U.S. midterm election day: why Trump’s closing argument on immigration works

As usual, the TV pundits are failing to understand why Trump’s BS about the “migrant caravan” is so pernicious; and, more to the point, why he is right to think this a more successful closing argument for the midterms than “it’s the economy, stupid!”.

The worst part is not the lies about the caravan itself: that its an imminent invasion threat full of middle eastern terrorist gang members coming to rape our wimmin, vote illegally, take our guns and drop anchor babies in transgender bathrooms or whatever the current line is. Yes, it’s all racist dogwhistling; and yes, it will rile up his base – even, as we have seen, to the point of violence. And that is bad enough; a wound on American society that no previous president would have contemplated inflicting for mere political gain. But it won’t win him any elections. Because it is obviously racist, and there is an obvious response to it in the form of the facts, which people outside of his base are indeed listening to.

No, the worst part is his lies about his opposition: that liberals want the caravan, the progressives are funding it, that the only alternative the Democrats have promised – even specific Democrats running in specific races – is open borders, the elimination of all border enforcement, and all manner of benefits lavished indiscriminately on all comers. It’s bullshit from start to finish. No one stands for any of those things. But there is no response to this, because the Democrats have yet to come up with a coherent counter-argument on what they do stand for when it comes to immigration.

Even people who are not racist want to be reassured that there is some semblance of order at the boundaries of the nation; even people who are welcoming to immigrants are legitimately concerned that there be some manner of control over who is coming in. And while the Democrats have far better ideas than the Trumpists as to how to accomplish this, they have yet to unify around a plan that includes any clear communication of these reassurances. Thus the contrived panic Trump instigates that there is no order, there is no control, and that he (and the military he feels empowered to use as a stage prop) are the only ones offering any order and control will indeed resonate beyond his racist base.

This is why the cognoscenti on both the left and the right mistakenly think that Trump would be better off talking about the economy, and why his instincts as a communicator are indeed superior to theirs. Yes, it would seem, if one is being sensible, that the economy would be his strong point, what with it seemingly going so swimmingly (at least for now). But the opposition has a clear and convincing counter-narrative on that front: that the successes are at least as much due to the recovery from the crisis under Obama; that they have a better plan to more evenly share and invest the fruits of that success, etc. They don’t have a narrative on immigration, which is a far more visceral, emotive issue.

That’s why Trump’s “closing argument” will indeed hurt them at the polls today in ways that the experts still fail to intuitively grasp as well as he does.

The Alabama Experiment: what will it take for a Democrat to win?

The Alabama special election for the U.S. Senate makes for a fascinating test of the extent of political polarization in the United States today. Political scientists couldn’t have come up with a better experiment if they’d designed it in a petri dish.

Take the reddest of red states, disproportionate in all criteria that favour the Republicans: rural, with a high proportion of white evangelicals. Even at the height of when Donald Trump’s candidacy for president was still a joke, the 538 never rated his chances of carrying Alabama at less than 90%.

Next, pick the worst human being imaginable to be that state’s Republican candidate for Senate; a comic-book caricature of what liberals see the conservative movement becoming in the age of Trump: an unrepentant bigot, sanctioned by the state multiple times for putting his personal religious beliefs above the rule of law and the responsibilities of his judicial office. Let’s even make him a child molester, just for good measure; just to be sure his odiousness is beyond reasonable doubt across all sides of the partisan divide.

The question being tested: is there anything – ANYTHING – that would convince a significant enough number of Republicans in the state to abandon him for a Democrat?

The concern is not that most voters in Alabama actually share Roy Moore’s bigotry and religious fanaticism, and are so dug in their belief system that they will reject all evidence that he’s a child molester as political fabrication. Sure, such people exist; they got him the nomination. They have been loud and visible in voicing their support for him, and his tactic in the face of adversity has been to appeal directly to their paranoia. But these people exist everywhere. And though they have no doubt grown in numbers and become better organized in recent years, the ease with which we assume even now that they could predominate enough to win a state-wide election even in the deep south is a product of our own prejudices.

