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This blog has periodically summarized some of the hundreds of studies analyzing Trump’s 2016 success and of his continuing popularity. This particular post will be, I trust, the almost-final one. (I’ll no doubt be sucked into reading the studies following up on the 2020 election.)  

My last update was about a year ago. The research then basically confirmed even earlier findings that Trump effectively combined a blatant appeal to the cultural anxieties of native-born, white Christians, together with overwhelming Republican party loyalty in this era of polarization and with the Founding Father’s kludge, the electoral college, to eke out a win. New research largely elaborates that explanation. So, after a brief review, I’ll turn to asking what this recent history might say about the forthcoming election. 

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America is an exceptional country, exceptional not in the sense of excellence, but in the sense of being unusual.

survive

With Covid-19, America is again exceptional, with the worst performance among wealthy nations. Some might quibble with that claim and point to higher death rates in other countries. The real measure of our distinctiveness, however, is what has happened since the pandemic’s initial devastation. From February to April, many other countries acted in the dark even when they acted forcefully. By May, they had learned a lot, had gotten control, and were “flattening the curve.” Not the United States (beyond New York). America’s death rate declined slowly and then rose again, now, in late August, 2020, up to far higher levels than in comparable countries.

The exceptional disaster that is Covid-19 in America is, in part, the exceptional disaster that is Trump in the White House. But even a competent and honest administration would have had a struggle, and a Biden administration, should it take over, will, too.

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Writers on the Left are brawling yet again over whether people who express–or who had once expressed–an opinion that now appears racist, sexist, homophobic, antisemitic or the like should suffer severe consequences, including loss of job or career. Cases in point include a man caught yelling racist taunts on a video, a Boeing executive who wrote an essay decades ago opposing women in military, an editor of The New York Times who published a column by a U.S. Senator, and J.K. Rowling’s skepticism about gender transitions.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall

Evelyn Beatrice Hall:   “… your right to say it.” (1906)

On July 7, 2020 Harper’s Magazine published an open letter signed by many academics, journalists, and noted cultural figures objecting to such “illiberalism,” to a “brand of dogma or coercion” “that tend[s] to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” Fierce rejoinders followed, including at least one that included the phrase “Ok, Boomer.” (Ageism? Or cohortism?)

Here, I add my two cents in support of the Harper’s letter. Suppressing offensive viewpoints is historically and logically a right-wing tradition. For the Left, however, such suppression is self-negating, even in two “hard cases”–racial differences in IQ scores and Holocaust denial.

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I confess to being (pleasantly) surprised; I was too skeptical.

The protests that began with the killing of George Floyd seem to be defying the historical pattern for street action. As I write (morning of June 23, 2020), they have neither fizzled out nor launched a self-defeating backlash. Thousands of whites, many with their children, have joined the protests in towns large and small across the country. Clear majorities of Americans have told pollsters that they agree with the concerns of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters. Major institutional leaders, including heads of major corporations, have rushed to acknowledge racism and to take a virtual, sometimes a literal, knee in solidarity–even the NFL. And there appear to be some successes beyond charges against specific officers on the horizon.

Why have these protests have done so well so far in broadening their appeal when so many other takings to the street–Occupy Wall Street, anti-Iraq War, anti-Vietnam War, the 1968 Chicago convention clashes, the ghetto “rebellions” of the ‘60s, and so on–did not? And what are their chances for bringing significant change?

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Let’s start with these quotations:

From President Obama:

“[T]he small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence in various forms, whether out of genuine anger or mere opportunism, are putting innocent people at risk, compounding the destruction of neighborhoods… and detracting from the larger cause…. [L]et’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it.”

From Terrence Floyd, brother of George:

“In every case of police brutality the same thing has been happening. You have protests, you destroy stuff … so they want us to destroy ourselves. Let’s do this another way,” he said, encouraging the crowd to vote and to educate themselves. “Let’s switch it up, y’all.”

From Congressperson Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis:

“When we see people setting our buildings and our businesses ablaze, we know those are not people who are interested in protecting black lives… Every single fire set ablaze, every single store that is looted, every time our community finds itself in danger, it is time that people are not spending talking about getting justice for George Floyd…”

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta:

“What we saw overnight was not a protest, and it was not Atlanta. We as a people are strongest when we use our voices to heal our city instead of using our hands to tear it down. . . .  If we are to enact change in this nation, I implore everyone to channel their anger and sorrow into something more meaningful and effective through non-violent activism.”

