rule of law and use his majority for insidious means.

They also envisioned great individuals holding elected office, including the presidency.  Trump’s election represents a dramatic break from the Founders’ vision of the country.  Trump, first and foremast, is a demagogue.

Our Constitution’s structured to separate powers, offer checks and balances, and leave voters only indirectly in charge of government in order to stop demagogues from seizing power (Shays’ rebellion, which prompted the constitutional convention, only heightened fears among the Founders of demagoguery).

hillary clinton what happened
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That’s why America is a republic and not a direct democracy.  John Adams himself wrote “Remember Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide.”  Federalist 1 warns

“On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interest can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”

Hillary Clinton’s “What Happened” may not mention the historical ignorance of the electorate, but it’s important that we understand voters deviated from the will of the Founding Fathers.

Encouraging Ignorance

Supporting and voting for Trump only encourages ignorance, both in candidates and the electorate.  Trump knew — and still knows — nothing of policy.  Whenever pressed to explain policies, he failed to do so, often blabbering or simply repeating himself numerous times in a garble of largely incoherent rambling.  But he seemed to revel in his ignorance, not once willing to engage in actual policy discussions and showing little interest to meet with experts.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise from someone who proudly screamed about how he “love[d] the poorly educated” and bragged about “knowing more than the generals” because he watched “the shows.”  His vile antipathy for experts bled over to his voters, with whom he shared and encouraged this hatred.

Needless to say, a poorly informed electorate will not perform well when it goes to the polls.  Ditto one misinformed because it chooses to listen to one man and one man only.  Such actions fundamentally undermine democracy because when a polity entrusts its citizenry with such awesome power, there lies with the citizens a civic duty know what they’re doing and be well-informed on issues settled by elections.

Voting for a man who ran and now governs in ignorance only encourages other political hobbyists to run for office because they realize that knowledge is not a barrier.  Charisma and yearning for self-enrichment suffice.  It tells candidates that voters don’t value thought and policy, instigating a race to the bottom as candidates forego meaningful discussions in order to appeal to grievances and base emotions.

what happened hillary clintonForgiving Bigotry

Hillary Clinton’s “What Happened” naturally touches on Trump’s disturbing bigotry and the willingness of voters to simply overlook what he said or twist his words in such a way that clear bigotry lost its bite.  We mustn’t forget that Trump began his presidential campaign by claiming Mexico sent its “rapists” and “drug-dealers” into the United States out of malice or some dark motive.  These actions continued throughout the campaign, such as his remarks that a Mexican judge couldn’t do his job because of his heritage, which Speaker of the House Paul Ryan labelled the “textbook definition” of racism.

Other minority groups also received Trump’s ire.  Trump frequently ranted against Islam and Muslims, claiming universal Muslim hatred of the United States, threatening to illegally close mosques, and wanting to ban an entire religion from entering the country.  The fool went actually said that “I think Islam hates us. There’s something there that — there’s a tremendous hatred there. There’s a tremendous hatred. We have to get to the bottom of it. There’s an unbelievable hatred of us.”

Of course, Donald Trump also led the birther crusade against President Barack Obama, falsely claiming that the president was not born in America.  These lies stirred the right-wing fever swamps, which embraced and pushed false claims about Obama, and, under Trump’s leadership, surged into a powerful grievance movement.

Voters knew all of this.  They recognized Trump’s inherent racial animus, his animosity for Islam that bordered on paranoid delusions, and the lies he for years pushed, yet cast a ballot for him anyway.  Supporting such clear bigotry should not be overlooked and those that chose to make the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis’ beloved candidate president should be held responsible for enabling and legitimizing grievanced racism.

Read Hillary Clinton’s “What Happened”

Clinton lost for many reasons.  No one reason explains the loss.  Her book rightly analyzes many culprits and ultimately she accepts her primacy in defeat.  Read Hillary Clinton’s “What Happened” to gain and understand her inside perspective.

