Hillary Clinton Is the Empty Suit In the Race

by Cinzia Croce

With a month to go before the end of the long process of selecting the next president of the United States,  it should be clear to every voter by now that Hillary Clinton cannot run on her record.

Initially, Hillary and her supporters claimed the moral high ground. She was the experienced, knowledgeable candidate with a plethora of specific policy positions running against an unaccomplished “reality star.” But on closer inspection, her vaunted experience turned out to be a series of titles she was able to obtain because she was married to Bill Clinton. Her knowledge and policy proposals turned out to be the same old talking points that the American electorate has heard for decades and have produced a declining middle class, $20 trillion in debt and a foreign policy in shambles.  Whenever Hillary is asked about she has accomplished in her decades of public service, she replies with a vague statement about “fighting for women and children,” or something like that. When pressed for more details, she might mentions the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which was first championed by Ted Kennedy, not her — or that, as Secretary of State, she traveled to 112 countries. If taking credit for other people’s initiatives and accumulating a record number of travel miles were achievements, then Hillary would have a stellar record to run on — but they aren’t, and she doesn’t. Continue reading

The Malaise of Conservatism

by Alex Knepper

I have argued elsewhere that liberalism — from its so-called ‘classical’ roots to its modern/progressive outgrowth — is the engine that moves America, and that the role of conservatism is largely to moderate or restrain liberal excesses. In this sense, the right is almost necessarily defined by what it opposes. The great conservative (or, right-liberal) triumph of the 20th century within liberalism was the rise of Ronald Reagan, who decisively repudiated the infinite growth of the welfare state and reinvigorated the power of our civic mythology. But it only took the center-left a couple of election cycles to accept and absorb that new consensus and integrate it into its economic platform. Democrats in the 1990s embraced welfare reform, middle class tax cuts, budgetary prudence, and even American exceptionalism, thereby ensuring a bulwark against greater reaction. Obama has not overtly repudiated this approach, and has embraced a successor set to continue it. So what is the point of conservatism today? Quite simply, Reaganism’s success domestically has left the American right without a unifying cause in the post-Soviet era. Once Trump is defeated, the Republican Party will have lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections — and the one they won was a terribly narrow victory during wartime, three years after the worst attack on the country in our history.


And why not? Who needs Republicans? The variety of conservatism offered by most of the Republican Party is fundamentally in agreement with the variety of liberalism offered by most of the Democratic Party. They both aim toward maximizing material luxury, coupled with expanded individual choice and social access (prosperity, liberty, equality). The most evocative international threat comes from a sprawling network of paramilitary operations, and Democrats have been at least as successful at confronting it as Republicans — so the idea of a new ‘fusionism’ is useless. (We should note here that ‘fusionism’ was about fusing against something, not for something!) Rates of crime, divorce, abortion, teen pregnancy, and other ‘social indicators’ are better than they have been in decades. The last Republican president has been judged to have been a supreme screw-up economically. Maybe John Kasich could have defeated Hillary Clinton this year, but the populists are right: aside from a few social issues primarily of interest to niche factions, Kasich is not actually terribly different than Clinton.

At most, there are some disagreements between party establishmentarians about how to reach the liberal goal of free and equal prosperity: how high we should aim in what period of time, which entities should oversee the administration and distribution of various goods and services, whose needs are to be prioritized first, etc. Even the nationalist/internationalist divide is something of a chimera, since everyone agrees on the overarching goal — in a vital sense, even the hardcore nationalists think liberalism is actually pretty great, but that too many Muslims and Mexicans will end up ruining it for everyone. If Democrats agreed to limit immigration and insist on assimilation, the right would be robbed of yet another argument.

But isn’t this okay, or even good? Isn’t this how it is supposed to work? The right’s skepticism toward mass immigration and so-called ‘globalism’ is not without merit, after all, and democratic governments must satisfy (or at least pacify) their right-leaning factions. If liberalism is the engine and conservatives are the moderating forces (in a historical sense, not a temperamental one!), then isn’t the theatrical bluster of election season little but noise? We must assume Trump, Brexit, and the German refugee crisis will be sufficient warning signs for ‘elites’ that something has to give. (If not, the impending right-wing reaction will be practically deserved.) But as the liberal project advances and more large-scale questions are decided, the differences in the visions between the two parties is bound to become even smaller, and the purpose of politics is bound to narrow further, and the stakes decrease. We are quite possibly rushing toward what amounts to a virtual consensus. Eventually, the need for high-stakes politics might be eliminated entirely.