These statements by African Americans contrast with some of the commentary that I have been hearing and reading in the liberal-tilting media like NPR, CNN, MSNBC, the Times, the Post, and online sources, commentary that effectively tries to ignore or wave away the destruction of public property, private businesses, and workers’ jobs. (When a business is destroyed, its employees as well as its owner lose.)

At this writing (midday, June 2), it appears that the street action involves three groups: One, the largest, comprises genuine protesters legitimately outraged at yet another unwarranted killing and at the persistence of institutional racism. The second are anarchist terrorists, overwhelmingly white and young, fomenting destruction. We in the Bay Area are familiar with them. They show up wearing helmets and Guy Fawkes masks, carrying hammers and incendiary devices, to hijack political protests and to break and burn. The third group is comprised of criminals, sometimes organized in caravans, exploiting the situation to break into upscale stores.

The inclination of well-intentioned whites to airbrush the ugly parts of this scene is condescending and it is bad politics. It helps the Trump administration claim that it is defending the peace against the violent and the appeasers of violence. Modern American history tells us that the political winner of these street confrontations is almost always the side of reaction and repression. So, it could be again on election day, 2020.

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May 22, 2020. As we await the nation finding an equilibrium between Covid-19 deaths and routine life, observers are biding their shelter time forecasting the great social changes that the pandemic will have left in its wake. How much, how transformative, social change can we expect this pandemic to have brought?asteroid

Whether you anticipate profound changes or instead expect pretty much the same America after Covid-19 may depend on how you generally understand the way profound social change occurs. Does it entail “asteroidal” or “glacial” events? I borrow the terms from evolutionary history. An asteroid’s impact about 66 million years ago suddenly transformed life on Earth, including terminating the dinosaurs. On the other hand, gradual alterations in the earth’s spin and orientation expanded and reduced glacier coverage of the planet, which, in turn, slowly forced Earth’s life forms to adapt.

Is the Covid-19 pandemic an asteroidal shock to America, or will, a decade from now, its occurrence hardly be noted amidst America’s glacial changes?

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Around this time of the year, I write a post to celebrate the arrival of baseball, the national pastime. This year the pastime has not arrived on time; it may not arrive at all.

Its absence is far from the saddest story of Covid-19–though sad enough for the unemployed beer vendors, ticket-takers, and security guards, as well as the hot prospects who were going to break into the big leagues this year and the fading veterans who were going to resurrect their careers for just one more turn. Yet, true fans still yearn. We read the latest stories that baseball writers have scrounged from the recycle bins of their laptops, such as features on the best second-string left fielders who played on the teams west of Mississippi in 1977 or on the meals that the local team’s bullpen catcher is whipping up for his kids during confinement. Meanwhile, TV provides reruns of games that local nine never lose. empty ballpark trimmed

What will MLB do with the season? One idea being pitched and batted around, semi-endorsed by Dr. Anthony Fauci himself, is to play the games in stadiums scattered in a restricted locale–the Phoenix region is often mentioned–with the players effectively quarantined together (think of a cruise ship berthed in Scottsdale) and no fans in the stands, just tv cameras. What would baseball be like without the fans?

Athletes almost always publicly credit the fans, calling them the 6th man in basketball, the 10th man in baseball, the 12th man in football–really, the 6th, 10th, 12th person. Winning teams thank their fans for the support without which victory would have been impossible, losing teams praise them for their faith and loyalty through hard times. But, do fans really matter (besides paying the fare)?

I did a quick literature search on the topic.

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Sheltering-in-Place, Berkeley, CA. March 23, 2020. Let’s think about the COVID-19 crisis in a cold-blooded, sociological, and historical way. Rough estimates seem to be that between 200,000 and 1,700,000 will die of COVID-19, depending on how completely authorities shutdown in-person interaction. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the trusted face of the national response, said on March 20 that Americans would need to maintain maximal social distance–or, more correctly, physical distance–for at least several weeks.

Flu Seattle cops

Seattle Police to Enforce Face Mask Rule (National Archives, 165-WW-269B-25)

Those would be several weeks of extended economic destruction, school hours lost, severe family stress for many, cratering of civic institutions, and considerable social and emotional pain. The alternative, not locking down as severely and only partly “flattening the curve,” would mean more medical system chaos and tens or hundreds of thousands–some might argue millions–more lives lost. What is the trade-off between the social and economic destruction caused by the lockdown versus lives lost?

