Which Witch?

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Donald Trump has made a habit of whining on Twitter about how unfairly he gets treated. It’s an unattractive character trait, especially from someone who just won the Presidency. But one recent tweet should be cause for reflection about a larger trend in political rhetoric.

We’ve been comparing political investigations to witch hunts for decades, if not centuries. The most famous example of this is the Army-McCarthy hearings, in which Senator McCarthy searched in vain for communists within the federal government, including in the U.S. Army. Now, faced with an investigation into his own alleged Russian connections, Trump invokes the same tired analogy, which has by now become a cliche.

The problem commentators have pointed out is that other “witch hunts” have been conducted with less evidence of wrongdoing. But that misses the larger point: none of these are actual witch hunts. I don’t mean that just in the literal sense since that’s obviously true–no one has alleged the practice of witchcraft in the Trump campaign. That’s fine, it is the nature of analogy to compare things that are not perfectly alike.

No, the bigger issue is that all of these comparisons miss the point. The problem with witch hunts is that witches don’t exist.

No matter the motivation of the Salem Witch Trials, the outcome was bound to be unjust because the people were accused of committing a crime that does not exist. Witchcraft is fake. Contrast that with the McCarthy hearings, and you see the problem.

Some of the people McCarthy accused were innocent, but communist spies did exist. They existed in America. They existed in the American government, as more capable investigators like Richard Nixon proved. McCarthy’s investigation was overzealous and often lacking in evidence, but the crime he alleged was one that was actually being committed.

Trump’s Russia ties will likely prove illusory, but it is not unreasonable to believe that some of the people around him have improper relationships with the Putin regime. But even if the dirtiest characters in the administration are absolved of wrongdoing, calling this a witch hunt remains a poor analogy. Unlike in Salem in 1692, Michael Flynn and others are accused of a crime that is capable of being committed. A witch hunt, it isn’t

Two for one

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Happy Columbus Day! I have two articles on The Federalist today.

First, as usual, I’ve collected the best tweets of last night’s crazy presidential debate. Read them all here.

Second, I wrote about the Clinton campaign’s efforts to get Florida Governor Rick Scott to break the law because they think it will help them. That one is here.

Thanks for reading!

Granite State Rumble

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Last night, the GOP hosted their first debate since Iowa’s caucus and the last one before the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday. Mercifully, finally, they made the change they should’ve made weeks ago:

That was the only thing the ABC debate moderators got right, as they somehow bungled the entrance.

Once the candidates finally assembled, the folks at home could see that the field had narrowed to seven: Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump. Carly Fiorina was excluded, but given the confusion, she probably could’ve snuck in.1

ABC moderator (and Clinton Foundation donor) Martha Raddatz started out by trying to get the candidates to attack each other.

Trump got a question about whether he was temperamentally suited for the Presidency.

The moderators encouraged Carson and Cruz to argue over Cruz’s campaign tactics in Iowa, a subject no voter cares about.

They finally got their wish for LOUD NOISES in a clash between Christie and Rubio.

Readers of this blog will know I’m a Rubio supporter, but the early minutes looked bad for our man. The moderators drew blood, and it was the high point of the night for them.

Raddatz shifted the focus to Cruz and quibbled with him over his answer about immigration.

Rubio drew some pointed questions on the same topic.

Christie smelled blood, and jumped in again.

Mary Katharine Ham, the one moderator not pushing Democratic talking points, was finally allowed to join the conversation with a question to Trump about healthcare. He answered it…kind of.

They talked about eminent domain. Trump claimed it was good, because it let us build roads and pipelines. Bush suggested that building a road is not the same as seizing an old lady’s house to build a limousine parking lot for a private casino.

Jeb won the crowd over, so Trump attacked them, too.

Trump was asked to explain how he is a conservative.

Rubio jumped in with a stronger answer, and began to recover from the Christie attacks.

Christie joined the fray with his tried-and-true “Senators talk, Governors work” routine.

On foreign policy, Rubio was on surer ground, and Trump repeated his earlier plan to bomb ISIS’s oil, then seize ISIS’s oil.

The moderators brought out a leftover question from 2008, and asked about torture:

There was a question of the type reserved for Republicans: how would you “change the tone” in Washington?

On drugs, and specifically heroin, Cruz had a rare humanizing moment.

Carson and Christie got a question about the emerging threat from the Zika virus.

Another blast from the past came in a question about the military draft.

Rubio and Bush talked about the Veterans Administration problems.

On an abortion question, Rubio defended his pro-life beliefs and questioned why the Democrats’ positions aren’t examined as closely as Republicans’.

Christie’s more moderate position left the viewers cold.

The candidates made their final pitch to the voters.

Nobody had a great night, and opinions varied on who could be said to have triumphed.

