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second-best since Cantor

Category: americana

Four things to read.

Not ‘news,’ still timely:

B.R. Myers on North Korean propaganda, internal and external:

It’s an undiplomatic point to make, but the inconvenient truth is that most North Korea-watchers in the United States don’t speak Korean and don’t read Korean. They’re not able to read even the legend on a North Korean propaganda poster. So they, for decades, have had to depend on secondary sources of information, primarily in English. When they read North Korean materials, they have to read the so-called Juche Thought, because the regime has been careful to put this pseudo-ideology, this sham ideology, into English. So when foreigners want to read about North Korean ideology, they have to turn to these books on Juche thought, which really decoy them away from the true ideology.

Juche Thought is a jumble of humanist cliches like “Man is the master of all things.” This fake doctrine has absolutely no bearing on North Korean policymaking. While people are wasting their time trying to make sense of Juche Thought, the regime is propagating this race-based nationalism. Another problem we have in the United States, a little bit, is political correctness, inasmuch as we are uncomfortable attributing racist views to non-white people.

Scott Alexander (Slate Star Codex) on motte-and-bailey arguments:

Post-modernists sometimes say things like “reality is socially constructed”, and there’s an uncontroversially correct meaning there. We don’t experience the world directly, but through the categories and prejudices implicit to our society; for example, I might view a certain shade of bluish-green as blue, and someone raised in a different culture might view it as green. Okay.

Then post-modernists go on to say that if someone in a different culture thinks that the sun is light glinting off the horns of the Sky Ox, that’s just as real as our own culture’s theory that the sun is a mass of incandescent gas a great big nuclear furnace. If you challenge them, they’ll say that you’re denying reality is socially constructed, which means you’re clearly very naive and think you have perfect objectivity and the senses perceive reality directly.

The writers of the paper compare this to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along…

John Holbo’s (nearly 15-years-old!!) critique of David Frum’s conservatism:

The funny thing about this book is: it isn’t nearly as bad I just made it sound. I don’t think Frum is obsessed with beards or anything, actually. He sometimes seems like a pretty sharp guy. The middle chapters – full of history and policy detail, so forth – are quite cogent. Just the main chapters have problems. Frum has written a book about the need for a reflective, conservative philosophy. And: that’s the one thing he hasn’t got. He just has no clue why he is a conservative, or why being one might be a good idea – or even what ‘conservatism’ ought to mean. Whenever he starts trying to talk about that stuff, his mind just goes blank and he fantasizes about shaving beards and the Donner party.

Daniel Davies’s ‘One Minute MBA,’, which may possess more value-per-word than any other blogpost yet written:

Anyway, the secret to every analysis I’ve ever done of contemporary politics has been, more or less, my expensive business school education (I would write a book entitled “Everything I Know I Learned At A Very Expensive University”, but I doubt it would sell). About half of what they say about business schools and their graduates is probably true, and they do often feel like the most collossal [sic] waste of time and money, but they occasionally teach you the odd thing which is very useful indeed. Here’s a few of the ones I learned which I considered relevant to judging the advisability of the Second Iraq War.

The founders were people, but The Founders aren’t people.

Idle, irresponsible, testy thoughts, unedited and unfiltered and (to be frank) probably un-thought-through.

Problem: The world of the Founders seems impossibly distant from our own, and Americans are pig-ignorant about our history.

Bad solution: Pretend the Founders were essentially modern Americans, somewhat abstracted perhaps, and try to draw political/cultural lessons from them on those terms. (This is known amongst historians of the era as ‘Founders Chic,’ and is popular for boring reasons — cf. Wall Street reporter Ron Chernow’s laudatory book on Hamilton, or the current backlash against Thomas Jefferson.)

Better solution: Treat them as fallible human beings while acknowledging the historical specificity of their time and place — i.e. maintain their status as historical figures rather than mythic characters.