While a politician cannot blame voters for a reprehensible decisions, I most certainly can, and I will.  Overlooking Trump’s clear historical flaws, his deep-seated ignorance and promotion of stupidity, and his all-too-obvious bigotry to vote for the demagogue deserves criticism.  We should all be held responsible for our actions.  And so, above all else, I blame and repulsed by the voters who opted for Donald J. Trump.

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trump breaks daca promise

Trump Breaks DACA Promise and Reveals He’s a But a Hypocrite

Racial Animus: Trump Breaks DACA Promise

In April, Donald Trump told the Associated Press that “dreamers,” those benefiting from President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that allowed undocumented immigrants brought into the country while they were children to work and attend school without threat of deportation, they could “rest easy,” presumably because Trump wouldn’t rescind their protection.  Well, as usual with Trump, he lied.  Trump breaks his DACA promise ostensibly because he doubts its legality, though the immigration leeway his authority claimed when signing the similarly bigoted travel ban reveals Trump’s actions arise not from constitutional concerns but from racial animus.

DACA, after its initial implementation, sparked resistance from conservative sates, 26 of which, led by Texas, sued the Obama administration for “ignoring federal procedures for changing rules and of abusing the power of his office by sidestepping Congress.”  Though this argument succeeded in the courts, culminating in a 4-4 split Supreme Court decision, it did not contend that the administration had violated the Constitution.  Instead, the states focused solely on execution, seeking to delay the program.

Other conservatives spoke against DACA because its origination through an executive order eroded the separation of powers as the president assumed authority traditionally reserved for the legislative branch.  These arguments have merit as immigration should be within the realm of congressional action — Congress came close to enacting immigration reform, including a path to citizenship, in 2010 and 2013, only to be stopped by Republicans.  But Trump’s clearly not concerned with respecting the legislative right to create immigration policy.

Trump Breaks DACA Promise Because of Race, Not the Separation of Power

Trump, of course, has a broad interpretation of presidential authority.  He fancies a strong executive somewhat above the law capable of crafting far-reaching policies without Congress’s input.  No where is this clearer than in Trump’s two travel ban executive orders.

Both travel bans, the one struck down by the courts and the watered-down version partially legalized by the Supreme Court, rely on generous readings of the president’s abilities to respond to (real or perceived) national security threats.  In oral arguments, the Deputy Solicitor General asserted, per Kleindienst v. Mandel, a 1972 Supreme Court case on barring communists from entry into the United States, that the president need only provide a “facially legitimate and bona fide reason” for executive immigration restrictions.  Historically, courts have given significant leeway to those national security interests put forth by various administrations (wrongly, for civil rights should never be abridged for only “facially legitimate” reasons.  To vest the president with such great power as to cutoff immigration, courts must adjudicate based on truly legitimate national security concerns).

The administration failed to meet even the nebulous standard of “facially legitimate and bona fide reason[s]” because the travel bans originated from an attempt to legalize his proposed Muslim Ban.  Statements made by the administration and friends thereof coupled with weak contentions led the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to conclude that both of Trump’s executive orders stemmed from his “desire to exclude Muslims from the United States.  The statements also reveal President Trump’s intended means of effectuating the ban: by targeting majority-Muslim nations instead of Muslims explicitly. And after courts enjoined EO-1, the statements show how President Trump attempted to preserve its core mission: by issuing EO-2—a ‘watered down’ version with ‘the same basic policy outcomes.”

Clearly, to pursue and defend such a policy, Trump believes in extreme deference to the executive branch when it comes to immigration (even the vaguest national security interest allowing him to unilaterally shape policy).  By no means does this square his administration’s claim that “The Department of Justice has carefully evaluated [DACA’s] Constitutionality and determined it conflicts with our existing immigration laws.”

Trump cannot claim, on the one hand, that he has the unilateral ability to change existing immigration laws to ban travel from six Muslim-majority countries while, on the other, claiming he cannot tinker with existing law by changing deportation priorities (which could fit Trump’s delighted broad national security interest excuses by ensuring the United States has enough (educated) workers to create a secure and strong economy).  He obviously believes he has the authority to enforce DACA, but he hasn’t the will.  Why?