This was my favorite, though:

  1. Yes, “snuck” is a real word. Deal with it!

Do Not Call Up That Which You Cannot Put Down

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Several times over the last few days, I’ve come across the phrase “do not call up that which you cannot put down.” Mostly, I saw it in reference to Cruz’s dalliance with Trump people, but it’s been used elsewhere. Here someone uses it with reference to Planned Parenhood’s lawsuit against the people that recorded descriptions of their more grisly practices:

Cruz pandered to them in the hopes that Trump would collapse or withdraw and his followers would see Cruz as the next best thing. Good strategy, right? But now, Trump shows no sign of dropping out and with Cruz as his greatest rival, Trump is using the pulpit Cruz helped legitimize to call down damnation on his erstwhile ally.

The phrase comes from an H.P. Lovecraft novella, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and its use is a tribute to the triumph of nerd culture. Originally rendered in the story as “do not calle up That which you can not put downe,” it was found in the letters of an 18th-century alchemist and necromancer who had died years ago (or had he?) In more modern parlance, we might say: do not set loose any forces that you cannot later re-bind, if you need to.

In light of Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump today, it’s actually made me think of the whole right-wing populist movement as that which we have called up. We maybe didn’t recognize it at the time, but the McCain-Palin ticket of 2008 was a balance between establishment and insurgency. We didn’t use those terms, and we didn’t think of McCain as truly an establishment figure (he was a maverick, remember?) but that was the effect.  The ticket faltered and Palin “went rogue.” But she only had a platform because the establishment forces called her up, hoping to capture the power of the youth and outsider energy she seemed to represent.

I must admit, I was among the ones who cheered at her calling up.

Palin had a fiery spirit that I thought, along with her record against corruption and crony capitalism in Alaska, would charge up the staid Republican party and win the elections. But, as James Fenimore Cooper wrote, fire is a powerful servant, but fearful master. McCain set loose that populism, but he could not contain it. It’s not what lost him the election–no V.P. could have saved him after the markets crashed–but I’m sure picking Palin is a decision he still regrets.

The spirit is loose among the Trumpkins. Populism has always been with us; it’s the dark mirror of democracy itself, mass participation, but for a malign purpose, often heedless of ideas or ideology. In the absence of a perfectly educated, successful, and virtuous populace, it will always exist. Palin didn’t invent populism, but she was its avatar for a time. Now she’s passed the torch Trump, who is even more powerful.

Populism was always going to erupt in an economy like this one, especially in the face of demographic changes that seem strange to some people, but there was no guarantee of it erupting on the right. There is the glamour of populism in the Sanders campaign, as well. But with Palin as his forerunner, Trump was better positioned to harness populism’s fell power. It will undo him eventually, too, but that it exists in the Republican party is down to all of us who cheered Governor Palin’s nomination in 2008.

Vegas, the morning after

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The story of the night at the Democrats’ Las Vegas Debate was that Hillary 6.0 was ClintonCo’s most bug-free release since 2009. She made no obvious errors, and her anger subroutine was almost as good as real live angry man Bernie Sanders. Her logic programming was still flawed, as shown in the discussion of whether she was progressive or moderate, but flawed logic may be a feature, not a bug, with the Democratic electorate. All in all, though, I think she calmed the Democratic Establishment’s nerves, and may have helped to stave off the Draft Biden movement. There will be more stumbles–Hillary is still a deeply flawed candidate–but this competent performance may stop the slide, for now.

Sanders’s performance was also strong. He came off at times as a crazy, partially deaf old man, and at one point he definitely wasn’t paying attention, but he, too, made no obvious errors. Sanders projected his weird vision of bourgeois socialism as effectively as his followers could have hoped, and recovered from his earlier struggles with black Democrats by showing that he had been adequately reeducated in the new dogma (which he likely believed all along, but lacked the adequate buzz words to convey).

As to the rest: O’Malley sleepwalked through most of the debate, but showed some flashes of fire at the end when discussing green energy, an issue no one cares about. Webb spent half his time complaining that he wasn’t given enough time, and the other half demonstrating that there’s no place for men like him in the Democratic party. I’d love to see him on stage at the next Republican debate. And Chafee. Even though he’s had months to prepare, his answers sounded like what you’d hear if you broke into his house in the middle of the night, woke him up, shined a flashlight in his eyes, and demanded he explain his PATRIOT Act vote. I don’t think he or Lessig have much of a shot, but I know who would’ve added more serious content to the debate.

On a lighter note, here are some of the best debate tweets of the night:

Mutants:

On guns:

Simpsons quote:


Dodging the question:

Webb:

 

Chafee:

InfoSec:

The PATRIOT Act:

Biden?

And my favorite, on legalizing marijuana: