Issue #15: Nov 12-Nov 18, 2017

In this week’s newsletter, after our review of The Week In Trump, I weigh in on a recent controversy over “Safari journalism”—reporting done by journalists who venture into Trump Country and report back from the wild. Then we steer you toward interesting pieces on things ranging from a Roy Moore thought experiment to Elon Musk’s bad news for truck drivers.

–Robert Wright

THE WEEK IN TRUMP

The Formerly Liberal Media: The FCC loosened restrictions on media ownership, thus making it easier for the determinedly conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group to purchase Tribune Media Co. Meanwhile, James Stewart explained in the New York Times how the Trump administration’s likely antitrust challenge of the AT&T-Time Warner merger could make it easier for Sinclair or another Trump-friendly company, such as Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox, to buy CNN, which Trump has often criticized. And on Wednesday the New York Times reported that conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch would help finance the Meredith Corporation’s pursuit of Time Inc., which publishes Time and other magazines and was spun off from Time Warner years ago.

Tax Reform Rolls On: The White House applauded as the House passed a tax code overhaul, and the Senate Finance Committee advanced a Senate version. But Time reports that four Republican Senators are “talking privately” about opposing the bill on the Senate floor, and Roll Call notes that several House members who voted “Yes” could still vote against the final bill.

Sex and the Senate: Sexual misconduct allegations hit Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and Democratic Senator Al Franken from Minnesota. Trump tweeted his disgust of Franken but reserved judgment on Moore. Alabama’s governor stood by Moore, saying she’ll vote for him—which means the Dec 12 election is very unlikely to be postponed, as many establishment Republicans had hoped.

Traded Out: Trump returned from his trip to Asia, where he tried to strengthen the alliance against North Korea and to pursue bilateral (as opposed to multilateral) trade deals. Meanwhile, the 11 other countries in the now-scuttled Trans-Pacific Partnership moved toward a new trade agreement that does not include the U.S.

Fox Inherits Henhouse: Richard Cordray, named by Barack Obama to be the first chief of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, resigned and is expected to run for Ohio governor. Trump will reportedly have his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, add CFPB to his portfolio, circumventing the need for a Senate confirmation hearing. Mulvaney was opposed to the bureau’s creation.

Elephants Granted Reprieve: Reversing an Obama-era regulation, the Trump administration said it will allow trophy hunters to bring back elephant body parts from Zimbabwe and Zambia. But then, after criticism even from the likes of conservative Fox News host Laura Ingraham, Trump tweeted that the change in policy was now “on hold”.

ADVENTURES IN TRUMPLAND

I just got back from an eight-day hike across a stretch of Trump Country. Starting a bit west of St. Louis, I walked 123 miles, all the way to Columbia, home of the University of Missouri. Exploring Trump Country wasn’t the point of the walk; this wasn’t an exercise in the “Safari journalism” that we’ve seen over the past year, as coastal elites have ventured forth to study the exotic culture that made its voice heard last November. This was more of a recreational endeavor, and a way to spend time with one of my daughters. So I didn’t interview Trump supporters, and in fact I have only one Trump-related observation to report.

But, as it happens, that observation relates to a Safari journalism controversy that had broken out by the time I returned home to New Jersey. The controversy was about a Politico Magazine piece written by Michael Kruse, who had visited Johnstown, Pennsylvania to check in on some Trump supporters he had interviewed a year earlier, just after Trump’s victory.

The piece isn’t exactly what Johnstown’s Chamber of Commerce would have ordered up. It paints a pretty bleak landscape, and ends with a racist utterance by a Johnstown resident, complete with the N-word. So it was perhaps predictable that Politico would get blowback came from Johnstownians who complained about the depiction of their town—including some progressives who noted that they’re a bigger part of the electorate than you’d guess from reading the piece, and that Hillary Clinton actually got a lot of support in Johnstown.

Well, OK. But the piece wasn’t supposed to be a profile of Johnstown. And whether or not Trump carried Johnstown, he carried Pennsylvania, thanks in part to the demographic Kruse was exploring. For my money, the main thing is that, in both this piece and his previous Johnstown foray, Kruse got at something important about why Trump won, and why he continues to command the allegiance of many voters.

A key finding of this latest piece is that Trump supporters in Johnstown have moved the goalposts for Trump—or maybe even, as Kruse put it, “eliminated the goalposts altogether.” A year ago, they said that if Trump didn’t deliver on various promises in fairly short order—building the wall or reviving the steel industry or whatever—they’d dump him. But now these same people—the very people Kruse had quoted to this effect a year ago—said that, actually, whether Trump delivers on his promises isn’t so important after all.

“For them,” Kruse writes, it’s “not what he’s doing so much as it is the people he’s fighting. Trump is simply and unceasingly angry on their behalf, battling the people who vex them the worst.” That includes “obstructionist Democrats, uncooperative establishment Republicans, the media, Black Lives Matter protesters” and NFL players who, in kneeling during the national anthem, show themselves to be “ungrateful, disrespectful millionaires.”

This, it seems, is the thing that has remained constant since last November, even amid the moving, or dismantling, of the goalposts: Trump is their guy, fighting their enemies.

Of course, some of these “enemies”—Democrats obstructing Trump legislation, Republicans failing to pass it—didn’t exist a year ago, when Trump got elected. And kneeling NFL players weren’t a big campaign issue, either. But if you go look at the piece Kruse wrote a year ago, you see the enemy described more generically. The enemy is all the people in America who don’t care about blue collar workers in Johnstown or, worse, view them condescendingly or contemptuously. A Johnstown Democrat who voted for Trump compared Trump to Hillary Clinton this way: “He was talking to us. I felt like she was talking downto us.” The person who said this to Kruse was wearing a shirt with the words DEPLORABLE VOTES MATTER on the back.

Which leads to the one minor Trump-related observation I had while walking through a series of small towns in Missouri: If you were living in them, and turned on the TV to one of the major networks, or to the latest hot show from HBO or Netflix or Amazon, or to MSNBC or CNN, you wouldn’t see much that seemed anchored in your world. And if you tried to imagine the elites in New York or Hollywood who put these things out, you would imagine people who either didn’t know about your world or didn’t care.

I don’t mean to say I found these places alien to my coastal, cosmopolitan milieu. The people in Missouri were by and large friendly, and when you talk to them you are reminded that what Americans have in common by virtue of being human far outweighs their cultural differences. Besides, I grew up, culturally speaking, in middle America (my father was in the army), so it’s not as if I dial 911 when there’s no latte option. (I had never eaten brie, or even heard the word brie, until I went to college.)

The other thing I don’t mean to do is minimize the role played in Trump’s ascendancy by concrete issues, the kinds of issues that are addressed via tax policy, health care policy, and so on. After all, the worse you’re doing economically, the more you’re going to dislike people who seem to not care about you. And that’s especially true if these people are doing not just better than you economically, but way, way, way better.

Still, Kruse’s takehome point seems right to me. He writes that what he found upon revisiting Johnstown “ought to get the attention of anyone who thinks they will win in 2018 or 2020 by running against Trump’s record.” Trump will probably succeed in blaming his low political productivity on the enemies he shares with his base—perhaps so effectively that this low productivity will be a feature, not a bug. So running against him on the issues will have to involve advocating policies that are more responsive to the needs of his base, more populist, than the policies Trump advocates but fails to implement, as well as the ones he implements. In theory, this shouldn’t be hard for liberals to do. In theory.

Beyond the realm of policy, there is this larger question of cultural disconnect—the sense I got in Missouri that the culture being pumped out from New York and Hollywood doesn’t speak to many of the people in many parts of America.

This is a complicated problem (and is partly technological in origin), and I don’t claim to have a solution. But I do think it’s a mistake to think of this as, at the deepest level, a challenge of reconciling divergent, and perhaps irreconcilable, “values”. Yes, it matters that Americans disagree on things like abortion and gun control and whether to say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. But I think it would matter a lot less if there weren’t, in the first place, the perception among many people in America that America’s politics and culture have been orchestrated by people who at best don’t know about them and at worst hold them in contempt. Like so many conflicts around the world, this one is about respect and dignity as much as it is about values and ideology.

 

Robert Wright

BACKGROUND

Congress’s staff analysts found that, in the Senate version of tax reform, most taxpayers who earn less than $75,000 would face a tax hike by 2027. That’s in part because of tax breaks that would be lost via the repeal of Obamacare’s “individual mandate” (which  Republicans say isn’t, strictly speaking, a tax increase). It’s also because, while tax cuts for businesses would be permanent, cuts for individuals would expire in 2025.

In the House version of tax reform, four states, all blue (California, Maryland, New Jersey and New York), will see their tax burden grow, as these proceeds are used to fund net tax cuts in all other states, according to The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Florida and Texas would do especially well, together receiving more than a third of all tax cuts. A big reason for this disparity is that the House bill would curtail the deductibility of state and local taxes. A Washington Post piece explored the implications of this for local funding of things like infrastructure, education, and low-income housing.

Jonathan Chait flips the Roy Moore situation in a thought experiment about whether Democrats would tolerate electing a child molester if their Senate majority depended on it.

Conservative Matt Lewis warns Democrats that the abortion issue may prevent Roy Moore’s Republican critics from crossing party lines and supporting Doug Jones.

DEEP BACKGROUND

This week, after Elon Musk announced Tesla’s forthcoming electric semi truck—with “Enhanced Autopilot”—Wired tried to gauge the eventual impact of automated trucks on the labor force. Many economists say that the dearth of high-paying blue collar jobs, which apparently helped get Trump elected, has more to do with automation, and less with international trade, than is commonly thought.

Ezra Klein argues that American politics is more about tribalism than ideology: “Once you’re used to seeing politics through an ideological lens, it becomes easy to forget that others don’t. And that helps illuminate an important question in American politics: how Trump, with all his ideological heterodoxies, took over the Republican Party, and why so few political professionals saw it coming.”

Thomas Edsall reviews research on race, place, and the 2016 election: “In some of the nation’s whitest municipalities and counties—the communities arguably most insulated from urban crime, immigration, and gangs—Trump did far better than Romney had done four years earlier…anger, fear and animosity toward immigrants and minorities was most politically potent in the communities most insulated from these supposed threats.”

 

—by Robert Wright and Aryeh Cohen-Wade with contributions from Bill Scher

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