Both the travel ban and ending DACA play to his base’s (white) grievances and cultural anxiety around the influx of new religions, cultures, and different skin colors.  In campaign filled with dog-whistles and outright bigotry, including Trump’s insulting remarks about Mexico sending its rapists and drug dealers and a federal judge being unable to do his job because of his heritage, Occam’s Razor requires that we view this action for it is: Trump breaks his DACA promise with hopes of deporting 800,000 undocumented immigrants, not in hopes of restoring Congress’s power.

illiberal democracy

Ascendant Illiberalism

Illiberal democracy is on the rise

Across the globe, illiberal democracy has emerged as a potent force.  The discontents caused by the Great Recessions, coupled with other structural economic issues that exacerbate inequality while failing to lift the incomes of the middle and working classes, have left many yearning for change of any sort.  That desire has manifested itself in a resurgent populist movement, both from the left and the right.   Unfortunately, most so-called populist candidates have a decidedly authoritarian bent that challenges liberal democracy, though not democracy itself.

Liberal democracy refers to a representative democracy in which a constitution bounds the actions of lawmakers and preserves the fundamental liberties of individuals to protect any given minority from the possibly tempestuous whims of a majority coalition.  Citizens choose lawmakers in free and fair elections in which all who qualify have the equal opportunity to participate.  The system thrives of vibrant discourse and national unity largely free from identity politics and grievances.  It does not refer to a government controlled by a left-wing political party.

Illiberal democracies have the opposite values: Lawmakers rarely feel meaningfully constrained by a constitution which can be easily amended or simply ignored and that does not guarantee the rights of all residents.  Instead, minorities can see liberties abridged by the majority.  This typically happens for easily defined groups based on ethnicity, but can extend to religion, economic status, or any other discernible characteristics.  Though such polities have elections, they are not typically free and fair.  Citizens may find it difficult to vote either because of limited polling access, voter intimidation, or brute voter suppression.  At worst, elections exist for show only with the outcomes already predetermined by the in-power party (who, in most cases, acts to consolidate and preserve attained power).  It’s a system that can quickly devolve into authoritarianism.

Yet politicians who believe and embrace such illiberal principles have recently seen electoral success in western democracies (or democracies that, in recent decades, have sought to be considered western).  Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and the United States all exemplify ascendent illiberalism.

In Turkey, President Erdogan has transformed a liberal democracy into an increasingly autocratic state.  He’s done so through a variety of reforms that strip powers from the prime minister and instead place them in the president (ie, himself), a position that’s traditionally been ceremonial.  Though a national referendum supposedly endorsed these reforms, many critics have complained about electoral irregularities, claiming that Erdogan fixed or manipulated the vote to ensure the desired outcome.  The referendum itself took place under conditions of fear: In the year since the failed military coup, Erdogan has jailed some 45,000 oppositionists (and 150 journalists), purged around 130,000 from the civil service ranks, and shut down around 160 media outlets.  Erdogan supports such actions by claiming the jailed or fired individuals supported the coup and thus posed a threat to Turkey, a ridiculous lie few believe.  Together, the referendum and ongoing state of emergency point to a country partially embracing illiberalism and partially having shoved down its throat.

Hungary has seen a popular lurch towards authoritarianism, with Prime Minister Orban winning a “landslide” reelection despite his known illiberal attitudes.  Orban himself, inspired by the likes of Russia, China, and Erdogan’s Turkey, declared he will build a new, “illiberal state” in Hungary to lead the nation “in the great global race for decades to come.”  His tenure has seen “an erosion of the independence of the judiciary, the packing of courts with political loyalists, a wholesale political purge of the civil service and the chief prosecutor’s office, new election rules that advantage the governing coalition and the intimidation of the news organizations (who can be issued crippling fines for content deemed “not politically balanced” by a government-appointed panel).”  When stopped or challenged, he’s simply used a large parliamentary supermajority to amend the Constitution.  Freedom House proclaims the upcoming 2018 elections to be a critical juncture for Hungary: If Orban emerges victorious, Hungary may become the illiberal state once thought to be confined to Europe’s dark past.

