Charles C. Camosy has a modest proposal—a “grand bargain to save the planet and call truce in the abortion war”—that triggered my Pragmatic Centrist Solution alarm. This alarm seems to go off only for ideas that sound great, would help a lot of people, but will never, ever get through Congress:
Democrats get a Green New Deal in exchange for a law that mirrors Portugal’s abortion policy. Under a law passed in 2007, Portugal bans the procedure after 10 weeks (with significant exceptions) and requires a three-day waiting period.
Democrats may balk at this proposal, but the current pro-life majority of the Supreme Court could well create law that is even more restrictive — for which they would get nothing. Plus, it would take the political wind out of pro-life sails for years, as most Americans would think that they got more than enough. It may even be the beginning of the end of the abortion wars, which have disproportionately helped the GOP.
Republicans (though many are quite eco-friendly) could also balk. But there is almost no legislative chance for a dramatic change to U.S. abortion policy without some kind of grand bargain. My proposal would test just how important pro-life priorities are for GOP leadership. Do they care more about neoliberal economics or about justice under law for prenatal children?
It would also test just how strongly Democrats believe that climate change is on the verge of causing catastrophe. If the lives of millions hang in the balance, adopting Portugal’s abortion policy ought to be an easy decision. Does Democratic leadership really believe in an existential threat from climate change or is a 10-week limit on abortion the real end of the world for them?
When I realized I had yet to read a presidential biography this year, I decided to tackle one that was more obscure and therefore more likely to be shorter. For some reason, tenth president John Tyler came to mind.
I opted for John Tyler by Gary May, part of the American Presidents series of short books. I try to avoid that series because all the books are intentionally short—this one was 150 pages—and I want to feel like I’ve earned (i.e. suffered through enough pages of) every biography, you know? But I decided to cut myself some slack on this one, and I’m now 18 presidents down with 26 to go.
John Tyler proved more interesting than I expected. All I knew of him, besides “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”, was that he was the first president to ascend to the office due to his predecessor’s death (pour one out for William Henry “31 Days in Office” Harrison) and that he was a slaveholder who eventually served in the Confederacy.
He was also the youngest president (at 51) to take the oath at the time, had 15 kids between two wives (and two of his grandsons are still alive), was the first president to get married while in office, and the first to decline to seek a second term.
He also facilitated the annexation of Texas, which helped cause the Civil War. So there’s that.
One of the more intriguing episodes was when he resigned from U.S. Senate in 1836. He did it in protest of a resolution to expunge the censure of Andrew Jackson, which he’d earned from his conduct related to the rechartering of the Bank of the United States. Though a longtime Democrat, Tyler was even more strongly for states rights and therefore against Jackson’s despotism and expansion of executive power. So much so that he preferred resignation over acquiescence to federal overreach.
This also meant he was often politically homeless. Take a look at his political party affiliation history:
Notice he wasn’t affiliated with any party during his 1841-1844 presidential term. That’s because after vetoing several Whig bills (his own party, mind you) for being unconstitutional, which triggered mass resignations from his own cabinet (orchestrated by ol’ Henry Clay), the Whigs expelled Tyler from the party. He spent the rest of his administration a free agent, exerting the little influence he had on his two primary presidential passions: annexing Texas and vetoing as many bills as possible.
Tyler’s story ended just as the country’s took a dark turn. In February 1861 he was sent as a private citizen to the Peace Conference of 1861, a last-ditch effort I’d never heard of to negotiate a compromise over slavery. It failed, obviously, but it wasn’t long before Tyler was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. He died before the first session began, thus denying him the opportunity of living to be the only U.S. president to formally give the finger to his erstwhile nation.
(Is that my Yankee showing?)
As a committed one-termer with a handful of goals (Texas and vetoes), Tyler reminds me of his presidential successor, James Polk, who got to fight the war with Mexico that Tyler’s backroom deal-making instigated. And this book fills in yet another gap in this era of forgotten presidents between Jackson and Lincoln. “And Tyler too” is about right.
