Opposition in the Age of Gish Gallops

The Gish Gallop, named after creationist Duane Gish, is a rhetorical strategy of “drowning your opponent in a flood of individually weak arguments in order to prevent rebuttal of the whole argument collection without great effort.” Donald Trump’s variant of the Gish Gallop substitutes weak arguments with scandals and outrage, any one of which would normally be a political career-ender. But because Trump generates as many outrages in a day as most politicians do in a year, his political career stays alive. How? Because he presents too many targets for his opponents to get any purchase against a single one, and they exhaust themselvesIt’s the political equivalent of a bed of nails, where the sheer number spreads the pressure out so that no single outrage can stab you and give you tetanus.

In Trump’s hands, this strategy — wearing out and outlasting any opposition by giving it too many targets — has been extremely effective. He’s been deploying it throughout the campaign and now the transition, and there’s no doubt his presidency will be the same.

So what can be done? I’m a historian, not an activist, but it seems to me that opposition to the Trump administration will need to be more focused and targeted if it is to have any chance of success. As Andrew MacDougall remarked, in a slightly different context: “One thing is certain: To howl indiscriminately is to play Trump’s game.” But I see too many people too invested in the howl.

Since his surprise election, the American Left has been going for desperate, Hail-Mary, silver bullet tactics: recounting and auditing the vote, petitioning the Electoral College. Each has been a species of denial, a prayer that we will all wake up from this imminent and oncoming nightmare. None have worked. And to be honest, none could have.

It’s not time for some game theory, it’s time for some Gene Sharp. He has literally written the book on nonviolent resistance to authoritarian regimes. Several books and pamphlets, actually: they’re available for download from his organization, the Albert Einstein Institution. You should read them. Not only are they full of methods for opposing an authoritarian regime, but they collectively hammer away at a single point. You have to have a strategy.

In opposing Trump, what are you trying to accomplish. Because “opposing Trump” is not an end in itself. Oppose Trump how; oppose Trump with what goal?

If, for example, your goal is to get Trump out of the presidency, you will have to come to terms with two facts:

  1. That because of the line of succession, everyone eligible to replace him is a Republican; and
  2. That the only people who can help you accomplish your goal are Republicans in Congress.

Disabuse yourself of any thoughts to the contrary. Don’t, for example, expect Democrats to sweep into power in the 2018 midterms under current conditions. Even in the event they retake the House, they will need 67 senators to remove a president from office, and there aren’t enough incumbent Republicans defending seats in 2018 to defeat in order to make up the difference. You need Republicans to stop Trump. (And don’t for a moment think he doesn’t know that. More on that in a moment.)

“But,” you might say, “Mike Pence is just as bad! Impeaching Trump and replacing him with Pence doesn’t solve anything — and in many ways Pence is worse than Trump!”

My response would be to gently and politely advise you to pull your head out of your ass. Pence is a socially conservative Republican who on several fronts could do far more damage than Trump because he’s more closely aligned with congressional Republicans — plus, he shows signs of having an attention span — but please get a grip. He’s not that good a politician, and would be far easier to defeat in 2020. Also, and here I’m speaking for the rest of the planet, he’s not as likely to get us all killed.

You will have to get comfortable with the idea of Pence (or another Republican) taking Trump’s place, or you’re really not that invested in getting rid of Trump. What you really are is upset that the Republicans are in power. I’m sorry to say that there’s nothing you can do about that right now. And your partisan revulsion for the other side is getting in the way of achieving your goal. So please, for the love of humanity, focus.

Besides, if the idea of relying on congressional Republicans to defeat Trump doesn’t sound like much fun, I assure you, being a congressional Republican will be even less fun over the next few years.

Jeet Heer observes that Democrats’ main political task will be to exploit the uncomfortable tensions between various GOP factions. Not only will this enable such few victories as will come, largely in the form of Republican swing votes in the Senate, but it’ll cause Trump to lose his shit in the general direction of congressional Republicans, which will be fun to watch and exacerbate those tensions and divisions even more. (Remember, disloyalty infuriates him: he’s always been nastier toward Republicans than Democrats.) There’s a force-multiplier effect to be had, here.

But those victories will be fewer than we’d like, because for the most part it will be difficult to pry congressional Republicans away from Trump because they’re terrified of the consequences of opposing him. They’ve been scared of their own base for years, having seen their colleagues primaried by the Tea Party for being insufficiently nuts; now they’re scared that Trump will use Twitter to unleash the flying monkeys.

