Thursday, November 17, 2016

Math and aftermath

Just off the top of my head, I thought "aftermath" probably had something to do with figures and reckoning. I mean, "math," right? I turns out that "math" (or "mowth") is also an obsolete English word for "the mowing," and the "aftermath" is the second crop of grass that grows after the first one has been cut.

I like the idea of returning to the root of words as a way of extracting incisive metaphorical meanings. So-called "common sense" people who don't care about this pooh-pooh the power of metaphor. To them I say look no further than the presidency of the US as the controlling metaphor of the nation.

Lest we think this is a development connected with the money-and-media-driven extension of the campaign into a 3-year enterprise, think back to the very first election, that of George Washington. How was this new nation to work? There was a Constitution, but no government. All of that had yet to be developed, by trial and error as much as by plan. Who could be entrusted to accomplish this? No one but the man by whose steadfastness and leadership the nation had been willed into existence. Washington was the US.

Think back to the Civil War, when the mere election of Lincoln triggered the secession of the lower South. The truth of who the US was--at that very point--became Lincoln himself to such an extent that the slaveocracy refused to countenance the slow, tedious process of defending their peculiar institution; refused to stand upon the layer upon layer of law and institution that are the actual bedrock of the nation; and instead decided to cut and run. Simply because of the election of a single person to a single office.

There are those today whose moans betoken a similar outlook on the election of Donald Trump: the US has committed "electoral suicide." Whatever electoral suicide is or might be, Donald Trump has become who America is. Put this bluntly and baldly it sounds a little silly. But that does not belie the essential truth of the metaphor.

So if the 2016 presidential campaign is in some sense an aftermath--the first crop has been cut, and we are, er, shooting anew--what does that mean? The first crop, as I have written, was all the presidents and presidential candidates up to 2016, every one of whom (with a single, arguable exception) had public or military experience. The 2016 presidential aftermath certainly does not smell like public spirit. But aftermaths are--as the derivative secondary meaning has it--generally regarded as second best, at best, because in its original sense, as Robert Southey put it, "No aftermath has the fragrance and sweetness of the first crop."

To me the math (in the sense of arithmetic) of the aftermath is straightforward. Forget bitching about the Electoral College. It's here to stay. If you can only muster a bare majority in the popular vote, you're not going to come close to changing the Constitution.

Swing voters in swing states are privileged beings in the US, electorally speaking. Strong minority turnout in true-blue states like California and New York don't mean anything if they're trumped (haha) by swing voters in swing states. Where party stalwarts and ideological voters cancel each other out, swing voters in swing states make all the difference.

Swing-state, swing-voter motivation for Trump was stronger for two simple reasons: he was the ultimate political outsider, and his horns were shorter.
  • Ultimate political outsider: Remember that before Trump beat Clinton, he beat an entire field of well-established and well-funded Republican candidates. Then, during the general election, he benefited from the Democrats' own outsider issues, most notably from continuing and strong disaffection among Bernie Sanders supporters. Swing voters disaffected with the present gridlocked Federal government, regardless of who's really to blame--hey, it ain't working, and btw wtf is neoliberalism?--flocked to Trump as a vote of no-confidence. Did it matter that establishment Republicans and most of the mainstream newspapers--even conservative ones--did not endorse him? No; it might even have helped.
  • Shorter horns: How is it even remotely possible that an unprincipled, dishonest confidence man flouting so many rules of decency in private and in public could command the undying loyalty not only of the "throw-mud-at-the-tree-and-see-what-sticks" crowd, but also the values-voting evangelicals? As near as I can tell, it's some kind of corollary to the halo effect. There is, in fact, also a "horns effect" that's the opposite of the halo effect, but this isn't that. It goes more along the lines of "they've both got horns, and even though he's done some bad things--in many ways worse than she has--she represents what we don't like (see 'ultimate political outsider') and so we'll give him a break." It's as if the halo effect were added as a factor to the horns effect and thus subtracts from it (see, I told you there was math involved).
My favorite remark about the election came in a comment from a female Facebook friend: in voting for Trump "we did the unthinkable" to keep Clinton out of the White House. That's pretty strong. Imagine putting that on a bumper sticker. The sentiment is reflected in the fact that, in my neighborhood, some people removed their Trump yard-signs after Pussygate; but I feel sure they also voted for him.