And we do have such prejudices. It is easy to fixate on these loud and paranoid voices, amplified by a sensationalist media, and forget that we are not dealing here with a closed and uniform society. Keep in mind, for example, that Alabama is more than 1/4 black. It has cities and colleges much like anywhere else. 34% voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. That’s obviously not enough for her to have had even a fighting chance, but its also not an insignificant number. It represents a population of more than 700,000 who live and work in the community; maybe a third of the electorate who remain committed Democrats, or have at least proven willing to vote Democrat under some circumstance, even in this era of escalating polarization. Let’s guess that to be about the same proportion as those on the opposite end of the spectrum, locked into the belief system of bigotry, fear and conspiracy that our stereotypes associate with such places.

The concern, then, is over the last third: the otherwise principled conservatives who are reliable Republican partisans, but who live in the real world. They are sensible enough to recognize that their candidate is a bigot and a fanatic and most likely a child molester. They just feel none of that as bad as being a Democrat; that voting for a bigot, a fanatic and a child molester might well be an acceptable thing to do if it’s what it takes to keep the Democrats away.

The nutters alone have never been able to take down a democratic system without the continued co-option of that third group. For so long as they remain reliably co-opted, there is no longer any intelligent debate or compromise to be had over issues like health care, taxation or immigration – issues wherein victory for the other side is merely a temporary setback rather than a civilization-ending cataclysm to be avoided by any means necessary. Rather, from now on there is and will be only one issue on each and every ballot: which political tribe controls the state at the expense of the other.

If it turns out on December 12 that we’ve really reached such a pinnacle of frenzied tribalism, America is already lost.

What’s next for Bannon? A surge of Antisemitism unlike anything in modern American politics

“If there is any confusion out there, let me clear it up: I’m leaving the White House and going to war for Trump against his opponents on capitol hill, in the media, and in corporate America.” – Stephen K. Bannon (Aug.18, 2017)

Anyone who expects Stephen Bannon, bitter on his removal as White House Chief Strategist, to turn on Donald Trump through his platform at Breitbart News is going to be disappointed.

Bannon will not turn on Trump. He will turn on the Trump Administration.

What’s the difference, you ask? My prediction is this: Bannon will proceed to catalogue all of the failures and foibles of the White House with insider knowledge and pinpoint accuracy. He will be much better positioned to heap this kind of vitriol from outside than within, and opponents of the regime will be encouraged and amused at the infighting and disarray.

Don’t be fooled. For through it all Trump himself will be presented as blameless. Blame will be directed solely at his advisors, primarily senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner, chief economic advisor Gary Cohn, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

If you noticed something in common between those names then you’re keeping up with the plot. We will soon be introduced to the latest iteration of the figure of the court Jew; the worm-tongued advisor who infiltrates court due only to the kindly tendencies a well-meaning but naive king. Former Generals Kelly, Mattis and McMaster will come in for criticism too, no doubt, but will get a lighter touch. Though no less inimical to Bannon’s agenda, the institution best associated with them is the U.S. military which must command deference and respect. When an abstract corporate entity of treasonous intent and malevolent power is needed to explain the administration’s failures, the “deep state” will be given a Jewish face.

Am I being overly alarmist? Jews, you may object, have not been significantly targeted by the Trump movement up to now, which has been characterized more by racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant xenophobia. Instances of anti-Semitism have appeared, sure, but they don’t seem to be informing the movement’s core ideology, at least not yet. True enough. And honestly, we’re still a long way from where actual Jews will be targeted with actual violence or discrimination such as is already a concern for other groups. Yes, we will continue to see anti-Semitic hate groups emboldened to agitate openly, but on a state level we’re not looking at concentration camps or Nuremberg laws any time soon.

Nonetheless, members of other vulnerable groups will ignore the significance of the coming anti-Semitism at their own peril, as will Jewish Trump-supporters who don’t feel personally threatened. It will become a significant keystone, crucial at this stage in the descent to authoritarianism, for the maintenance of the rest of the movement’s ideology and agenda.