At some point, I suspect he’ll have unleashed the flying monkeys often enough that his targets will have grown numb to it or are resigned to it, and they won’t be afraid of it any more. That too will be fun to watch.

Meanwhile, if congressional Republicans have reason to be afraid, so too does Trump, who will be guilty of impeachable offenses as soon as he’s sworn in. Congressional Republicans could remove him at any time they choose, stopped only by the political blowback they would face from their and Trump’s supporters. Which means that impeachment won’t even be on the table unless the cost of supporting him is greater than the cost of opposing him. (Slate’s Jim Newell argues that congressional Republicans will not care about Trump’s ethical breaches until Trump is already unpopular.)

Heer believes that Trump and the congressional Republicans will try to work out a modus vivendi to give each other’s worst tendencies political cover. But that modus vivendi will not long survive if Trump’s worst tendencies manifest themselves in congressional Republicans’ direction, as I fully expect them to (see flying monkeys, above).

So any opposition should have as its goal making that modus vivendi absolutely impossible. Make supporting the congressional Republican agenda politically unsustainable for Trump, and vice versa. Find every opportunity to divide the two sides. Make sure Trump never misses an opportunity to blast perfidious congressional Republicans.

This does not necessarily mean giving up the fight when congressional Republicans and Trump are in alignment. But don’t expect to win them. Recognize that some fights are strategic and long-term — you will lose them now, and those losses will hurt, but it’s vitally important that you (and the Republic) live to fight another day. In the meantime, be tactical: focus on dividing those Republicans and making their unholy alliance with Trump as difficult as possible.

At some point, the people who supported Trump are going to get thoroughly sick and tired of him. When that finally happens among the Republican base, when the deplorables and the economically anxious turn on him, when people start craving a normal presidency again, Republicans will have the political cover to turf him.

And then you can get back to the normal political work of defeating a Pence administration that, while no doubt far too conservative for those opposed to Trump, will be far less likely to get us all killed.

What Can the Rest of Us Do?

Those of us outside the United States are in an awkward situation. We can’t do much about the present calamity because, no matter how much a Trump presidency would affect the rest of the world, the rest of us don’t get a vote.

Even voicing our opposition to the man can have consequences when that man is an aggressively thin-skinned narcissist. Outgoing NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, who called Trump a fascist last spring, expects Justin Trudeau to stand up to him, but Mulcair’s demand, taken seriously, would be tantamount to national suicide. Oh yes, let’s by all means pick a fight we can’t win with the man who’s about to be the president of our largest trading partner, and who captured that position on a platform of nationalism and protectionism.

Is there anything we can do? There’s one thing I can think of: to do everything we can to mitigate the impact of a Trump administration on the rest of the world. First, to borrow a metaphor from the Internet, we need to treat him like damage and route around him.

For example, if the Trump administration intends to eliminate climate research by stripping NASA’s Earth Science Division of funding, then the ESA and other countries’ space agencies need to step up and fill that gap. If the U.S. withdraws from the Paris Agreement, then the rest of us have to reduce our environmental footprint just a little more. If Putin is counting on American dysfunction to give him a freer hand in the Baltic states, NATO may have to draw up plans that do not require U.S. participation. Global and international institutions, in other words, may have to prepare to get the job done in the absence of American support and in the face of American intransigence.

We also have to be prepared to relocate or replicate institutions that may be at risk from a Trump administration. Today, for example, the Internet Archive announced that it’s building a backup copy of its database in Canada, as a hedge against future U.S. restrictions. Other resources at risk may have to do the same: set up mirrors outside the U.S., or relocate entirely. In addition, any infrastructure, digital or otherwise, that routes through the U.S. may have to start planning to route around the country.

This goes for people, too. For many foreign nationals, the United States may no longer be a safe destination or place of residence (international students, for example, may start going elsewhere). To whatever extent there will be an exodus, or a shift in the destination of mobile workers, professionals and students, other countries will have to plan for it. And if things go completely black, Americans abroad may need help staying abroad on a more permanent basis, and we’ll have to start thinking about how to deal with Americans claiming refugee status.