And now, in the aftermath, people are protesting, and other people are protesting that there shouldn't be protests about presidential elections. Protests are in the American DNA. The US began as a protest movement. Among other things, protests influenced the political climate leading to, and are at least partially responsible for the Constitution (Shays's Rebellion), the 19th Amendment (woman's suffrage), improved working conditions and workers' compensation, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Protests are accepted, viable ways to influence the levers of political power.

Trump owes his office to a protest vote and thus is the first protest President of the US. I would go so far as to see he is in fact the first anti-President. His stated positions were not positions at all, as we will see. They were simply an opportunist's ways of stoking the protest vote in his favor and will for the most part dissolve in the legislative soup. Now that he occupies the White House, it will be interesting to see whether the established GOP (i.e. Paul Ryan) will be able to manipulate the protest candidate to accomplish partisan purposes. If we remember that Trump's real power comes from outside--not inside (i.e. Paul Ryan)--Washington, much remains to be seen as to how much he is influenced when insider party politics come up against popular expressions (i.e. protests) out in the heartland when it tries to mess with such things as Medicare.

Thus does the math seed the aftermath.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Brian Cook, continuing cousin

My cousin Brian Cook timed it well. He died earlier in the week and received a full-military-honors funeral yesterday, Nov. 10, in the National Cemetery in Chattanooga, TN.

The cemetery is always an inspiring place, to me anyway: facing out from the large American flag on the commanding central prominence is row upon row upon row of gleaming white grave markers, all of uniform shape, a solemn phalanx giving mute testimony of duty and faith.

But Brian timed it so that his service would happen when the cemetery was decked out for Veterans' Day, the next day (today): American flags placed at close intervals along the roadways that wind through the cemetery. What a welcome, and what a farewell! 

In the picture below--taken in the National Cemetery on the occasion of my father's funeral in 2009--Brian is the tall white-haired gent on the back row over to the right of the photo. He stands between my older brother (holding the flag) and me. Brian's hand is on my shoulder.

You might say it will always be there. On Wednesday night the family held a visitation at the home that lasted until 8. To get there I had a drive that usually takes 3.5 hours. For one reason or another I could only get away with very little time to spare to make it by 8. So what did I do? Brian liked to drive fast. Speed limits were to him only suggestions, and not very good ones at that. So I put Brian riding shotgun with me, and I set out.

If the speedometer needled dipped below 80, I would hear Brian yell out with exasperation (he had a great yell when he was exasperated), "What are you doing?!?" This way Brian was able to keep me up to speed, as it were, all the way past Morristown, Knoxville, Loudoun, and Athens.

Until Cleveland. Traffic slowed to a crawl. No merging happening, so it couldn't be construction. 20, 25, 30, 35, 40 minutes and still just a snail's pace. Where was Brian? C'mon, Brian, don't be letting this happen! Brian had disappeared.

Finally, after 45 minutes, as the roadway crosses White Oak Mtn., traffic merged over to the left lane. There was a glow up ahead, and smoke, and finally I was driving past a full-on forest fire burning right next to I-75!

And there was Brian again, throwing his head back and laughing his big laugh and then yelling, "What are you doing?!? Get a move on!"

I made it in time. My cousin Brian timed it well. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Hey you up in the rigging, here comes the con!

What's the use of a vocabulary if you don't use it? And why are there so many words? Shades of meaning. I wrote about this back in August in connection with the word "rigging": it is revelatory to go back to the root meaning of the word in order to understand its application to politics. It is not a stand-in for "fraud" or for "dirty tricks" or for "political shenanigans." The rigging happens in naitonal and state capitols and is carried out by elected officials in the form of gerrymandering and voter ID laws; it happens when political parties establish their rules. Anybody who thinks that words matter will appreciate this distinction.

(As for vote fraud, can a corps of volunteer "observers" do anything to counter voting-machine tampering, which is where actual fraud is most likely to swing an election? Planet 3799 Novgorod is laughing at you, America.)

The best word to consider in connection with this campaign, however, is "con." It is another word that has taken on a generic sense that careful users of language will want to root out. A "con" is synonymous with "swindle," and the "con" man carrying it out is just a bad, thieving person.

What this leaves out, however, is to me the fascinating detail that the root word of "con" provides. I wonder how many people not knowing the root might guess that--given the generic "bad guy" flavor of "con man"--the root word is "connive" or "contemptible"? Those seem in some ways closer to the heart of a con than anything you find in the actual root, which is of course "confidence."