Poland, too, has moved in an illiberal direction under the leadership of the far-right populist “Law and Justice” party.  The party, legitimately elected, has broken “the constitution, both in letter and in spirit,” by undermining the constitutional court, politicizing the civil service, and subverting public media.  These actions create cronyism and a government that serves the party, not the people.  Once all institutions have been coopted, they can be successfully turned against opposition, thereby creating a de facto one party state.  Luckily, Poles have not bowed down to such illiberalism.  While a large percentage of the country supports Law and Justice and its illiberal aims, a large, liberal sect of the population widely protested laws that would fundamentally overhaul the constitutional court’s composition, subserving it to the will of the ruling party.  The Polish president vetoed both bills because of the popular backlash.  More judicial reforms, however, have been promised.  Poles need to continue resisting illiberal intentions and not let Law and Justice create an illiberal state.

Lastly, America, democracy’s shining beacon, has moved in an illiberal direction with Donald Trump’s election.  Trump campaigned on a variety of illiberal themes and identity politics that relied on vilifying an ever amorphous “other” — in his case, illegal immigrants and Muslims comprise that villain/enemy group.  He’s attacked the judiciary and questioned its legitimacy.  His belief in US intelligence agencies remains doubtful.  He fired James Comey because of the Russia investigation and has sought other methods to curtail its scope and authority, even threatening to fire special investigator Robert Mueller.  Trump’s routinely attacked the press and even labelled them “enemies of the American people.”  Many of his campaign positions would violate the constitutional rights of minorities.  And yet he retains the support of almost the entire Republican congressional caucus and most Republicans in the nation.  His clearly illiberal bent should worry Americans, but thankfully, unlike in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland, our institutions have thus far been resilient to Trump’s illiberalism.

Illiberalism is ascendent.  The above cases only mention the most obvious — other examples of illiberalism include UKIP’s influences in Britain, Alternates for Deutschland in Germany, and the National Front in France.  Across the western world, these populist movements manifest themselves in illiberal forces that all traverse the road to authoritarianism.  We must resist these populist temptations and instead stay committed to the long-standing liberal values that promote and defend our natural liberties.

only trump can win

Could Other Republicans Have Beaten Hillary Clinton?

Would Another Republican Have Won?

Townhall recently published a piece entitled “It’s Time for Conservatives to Celebrate This President” (ie, Donald Trump).  The piece itself is utterly ridiculous and advances a number of silly claims that should not be taken seriously by any respectable person.  One of the most ludicrous arguments for why conservatives should celebrate Trump is because only he could have beaten Hillary Clinton.  That’s simply not true.  Here’s why.

Cyclical Politics

Politics is cyclical – since 1952, a party has only held the White House for three consecutive terms one time (Reagan-Reagan-Bush from 1980-1992).  Couple natural “party fatigue” (as it’s called) with relatively slow economic growth (more on that later), and Republicans should have had an easy 2016 election.  
Econometric models, which have historically had a low error rate of error (though they also struggle with open races, as was the case in 2016, tending to overestimate the incumbent party), estimated a generic Republican would receive 51.4% of the major-party vote to a generic Democrat’s 48.6%. 

In reality, Donald Trump won 48.9% of the two-party vote (46.1% overall) and Clinton 51.1% (48.2% overall).  Trump actually under-performed a generic Republican’s expected result by 2.5 percentage points (put another way, President Obama won reelection in 2012 with 51.1% of the popular vote and 332 electoral votes.  A generic Republican in 2016 likely would have done at least as well).  
Trump substantially underperformed a generic Republican because of his deep unpopularity – he was the least popular presidential candidate ever, with Clinton coming in at number.  Someone like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Scott Walker, or even Ted Cruz would likely have had a popularity advantage over Clinton, allowing that candidate to perform in-line with expectations. 