What is the point of a center-right party in an era of global liberal hegemony, then, beyond opposition to excessive multiculturalism and social permissiveness? Are there possibilities for liberalism beyond the ideological consensus? Is it possible to forge a vision that goes beyond identity politics and class politics without dismissing the truths of either? The right is running out of things to oppose — it’s time to start innovating. A clever conservative might be elected president if he (or she!) can provide a compelling answer to that question — one that looks beyond merely trying to agitate against the left — and toward a loftier vision of the possibilities afforded by liberal democracy. That might get sucked into the consensus, too — but it will at least serve the noble goal of elevating it beyond mere ‘identity’ and consumption.

Why Trump Can’t Hide Behind Bill Clinton

by Alex Knepper

Sex crime accusations are gut-wrenching to deal with because the gravity of the offense is so heavy — and our tools for sorting truth from falsehood are profoundly and necessarily limited. On the one hand, we want to believe and console those who have been victimized — but we also don’t want to condemn a man as a monster unless we have incontrovertible evidence against him. It is difficult enough to neutrally evaluate sex crime accusations without partisan and ideological concerns getting in the way — but when we apply that political layer to an accusation, it is nearly impossible to have an even-handed discussion, since much is at stake beyond the simple guilt or innocence of the accused. Whether one gives Bill Clinton the benefit of the doubt seems to be motivated in almost every instance by partisan concerns, it seems — and I look at myself, too, and recognize that, as a supporter of Hillary Clinton, I want to believe he didn’t do what he’s accused of doing. So I will say here that I cannot state decisively that Bill Clinton is innocent. What I can say is that there are good reasons to give him the benefit of the doubt.

We know that Bill Clinton has a history of being a user and a cheater. We must remember that cheating is not assault, nor is it indicative of a greater likelihood to commit assault. Trump supporters love to sneakily cluster all sexual impropriety under the same umbrella — but while both are examples of bad behavior, only one is a crime. With this in mind, I will not bother addressing anything about Gennifer Flowers, Monica Lewinsky, or other episodes in which the consensual nature of the affair is not in doubt. There are three primary accusers Republicans point to as evidence that Bill is a sex criminal: Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and Juanita Broaddrick.

I cannot decisively say that any of these women are lying. But I can say that there are good reasons to be skeptical of their claims, and that pro-Trump Republicans are exploiting both people’s ignorance about the details of the cases, as well as the popular progressive tendency to insist that we ought to always believe accusers. I do not accept the notion that we must always believe the accuser. We should always take accusations seriously — but from there, we must look at the evidence and only then decide how much weight to assign them. The weight of the evidence shows that there is good reason to give Bill Clinton the benefit of the doubt.

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Scott Adams, the Donald Trump of Punditry

by Alex Knepper

Anyone who has subjected himself to the stream of brain-droppings of pundits and their peanut galleries on social media has undoubtedly crossed paths with some intrepid soul heralding the Gospel of Scott Adams. Mr. Adams, the creator of the witty comic strip Dilbert, has cultivated a cadre of disciples breathlessly proclaiming that he not only predicted the rise of Trump, but has unlocked the psychological secrets behind Trump’s masterly art of persuasion. According to Mr. Adams, Trump is, whether by nature or study, privy to a host of so-subtle-only-a-fellow-master-can-detect-it techniques in rhetoric, body language, and more. He is playing four-dimensional chess while Hillary is playing checkers. More than this: a Trump landslide is likely impending, owing to a reserve of ‘shy Trump voters‘ who are charmed by the man but won’t admit it to pollsters — hell, maybe not even to themselves.

One obvious retort to this argument is that it is curious that a master of persuasion would find himself as the least-popular presidential nominee in American history — less popular than a woman Adams regularly suggests is a lying, dying, weak, weird, probably-criminal, uniquely unlikable representation of everything bad about ye olde Status Quo.