Making this calculation seems brutal. Do we not believe that each and every life is invaluable – “valuable beyond estimation: priceless”? No. If we really did, we would have 40 MPH speed limits and make cancer treatments free to all who cannot pay. Our society makes trade-offs. (One rough cost-benefit calculation is here.)

Properly speculating about the answer to the trade-off question requires some sense of what the consequences of the current shut down may be. Perhaps a look at the last great pandemic, the 1918 so-called “Spanish” influenza, can help. Here, I first review some lessons from the 1918 flu (based on an admittedly quick skim of the literature and archives, so sure to have some error) and then explore what they might imply for understanding the trade-off today.

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Bernie Sanders often declared that his is “a campaign of the working class, by the working class, and for the working class,” calling for that class to rise up, vote for him, and make the democratic socialist revolution. He was sorely disappointed. At this writing, soon after the second “Super Tuesday” primaries, it is clear that Sanders mobilized hardly any of the black working class and not that many of the white working class either.Debs

Sanders thus joins a long list of well-educated lefties (University of Chicago, 1964) whom the working class seems to have disappointed. Long ago William Jennings Bryan–who, in his 1896 “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” speech, asked “Upon which side will the Democratic Party fight; upon the side of ‘the idle holders of idle capital’ or upon the side of ‘the struggling masses’?”–lost repeatedly. Soon after, Eugene V. Debs, a hero to Sanders, ran several times for president–explicitly as a socialist on a Socialist ticket–and topped out, in 1912, at only six percent of the popular vote. Compare that to eccentric, conservative businessman Ross Perot who won 19% as a third-party candidate in 1992. Crushing disappointment.

The major exception to the working class’s spurning of the Left was, of course, Roosevelt’s successful 1932 campaign and then, his 1936 re-election. FDR’s New Deal created a couple of generations of working-class loyalty to the Democratic party. But it took the onset of the Great Depression to get that first win (much like it took the onset of the Great Recession to elect the first black president).

For the most part, the call of socialism, or of democratic socialism, or even of basic European-style welfare-state-ism has done surprisingly poorly with the American working class. Repeatedly, their passivity and even opposition has posed a frustrating puzzle for those of us on the Left: Cannot working-class Americans see where their interests lie? Repeatedly, as well, many of us had faith that, with just the right message or just the right messenger, the masses would rise up, vote the Wall Street bastards out, and vote social justice in. What’s gone wrong?

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Last October, Attorney General William Barr drew attention for a fiery speech he gave at the University of Notre Dame. Barr asserted that “virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground” in America–measures such as illegitimacy, violence, and suicide rates. This has happened because Americans are losing their self-control. People are naturally “subject to powerful passions and appetites” and thus to “licentiousness.” In a free society, restraining licentiousness requires an “internal controlling power.” Only religion, faith in “an authority independent of men’s will . . . a transcendent Supreme Being,” can inhibit these passions. In the last 50 years, Barr contended, we have experienced a loss of inhibition because “the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system.” Organized forces of secularism have promoted the “destruction” of religion, especially through government by, for example, restricting prayer in school, legalizing abortion, and inserting LGBT curricula into the schools.

Moral duty, Barr concluded, required using the Department of Justice to protect religious freedom. That would restore Americans’ self-control and thus reverse the tide of pathology. “We cannot have a moral renaissance unless we succeed in passing to the next generation our faith and values in full vigor.”

Barr pic

Source: South Bend Tribune

The howls from the Left over this speech focused on the specter of Barr using the DOJ’s powers to weigh in on the conservative side of the great Culture Wars. My concern here is simply to ask, How factually correct is Barr’s story? His is a sweeping, powerful, and consequential description of recent American history. Is it true?

I address Barr’s argument from first cause to final result: Are religion and faith in decline and, if so, because of secularists’ attacks? Does religion provide and is it necessary for free people’s self-control? Has Americans’ self-control weakened? Has there been increasing social pathology and, if there has, is weakening self-control the explanation?

I approach this topic with some empathy. Barr is a serious Catholic; I am an active member (and past president) of my synagogue. We are on the same side of the divide between organized religion and mobilized secularists. However, the historical facts are clear and they are not on Barr’s side.

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