The Trump Coalition

It could be argued that Trump’s unique coalition – winning a substantial share the white working class and driving them out in strong numbers – made his win possible and that of another Republican impossible.  I find that unlikely for two reasons: One, Republican senators running in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania both took “traditional” paths to statewide victory a generic Republican would have emulated; and two, a regular Republican would have maintained the favor of college-educated whites (Trump likely became the first Republican nominee to lose the college white vote) and likely would have improved on Mitt Romney’s 2012 showing among Latinos and African Americans by a greater amount than did Trump. 

To the first point, incumbent senators Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) both won their states through suburbs, the homes of college-educated whites who traditionally vote Republican but broke for Clinton in 2016.  Wisconsin has always been swing state that Democrats took for granted – President Bush only won by 0.6 percentage points in 2004 – and it had been trending away from the party for a while (see: Scott Walker winning three statewide races in just four years).  Reince Priebus, then RNC chairman, had built a strong party infrastructure ready to turnout votes for any Republican nominee.  Pennsylvania, too, has trended red with Republicans outpacing Democratic voter registration throughout the state, but especially outside of Philadelphia.  In both states, then, a strong nominee – whether with a particular coalition or simply popular – had an understated/estimated chance to break the so-called blue wall.  
With regards to the second point, a Republican candidate with moderate views on immigration (and, to an extent, race) would have fared better with Latinos and African Americans than did Trump.  While neither electoral group resides heavily in swing states as a whole, the propensity of Latinos in Nevada and Florida likely would have tipped both states to a moderate Republican candidate and a respectable showing among African Americans would have kept the Rust Belt competitive.  A moderate candidate also would have kept college-educated whites whose suburban votes have long propelled Republican candidates in swing states.  Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, or Scott Walker all would have done better with this group than did Trump.
For those reasons, I do not buy the argument that only Trump could beat Clinton.  Most Republicans would have been able to do so, and likely with more electoral votes.

Voters Refusing Expertise

the death of expertise review

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Voter Refusing to Trust Experts Leads to Demagoguery

Tom Nichols’ new book, “The Death of Expertise,” comes at an important point in America’s political development.  62 million citizens cast a ballot for Donald J. Trump, whose entire campaign built on the idea that experts – whether in the “political establishment,” media, or academia – ignored the wants of common Americans and instead pushed some sinister, self-serving agenda.  Decry it though we might, for many, the death of expertise has set in.  To them, experts should not and will not be trusted.

That creates many problems for a democracy, chief among them the electorate’s susceptibility to (often extremist) demagogic appeals.  Voters wary of experts tend to be uninformed by virtue of doubting or entirely avoiding the analysis of experts.  Long-form journalism, the professor on CNN, knowledgeable elected officials cannot reach the voters who instead dwell in sources of alternate information that, at best, misinforms through low-quality output or, at worst, deliberately misleads those inclined towards non-mainstream views.

death of expertise review
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Such voters, as Nichols points out, fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect in which they are overly confident about their abilities to understand complicated policy.  Thus when an ignorant candidate enters the race and espouses overly simplistic (and often entirely wrong) policy viewpoints, Dunning-Kruger voters embrace him or her whereas more sophisticated voters – those who still trust experts – shy away.

Nichols writes that


Americans have increasingly unrealistic expectations of what their political and economic system can provide. This sense of entitlement is one reason they are continually angry at ‘experts’ and especially at ‘elitists’…When told that ending poverty or preventing terrorism is a lot harder than it looks, Americans roll their eyes. Unable to comprehend all of the complexity around them, they choose instead to comprehend almost none of it and then sullenly blame experts, politicians and bureaucrats for seizing control of their lives.

The demagogue, whether through true ignorance or a unique ability to manipulate people, recognizes this outlook and tailors a campaign around it.  To pay obsequious court to the people, the demagogue often condescends to simplicity, using rhetorical appeals such as “I alone can fix” or “How stupid must [they] be to not solve these easy problems?” or otherwise boiling down complex issues into few-word soundbites that may energize the ignorant, but offer no solutions.

