‘A Time Traveller from the Late 1980s’

Paul Wells, now back at Maclean’s, argues that Donald Trump is a hermit who has walled himself off from the rest of the world since the 1980s. This explains two rather odd things about the president that a lot of us have noticed: one, he spends an awful lot of time, even as president, at his own properties like Mar-a-Lago; and two, that his politics are decades out of date.

Trump’s public statements betray the effect of his extended hiatus from North American society. In a Republican candidates’ debate in March 2016, he listed Japan as one of the countries where the U.S. is “getting absolutely crushed on trade.” That hasn’t been true since before Bill Clinton was president. In his inaugural address, he painted an apocalyptic portrait of the United States — where “crime and gangs and drugs . . . have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential” — even though crime today is much lower, in most jurisdictions and by most measures, than in 1990, or even in 2005.

These outbursts are worth the effort to understand because their author is now, at least on paper, the most powerful man in the world. They are best understood as the musings of an emissary from another era. Donald Trump is in effect a time traveller from the late 1980s, when crime in American cities was at record-high levels, racial tension was rampant, Japanese billionaires were buying up much of Manhattan and a much younger Donald Trump was building the collection of gold-plated safe houses in which he would hide for the next three decades, subsisting on well-done steaks, taco bowls and the time-clock adulation of lackeys and hirelings.

Wells goes on to compare Trump to a character in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, but the point is clear enough without the analogy.

Thoughts on Electoral Reform, and the Abandonment Thereof

The government has abandoned its promise of electoral reform, and a lot of people — including many of my friends — are hopping mad about it.

I have some (likely unpopular) thoughts on this.

1. Trudeau promised an end to first-past-the-post electoral system. He did not promise proportional representation. They’re not equivalent.

2. Every party’s position on electoral reform reflects their narrow self-interest, not just the Liberals’. The Greens and NDP would stand to benefit from PR, the Liberals from ranked/preferential ballots, the Conservatives from the status quo. Any change will benefit one or more parties at the expense of the others.

3. This was never going to work except by general consensus among the political parties. But because any electoral reform would reward some parties and punish others (see #2), such consensus would be difficult if not impossible to achieve. Any party left out of that consensus would litigate the hell out of it, work to undermine its legitimacy and campaign against it in any referendum that followed.

4. The polls I’ve seen (e.g., this one) suggest that

(a) a majority of the population supports some kind of electoral reform;

(b) mixed-member proportional representation is the most popular electoral reform option; BUT

(c) a plurality of poll respondents preferred the status quo — first-past-the-post — over any single electoral reform option.

5. It’s a logical fallacy to assume that support for some kind of reform translates to support for this particular reform. Again: they’re not equivalent. Proponents of ranked/preferential ballots will not necessarily prefer PR over the status quo. (I support ranked ballots but have strong reservations about PR: you better believe I’d support the status quo over PR.)

6. Canadians appear to be strongly in favour of a referendum on any major change to the electoral system. I predict that if put to a referendum, any electoral reform proposal — any proposal — would be defeated. Because absent a general consensus, there will be too many people campaigning against it: the parties that stand to lose from it, people who prefer a different kind of electoral reform, and people who actually like first-past-the-post voting. In other words, lots of reasons to say no: there’s a reason referenda on electoral reform at the provincial level have always failed.

(This is leaving aside the legitimacy questions that would inevitably arise from low voter turnout or a narrow result.)

I don’t blame Trudeau for giving up; under the current circumstances, this wasn’t going anywhere. And it’s now clear that the Liberals’ heart wasn’t really in it.

For this to work, literally everybody needs to be on board — needs to agree that (a) the system needs fixing and (b) this is the right fix. We aren’t there yet. We may never be — especially not if electoral reform is seen by some as a way of changing the rules for someone else’s benefit.

Postscript: I’ve talked about electoral reform before. My blog posts from the earlier iteration of this website are collected on this page.

Party Databases and Privacy

I’ve been concerned about the privacy implications of party databases for some time now: political parties are exempt from privacy legislation like PIPEDA, and as far as I’m aware there are no real limits on what data they can collect on voters and how it can be used. As Susan Delacourt notes on iPolitics,

because political parties are neither entirely private nor public institutions, they fall into a grey area when it comes to privacy protection — and those databases, as the outgoing Chief Electoral Officer put it, are operating in the “Wild West” of privacy laws.

The lack of a firewall between party and government bothers me even more: contacting your MP, which is something every engaged citizen ought to do, is a good way to get your details entered into a party database, and during my ministerial correspondence years I handled a number of letters forwarded by the Harper PMO to our department for a response that were tagged with the Conservatives’ party database, CIMS.

But now it looks like party databases are finally getting some overdue scrutiny, with a House of Commons committee set to explore whether there should be rules on how parties collect and use data.