For the bulk of Trump’s supporters, who are not anti-Semitic, there will remain plenty of room for deniability, such as in the administration’s unrelenting support for Israel and because the word “Jew”, as such, will never be used (nor, of course, will “Zionist”, the favorite stand-in term for the anti-Semitic left). The word used instead will be “globalists”, but the content of the mythology – who and what these “globalists” are, and why they do what they do – will resonate with anyone who has read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or the International Jew. The hard core of the movement’s supporters – those who surround confederate monuments with torches and Nazi flags – will know exactly what is being said when the names of perpetrators are singled out, alongside “the media” and “corporate America”.

And this myth will enable both groups of Trump supporters to overcome cognitive dissonance and adjust to reality, finally confronting the myriad failures and hypocrisies of the administration without having to jettison their undying support for the leader and his movement. For it is not his fault; it is the fault of evil advisors serving another master, who can be driven away only if the People are strong enough to stay loyal and united.

Over time Bannon will shape this narrative into the rhetorical backbone of the Trump reelection campaign. It is just coherent enough to work. And in so doing, bring anti-Semitism into the mainstream of American political discourse for the first time in a long time.

Post-Charlottesville musings on why I have more hope now than before…

My social media seems to be in despair over the events surrounding Charlottesville, VA this weekend, especially the president’s shocking response at his press conference on Tuesday. Friends are at a loss over what they can do. Strange as it may seem, these events – as with many of the calumnies of the Trump administration over the past nine months – have left me more hopeful about the resilience of the American spirit than I was before, convinced that most of us are already doing what needs doing in these turbulent times, whether we know it and are satisfied with it or not.

The source of my hope, this time around, comes from the unconditional condemnation of “alt-right” neo-fascist demonstrators, and (if, at times, obliquely) of the president’s weak response, by even Republican members of Congress.

It’s not that I think this shows their ultimate decency and integrity. Quite the contrary, I’m sure they’d sell their own grandmothers to the KKK to fend off a primary challenge. But that is precisely why their reaction gives me hope. These are savvy political operators, who got to where they are with their ears to the ground of local politics. Their reaction signals, first of all, that democracy, however battered, remains the guiding principle of the American political system. They still have to answer to their voters before Dear Leader. Second, and related: it shows that even in the reddest of red states, no one senses any political capital to be gained by equivocating over overt expressions of fascism and white supremacy.

This is not to deny that there remains a great deal of racism in American society, as well as systemic racism embedded in its institutions. But so long as the population universally rejects racism as a value, those problems – daunting and pervasive as they are – can be addressed, if more slowly than some of us would like.

As for Trump, fuck him. He’s nobody. There is little reason to pay him any attention anymore, except to occasionally heap the ridicule on him he deserves. There was a time, not long ago, when I could understand the argument that one must still respect the office if not the man. But the man himself has so defiled the office, time and again, that case now sounds hollow; the only way to maintain the dignity of the office is to reject its incumbent. Leave him to his isolated tower to tweet obscenities and sign executive orders. Sure, he can still do a fair bit of damage from that vantage point – to race relations, civil rights, democratic norms, the environment, the economy and America’s standing in the world, among other things. But chances look better and better that it won’t be anything that can’t be undone. Though still technically president, he has no political capital, no moral standing, and even his bureaucratic authority is being increasingly curtailed by the adults in the room; while states, municipalities and civil society pick up the slack and proceed with the real work of governing.

So impeach him. Or don’t. Or defenestrate him. Or don’t. I don’t care, and it would probably just amount to massive effort spent on a quixotic task; effort better devoted to protecting health care, developing clean energy, addressing inequality, and so on. And in the meantime, take heart in the observable fact that under the radar of all of the shouting about excessive partisanship and crumbling social capital, the vast majority – liberal and conservative – who reject fascism, respect democracy, and value facts do indeed appear to be finding common cause. Not just in the streets, and in new civil society movements, but in local and state government, in the courts; even, though it’s little remarked on, in Congress. With each attack on the norms of democracy, we get a deeper sense of what democracy really means and what is needed to preserve it. With each attack on the principle of diversity, we get a deeper understanding of why those attacks threaten the core of the nation. With each bizarre fantasy that comes out of the White House, we’re treated to a new lesson in critically distinguishing reality from fiction.