Book Notes & Quotes: John Tyler by Gary May
At 51 he was the youngest president to take the oath at the time
Tyler’s father was Virginia governor and friend of Jefferson during Revolution
Attended College of William & Mary, then law school by 19 and Virginia House of Delegates in 1811
In spring 1813 his father died, he married Letitia, and joined militia but didn’t see action
Elected to Congress in 1816 at 26
Clay’s “American System” inspired by dismal performance in War of 1812, but states rights advocate Tyler voted against
Appointed to committee investigating Second Bank of the United States role in 1818’s “bank mania” of speculation and corruption; report was critical but bank survived
Voted against Missouri Compromise of 1820, which pushed him to not seek re-election
Law and farming bored him, so he won spot in Virginia legislature at 33, then became Virginia governor at 35
Virginia senator John Randolph lost favor, so Tyler selected for Senate in 1827
Hated John Quincy Adams and feared Andrew Jackson; in 1824 went Adams and 1828 Jackson
Went against Jackson’s despotism in nullification crisis and Bank controversy, despite supporting states rights
Resigned from Senate in 1836 in protest of resolution to expunge censure of Jackson’s behavior in Bank controversy
Despised the word “national” and what it represented
Whigs in 1840 had no official platform so as not to tear apart fragile coalition
Clay clashed with Harrison assuming he’d be subservient to Congress
Tyler brought 8 kids to White House, had son as secretary
Wife Letitia had stroke in 1839 and was invalid; daughter in law and actress Priscilla Cooper acted as First Lady
Clay, angling for 1844, put Third Bank of United States up for vote but Tyler vetoed
Whig activist Philip Hone called Tyler’s message “the quintessence of twaddle”
Second veto of bank triggered Cabinet resignations (orchestrated by Clay) save Daniel Webster; Clay assumed Tyler would resign but instead he found independent Whigs to serve
Whigs expelled Tyler from party after 1841 special session
Letitia died in 1842
Skirmish with Britain in 1830s at Maine/New Brunswick border dispute led to Webster-Ashburton treaty, border resolutions, and slave trade compromises
Sent first envoy to China to open for U.S. trade
Ardent expansionist who wanted to annex Texas, but slavery held it up
In February 1844 was cruising Potomac on new steam-powered USS Princeton when “Peacemaker” cannon exploded; Tyler and fiancée Julia below but casualties and carnage above, including Julia’s father
Calhoun “never happier than when he was philosophizing on behalf of slavery”
Antislavery Democratic senator leaked Texas annexation treaty; solely hinges on slavery in election year
Created his own Democratic-Republican party to act as spoiler; promised to bow out if assured by Polk that Texas would be annexed
Married Julia in June 1844 in secret; first presidential wedding in office; 30 years older than her
Funds to improve White House denied by Congress, so Julia’s mother contributed
First president to decline to seek second term
Signed Texas annexation resolution on March 1
Had 15 kids between two wives
1848 election split by Free Soil Party nominee Van Buren, and combined with Mexican war spoils states led to Compromise of 1850, which Tyler supported with Clay
Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and attempt at arming slaves tilted Tyler toward secession
Even in early 1861 was looking for ways to prevent disunion: participated in “peace convention” in DC but turned when proposed amendment would limit slavery and when Lincoln signaled war
Oversaw transfer of Confederate capital from Montgomery to Richmond, and served in Confederate House of Representatives briefly before death in January 1861
Asserted presidential power in era when Congress tried to weaken it; used veto vigorously, showed power even without congressional support or personal charisma
Improved Britain/American relations through Webster-Ashburton treaty, opened relations with China through Treaty of Wanghia, annexed Texas
Helped create “imperial presidency” through secret service contingency funds, guarding certain records, dispatching forces
Belief he was heir to Virginian presidents dynasty led to reckless pursuit of Texas, which led to Civil War
I think about this line a lot in regards to the current administration, but in reverse. Just when things look like they might possibly improve—with North Korea or the economy or my opinion of his presidency—Trump starts a trade war with important allies and pardons Dinesh D’Souza on top of his usual Twitter trumpery, and things snap back to reality.
His central thesis is something I’ve thought about for a while: that the job of being president has become too big and darn near impossible. Long gone are the days when the president could go hiking with John Muir for long stretches without an entourage (Theodore Roosevelt) or go on a golfing vacation during a natural catastrophe without getting excoriated for callousness (Eisenhower).
The unwritten job description has bloated so much that our collective expectations for the position have become absurdly high. Dickerson interviews lots of former White House staffers from recent administrations and captures a visceral sense of the ever-increasing workload and expectations they and their presidents had to deal with.
Though this problem has been growing since the latter 20th century, I noticed it acutely during Obama’s terms, which coincided with the emergence of social media as a new means of instant mass communication and the exacerbation of an already vacuous news cycle.