Adams’ disciples will usually brook no criticism of their guru owing to their false belief that nobody predicted the results of the Republican primary with the same degree of accuracy. Well, I did:

* Before the voting started, I declared that Trump has put Reaganism on death-watch and that the rank-and-file Republican voter is far less devoted to conservative ideology than the DC-NYC set believes.

* After Marco Rubio’s strong third-place showing in Iowa and the betting markets pegged him as the likely nominee, I called him overrated, said the edge is still with Trump…

* After Trump’s strong first-place showing in New Hampshire and Rubio’s humiliating fifth-place finish, I said that the race was “effectively over,” that Rubio blew his opportunity, and that Ted Cruz would meet the same electoral fate as Rick Santorum

* After Rubio’s strong second-place showing in South Carolina and Bush’s withdrawal, I said Rubio’s standing in the race is an illusion…and reiterated that Cruz has no path to the nomination…

* After Super Tuesday, I called Trump’s triumph ‘staggering‘ and pointed out that he was building a non-traditional North-South coalition…

…so let’s move on to the dissection of Mr. Adams’ work.

I should note that we cannot discount the possibility that Adams is a masterly troll enacting an election-long social experiment to see how many suckers he can reel in by imitating Trump’s communication methods. Dilbert itself is a clue to this: it’s strange to imagine Adams, who famously skewers corporate culture and capitalist excesses, would see a kindred spirit in Trump. But perhaps the comic is rooted in a sense of cynicism rather than irony; perhaps Adams truly believes the grandiose liars, shameless manipulators, and propagandists really do run the show in America, and wants to show off that knowledge.

At any rate, the essence of his appeal is that he performs the role of elections-analysis guru, projecting extraordinary confidence in his highly general predictions with the flimsiest of evidence: armchair ‘psychologizing’ is the most common trope in his quiver of pseudo-analysis, but he also employs convoluted marketing propaganda to convince his readers that up is down and black is white. When a birther-related controversy popped up for Trump last year, Mr. Adams argued that his juvenile rebuttals — a series of tweets — were in fact making use of a brilliant marketing technique called ‘thinking past the sale,’ in which Trump throws so much shit at the wall that something is bound to stick — something is bound to burrow in your mind and subtly move your perceptions of Trump as a possible president one or two tics closer to the zone of acceptability. The fact that this ‘opportunity’ took place in the context of bizarre incompetence, lies, and genuine racism is apparently irrelevant; all is subordinated to the ‘wizard’-like principles of marketing.

Adams virtually never tells Trump supporters anything other than what they want to hear — but with his ‘guru’ cap on, he intimates not only that what his readers want to hear is the truth about the election (though he cynically hedges his bets by declaring that he’s not, strictly speaking, a truth-teller — whatever), but that they are actually special people for hearing that truth. He doesn’t state this directly: the seduction has to retain at least a gloss of subtlety for the one being seduced. But it is simply impossible to interact with his fans on social media and not perceive that this is the effect he has on his loyalists. The logical extension is that the guru has the most truth of all, and anyone who was also right about what the guru was right about could have only been right because their reasoning so happened to overlap with that of the guru.

Of course, it could be that what we see is what we get. It could be that Mr. Adams is a true-blue Trumpian charlatan who truly thinks he’s an elections-analysis guru. In this case, his work is best read as unconscious autobiography. For instance, when he makes a claim like “Trump is a master persuader,” we should instead read this as: “Trump is a master at persuading me, Scott Adams.” If he says “There are lots of Shy Trump Voters,” all it means is “I, Scott Adams, am a Shy Trump Voter.” In this interpretation, Mr. Adams recognizes a fellow charlatan-entrepreneur in Trump and is convinced that being a bullshit artist always pays off when it comes to wealth, prestige, and power. Adams fundamentally agrees with P.T. Barnum and H.L. Mencken that there is a sucker born every minute and that no one has ever gone broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American people. Basically, then, Adams is just rooting for one of his own.

Let us now examine at his piece about the first presidential debate:

Clinton won on points. She had more command of the details and the cleaner answers. Trump did a lot of interrupting and he was defensive. If this were a college debate competition, Clinton would be declared the winner. I call that victory on the 2D chess board. But voters don’t care about facts and debating style. They care about how they feel. So let’s talk about that.

Adams strongly implies here that he has special insights into what we could call voter psychology. He provides not a shred of empirical or theoretical evidence for this — just an emphatic tone (“Believe me!”). He also props up a false dichotomy — that the question before us is either about facts and style, or else feeling — rather than being about a mixture of many factors. He takes the dichotomy he made up as obviously accurate and simply moves on.

For starters, Trump and Clinton both seemed “presidential” enough. That mattered more for Trump. We haven’t seen him off the teleprompter lately. So Trump passed that test by being sufficiently serious.

Says who? According to what? Not the opinion polls. But, alas — we cannot interpret the polls without the help of the guru, since the guru knows something special about the polls; therefore, no appeal to evidence to the contrary will do, since other analysts lack the guru’s unique interpretive methods.

Clinton looked (to my eyes) as if she was drugged, tired, sick, or generally unhealthy, even though she was mentally alert and spoke well. But her eyes were telling a different story. She had the look of someone whose doctors had engineered 90 minutes of alertness for her just for the event. If she continues with a light campaign schedule, you should assume my observation is valid, and she wasn’t at 100%.

Adams can ‘just tell’ — based on his private reading of what her eyes looked like — and if Clinton’s campaign schedule continues as it is (which is likely!), we must assume his irresponsible and empty speculations are true because — because — well, because we just should..!

Clinton’s smile seemed forced, artificial, and frankly creepy. I’m already hearing on Twitter that mentioning a woman’s smile is sexist. I understand the point. But when someone goes full Joker-face and tests the uncanny valley hypothesis at the same time, that’s a bit different from telling a woman to “smile more.” My neighbor Kristina hypothesized that Botox was making her smile look unnatural. Science tells us that when a person’s mouth smiles, but their eyes don’t match the smile, they look disingenuous if not creepy. Botox on your crow’s feet lines around your eyes can give that effect. But whatever the reason, something looked off to me.

Here, Adams puts a fig-leaf over his completely arbitrary and childishly nasty insult by appealing to a ‘hypothesis.’ The specifics of the hypothesis are irrelevant; what’s important is that he is able to appeal to one at all. A gross insult becomes somehow legitimate if the guru can attach a ‘hypothesis’ to it. It gives his insults the gloss of Science.

By tomorrow, no one will remember what either of them said during the debate. But we will remember how they made us feel.

Clinton won the debate last night. And while she was doing it, Trump won the election. He had one thing to accomplish – being less scary – and he did it.

Really? No one will remember what they said? No one will remember what Trump said about his birther crusade, his tax returns, Rosie O’Donnell, his failure to pay contractors, or his obnoxious interruptions? Really? I suppose one mustn’t doubt Mr. Adams…

I cannot say with any certainty whether Adams is not pulling one over on us. But there are throngs of intelligent and thoughtful people who take his writings at face-value. Most of them are Trump supporters enjoying rallying around a writer who keeps the faith alive that their candidate knows what he’s doing and will ultimately prevail. They do not perceive themselves that way: they perceive themselves as having access to the special insights of a master analyst of a master of persuasion. This is clearly not true — again: Trump is profoundly unpopular, and Adams’ reliance on pop-psychology and marketing rhetoric is impossible to take seriously once it’s perceived for what it is. But whatever is at the bottom of things, Adams’ act makes him the Donald Trump of punditry — a transparently phony con artist who relies on forcefulness, repetition, sleight-of-hand tricks, and marketing gimmicks rather than depth of insight. He saw Trump coming — but he was not the only one. Whatever he has said that’s right is better expressed elsewhere, and what he gets wrong he gets horribly wrong. His wager that many people cannot tell the difference between his act and the real deal is, alas, at least to some degree, true.

Cheer Up, Trump Fans!

by Cinzia Croce

After the first presidential debate four years ago between President Obama and Mitt Romney, the president’s supporters were frustrated with their candidate for not bringing up Romney’s infamous “47%” remark. Last night, it was Trump’s supporters’ turn to feel frustrated: somehow, their candidate neglected to mention some of the most familiar attacks on Hillary Clinton — particularly, about Benghazi and the Clinton Foundation.