What we can do then is listen, learn, and participate in the work being done at the community, city and state level. These are the truly lasting legacies that this era will bequeath to the future. And under the anxieties that events evoke, our desire to fix what looks to be breaking, we lose sight of how naturally these behaviours seem to be coming to most of us. That’s why I have hope.

France’s Presidential Election: the Long Long View

The runoff round of France’s presidential election takes place this Sunday, and for the first time in the establishment of the Fifth Republic, neither of the two candidates hails from either of the two parties that between them have governed France for the last 60 years. Naturally, the top story is that Marine Le Pen of the right-wing anti-immigrant National Front (FN) is one of the two runoff candidates, though she is widely expected to lose to Emmanuel Macron of the newly formed liberal and pro-European movement En Marche! (exclamation point in original). Parallels have already been drawn between the current contest and 2002 when the whole of the political spectrum united overwhelmingly around Jacques Chirac when Le Pen, Sr. squeaked his way into the second round. But 2017 is a different world.

To begin with, polls notwithstanding, Le Pen v2.0 has a clear shot at the Élysée. I don’t consider it a likely outcome, but, as many have observed before me, neither was Trump or Brexit. Her path is more or less the same as theirs, where complacent leftists who cannot fathom that the unthinkable might happen assert their moral purity by sitting out the election or casting an anti-system protest vote over the fact that her opponent is little more than a laundered and media-spun carbon-copy of the hated incumbent administration. There are enough Mélenchon supporters prepared to opt for smash-the-system working-class solidarity over a former investment banker, along with Fillon supporters prepared to tack to the pro-Russian right, to overwhelm Macron’s soft support base if the latter fails to turn out. I wouldn’t place a bet on it, but unlike in 2002 it’s not unimaginable.

In light of this, several commentators (not least my good friend Daphne Halikiopoulou) take the long view in pointing out that even if Macron wins as expected, complacency is hardly called for. The political culture of France remains deeply divided, and what is most concerning about the current electoral season, in France and elsewhere, is the extent to which it has been characterized by the mainstreaming of the far-right agenda. This has come in part in the form of hitherto mainstream parties, recognizing the growing electoral threat of the radical right, co-opting much of their program and rhetoric. But it is also reflected in the resigned certainty of many that even if Le Pen doesn’t win the election this time around, her chances will be better for the next.

So I’d like to take an even longer long view, by stepping back and asking why we think so. Does it reflect a lack of faith in our own principles? To some extent, yes. Macron is, after all, the quintessential social and economic liberal. If we really believed in the efficacy of these ideological systems our narrative should be that his election will restore or reaffirm sensible policies in France; policies that will move toward solving the country’s problems and generating a renewed prosperity that will entrench support for the liberal democratic system for generations to come. This brief and unfortunate flirtation with fascism will soon be forgotten.

The thing is, no one really believes that. Whatever our political leanings, we all know that Macron is destined to fail; if not on Sunday, then soon after. I say this not because I think his policies are wrong or misguided (though I could find plenty to criticize if I thought it mattered). I say it, rather, in much the same way that the godfather of the British far-right, Enoch Powell, said it of all politicians; they are destined to end in failure, as this is the nature of democratic politics. The time-frame of such failure is merely accelerated in the current times, much to the benefit of Powell’s ideological heirs.

We know that Macron’s policies won’t solve France’s problems, because deep down we know that no set of policies can solve France’s problems, at least not to the point of securing ongoing faith in the efficacy of the system. Europe is at the vanguard of a planet functioning beyond its carrying capacity. The EU, as a whole, has not seen rates of economic growth consistent with maintaining the stability of a capitalist society in at least a decade. Such levels of growth are not coming back, in absence of significant inward migration which comes with its own problems of cultural and economic disruption. There are things that can be done to effect some improvement, sure, but not to the point of mass satisfaction. And there’s at least as much chance that the world will also confront another major financial crisis over the period of the next presidential term. No politician has ever won an election in any democratic system on a platform that things are just going to get shittier, and we have to find the best way to manage the decline so as to make it somewhat less shitty for as many as possible.