Confidence. To take someone into confidence, to have confidence in someone, because they inspire confidence: such positive attributes at the root!

Donald Trump has from the very beginning of his campaign a confidence man. He is without political experience or public service of any kind, yet he is asking the electorate to have confidence in him as the leader of the world's most powerful nation. There is not much more to his campaign than his slogan: give me your confidence (your vote) and I will make America great again. How? Don't ask. Hey, he builds golf courses.

That's the beauty of the confidence man. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

The devil? In fact the devil of the Bible was the first recorded confidence "man" in that nothing in the way of convincing Eve or tempting Jesus could even have begun unless he first established confidence.

(Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is the consummate political operative appealing to policy rather than personality. We know everything about her political and public service because it is, well, public and subject to the Freedom of Information Act, which Wikileaks used to expose the State Dept. emails that continue to bedevil her despite their lack of personally culpable information. Is there some inverse relationship between how much we know about someone's political life and how much confidence we have in them? There appears to be something of that dynamic at work in this election.)

And here, by chance, is the word in a campaign-related story by Ben Fountain in The Guardian: The Big Con: what is really at stake on election day. When I say "by chance," I don't mean only that I've been mulling the meaning of "confidence man" ever since Trump started his campaign, but I've also been reading Kenneth S. Davis's book FDR: The New Deal Years, 1933-1937, glorying in the totally forgotten history of this critical time with which much of Fountain's article concerns itself, mostly by saying, well, it's been totally forgotten.

What is the Big Con to which Fountain refers? It is anti-government ideology, faith in the miracle of unimpeded markets:
40 years of well-funded, highly organized laissez-faire proselytizing and government-bashing have done a number on the American mind. The country got conned by a profound ideological shift, starting in the early 1970s as hardcore free-market, anti-government advocates launched a concerted effort to change the political landscape. 
"Got conned." To be fair--in the way that my argumentation has gone--these free-market, anti-government advocates were not con men in the empty-minded way that Donald Trump is. They were and are, after all, advocates who believe in something. Why they believe that, and why history shows the belief to be ill-founded, are other questions that Fountain addresses very well in his article--which seems to be essentially a book review of American Amnesia by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. The book's subtitle pretty much sums things up: "How the war on government led us to forget what made America prosper."

Or, shall we say, "great"? The "conning" really comes into play when Everyman/woman, increasingly stressed by macroeconomic changes over which he/she has no control, turns in desperation to an empty suit like Donald Trump for an answer.  He is himself--with his celebrity status and his self-proclaimed great temperament--the answer, despite his absolute lack of public experience compounded by total ignorance of history and current affairs.

Such free-market advocates as Paul Ryan distrust him, as well they should, but at the same time they expect to be able to manage him. If he is elected, and if he is managed, here is how Fountain describes a continuing decline from a national prosperity established in part with a vigorous Federal government:
The New Deal goal of broadly shared prosperity has taken a beating the past 40 years, and the damage shows. By virtually every measure relative to other rich nations, the US has lost ground since the 1970s. We’re shorter (height is an excellent indicator of social conditions), we don’t live as long, more of our babies die before their first birthdays, wages and educational achievement have stagnated, and inequalities of wealth and opportunity are higher than at any time since the late 19th century. Mortality rates for middle-aged white Americans have actually risen the past 15 years, especially for non-college-educated whites. Maternal mortality rose 27% nationwide between 2000 and 2014. In Texas, the maternal mortality rate doubled between 2010 and 2014.
The very rich, of course, can buy what they need – healthcare, clean water, political clout. They have their walled compounds and private islands to retreat to. As for the rest of us – for instance, all the good citizens out there in rural Texas, Tea Party Texas, the hard country that was transformed by the New Deal – one tries to imagine how it might look in 70 or 80 years if current trends continue. Crumbling roads, jerry-rigged bridges, worn-out farms. A grudging, “market-based” energy grid. Clean water a rarity, and healthcare that’s hit and miss. Perineal tears, perhaps, are once again commonplace. A far-fetched scenario, surely, but no harder for us to imagine in 2016 than the lived reality of rural Texas 80 years ago.
What was it The Who sang? Won't get fooled again? Maybe not, but with Trump you're just getting conned. And what'll you do? Probably blame it on Eve.