Donald Trump perfectly exemplifies this.  He is truly ignorant, but his ignorance connects with a relatively large portion of the population that, like Trump himself, disdains experts and expects simple answers to all political questions.  While other elements played into Trump’s ascension – racial anxieties and underlying sexism, to name a couple – his ability to connect over ignorance furthered his perceived populism and helped forge a lasting connection with millions of voters.

This problem lies in large part with the voters, an argument from which Nichols does not shy.  He contends that such disdain for experts and its accompanying willingness to make one’s nest with an ignoramus simply because (s)he speaks a similar langue “is a self-righteousness and fury to this new rejection of expertise that suggest, at least to me, that this isn’t just mistrust or questioning or the pursuit of alternatives: it is narcissism, coupled to a disdain for expertise as some sort of exercise in self-actualization.”

Voters must recognize the consequences of willful ignorance and see how it can hurt democracy.  Only by accepting experts and the lessons they can teach – and only by experts maintaining their credibility and legitimacy – can a democratic political society resist demagoguery and adhere to its liberal founding principles.

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sheriff joe arpaio pardon

Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Pardon is an Abuse of the President’s Power

Sheriff Joe Arpaio: Pardoned, to the Detriment of Civil Rights

And the Rule of Law

As a category 4 hurricane – Harvey – barreled down on Texas, threatening some 8 million people with catastrophic flooding, Donald Trump decided to pardon former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio for his contempt of court conviction.

Sheriff Joe routinely violated the constitutional rights of Latinos by specifically targeting them for their skin color and presumed ethnicity during traffic stops and other raids throughout the Arizona county.  Further, in a ruthless crackdown on illegal immigration that could only be successful by tossing constitutional rights aside, Arpaio illegally detained hundreds for presumed illegal immigration status (presumed because of skin color) and no other reason.

Of course, no distinguishing characteristic marks illegal immigrants; a presumption of illegality can only be gathered by race and racial profiling violates the Constitution.

And yet even after a 2011 court injunction ordered Arpaio to stop his holding “individuals solely on the belief they were in the country illegally” (requiring those held to be “accused of a state crime”), Arpaio continued his unconstitutional practice.  Over the following 17 months, Arpaio’s office illegally detained (again, based only on skin color) and turned over to ICE 171 individuals, in “flagrant disregard” to the court’s order.

That led to a conviction for criminal contempt of court.

American Values

Our country cannot be about jailing individuals because of their skin color.  That’s not who we are.

But it’s who Donald Trump is.  While campaigning, he promised, at various times, to deport all illegal immigrants within two years.  Again, on appearance, nothing differentiates an illegal immigrant from a legal immigrant.  Without justifiable reason to detain someone (ie, a crime committed), they only means by which Trump could achieve his goals would be to indiscriminately round up all who look like illegal immigrants — that is, Latinos.

Obviously, that’s unconstitutional (law furthered by Melendres v. Arpaio), but it is reminiscent of Arpaio’s actions in Maricopa County.  Trump sees a kindred spirit in Arpaio.  The pardon reflects Trump’s harshest immigration rhetoric and clearly says to other corrupt actors: If you violate the Constitution by routinely using racial profiling and illegal detentions as a means of cracking down alleged illegal immigration, President Trump will offer his support, support that could culminate in a pardon.

Law and Order

That last point also runs in the face of Trump’s “law and order” campaign and presidential theme.  Arpaio pointedly stated that “nobody is higher than me.  I am the elected sheriff by the people.”  Clearly, Arpaio thought his election elevated him to a position of being the law.  He – not the courts – would declare which laws should be followed and, as sheriff, only he could enforce the laws.  It necessarily follows that the law would not apply to him since no one had authority to apply it to him.

In no way does that align with a “law and order” pledge.  “Law and order” must apply to everyone, including elected officials.  The second it ceases to do so, authoritarianism can easily arise.  Unrestrained officials can enforce and assert policies of their choosing without fear of legal retribution.  People live in perpetual fear knowing that while laws apply to them, it does not apply to the enforcers – the enforcers would not be held accountable for any of their actions.