Hence the crisis of dissatisfaction is destined to persist, during which time more people will be lured away from support for the democratic system and toward the next thing. Sooner or later, whether the next election or the next one after that, the electorate will opt for the populists. Those who point to the failure of Geert Wilders to gain power in the Netherlands as evidence that this wave has crested should take note that his Freedom Party still gained seats in the last election, even if not as many as some expected. And whatever happens on May 7, Le Pen will have secured more votes than any presidential candidate in the FN’s history. Overall, the trend remains in the populists’ favour. Should it continue, the question isn’t if but when.

And once that tipping point is reached, we’re stuck; we won’t be waiting for the next election for the pendulum to swing the other way. Politics will have been fundamentally transformed into a new self-sustaining equilibrium. Not because the populists will dismantle the democratic system (they may well do, but would have to already acquire significant mass popular consent to pull it off successfully). And not because the populists are right, any more than the liberals are wrong; their policies will lead to even more failure and disaster.

They will endure because when the core tenet of your ideology is to blame problems, failures and disasters on external Others, that ideology is more resilient in the face of failure and disaster than any constructive set of policies testable against a metric of success (cf. Trump’s persistent base of support). Such an ideology already has a built-in explanation for failure and disaster, along with a program for perpetual mobilization: we just haven’t gone after the elites, the liberals, the media, the traitors, the immigrants, the foreign enemies enough. The more failure and disaster, the more urgent the crusade.

This, I submit, is the deeper cause behind the apparent resignation, even among its most principled supporters, that liberal democracy is a dinosaur. And the populist meteor is still coming.

Trump’s Tremendous 100 days

I feel compelled to offer my refutation to the apparent consensus in the press as to the obviousness of Trump’s failure as we reach the milestone of the first 100 days of his presidency. It amazes me how, after all that has happened, the majority of pundits never fail to miss the plot.

Don’t get me wrong. By any objective measure, it has been an abject failure. Still mired in a crisis of legitimacy, with no legislative achievements and only a skeleton of an administration beset by infighting and overall lack of direction, marked by record low approval ratings, continual reversals of key policy positions and no hint of a coherent program or doctrine in either foreign or domestic policy.

This remains true whether you relish or are dismayed by the fact. Sure, I’m pleased that his efforts to ban Muslims, upend trade deals indiscriminately, or withdraw health care coverage from the poor and sick have come to naught. But surely, a steadfast supporter of this ignorant xenophobic agenda would have to be disappointed by the extent to which he has backed down from every promise made and repeated enthusiastically on the campaign trail. I mean, nary a hint of a border wall; certainly no indication that Mexico will pay for it.

Even if one credits him for trying – via thwarted executive orders and failed legislation – should one not be dismayed at how incompetent the self-proclaimed deal-maker proved to be when it came to advancing even one of these causes against the realities of governing? Pressed to cite a lasting achievement, the best the administration can do is point to his appointment of a Supreme Court justice; a consequential matter, no doubt, but more the achievement of obstructionist Republican Senators than the president who simply did what he was mandated to do.

But to see it this way is miss the point of the Trump movement. To succeed, Trump need only hold on to his base; by which I mean those who identify with him implicitly or explicitly, who have a vested interest in believing in his success. That base continues to grow, by now encompassing close to a third of the population. And that base sees things differently.

Viewed from within the ideology of this segment of the population, Trump cannot be held responsible for his failures. Indeed, the level of his bellicosity and apparent flurry of activity in the White House is evidence that he has put in every effort. His probable failure was nevertheless already priced in to their expectations. His inability, even with the full power of the presidency at his disposal, to further his promised agenda is taken not as evidence of the odiousness of that agenda and the efficacy of checks and balances that preserve the principles of power-sharing in a democracy. Rather, it is proof of what Trump has said and they have believed all along: the overwhelming power and malevolence of the entrenched interests arrayed against them.