In my family we’ve been listening basically nonstop to Hamilton, which is a great success on its own terms but seems, based on what little guilt-motivated research I’ve done, to be bad history. The play’s full of anachronisms, which don’t bother me because (1) they’re groovy and (2) I’m not a priggish asshole, but the specific recasting of the Hamilton/Jefferson conflict (Hamilton married into a family of slaveowners and himself rented slaves, yet he gets a number of abolitionist applause lines; Jefferson’s genuinely radical democratic ideals are laughed off as aristocratic hypocrisy) damages the history for no damn reason except, I think, to pander to Miranda’s ‘progressive’ audience.

(Testy aside about Miranda’s own background goes here, but I can’t be bothered.)

It’s dangerously distorting to portray humans of hundreds of years ago as basically modern in their outlooks — though I can see why you’d do so; no one would give a shit about Alexander Hamilton today if Miranda hadn’t made that choice. It works, and you’ve got to put asses in seats. Hamilton is a multimillion-dollar business. Yet the cost of that distortion is the audience’s cheaply acquired false certainty, which leads to recklessness:

Casting black and Latino actors as the founders effectively writes nonwhite people into the story, [Chernow] said, in ways that audiences have powerfully responded to.

Sadly, no! It just substitutes a fashionable interpretive matrix for, y’know, actual historical understanding, and piggybacks the noble and correct idea that ‘Anything You Can Dream, You Can Be’ on a sugarcoated misreading of history that shuts down further inquiry. It slots the Founders into contemporary conversations too easily, and the cost to our collective historical imagination will far outlast any tactical gains that one or another side might make in the culture wars. (‘Culture wars’: rather a grand name for local proxy conflicts whose chief purpose seems to be distraction from, among other things, actual wars…)

The Founders don’t need to be mythic embodiments of Good and Evil to be useful to us today — quite the opposite, if they’re to be sustainably useful and meaningful. Our inability to admit that the Founders were complex human beings is part of the reason we have such a childish relationship to our national history. The idea of America is an ongoing conversation, a history of debate between complexly invested humans. We go back to Colonial history wanting it to illustrate a point or settle an argument. But that’s not what historical inquiry does — the past doesn’t settle our arguments, we have to do that for ourselves. And we’re best able to handle our own business when we know where we’ve really come from.

Anyhow, the upshot here is twofold:

  1. You should listen to (or see) Hamilton, which is a great musical on its own terms.
  2. You should ignore the people who tell you it ‘brings the history to life.’ For ‘history,’ there, read ‘mythology.’ Hamilton settles for being a passion play when it could have been something so much more interesting: a problem play.

The problem is stupidity.

There are evil people in the White House, sure, but they’re outnumbered by the deeply stupid ones — dilettantes and pseudointellectuals like Bannon (who seems to be both), empty suits like Priebus, and of course the president himself, who by all accounts is too dumb to sit through briefings or comprehend ideas beyond grade-school level.

‘Ohhh you elitist jerk! Intelligence and goodness are orthogonal!’

Too-easy response: would you want a stupid doctor examining your daughter, or a stupid contractor building your house? These people need to be smart in order to do complicated things well — ‘goodly,’ as they say (I hope).

Let’s go further, though.

Intelligent people can be betrayed by their feelings, their ‘cognitive biases,’ same as anyone else. Obviously! And equally obviously, ‘smart’ folks can’t claim moral superiority — you can start with little more than the Golden Rule and live a good life, and the road’s littered with corpses left behind by ‘intellectuals.’ But intelligent folks, folks who can read critically and argue, who can handle irony and work through complex lines of reasoning and think dialectically, are much less susceptible (on average) to bad ideas.

Racism, for instance, is stupid — but you can learn that racism is stupid, and more importantly make yourself robust against it. Not through tribal-identitarian rituals (which just teach a kneejerk response to unfashionable forms of bigotry while blinding you to fashionable ones) but by introspecting about your racist beliefs and thinking through their consequences.

Censorship’s stupid too: morality aside, it doesn’t work (censored ideas grow more potent), and since the power to censor changes hands regularly, it’s short sighted to boot — next time around it’ll the other side silencing you. Those who advocate for censorship do so because they can’t think beyond the satisfactions of the moment, and can’t reason their way out of distaste. Empathy at a distance is a learned skill, and by developing that skill you begin to make yourself robust against your terror at unwelcome thoughts and expressions.

Why do intellectuals fall for bad ideas? Because they’re scared to make use of their faculties — they crave status, fear exposure, succumb to parochialism, or are just lazy.

The stupidity of the Trump White House bothers me because, even if Trump’s people are exactly as (im/a)moral as Obama’s, high-level thought can’t survive in that environment. Their organization is dysfunctional because so many people in it are too stupid to work together, for the future, at short-term cost to themselves. The best opportunity for the Republican/conservative agenda in more than a decade has been pissed away because the White House can’t play smart.

Which is merely quite bad right now, but will be a disaster when an actual external crisis hits. That’s the risk: the White House, the federal government, is not robust against calamity. You look at it the wrong way and it wobbles and falls.

Ignorance is our natural state, but willful ignorance is a sin. The president trusts Fox News and the Breitbart mis/disinformation machine for his daily news, even though he’s got the entire intelligence community ready to do that work for him. Why?

Because actually doing his job is too hard. Because he’s too stupid and too scared to keep up with the work.

So was GW Bush, of course — but Bush had principles, a compass (however faulty), and a deeply held sense of noblesse oblige. He was a cretin but he knew what the job was, more or less, and seemed to know his limitations. And like Obama, Bush was a voracious reader — you don’t suppose that’s a coincidence, do you?

Stupidity makes you cruel because it keeps you afraid. It makes you violent because it blinds you to better solutions. Stupidity makes you weak, because it keeps you from seeking out the interesting challenges that make you strong. It makes you boring because it shuts out all but the most obvious desires.

Lionel Trilling spoke of a ‘moral obligation to be intelligent.’ I look at Trump and his gang of second-raters and for a second I know just what he means.

‘Design philosophy’ is a smokescreen: initial point.

A habitual point-misser at rpg.net — a guy who was banned for threadshitting about a game he doesn’t seem to play, returned weeks later, and still can’t resist the urge to insert himself into every thread on that subject — said this in a thread about D&D 5th edition:

I just feel like there is a really deep, philosophical difference between what 4e does, within its niche, and what 5e does, within that same niche, and that it’s unusual for someone to like such significantly different takes within such a narrow space.

Maybe my issue is more that I see “I like 4e” as saying more than simply “when I play 4e, I have fun.” I see it as affirming support for a thing behind the game–hence my repeated references to design philosophy, and my comparison to a philosophical difference in literature. Because, by the latter definition, I literally like all TTRPGs I’ve ever played, because I’ve had fun while playing them. Even games I would never actually say I like.

He talked about Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Game of Thrones, and about C.S. Lewis and Ayn Rand, and how he doesn’t understand how someone could claim to like both paired terms, for ‘philosophical’ reasons.

And I think this in response:

4e and 5e don’t do the same thing. They don’t really try. This is one source of your confusion. One is an anime-superpowers ‘cinematic’ fighty minis game, one is a streamlined modernish take on 80s D&D.

But even if they aimed at the same genre, there’s this: almost no one cares about ‘design philosophy,’ and talking about it (even on nerd fora) is often a smokescreen. The stable sensible adults I know don’t find it unusual at all to like very different takes on the same material. When I read Game of Thrones, I dig its vastness, its human-scale history, its grim postapocalyptic antiwar outlook, its conspiratorial complications. when I watch Disney’s Sleeping Beauty with my son, I dig its grand primary-coloured good’n’evil story, its desperation, the courage and terror and childlike wonder of it. I like The Wasp Factory and Catcher in the Rye (‘sourly funny adolescent works through emotional issues’ stories), I like Tolkien and Moorcock (and both understand and disagree with Moorcock’s ‘kill mommy’ bashing of Tolkien), I like Pynchon and the faintly embarrassing sub-Pynchon pretentious sex-comedy of Illuminatus!, I learn something from Tony Judt’s Euro-cosmopolitanism and John Gaddis’s unabashed USA-triumphalism, and none of the philosophical ‘contradictions’ between these works are as important as what I (you) take from them in the moment.

Justifying your affection for some popcult thing by talking about the ‘principles’ it embodies is the same lazy identitarian bullshit that

POLITICAL/ACADEMIC/CULTURAL RANT REDACTED

and if you can’t stretch yourself a tiny bit to see and enjoy things on their own terms, and to empathize with others doing the same even with texts you ‘don’t get,’ then don’t be surprised when sane sensible adults politely show you the door.


The deeper point here is that consumers who talk about ‘design philosophy’ are for the most part just borrowing hip terminology to mark themselves as above the material they don’t like. You get the same from the dilettantes and status-seekers in ‘Apple punditry’ and the gadget press, acting as if they’ve intuited the deeply admirable design principles behind a gadget which (coincidence!) happens to fill a need for them.

Fear of pleasure, lack of empathy, and ignorance about process: these are, you will hopefully be unsurprised to hear, problems. We will talk.

Pierce.

Does this look like wordcount padding to you?

In the clamor of a presidential race, which this year is even more distracting because of a clamorous and vulgar talking yam, a lot of important information gets drowned out that ought to be part of the presidential race in the first place.

That’s Charles Pierce, beloved of leftish readers who prefer articulate but shopworn outrage to analysis, drowning out some important information with a rush of cliché over at his blog ‘shebeen.’ Annoying as I find the ‘yam’ bit, it’s the misused ‘in the first place’ that puts me off. Surely a quick reread should’ve flagged that clunker?

Sensible people insist Pierce is a Great Writer in his mode, but his Esquire Politics blog has been trash all year, and paragraphs like the one quoted above are the reason why. Every single fucking post is riddled with ‘clever’ nicknames like ‘the vulgar talking yam’/’He, Trump’ or ‘Tailgunner Ted Cruz,’ tired rehashes of years-old jokes, and threadbare secondhand verbiage out of the Sclerotic Greyhair anthology. There’re ten thousand leftward bloggers like him, frankly, and dozens of them are reaching for new insights and new prose without any noticeable loss of perspective. I’ve linked admiringly to Pierce in the past, when his brand of overwrought doomsaying has suited the emotional tenor of some darker-than-usual cultural moment. But at this point he’s stamping about the ol’ shebeen like a more historically informed and somewhat less self-important Keith Olbermann — remember how K.O. got off a couple of memorable ‘viral’ speeches on his TV show before abruptly reaching the limit of his insight? — which is a damn shame considering Pierce’s actual talent and skill levels.

He was necessary reading once, back when he couldn’t be reduced so easily to a formula.

I say all this because Pierce talks constantly (and with extraordinary condescension) about the decline of rationality and sense in the USA — this from a man who in 2009 wrote a book called, wait for it, Idiot America — yet as near as I can tell, he long ago joined the parade of hurt/comfort pundits whose main job is to point at an extremely obvious outrageous affront to leftesque sensibilities (dumb people with guns! the politics of the image!) and recite a comforting litany of complaints (our nation is in decline and you and I are in no way to blame!), the balance of outrage and been-there-blogged-that worldweariness calibrated to go well with, say, a sugary milky caffeinated drink from your local fast-coffee chain. The ~left blogosphere has made this sort of pageview-trawling pseudoanalysis its primary sport for years and years now.

And while you might well think that the Real Problem is the rise of right-wing talk radio (which has been a major cultural force in this country for a quarter-century, you knob) or Citizens United or the lack of safe spaces or Lin-Manuel Miranda not getting enough awards or whatever issue you fill your Outrage Moments with…the fact that the tribe which identifies itself as Educated and Informed and More or Less Left But Also Totally Jazzed About the Fruits of Hypercapitalism — know anyone like that? — just can not be bothered to communicate with any of the other tribes, the fact that our Elites are doing their best to turn not only their neighbourhoods but their entire mediated existences into gated geographic/cognitive communities (the Safe Space as model of the Self), is exactly isomorphic with the ‘epistemic closure’ which was such a big deal amongst Righty crankfluencers a few years ago.

In other words: if you prefer your own tribe’s clichés to merely being in the world with members of any other tribe, you are part of the Idiot America that Pierce and his (mostly younger and dumber, therefore more forgivable though no more tolerable) cohort like to think they stand outside of. The system is rigged against you, just like it’s rigged against everyone who isn’t in charge of it, but you still bear a portion of the blame. Just like me and Charlie.

But you’re not getting paid to pass off your outraged gesticulation as critical insight. So your share of the blame is that much smaller.

That’s all.

A ten-minute Obama lecture on cynicism and polarization? Sure, why not.

I’m going to miss this man when he leaves office. His successor will be…ugly.

New media, old lies.

A rant follows. –wa.

‘Social media’ is, for the most part, a marketing term — the ‘social’ dimension of e.g. Twitter is actually only a small part of many (most?) users’ experiences, which consist largely of ongoing broadcast streams with brief semisocial side interactions. Check-ins. Socializing means two-way interaction; Twitter’s format militates against that. You interact directly with a tiny fraction of the people you follow, right? You may well follow 300 people, or 1,000 — how many of them did you exchange words with this week? And so now what were the other ones doing in your feed?

Twitter users you follow but don’t interact with are little different from TV stations you leave on in the background while you attend to…let’s call it ‘real life stuff.’

The idea that clicking on a link means ‘interaction’ has permanently cheapened that term. If I throw out a piece of mail and you take it out of my garbage and read it, you and I aren’t interacting.

This morning I read a Medium post about how Slack — a groupware application which replaces email with a more robust version of IRC — has ruined some UX designer’s life, by fragmenting his attention. The trouble with the piece isn’t its unfunny conceit (a breakup letter) or its tone of hip abjection (‘You are such a wonderful sane ethical corporation, please fix what you’ve made wrong with my life!’), but rather the unexamined assumption, totally unsupported by anything like evidence, that an adult should be able to live a happy healthy life sitting in front of a screen having IRC conversations with coworkers and ‘friends.’

And where did that ludicrous idea come from?

Not from Slack or Twitter or Facebook. Not from the Internet, Compuserve, Prodigy, or Illuminati Online. The idea that a good life was one in which you had time to settle down before a flickering lightbox and pretend to be connected to other human beings is very, very old. And because it’s transparently false, it has to be sold to us.

What’s deeply wrong with the Web was deeply wrong with TV

One of the most important pseudophilosophical currents of the last hundred years is the technophilic triumphalism that animates Silicon Valley culture. (I say ‘pseudo-‘ because it’s too poorly thought out to rise to the level of philosophy.) The idea that personal computers, and then the Internet, and then smartphones, and then more elegantly designed personal Internet smartphone computers will (1) fix what’s wrong with human civilization while (2) costing us nothing is a pernicious myth that (with honorable exceptions like that maybe-crank Morozov) goes essentially unchallenged in the cultural mainstream today. A lot of people are getting rich off the idea that the Singularity is not only real but here already. ‘Disruption’ is the watchword and dysfunction is the result.

But we should be aware of the roots of that dysfunction, which extend back a good deal further than the latest antisocial outrage. The problems with our all-Internet-all-the-time lives are outgrowths of much older cultural movements.

The broadcast-TV consensus wasn’t killed by YouTube but by cable TV and the VCR.

The atrophy of social/empathetic faculties now manifesting in our politics of secondhand identitarian outrage-cosplay has been in progress since long before the Web existed — for all the vaunted cognitive benefits of video games, Atari killed more brain cells than Snapchat.

The total collapse of trust in American news media owes a hell of a lot more to Ted Turner’s insane idea of a 24-hour ‘news’ network than it does to Matt Drudge or Gawker or whoever we’re blaming now.

Controlling the televised image has been essential to national political success for more than half a century — ask Richard Nixon — and remember that this country already (re)elected a second-tier movie star and cigarette pitchman to the White House.

(Don’t you dare fall prey to the stupid idea that Trump’s candidacy has been ‘conducted via Twitter.’ Even younger voters who didn’t constantly hear about his Yuuuge Business Deals in the 80s (as I did) know him from The Apprentice, which laid the groundwork for his current performance by normalizing his repugnant charismatic-villain persona. Funny, I didn’t actually watch the show. Did you?)

It’s not exactly controversial to say that computer-dependent life is dangerous and costly, though saying so won’t win you any popularity contests. But — I know this is basic but it needs saying because it’s, y’know, basic — what’s shitty about staring at the Web was shitty about staring at the TV half a century ago.

‘But we have such short attention spans today!’ Blame the handheld infotech device known as the remote control, which fed you the daft notions that not needing to get up from the couch was a measure of meaningful control over your media diet, and that if you didn’t immediately like a work of televisual art you should ‘see what else is on.’ And remember that most of us now watch our movies at home — in a domestic, distraction-filled ‘curated’ environment, rather than the sense-heightening identity-submerging collective ritual strangeness of the movie theater. We’re too ‘enlightened’ to recognize the importance of the magic circle of ritual transformation which surrounds the theater, and too lazy to seek it out, at fatal cost to our imaginations.

There is no magic circle around the Web. There can’t be.

Obviously the Web differs from TV. Obviously. But the danger it poses isn’t anonymous comments, it’s that your computer is a glowing box that you stare at while a stream of mostly irrelevant nonsense flows by your face, barely registering beyond its immediate sensation — and you convince yourself that you’re ‘interacting,’ that you’re an ‘active viewer.’ Does that sound familiar? We’ve replaced CNN with cnn.com, People Magazine with TMZ, watching Arrested Development with downloading Arrested Development, talking about comic books with tweeting about comic-book movies — but the basic problem of dependence on the screen, of its fundamentally antisocial and dehumanizing nature, has only deepened. It’s not new. We sit motionless in our ‘filter bubbles’ and congratulate ourselves on how comfortable our chairs are, how carefully ‘curated’ our Twitter feeds, but before ‘Web surfing’ there was ‘channel surfing’ and we tried not to think about what it was costing us because we’re in love with our illusions, not least the Illusion of Choice.

Hey by the way, remember when anyone gave a damn that Goldman-Sachs was one of the most dangerously powerful organizations ever formed by a group of human beings? No, of course not. That was a long time ago. It’s scrolled off the bottom of my screen.

We’ll have to catch it in reruns.

A fight and an argument.

[Wrote this in late January, never posted it. –wa.]

The story circulates that the boys at Marvel Comics couldn’t figure out how to end hack writer Mark Millar’s Civil War series, in which Captain America leads an army of superheroes who refuse to register with the US government against a new gov’t agency led by Tony Stark. The writers had Cap and Iron Man fistfighting in the wreckage of some city and couldn’t figure out whether one of them would or could win. Joss Whedon strolled by, listened for ten minutes, then casually handed them their ending and left: Captain America wins the fight but loses the argument.

Yesterday my dad asked me whether Trump has a chance of winning the election. I said: No, Dad, he’s unlikely to win the GOP nomination, and he can’t beat Hillary Clinton, who’s still all but guaranteed to win the Democratic nomination. A loud minority really likes Trump; everyone else rejects him outright.

So why’s he doing so well? my dad asked. What I should’ve said was this: Trump doesn’t have an argument and doesn’t care; he promises a fight. TV ‘news’ loves fights — and so do voters who feel they’re not allowed (empowered) to speak. Because of the positive feedback cycle of poll numbers and TV coverage, he’s locked in as the main attraction on CNN.

Lemme think out loud here. Not an argument, just a series of thoughts.

Of course Trump’s revanchist bloc is eager to support someone whose sole ‘content’ is lashing out. Over the last thirty years, they have resoundingly ‘lost the argument.’ Economically, socially, diplomatically (and most consequentially on the matter of anthropogenic climate change), the right wing is confronting a long legacy of failure, with Obama’s consequential presidency its chief symbol. Trump feels to many like their last resort.

But that’s not what they’d tell themselves if he won.

‘Might makes right.’ Think about that for a second: the moral ‘argument’ depends on the outcome of the fight. (In Game of Thrones terms: trial by combat.)

A lot of young progressives/liberals and Democrats think that the way to get stuff done is for your ideas to beat the other guy’s. These people are naïve, but so are all young people. That’s one thing that ‘young’ means, and lucky them.

What’s worrisome is when they win fights — y’know, by beating up the other guy — and insist they’ve won the argument too. This is what was going on with the recent consumer revolt at universities around the country before the cold weather made it all too much of a bother. One side insisted, and apparently believed, it was only making an argument about race; as the year progressed, it came to seem instead like a fight about race and a lot of other things besides.

If you lose the fight, your insistence that you won the argument will sound…hollow.

Captain America beats up Iron Man, then realizes what his war is costing everyone, so he surrenders, conceding the point to Tony Stark.

Social movements never behave this way. They will not ever take three steps forward and then voluntarily take a step back in the name of inclusivity and reconciliation.

They’re not gonna hit you in the face just once.

It seems to me that Trump’s supporters are a protest movement of folks angry at having lost their argument with ‘Obama Nation’ (with history, really) and raring for a fight that’ll cancel out that loss. They’re mad at their congressmen (who’re supposed to do the arguing), they’re mad at their countrymen for not sharing their views — but as their loud cheering for Trump’s constant use of the word ‘LOSER’ makes embarrassingly clear, they’re also mad at themselves, at their station. ‘WE’RE LOSERS,’ Trump bellows. And the crowd roars its agreement. YES WE ARE!

(‘Yes we are’ is the identitarian response to ‘Yes we can.’)

We shouldn’t pretend Trump is an unprecedented or irregular phenomenon. He is the illogical endpoint of right-wing (identity) politics going back half a century. Yesterday I read the National Review anti-Trump forum. I felt embarrassed for the writers (even the ludicrous Mark Helprin, who appears to be beyond embarrassment). They act as if they’re in an argument about the ‘future of conservatism.’ But Trump’s supporters aren’t National Review subscribers. (Is anyone, anymore?) Turn up your nose and someone’s gonna hit it, not unjustifiably. The NR editorial panelists say they don’t recognize Trump and his cohort as conservative. It is impossible for them to conceive of their own fault here.

If I have a point here it’s this: Polls have shown that Trump’s supporters back him regardless of his stance on the issues. The reason you can’t argue with such revanchists is that their position isn’t itself an argument. It’s fists in the air, nothing less or more.

Trump is a trailing indicator.

The first thing to point out about Trump, at this point, is that his support, like his sales pitch, isn’t essentially ideological. As usual, Matt Taibbi gets this exactly right. Trump’s dangerously consistent 30%+ support cuts across all demographic and ideological lines within the pool of GOP primary voters, and as a late-February poll shows, a surprising number of Trump supporters actually take mainstream candidates like Jeb Bush as their second choice.

Trump weds populist rhetoric with strongman appeal: the problem with America is out-of-touch elites, corporate predators, and a willingness to sell ‘real’ Americans downriver for profit — and the solution is, of course, to give Trump absolute authority and hope that fixes everything. That he is himself a hopelessly corrupt plutocrat, a trust-fund narcissist who’s worked hard to have nothing whatsoever to do with the ‘common man’ who is his campaign’s primary target…well, that doesn’t bother his voters.

Because the second thing to point out about Trump is that he’s not asking the American people for money. He plans to take it, of course — he’s a grifter, which the party of Sarah Palin is evidently comfortable with — but all he’s asking of voters right now are their votes. The Trump circus is ‘free-to-play,’ as the Farmville assholes put it.

And over the last few decades, our votes have come to be worthless to us.

Which is the third thing to say about Trump right now, and the scariest. He’s not going to win the general election. He’s not creating a toxic stew of nativism, denialism, and ignorance on the right wing — that goes back a half-century and more. And when this campaign is over, few people will take him seriously ever again. But the Trump Moment is scary because it shows just how little regard Americans have for their votes.

For millions, voting for Trump is the same thing as ‘liking’ Trump — in the ‘social’ media sense. It’s so easy. You hardly feel a thing.

That’s what we should be scared of: not the brief rise to prominence of a vicious delusional moron, but the utter devaluation of the once-sacred process by which we choose our leaders and hold them accountable. It’s too aesthetically neat that the major background issues of this election are ongoing climate disaster and the Senate GOP’s unprecedented refusal even to hold courtesy meetings with Obama’s SCOTUS nominee. A Congress with even the vaguest sense of its responsibility to the American people — to the human species! — would see to it that the SCOTUS vacancy is filled ASAP, and would be working hard right this instant to make sure that the US government can respond effectively to its unusually large number of serious ongoing crises. One big reason Trump plays so well right now with Average Joe and Jane is that Congress is bought and paid for, Supreme Court appointments and approvals are now almost entirely ideological, corporate predators do pull the government’s strings on so many major issues…and Trump’s happy to say so. Trump might be a congenital liar, but a big part of his campaign pitch is that he can be candid about terminal government dysfunction.

Of course, he’d probably nominate Howdy Doody to the fucking Supreme Court. But that’s only to say, again, that Trump himself is the least interesting thing about Trump’s candidacy.

(Sidenote: It’s stupid to keep calling the next Supreme Court Justice ‘Scalia’s replacement’ — the seat was occupied long before Scalia was born, you know. Pundits are well paid to play into the GOP’s hands, of course.)

If he makes it to the general election — which isn’t certain, if you believe the recently popular ‘Party Chooses’ thesis — Trump will get stomped. He’ll embarrass Clinton in the debates, as she’s a corporate sellout and entitled habitual panderer and he’ll rightly call her on those things, but Clinton will ‘win’ the debates by being a sane, experienced, competent adult every bit as ruthless as he is. But it won’t matter. An extremely well funded decades-long campaign to convince Americans that ‘government is the problem’ has (surprise!) quite effectively done its job, and now several generations of Americans sincerely believe that the Feds not only aren’t effective and trustworthy leaders but can’t ever be. That’s deranged, of course, and it comes of willful ignorance. But the damage is done: in a time of deep despair and dashed hopes, there’s always an audience of folks (who think they’re) at the end of their rope — and they’re ready to cheer for the villain and convince themselves he’s the truth-talking antihero.

Which is why I’m not paying too much attention to Trump, but I’m increasingly worried about the landscape the day after the election. Clinton the boomer-dynast will win (c’mon guys, even I called that eight years ago), and a hell of a lot of people will have been carefully instructed for a decade or more to think of her as illegitimate solely because she’s…well, take your pick: a libtard, a dyke, a castrating bitch, BENGHAZI!!, whatever. (At least she’s white though, amirite?) This madness doesn’t just afflict the lost generation of Fox News-watching senior citizens, either. Contempt not only for our totally corrupt present-day Congress but for the idea of governance has trickled down to younger voters. This has gone on for a long, long time.

The Trump candidacy is a trailing indicator of some extremely dangerous low-level problems with our republic. You can treat the symptom, but not affect the cause…

Electability.

‘Electable’ means, for the most part, ‘comfortingly familiar.’ That’s all. Candidates who represents something unusual in the ongoing comedy/sport show that is American politics are ‘unelectable’ until the press has ‘vetted’ them — i.e. until the candidate has licked the appropriate boots and given the journalist-cosplayers on TV a reason to write them into the season’s story arc.

Political pundits and reporters in this country can’t see around corners. That’s their big problem: they look back and see only justifications for their viewpoints, rather than open questions; they look ahead and see More of the Same, unable to imagine fundamental change. This is what Josh Marshall has been saying for years: the news media’s deep problem is a total inability to imagine history as anything other than a straight line. The narrativizing impulse run riot.

What would it take for Bernie Sanders to show he’s ‘electable’ in 2016? Winning the election.

The difficulty, for our talking heads, is in imagining an America that contains people other than themselves and their fellow toadies. The idea that a well adjusted adult could vote for a ‘social democrat’ is, in the most pedantically literal sense, unthinkable to them.

I hate our political media.