Trump seems to think government works in that outlined authoritarian fashion.  He bristles at the Russia probe and has long-sought to undermine it through whatever means necessary, generally through obstruction of justice or assaults on the separation of power.  It comes as little surprise, then, that a president with such disdain for the rule of law, despite his campaign rhetoric, would pardon someone with a similarly authoritarian political philosophy.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s pardon is yet another instance of Trump’s disregard for fundamental civil rights.  He doesn’t believe that one’s race should not be a determining detention factor and he doesn’t think the rule of law should apply to elected officials (at least to those whose ideology aligns with Trump’s).  This move undermines the rule of law and shows that Trump neither understands nor cares about American values.

do americans believe in democracy

Do Americans Believe in Democracy?

Americans aren’t enthusiastic about liberal democracy

Democracy.  The theory underpinning our Republic; the heart of the American experiment; the principle for which millions dedicate their lives.  It’s the pillar of our country’s identity and a principle we have long sought to export.  Yet despite democracy’s centrality in our political life, do the American people actually believe it?

Our Political System

America is a liberal democracy.  That means our Constitution enshrines rights unalterable by an elected majority to preserve the liberty of all inhabitants, regardless of the likes of race, gender, creed, religion, and so on.  Elections are fair and free with suffrage near universal for those of age.  Scholars such as Francis Fukuyama have heralded such a governing system as the “end of history” (that is, the final point towards which all governing systems evolve).

A liberal democracy protects citizens against tyranny of the majority or the minority.  In so avoiding authoritarianism, other minor inconveniences of a diverse state arise: Viewpoints differ among the population, meaning arguments – vicious at times – will be had; government will often be gridlocked as members of different political parties butt heads on how to best achieve common goals; policies will not be perfect as only through compromise will necessary steps ever be taken.

Americans Dislike the Perceived Costs

Americans dislike those messy drawbacks to liberal democracy, a phenomenon that leaves many susceptible or even willing to accept arguments proffered by demagogues with a decided authoritarian or otherwise illiberal bent.

In “Stealth Democracy,” John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse examined how Americans feel about the political system.  The results, a bit dated and likely worse now, should scare those who believe in liberal democracy.

A whopping 86 percent of the American people believed that “elected officials would help the country more if they would stop talking and just take action.”  In other words, elected officials – namely, the president – should act unilaterally and without concern to those who disagree with them to advance ideological aims.  That, of course, is invited (democratic) authoritarianism: Americans elect someone and then encourage that person to act as (s)he sees fit.

60 percent think “compromise is really just selling out on one’s principles.”  Governing is impossible without compromise because never at any point in time will a polity experience 100 percent agreement on any given subject, no matter how trivial.  For non-trivial matters, majority support for any given policy will never overwhelming, especially in a legislative chamber.  To pass legislation – to do anything – compromise is needed.

60 percent also believe “government would work best if it were run like a business.”  Governments must care for the people (“common welfare”).  Businesses care only for profit (as, arguably, they should).  These diametric purposes almost certainly cannot be meshed and, when tried, results are disastrous.

31 percent would forego the democratic part of liberal democracy and simply hand the government over to “nonelected, independent experts rather than politicians or the people” and simply hope that these individuals somehow decide to protect liberty and act for benevolent purposes.

Liberal Democracy and Donald Trump

Last year, the study’s authors repeated the surveys and found very similar results while also noting that those least inclined to support liberal democratic values favored and felt positively towards then-candidate Donald Trump.  In other words, illiberal, anti-democratic Americans found their favored candidate.  And that should come as no surprise for Donald Trump broke numerous democratic norms throughout his campaign and has continued to do so while in office.

It should frighten us all that a large minority of Americans have only marginal affection for liberal democracy and that they have found an illiberal politician who now extolls those beliefs from the Oval Office.

A thriving liberal democracy depends on citizens believing in its values and passing those beliefs onto children.  These democratic mores protect democracy from the flaws that befall it – especially its susceptibility to demagogues.  As those beliefs crumble and are made further mainstream by a candidate who earned 62 million votes, the continued vibrancy of our liberal Republic may be threatened.