Here’s Dickinson on what Obama had to deal with immediately before and after the secret meetings about the operation to kill Osama bin Laden in the spring of 2011:
an education-policy speech; meetings with leaders from Denmark, Brazil, and Panama; meetings to avoid a government shutdown; a fund-raising dinner; a budget speech; a prayer breakfast; immigration-reform meetings; the announcement of a new national-security team; planning for his reelection campaign; and a military intervention in Libya.
Obama is a smart guy who is capable of compartmentalizing, but this is an insane workload. And that was just one week. Missing are all the speeches after mass shootings, campaigning, and other attendant trappings of the modern office.
And then came Trump:
The intensity of public feelings about President Trump makes it hard to measure him against the presidency. His breaks with tradition are so jarring, and the murmuration of tweets so thick, that debate about his behavior tends to be conducted on the plane of propriety and the president’s seeming disregard for it.
If Trump were a less divisive figure, we might view these lapses differently. We might consider that what looks like incompetence or impertinence on the part of the officeholder could also be evidence that the office itself is broken.
So far Trump has upended a lot of the assumptions we’ve laid on the office of the president. In some ways this has been bad and downright nefarious (*insert about 724 scandals here*), but in another way I think it could be a blessing in disguise.
The presidency needed to change. That would have been true even if Clinton had won. Now that we’re stuck with this new reality, I think it should compel us to rethink a lot of what we’ve come to expect from the presidency.
Maybe we shouldn’t expect the occupant of the presidency to help with hurricane relief if he’s just going to swoop in for a photo-op.
Maybe we shouldn’t expect the occupant of the presidency to have a fully formed position on every domestic and foreign issue.
Maybe we shouldn’t treat the occupant of the presidency like the country’s surrogate daddy or CEO who’s untouchable by the rule of law.
This does not excuse Trump’s inexcusable behavior, which is well documented on this blog. Instead, we can view it as the straw that finally broke the presidency’s back. We ought to take this opportunity to reset our expectations about the office.
Dickerson has some ideas on how to do that: among them a non-pliant Congress, a strong Cabinet, empowered White House staff, a patient news media, an understanding public, and a self-possessed president.
If that lists strikes you as unrealistic or even absurd, you’re half right. Things change whether we expect them to or not. Here’s hoping changes to the presidency come to good.
In a speech given right after September 11, Wendell Berry kept his focus on the long-term concerns of a society and the principles of a proper education:
The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” – which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.
Trump is either hiding something so threatening to himself, or he’s criminally incompetent to be commander in chief. It is impossible yet to say which explanation for his behavior is true, but it seems highly likely that one of these scenarios explains Trump’s refusal to respond to Russia’s direct attack on our system — a quiescence that is simply unprecedented for any U.S. president in history. Russia is not our friend. It has acted in a hostile manner. And Trump keeps ignoring it all.
Trump’s Razor: when presented with competing hypothetical answers to the question of Trump’s behavior, one should select the one that makes the fewest assumptions.
Which means: Once you realize the possibility that Trump is deeply compromised, his behavior makes so much more sense.
And this, for me, is the root of our present crisis. Beneath the “America First” president totally uninterested in defending America’s democratic integrity, the businessman running a chaotic and vapid administration, the “deal maker” with no poker face whatsoever, the demagogue with no ideology but himself—beneath all that is a man in a (presently) invisible prison of his own making. Who also happens to be president of the United States.
Eimantas Paškonis made a beautiful new font based on the manuscript of the Act of Independence of Lithuania, passed in 1918:
The whole project took more than 6 months. First of all, a high-resolution scan of the Act of Independence of Lithuania had to be obtained from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Then the person who wrote the Act had to be identified because some characters were missing in the resolution of February the 16th. When the handwriting was established as Jurgis Šaulys’s, the missing characters were created according to other documents written by J. Šaulys and found in the archives. It took a highly skilled typographer over 120 hours to construct the font.
Previously under Russian rule, Lithuania was occupied by the German Empire during the First World War. It used the distraction of the war as another bid for independence, which Germany surprisingly agreed to with hopes Lithuania would “detach itself from Russia and establish a closer relationship with Germany.”
Indeed, they went for full independence, adopting a resolution “that an independent Lithuania should be established and that a closer relationship with Germany would be conditional on Germany’s formal recognition of the new state.”
Until about two years ago I knew Scott Adams only as the Dilbert guy. But once he started accurately predicting Donald Trump’s unconventional political path using the lenses of persuasion and hypnotism, gaining critics along the way but scoring on predictions over and over when most everyone else was aghast at Trump’s successes, I figured his new book Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter was worth the read.