Second, and more immediately and urgently, we have to prevent the contagion from spreading. There’s no far-right equivalent of Comintern — not formally, anyway — but it’s clear that there is a rising tide of nativist, nationalist, anti-globalist, anti-immigrant sentiment around the world that is being exploited and egged on by a bunch of feckless, insecure, macho authoritarians, all of whom seem awfully keen on Russia and Putin for some reason. They admire and talk to one another. They’ve won some successes — in central Europe, in the Philippines and in Turkey — and now the U.S. has fallen under their shadow.

For the moment, Canada, Scotland and Germany are among the very few islands in this storm, but that could change if we’re not careful. We need to defeat these movements in our own countries, roll them back, stop them before they take control, or de-elect them if they’re in power. This is an infection, and it’s pandemic: opposing these bastards is a matter of global public health.

In practice this means working like hell in each of our countries, doing what we can to ensure the defeat at the polls of our own private Trumps. In Canada, that means preventing someone like Kellie Leitch or Steven Blaney — or any other tribune of nativism — from acceding to the leadership of any major party. In Germany, that means defeating the AfD; in France, the Front national; in Austria, the FPÖ, whose presidential candidate Norbert Hofer is in a too-tight race with Alexander Van der Bellen — the revote takes place next Sunday (the vote is being rerun due to election irregularities). We need, each of us, in each of our countries, to draw a line in the sand and say: not here, not in my country. We need to make sure Trump is the last of his ilk to get elected. We already know who they are. We already know who we need to stop.

The Exit Polls

With respect to the U.S. presidential election results, most of my social circle is still at the anger and denial stages of grief. Me, I’m a historian by training, so I tend to bury myself in trying to understand how and why it happened.

It’s familiar ground for me: I have considerable background in the rise of extreme right-wing movements in mid-20th-century Europe; understanding why and how the extreme right came to power is an important area of study in my former field.

I appreciate that activists on the ground right now won’t have much patience for that sort of analysis — they’re not interested in understanding the motives of people who voted for a racist, misogynist bigot — but I think that’s a mistake. If you want to fix the problem, and, you know, prevent it from happening again, you have to understand it first.

Let’s begin with the surprising and inexplicable fact that Trump performed far better among constituencies that he had absolutely no business doing so well in.

According to the exit polls — the New York Times has a marvellous infographic here — Trump held on to 42 percent of the women’s vote, only one point down from Romney in 2012. He actually won 53 percent of the white women’s vote (white women with a college education supported Clinton 51 to 45 percent). How the hell did that happen?

It gets weirder. Trump got 29 percent of the Latino vote — that’s up eight points from Romney in 2012. (Though Latino Decisions questions that number, pointing out that a large portion of the Latino electorate voted before Election Day.) He also got 8 percent of the African American vote (up 7) and 29 percent of the Asian American vote (up 11).

If the exit polls are accurate — and I don’t know how big an if that is — then Trump held his own among women voters despite repeated allegations of sexual assault and harassment (plus, you know, the pussy-grabbing), and improved his standing with Latino voters despite the build-the-wall rhetoric and calling Mexicans rapists.

This is, on its face, insane.

And if you think that’s crazy, dig this: a substantial number of Trump’s voters didn’t think very much of him.

Trustworthiness was a wash: about equal numbers said Clinton and Trump were untrustworthy (61 and 63 percent), and of those voters, about one in five voted for them anyway. We’re used to not trusting our politicians very much. But 63 percent of respondents also said that Trump didn’t have the temperament to serve effectively as president, and one in five of those respondents — 20 percent — voted for him anyway.1

One gets the impression that the Clinton campaign strategy to portray him — quite correctly, in my view — as temperamentally unfit for the presidency didn’t work very well. Not if 12.6 percent of the entire electorate agreed with their premise, and voted for him anyway.

That 12.6 percent was roughly six times what Clinton would have needed to win. Moving one or two percentage points from the Trump column to Clinton would have flipped Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to Clinton, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion about how she could win the popular vote by so much and still lose in the electoral college.