Entrenched interests, it must be added, that include the Republican Party and its members of Congress. The inability of a Republican Congress and an ostensibly Republican president to come together over an agenda – much as it may please Democrats and liberals – is not bemoaned by this base as a failure. Within this ideology – an ideology that is not, at its root, overly concerned with furthering any particular conservative or Republican policies or principles – the Republican Party and Republicans in Congress are as much the enemy, agents of the “deep state”, as are their political opponents.

Those who suggest that the failure of the first hundred days, or that any failure to follow – his failure to create jobs or protect certain industries, his failure to build the border wall, etc. – will finally disillusion Trump’s base do not understand the ideology of that base. So long as enough smoke and mirrors are produced to make it appear that he is fighting the good fight – and Trump for all his faults is still the master of smoke and mirrors; say, a handful of factories bribed not to close or relocate and some ineffectual wall-related executive orders – they will remain convinced that he remains their champion, deserving of greater support and greater power for the increasingly uphill battles that lie ahead.

The pundits who predicted it was over were wrong every time before. 100 days is just a number.

My prediction: the snap UK election will be more interesting than we think

I’ll admit, I haven’t exactly had my ear to the ground of British politics in the last few years. So my friends over there are welcome to tell me how I’m way off base. But I do know this: when a majority government in a Westminster first-past-the-post system calls a snap election with the apparent intention of taking advantage of favourable polling and opposition disarray to cement a deeper mandate, electorates find a way to pull themselves together just long enough to say a collective “oh no you didn’t”.

I can’t claim to have done any rigourous quantitative electoral analysis to prove this law. But the Brexit referendum itself illustrates the principle as much as does any other anecdotal instance: never call an election just because you think you’ll win. Democracy has a way of punishing hubris.

Right now Theresa May’s Conservatives appear unstoppable. Polls have them some 20 points ahead of the nearest opposition; the sort of lead that in the British system makes for a crushing majority. More significantly, no other party appears to be in any position to put together a meaningful challenge in the brief month and a half before the vote. Labour is at war with itself, its leadership unable to assemble a coherent programme with broad appeal. After serving in a coalition government with Cameron’s Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats were decimated in the last election two years ago and barely have a foothold left in Parliament. UKIP got everything it ostensibly wanted through the Brexit referendum victory, leaving no further justification for its existence, its entire platform having been essentially usurped in more palatable form by the governing Conservatives. The SNP will likely sweep Scotland again, which will pretty much guarantee a new referendum on Scottish independence. But in the immediate term, who cares? This wasn’t decisive last time (except insofar as it contributed to the death of Labour); it won’t change anything this time either.

That said, polls taken before an election is called tend only to measure which party the respondent is pissed off at the least at a given moment. Confronting a choice between actual representatives and actual policies is something different. Let’s start with the fact that 48% of the population who voted in the Brexit referendum voted Remain; given turnout, that is some 35% of eligible voters. That, alone, amounts to a massive constituency of people, disgruntled over the primary issue facing the country today, whose grievances remain unrepresented. A population that, were it somehow channeled and organized, would be more than enough to shift the balance of power, even if you disregard the numbers that most polling indicates have since been added to their ranks as the true costs and complications of Brexit have become more evident.

Politics abhors a vacuum. It is hard to believe that even in the short time before the election, no one will find a way to access such a vast untapped resource of unrepresented voters.

That being said, I have no plausible story to tell as to how that could come about starting from the point where we are now. Perhaps some manner of tacit coordination between opposition parties enabling people to strategically elect popular local candidates without much consideration for party leaderships. And seriously, how is it that the Lib Dems are no longer a factor? This is where I need the insight of a local who knows what’s going on, because the way I see it, they are (in a bizarre reversal of the ordinary state of affairs, I will grant) the only party capable of assembling a coherent platform suitable to the mood of the times. Having consistently opposed Brexit, could they not find themselves the beneficiaries of an unexpected surge of disgruntled centrist Labourites and Tory Remainers, regardless of the state of their organisation? These sorts of surprises do happen in FPTP elections during times of frustration. Consider the NDP sweep of Quebec, where the party hadn’t even bothered to campaign, during the 2011 Canadian federal elections.