Turns out it was worth it, if only for an understanding of some of the concepts undergirding the chaos that Trump inspires. He calls Trump a “Master Persuader” using “weapons-grade” techniques to flummox opponents and win admirers. Whether it’s his constant Twitter attacks—”It tells people that being his friend is better than being his critic,” says Adams—or his bombastic hyperbole about The Wall—being intentionally inaccurate but “directionally” true will win supporters and fluster opponents—Adams detects and explains what he sees as the method behind the madness. (The “Persuasion Tips” peppered throughout the book are applicable far beyond politics.)
He repeatedly claims his interest in this subject stems not from his politics but from his lifelong interest in persuasion techniques. (His other chief interest? Scott Adams.) It seems true to an extent, but Adams loses some of that nonpartisan credibility by the end of the book when he’s openly cheering for a Trump win.
Despite his compelling arguments, I knew there was another key element to the Trump story. I couldn’t pinpoint it until I recalled a passage from Jon Ronson’s excellent bookSo You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, about Max Mosley, a race car driver and son of a prominent British Nazi who was outed by a tabloid for his seemingly Nazi-themed sex party. Ronson’s book is about the people whose lives were upended when their behavior went viral. But Mosley survived his scandal relatively unscathed. Why?
Like me, [Mosley had] been thinking a lot about what it was about him that had helped him to stave off even the most modest public shaming. And now, he wrote, he thought he had the answer. It was simply that he had refused to feel ashamed. “As soon as the victim steps out of the pact by refusing to feel ashamed,” he said, “the whole thing crumbles.”
(This also explains the vociferous #Resistance to all things Trump. He doesn’t conform to the commonly held assumptions about political behavior, so like a new viral strain or zombie he just refuses to (politically) die. That makes him particularly vexing and infuriating as an opponent.)
Adams basically confirms this shame theory: “I don’t feel shame or embarrassment like normal people. I wasn’t always this way. It’s a learned skill.” No wonder he understands Trump so well! Beyond their persuasion prowess, both men are rich New Yorkers with robust egos but no inner filters. Such a skill set helped build the Trump brand in the business world, and it’s now reshaping politics, the presidency, and the world.
Though reliving the 2016 election through this book won’t sound fun for most people, I recommend it. Adams has written a kind of Rosetta Stone for a less examined aspect of The Trumpening, and I think that’s very valuable and illuminating regardless of your political beliefs.
Notes & Quotes
Political commentators without business experience were at a disadvantage when trying to interpret Trump
Encourages readers to remain skeptical of his book
Trump’s hyperbole “weapons-grade persuasion”: i.e. large opening offer
Trump matches emotional state and priorities of supporters
Not factually true but emotionally and directionally true
Campaign policies are “more persuasion than policy”
“When Trump’s critics accused him of laziness, ignorance, and cruel intentions, I saw a skilled persuader who knew what mattered and what didn’t.”
Adams has a similar “talent stack” as Trump: hypnotist, New Yorker, rich, doesn’t feel shame: “I don’t feel shame or embarrassment like normal people. I wasn’t always this way. It’s a learned skill.”
“Intentional wrongness” paired with something that’s “directionally accurate”, like Trump’s Wall, is powerful persuasion
Errors suck up attention and energy
Persuasion tip #4: “The things that you think about the most will irrationally rise in importance in your mind.”
“A good general rule is that people are more influenced by visual persuasion, emotion, repetition, and simplicity than they are by details and facts.”
Persuasion tip #8: “People are more influenced by the direction of things than the current state of things.”
Trump is actually thick-skinned, having endured a lifetime of criticism
Trump’s constant counterattacking is good persuasion: “It tells people that being his friend is better than being his critic.”
A good response to someone’s poor action or words: “Is that the person you want to be?” Higher-Ground Maneuver
Says “Fairness is an argument for idiots and children.” [WTF?]
Trump’s slogans, branding, nicknames were successful because they were “sticky”, simple, and unusual for politics
A pox upon me for never having read Ursula Le Guin before she died last week. I’ll get right on that, as her reputation is high among many different kinds of readers.
Before diving into her novels, though, I encountered her blog (an 88 year old blogging!) on which last year she posted “Constructing the Golem”, pretty thoroughly diagnosing our political moment and offering advice for overcoming it:
When he does something weird (which he does constantly in order to keep media attention on him), look not at him but at the people whom his irresponsible acts or words affect — the Republicans who try to collaborate with him (like collaborating with a loose cannon), the Democrats and Government employees he bullies, the statesmen from friendly countries he offends, the ordinary people he uses, insults, and hurts. Look away from him, and at the people who are working desperately to save what they can save of our Republic and our hope of avoiding nuclear catastrophe. Look away from him, and at reality, and things begin to get back into proportion.