Many commentators point to racism, or at least the lack of discomfort in voting for a racist candidate. They’re almost certainly right. But that’s at least partially problematized by Trump’s small-but-not-insignificant minority support, plus the fact that the regions that swung to Trump this time had no trouble voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Glenn Greenwald points to economic anxiety, which he describes as “inextricably linked” with racism, sexism and xenophobia:

[O]ne must confront the fact that not only was Barack Obama elected twice, but he is poised to leave office as a highly popular president: now viewed more positively than Reagan. America wasn’t any less racist and xenophobic in 2008 and 2012 than it is now. Even stalwart Democrats fond of casually branding their opponents as bigots are acknowledging that a far more complicated analysis is required to understand last night’s results. As the New York Times’s Nate Cohn put it: “Clinton suffered her biggest losses in the places where Obama was strongest among white voters. It’s not a simple racism story.” Matt Yglesias acknowledged that Obama’s high approval rating is inconsistent with depictions of the U.S. as a country “besotted with racism.”

People often talk about “racism/sexism/xenophobia” vs. “economic suffering” as if they are totally distinct dichotomies. Of course there are substantial elements of both in Trump’s voting base, but the two categories are inextricably linked: The more economic suffering people endure, the angrier and more bitter they get, the easier it is to direct their anger to scapegoats. Economic suffering often fuels ugly bigotry. It is true that many Trump voters are relatively well-off and many of the nation’s poorest voted for Clinton, but, as Michael Moore quite presciently warned, those portions of the country that have been most ravaged by free trade orgies and globalism — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa — were filled with rage and “see [Trump] as a chance to be the human Molotov cocktail that they’d like to throw into the system to blow it up.” Those are the places that were decisive in Trump’s victory.

Countering the economic argument (and in support of the racism argument), people point to exit poll data that show Clinton winning voters making less than $50,000 per year. (It’s actually pretty close above $50K — Trump never does better than 50 percent.)

But that’s not how economic anxiety works. Economic anxiety is greatest among the people who are doing better than that — a bit better, but they think they’re not doing better enough, and they’re worried that they could lose what they have. It’s not a paradox for people making a bit more money to be afraid for their economic circumstances.

And indeed, we find that among respondents who say that their family financial situation is worse today than it was four years ago (27 percent of respondents), Trump won bigly — 78 to 19 percent. Among respondents who thought that the next generation of Americans would have it worse than today (34 percent of respondents), Trump won 63 to 31 percent. If you were doing well, better off than you were four years ago, or thought things would get better in the future, you almost certainly voted for Clinton. Trump won the pessimist vote.

Small wonder then that of the 39 percent of respondents who said that the most important candidate quality was that they “can bring needed change,” 83 percent voted for Trump.

So. Economic anxiety facilitates bigotry and makes a Trump victory possible.

Some voters — just enough voters to make the difference — made the decision to accept the bigotry and vote their economic anxiety.

This is not to excuse or explain away the bigotry. But if you think the rise of the Nazis had nothing to do with economic anxiety, you don’t know your history.

John Scalzi makes the analogy of subscribing to a cable package: you really want HBO, but you also get Cinemax. Regardless of whether you really only wanted HBO, you’re still a Cinemax subscriber. In voting their economic anxiety, they also voted for racism, sexism, homophobia, and harassment.

That’s not the sort of thing that makes Clinton supporters feel very favourably toward them at the moment.

That’s understandable in the moment, but a mistake in the long run, because some of these voters — some — are voters the Democrats had before, and could get back. And they’ll need them back, if they want to regain the White House. You can’t get the racist vote. You don’t want the racist vote. But you only need a few percentage points — the gettable voters who broke for Trump in the end.

(I’m leaving aside the question of depressed voter turnout and minority voter suppression, mostly because it’s not something exit poll data can deal with.)

Writing in Slate, Helaine Olen argues that Clinton blew the campaign in precisely the same way her husband did not in 1992: by making the campaign about Trump’s character and not the economy — whose improved fortunes are not evenly distributed. What may have done her in was not her email server, but her private speeches and Wall Street ties.

Trump, on the other hand, was incredibly canny. He said four words that I suspect resonated with this part of the electorate — “The system is rigged” — and four more words that neutralized his billionaire status and, incredibly, suggested he empathized with them: “Believe me, I know.”

And that’s one way of explaining how we got here. How the pussy-grabber and the wall-builder managed to get support from women and minority voters. Because this campaign was more about the economy than the Clinton campaign realized, to its — and our — chagrin.

Note
  1. Forty-three percent said the same thing about Clinton; only five percent of those voted for her anyway.

What Comes Next?