It’ll be interesting to see what comes of it. At a minimum, I’d like it if I had the right to see exactly what data the political parties keep on me. That ought to go some way toward keeping the parties in line.

How the Pontiac MRC Voted in 2015

More than 14 months after the election is hardly the definition of timely, and it’ll be a few years before the next one, but I suddenly remembered that I meant to look at the poll-by-poll results for my electoral district, Pontiac, and see how much the vote in my particular sector — the Pontiac MRC (municipalité régionale de comté, roughly equivalent to a county) — differed from the electoral district as a whole.

Continue reading “How the Pontiac MRC Voted in 2015”

Gene Sharp’s Pragmatic Nonviolence

In last week’s post about opposing the Trump administration (which kind of went viral, much to my surprise), I mentioned Gene Sharp, who, as I said, literally wrote the book — or rather, books — on nonviolent resistance. In a piece profiling Sharp that appeared on the Scientific American blog network last November, John Horgan noted something that’s very important about Sharp’s point of view: his nonviolence isn’t born out of principle; it’s pragmatic. Violence, “even in the service of a just cause, often causes more problems than it solves, leading to greater injustice and suffering. Hence the best way to oppose an unjust regime is through nonviolent action.” Sharp doesn’t advocates nonviolence because it’s kinder, gentler, more compassionate or otherwise better; he advocates it because it works. (Photo: Albert Einstein Institution)

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.

Expatriate Voting Rights

At the moment, Canadians living outside the country for more than five years are no longer able to vote in Canadian elections. (This is actually a fairly common practice: plenty of countries have limits on expatriates voting — except, notably, the Americans, who also have to file tax returns from abroad.) The Hufffington Post is reporting that the federal government plans to change this, giving every Canadian abroad the right to vote by special ballot regardless of time spent outside the country.

Dale Smith is skeptical, pointing out that Canadians vote for members of Parliament, not governments: “[A]s an expat who has been out of the country — and in particular that riding — for more than five years, does it really make sense for you to continue to cast a ballot in said riding if you don’t actually live there?” Dale’s got a point. If we decide that Canadians should retain the right to vote no matter how long they spend outside the country, it doesn’t make sense that their votes should be applied to a constituency they might not have set foot in for decades.

There’s a solution to that, though I’m not sure Canada would go for it: overseas constituencies. More than a dozen countries, including France, Italy and Portugal, set aside a small number of constituencies for their overseas citizens. In practice they can be problematic: voter turnout for said seats is often tiny. Now there are 2.8 million Canadians abroad, more than live in the Atlantic provinces: what fraction of them will actually vote, and to what extent should that determine how many seats they get? (Do we want two dozen seats elected by a few hundred or few thousand voters each, for example?) The details would be messy. But I suspect that this is the only logical outcome for perpetual absentee voting rights.

Negative Campaigning and Simplicity

Shortly after the 2004 Canadian federal election, in which Paul Martin’s Liberals won a minority government after a negative campaign on all sides, I observed that negative campaigning was insufficient to win an election:

I’m of the opinion that negative campaigning does in fact work, but you can’t win an election on negativity alone. This was the mistake that both the Liberals and Conservatives made: they spent all their time explaining how terrible it would be to elect the other guys, without making the case for themselves. In a nutshell, they both ran terrible campaigns — the minority result is, I think, proof that neither side was persuasive on their own behalf.

Governments tend to get elected on positive messages — Chrétien in 1993 with da liddle red book, Clinton in 1992 — even if they’re combined with a strong negative message. “We can do better than that crap, and here’s how” is much better than “This is crap, and they’re all assholes” — which may well be true, but it doesn’t necessarily make the case why someone should vote for you.

Earlier this year I suddenly remembered that I once wrote that, and worried that the Clinton campaign was about to make the same mistake. Yes, she had a detailed platform, and it was there for anyone who cared to look at it, but the key thrust of her campaign was that Trump was an awful human being who should not be president. You’d think that would be enough. They did. It should have been. But it isn’t, and it wasn’t. Remember: according to the exit polls, 12.6 percent of voters believed that Trump was untrustworthy and temperamentally unfit to be president, and still voted for him.

Paradoxically, for all the narcissistic rage and race-baiting and intolerance and thuggish behaviour, Trump at least made specific, clear promises that, while horrible or impossible, were easy to understand. His campaign was at least for something; ordinary people could point to him and say “at least he’s going to do something about all this.” Clinton was for a lot of things too. But her platform got lost in the weeds for a number of reasons, one of them being that it wasn’t simple or clear enough to cut through the other side’s Gish gallop. Her campaign didn’t keep it simple; Trump’s did. I can’t help but wonder whether that was a factor.