He is entirely a creature of the media. He is a media golem. If you take the camera and mike off him, if you take your attention off him, nothing is left — mud.
Oh, would that it were so simple. He is the president, and the office of the presidency is unable to be ignored no matter who occupies its office. This is the present conundrum.
Nicholas Carr, incisive as always, speaks to this in an essay at Politico. He first zooms in on the president’s Twitter addiction:
Thanks to Twitter, the national conversation is now yoked to the vagaries of Trump’s mind. Politics has been subsumed by psychology. Twitter’s formal qualities as an informational medium—its immediacy and ephemerality, its vast reach, its lack of filters—mirror and reinforce the impulsiveness, solipsism, and grandiosity that define Trump’s personality and presidency and, by extension, the times. Banal yet mesmerizing, the president’s Twitter stream distills our strange cultural moment—the moment the noise became the signal.
…and then zooms out on its larger implications:
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the nation and its institutions have become a sort of drug-delivery system engineered to feed the compulsions of a single, unusual man. And given what we know about the way media technologies shape society, a bigger question looms: Are we stuck here for good?
Dear lord I hope not.
A president’s pronouncements will always be news, but they don’t have to grab headlines the way Trump’s tweets routinely do. The messages’ enduring power to seize attention and shape debate springs from a deeper source. It reflects the polarized state of the country and its politics. Among both the president’s fans and his foes, the tweets provoke extreme reactions, which serve to reinforce each side’s confidence in the righteousness of its cause. We listen so intently to Trump’s tweets because they tell us what we want to hear about the political brand we’ve chosen. In a perverse way, they serve as the rallying cries of two opposed and warring tribes.
And when you’re stuck between these two warring tribes, you don’t even get to enjoy the psychological benefits from tribalism. You just witness the carnage and wonder which side you’d rather see lose.
it would be better for all concerned if we were content to say that our political opponents are merely wrong. But that’s unlikely to happen, at least widely, because once you say someone is wrong you commit yourself to explaining why he’s wrong — to the world of argument and evidence — and that makes work for you. Plus, you forego the immense pleasures of moral superiority and righteous indignation. So speculation about our enemies’ motives will continue to be a major feature of our political life, which will have the same practical consequences as Old Man Yells at Cloud.
This is something I wrestle with, especially after reading Jacobs’ excellent new book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World At Odds. Righteous indignation and moral superiority—the chief renewable energy source of cable news and Twitter—make for an intoxicating but lethal combo. They don’t negate the ability to think and explain reasonably, but they can easily overpower the desire to, and turn the tendency to emote first and think later into a destructive habit.
Jacobs is one of my favorite cultural and political thinkers. Clear headed, fair minded, intellectually rigorous and generous, his insights in this short book and on his blog are encouraging and timely: how to examine biases, how to reckon with cultural “others”, and how to engage in the hard labor of “working toward the truth” with a generosity of spirit and strength of character.
That last point is important. Lacking generosity and strength of character not only make us bad thinkers, but bad people. There’s a reason the book isn’t called How to Be Right:
When people cease to be people because they are, to us, merely representatives or mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate, then we, in our zeal to win, have sacrificed empathy: we have declined the opportunity to understand other people’s desires, principles, fears. And that is a great price to pay for supposed “victory” in debate.
It’s especially difficult to engage with political opponents who are terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad thinkers. But the sooner we all realize how wrong we can be, and how good and healthy that realization is, the sooner we can become better thinkers and break the vicious cycle our unhealthy human tendencies trap us in.
Another thinker I highly respect is Andrew Sullivan, erstwhile blogger at The Dish and now weekly columnist. His latest tackles the danger of the “right side of history” fallacy:
No party, no cause, no struggle, however worthy, is ever free from evil. No earthly cause is entirely good. And to believe with absolute certainty that you are on “the right side of history,” or on the right side of a battle between “good and evil,” is a dangerous and seductive form of idolatry. It flatters yourself. And it will lead you inevitably to lose your moral bearings because soon, you will find yourself doing and justifying things that are evil solely because they advance the cause of the “good.”
Current events are bearing this out. Idolatry is one of the easier sins to commit because anything can be made into an idol, and we live in a culture that’s particular fertile ground for doing so.
Who are some current writers and thinkers you respect, and why?