Four years ago, I argued that bringing up the 47% remark — or Bain Capital — would have simply provided a prepared Romney an opportunity to respond with a rehearsed line before an audience of millions. Last night, Trump denied a prepared Hillary an opportunity to respond to the Benghazi accusations and attacks over the Clinton Foundation and spin them to her advantage. The Clintons’ greatest asset has always been Republicans who can’t help but overplay their hand. It helped Bill Clinton survive the Monica Lewinsky scandal, for instance. And last night, Hillary made use of her best comeback to questions about her stamina when she reminded the audience about her 11 hour testimony before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, itself a product of Republican overreach. Partisans are disappointed — but undecided voters were probably relieved not to hear the all too familiar attacks.

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What’s At Stake In the First Debate

by Alex Knepper

The eve of the first debate of the Election From Hell is now upon us, and for all of pundits’ chatter about Donald Trump’s unpredictability, I’m actually highly confident in Hillary Clinton’s ability to accomplish what she needs to accomplish. Her greatest strength in this election has always been the widespread public perception that she and not Trump is actually capable of performing the daily duties of the presidency — in a word: temperament, the topic of her very first general election speech. Clinton’s entire career has prepared her for this moment: nobody is going to have any question by the end of Monday night about which of the two nominees has a greater mastery of policy and the demands of governance. And let us remember, too, that it is one thing for voters to consider this question in the abstract — and quite another to examine the two candidates side-by-side in an exchange about ‘the issues’ over the course of 90 minutes.


I anticipate that Trump’s lack of familiarity with the format will be fatal to his ability to gain the upper-hand. Clinton will be eager to exploit the lessons she’s learned from her experience debating one-on-one against President Obama and Senator Sanders. There is simply no way for Trump to BS his way through this kind of event. During the brawls of the Republican primary, he could fall back on his skills as an entertainer when his answers became muddled or rambling — but in this format, he will not be able to spar directly with either Clinton or the moderator, he cannot appeal to the audience with applause lines or insults, and his limited attention span will surely lead him to go on tangential spiels more than once. Expectations for Trump are rock-bottom, yes — but it’s still more than possible to imagine him imploding in front of nearly 100 million people. All it takes is one moment.

In the end, Trump’s best hope is probably to pull a Palin: if he can make it through the debate without tripping all over himself, that will be treated as a kind of win, even though Clinton is nearly certain to be judged the overall winner of the night, just as Joe Biden was in 2008. Biden was boring and dry, too — and Palin crossed the very low bar set for her. But even though Palin received some salutary compliments, both public opinion polls and news coverage declared Biden the undisputed winner. And although it is easy to imagine Trump imploding, it is also easy to imagine his animal drive to win concentrating his mind to the extent that he can make it through the occasion sounding — and acting — presentable, if not exactly ‘presidential.’

How much is really at stake in the debates, though? The conventional wisdom about ideological polarization is mostly true, and these nominees have universal name ID and have been a major part of American public life for the last three decades. Clinton’s advertising money has mostly gone to waste, judging by recent polls (although one could argue it helped prevent a slide). So where can the needle be moved? The remaining undecideds are mostly young progressives and moderate Republicans considering voting out-of-step from their usual patterns. Clinton has the potential to gain from both groups; Trump, only the latter. But it’s easy to imagine Hillary trying to appeal to both and ultimately appealing to neither. So to the extent that either of the candidates will try to tailor their messages to undecideds in particular rather than to a general audience, Clinton has a more difficult tightrope act — but also more of an opportunity to gain. On the other hand, to the extent that the election will be a test of which of the parties can better mobilize their base, Clinton has an easier task: just as Trump’s debate expectations are low enough that he can achieve a victory of sorts, Clinton is so chronically tagged with the reputation being boring, ‘unlikable,’ and aloof, that even momentary flashes of humor, candidness, and self-awareness could be enough to ‘humanize’ her once again and excite her base at a critical moment.

The bottom line is this: Hillary had a spectacularly horrible September, Trump’s got all the momentum — and we are still on track for a solid Clinton victory. Really, Clinton only needs to survive this debate, but yet has the opportunity to thrive. But Trump has to thrive; he has to prove he can address the issues he’s raised in a longer format, with details, in a formal setting. Nobody really knows whether he can do it — least of all Trump himself. We are all about to find out, with the world watching.