All I’m saying is that my instinct is that this could turn out to be a lot more interesting than my despairing British friends seem to expect. That despair has to go somewhere between now and June 8, does it not? And a lot of things, some of which no one has imagined yet, can happen in seven weeks.

Trying not to attribute to malice what can just as easily be explained by stupidity…

… This aphorism, sometimes known as Hanlon’s Razor  (though the sentiment, in some form, is said to go back to Goethe) has always served me well in the past as a way to keep calm and maintain perspective.

I suppose the equivalent, watching Donald Trump over the past few days, is not to attribute to racism what can just as easily be explained by the arrogance of ignorance.

Let’s take just one small example from that incoherent presidential press conference yesterday; one of the instances among many that have got a lot of attention, where journalist April Ryan asked whether Trump would involve the Congressional Black Caucus in his urban agenda. To which the president replied, “Well I would… Do you want to set up the meeting? Are they friends of yours?”

Commentators were quick to jump on this as a manifestation of all-black-people-must-know-each-other prejudice. But if you look at Trump’s micro-affect in the moment, it looks more like he had no earthly idea what the Congressional Black Caucus was, even after Ryan spelled it out to him, and was simply handling the situation with his usual coping mechanism of doubling down (“of course, I’ll talk to anybody”). My guess is he assumed that they were some obscure advocacy organization he’d never heard of, in which case the reporter who thought to ask about them must be the one with the connection.

Or take his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu the previous day, and his comment on how he would approach the pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians: “So I’m looking at two states and one state. And I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one. I thought for a while that two states looked like it may be the easier of the two. To be honest, if Bibi and the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy – I’m happy with the one they like the best.”

Again, anyone who thinks this signals a dramatic shift in US foreign policy hasn’t been paying attention. Trump was vamping. He’d heard the terms “one-state solution” and “two-state solution” before and knew that a smart person needed to use them in a sentence to look like he knew what he was talking about. Combine that with his groundbreaking stroke of diplomatic genius: namely, “I support any deal that makes both sides happy” (amazing no one has thought of this before), and he’d hit on the winning formula right off the top of his head. He simply did not grasp what anyone with experience in this longstanding conflict already understands; that many if not most Jews and Palestinians will hear the term “one-state solution” as “I don’t believe your group has any right to national self-determination.”

I’m not saying that Trump isn’t himself racist. But even now, my impression is that his racism is of a more ordinary, workaday sort than is in our tendency to assume given his public persona and the scrutiny he’s under. It is the racism of that extended family member you see at occasional gatherings (I hesitate to single out uncles, as per the stereotype) who picks up a few weird ideas about “those people” which he’s too eager to share. But he’s not really all that committed to them, except as a misguided way to sound like he’s in the know. He doesn’t fit them into any elaborate ideology or world-view. Even Trump’s early hits – the Mexican rapists (though some, I presume, are good people), or Islam wants to kill us – fall into that category.

Of course, that is small consolation to the people targeted by these prejudices. Whether it comes from ignorance rather than ideology may be interesting to someone like me. But it makes little practical difference when, regardless, it is coming from the president whose every utterance has real-world impact. Even if it’s not part of a systematic racist ideology, it emboldens those among his followers and close advisers who are committed ideological racists to pursue their agendas with his apparent blessing. And therefore, even if it’s not the product of elaborated policy, observers and stakeholders are right to consider it seriously as an indication of where future policy might go.


I’ve been taking a bit of a break from posting comments over the last few weeks, in part due to the exhausting volume of material to choose from, and in part due to a need to focus on my professional work in preparation for upcoming conferences. I shall resume in the near future, as the spirit moves me.