Last night’s election result is unquestionably bad news. Trying to get a handle on how bad, and in what ways, is next to impossible and has kept me up most of the night doing the threat assessment thing, and trying to come up with some initial thoughts that are at least semi-coherent.

There are many ways in which America is already a messed up and dangerous place. The carceral state, the civil asset forfeiture, the security theatre, the heavily armed hair-trigger police, the pervasive fear that leads so many to double down on gun ownership despite the repeated social costs — these are things that make me feel unsafe every time I visit the United States, and I’m a straight white male.

I don’t expect I’ll be able to travel to the United States again at this point. It doesn’t seem to be a safe place for foreigners right now, even straight white male foreigners.

And as a straight white male I don’t have to deal with the systemic racism and sexism that pervades every aspect of law and justice, that seems ready, even joyful, to come pouring through any breach and that affects nearly every aspect of public and private policy.

These problems continued to exist — did not cease to exist — when Obama was elected. His presence in the White House may have lulled us into thinking they were solved. Were past. But they’ve persisted for decades.

Trump is a symptom of a problem far larger, and far more pathological, something that has been festering for decades, if not the entire history of the nation.

America presents two faces to itself and the world: one is sublime, generous, inspirational, cosmopolitan; the other venal, suspicious, distrustful, parochial. The incongruity exists at once: America can swing from World War II to McCarthyism in the space of a few years, simultaneously engage in the Apollo Program and the Vietnam War — and vote for Trump after electing Obama twice.

America is a contradiction, a paradox. It contains multitudes. And no matter what your politics, it will always, always break your heart in the end.

Last night represented a complete failure of the political class — politicians, strategists and pollsters alike — and the media. Conventional wisdom and custom have been disproven at a basic level. It now remains to be seen whether more fundamental American institutions can withstand the oncoming storm. I’d like to think (I hope I’m not naïve in thinking) that U.S. institutions are robust enough to resist any turn to authoritarianism and dictatorship — that the checks and balances, and the professionalism of the civil service, the armed forces, the courts and law enforcement will be sufficient to the task. (But the same could have been said about the Prussian officer corps in the 1930s.)

It’s hard to maintain faith under circumstances such as these. I shudder to think how Trump and a Republican Congress will respond to — will use for their own purposes — the next terrorist incident.

But when I’m feeling optimistic, I think that it’s more likely for Trump to be Berlusconi than Mussolini. A narcissist with no agenda other than self-promotion is not likely to be focused or dedicated enough to do damage on his own — he simply doesn’t have the attention span. He’ll get bored with the minutiae of government quickly enough. No, the problem will be the people around him, full of passionate intensity and given a free hand so long as they pay sufficient obeisance to the boss. There will be drama aplenty as they jockey for position in the Trump White House — a situation perfectly suited to someone who lives to dominate, be in control, and be the centre of attention.

In the end drama, rather than achievement, will be the order of the day, particularly if President Trump continues to indulge in getting revenge for every slight against him. Those of us familiar with the mayoralty of Rob Ford or the governorship of Paul LePage will have some idea of what to expect. If that prevents the Trump administration from getting very much done, that’s probably a blessing, in the sense of mitigated damage. But things that need doing will get botched — there will always be another Hurricane Katrina on the horizon, another opportunity to do a heckuva job.

The impact on the rest of the world is more complicated. Does the election of Trump represents an inward turn, a return to American isolationism? I can think of a few cases where U.S. withdrawal and indifference wouldn’t be such a bad thing. But I’d rather that NATO wasn’t one of them, particularly during an Article 5 event (such as a Russian move into the Baltic states). And while I don’t think Trump is going to blow up the world, I honestly don’t want to think too much about what happens when his tendency to lash out is combined with first-strike capabilities.

Many of my American friends are terrified this morning. I don’t know what comfort I can be to them. For one thing, I’m kind of scared myself. For another, I really don’t understand the American experience. My country has different institutions and cultural and political norms — I can’t reassure someone who lives in a country that already freaks me out on several levels. The whole world seems to be on a rightward, authoritarian, xenophobic turn: central Europe’s done so, Erdoğan’s shown his colours, Britain’s gone brexit, and Le Pen just might win the next French election. And now Trump. I’m not entirely sure how Canada has dodged that particular bullet. I hope no one else notices that we have.

In the end, though, I honestly don’t know what comes next. Whatever happens, let’s do our best to survive it. That’s our first order of business.