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.

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