‘The Embodiment of Everything She Purports to Run Against’

This is the third in a series of posts tracking statements made by or about Kellie Leitch, a member of Parliament and candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada. Leitch has advocated testing immigrants and refugees for “anti-Canadian values” and has welcomed Donald Trump’s victory against the “elites” as “an exciting message and one we need delivered in Canada as well.” I’m writing these posts because (a) this kind of extremism needs to be opposed at every stage and defeated at the earliest possible opportunity and (b) sunlight is the best disinfectant.

So:

Over the weekend Kellie Leitch bristled at criticism from fellow leadership candidate Michael Chong during a broadcast of CTV’s Question Period, saying “I am not a racist. I am not a person who’s out groping other individuals.” Well, all right then. As LBJ could tell you, having to issue that kind of denial is not good for your political career: most politicians don’t have to say that they’re not racists or gropers. Dale Smith cites this as an example of Leitch playing the victim card. Another example is the bizarre report of a break-in at her home — which turned out not to be an actual break-in, but an alarm going off. Regardless of whether the incident was real or serious, her campaign certainly seems to be torquing it.

Meanwhile, Chris Alexander, who joined Leitch in announcing the barbaric cultural practices hotline during the 2015 election and is now also a CPC leadership candidate, is slamming Leitch’s attempts to bring Trump-style politics north of the border. And Leitch’s policy is costing her some high-profile supporters: she’s lost retired senator Hugh Segal, Graham Fox (Joe Clark’s former chief of staff) and former Newfoundland and Labrador deputy premier Steve Kent, all of whom had previously endorsed her.

Leitch says she’s not concerned about racists supporting her campaign. (“It’s not for me to speak about other individuals.”) Wrong answer. The correct answer is “I don’t want their votes.” When bafflegab and obfuscation appear in the place of clear and unequivocal denunciation, it’s … very telling.

The Toronto Star’s Thomas Walkom warns that the forces that brought Trump and other right-wing populists to power need to be understood, and that we can’t assume that it can’t happen here in Canada. But is Leitch capable of becoming a Trump-like figure?

Not, it would seem, an authentic one. The CBC’s Robyn Urback notes that the former cabinet minister and surgeon “is the embodiment of everything she purports to run against” and is running “a completely inauthentic, deliberately provocative campaign.” And in the National Post, John Ivison notes that, no matter how much she tries to pick and choose from the Donald Trump playbook, “[t]he problem for Leitch is that she’s no Donald Trump. […] she lacks Trump’s populism, narcissism and conceit.”

And in Kellie Leitch News …

To follow up on my earlier post on Trump-wannabe Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch, because I’m keeping track, damn it:

She’s been condemned by fellow leadership candidates Michael Chong and Deepak Obhrai; Obhrai also reports he’s getting angry emails telling him to leave the country thanks to his opposition to Leitch’s immigration policies.

At the Conservatives’ leadership debate last Wednesday, Leitch cited Points of Entry, a book by McMaster sociology professor Victor Satzewich that looks at decision-making by visa officers, as evidence that Canada’s immigration standards are weak. Trouble is, Satzewich disagrees with Leitch, and would rather not have his work used to make her argument. BuzzfeediPolitics.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that despite her anti-elite rhetoric, Leitch is holding a $500-a-plate fundraiser in Toronto next Monday. It’s possible that Leitch, a paediatric surgeon and university professor, may need an explanation of what “elite” means. Now you can run a campaign strictly on small donations (many politicians have, and have made a hair-shirt point of it) but it’s unlikely she’d have raised the $450,000 she has as of September 30 if she had. You kind of need the elites for that kind of dosh. In the July-September quarter, for example, she raised $215,635.97 from 811 donors, an average of $265.89 per donor. Not exactly small donations from lots of grassroots supporters.1

Brian Alkerton is joining the Conservative Party just to vote against her, and suggests the rest of us do the same. The trouble with candidates like her is that sometimes they win despite everything, as we’ve seen elsewhere, and we can’t assume that she’ll be defeated later if she wins now. The world is full of black swans lately.

Thinking ahead to the next election. Simcoe–Grey, Leitch’s constituency, is normally considered a safe Conservative seat, but it’s not an impossible one. The Liberals held it in the 1990s, losing it narrowly to Helena Guergis in 2004 by only 100 votes. In 2011 Leitch won the seat; she was re-elected in 2015 with 46.6 percent of the vote vs. the Liberal candidate’s 38.6 percent — a margin of 5,260 votes. Difficult but not impossible, for a decent candidate with a well-funded campaign. Hint, hint.

(Much of the above via Dale Smith.)

Note
  1. Maxime Bernier and Michael Chong have raised $428K and $209K, respectively, to the end of September. In the July-September quarter, Bernier raised $307,605.89 from 1,838 donors during that quarter — an average of $167.36 per donor. Michael Chong raised $124,224.34 from 243 donors — an average of $511.21 per donor.