Friday, July 22, 2016

OMG, Donald Trump Thinks He's Batman

Why is the Batman franchise so successful? It tells a compelling story of individual heroism versus systemic and environmental evil. The story is told on a backdrop of American society that is bleak, dark and grim; ripe with corruption in law enforcement and general malaise. If you looked at any big, modern American city through a strictly cynical lens, you could see Gotham City.

The narrative then draws us into a story of Bruce Wayne, a super-wealthy "celebrity socialite...who averts suspicion by acting the part of a superficial playboy idly living off his family's fortune, which was amassed through investment in real estate before the city became a bustling metropolis" (source: Wikipedia).

Bruce Wayne then transforms himself into the oft-misunderstood, frequently-scapegoated, and underappreciated-yet-ingenious superhero who is uniquely capable of undermining corruption and villains, saving Gotham City and its people from being unfairly victimized.

While it's true that Bruce Wayne is primarily driven by the murder of his parents in the mythic Batman universe, the rest of the parallels almost perfectly click into place: Donald Trump thinks he's Batman. And he sees America has Gotham City.

"I alone can fix it."

In his nomination acceptance speech in Cleveland, Trump told America he believed that he, alone, can fix the political system, but he also promised the country he would actually put an end to crime and violence.

Trump: "The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon — and I mean very soon come to an end."

This is not so different from Batman's promise:

Batman: "I made a promise [...] that I would rid this city of the evil."

In terms of campaign promises, Trump's assurance that he will not only fix the political system single-handedly, but also bring crime and violence to an end in America, sounds much more like a platform for a superhero in a mythic universe than a presidential candidate in the real world.

"I am Batman"

In doing research for this article, I stumbled across an amusing story captured by the Washington Post: When asked by a child in his helicopter if he was Batman, Trump answered that, yes, he was Batman. Given the context of this quote, it would be irresponsible to take him too seriously, but it is interesting to consider that -- especially in light of his acceptance speech -- he very well might see himself as some kind of superhero in some way.

In fact, it's not out of bounds to consider the possibility that Trump suffers from hero syndrome. I suggest that you click on the hyperlink to see if you think Trump fits the definition of someone who may suffer from this disorder.

"We need Batman"

In an era where unemployment is at a historically stable 5.5%, indicating that nearly all Americans can get work if they want it, and crime is as low as it has been in 50 years, the statistics belie the feeling that millions of Americans share: their country is not on the right track, and there is no clear path to feeling safer, more at ease, and more comfortable.

Given that America's national politicians appear ill-equipped or unable to change the current dynamic, it's understandable that people have lost their faith in civics and are now looking for new ways to shake up the status quo. A recent article in The Guardian posited that Americans are now looking for superheroes, and have found one in Donald Trump. In what could be an advantage for Trump, it's a good time to think you're Batman when an increasing percentage of people are looking for Batman. And, if he's smart, Trump will not-so-subtly assign The Joker role to Hillary Clinton.

Will Trump Become Batman?

So Donald Trump has been playing Bruce Wayne and is now promising to turn into Batman as President. Can this really happen? While certainly possible, sadly for Trump and his supporters, it's unlikely.

Just as in the Batman universe, America's real Batmen are typically not elected officials. Ask Pat Buchanan, Howard Dean, and even Bernie Sanders: You're unlikely to be a Crusader-in-Chief and still be the Commander-in-Chief in America. These are such diametrically opposed roles that there is no American leadership framework that combines the two. Generally, one is either on the outside crusading, or on the inside administrating. True, there are some exceptions to this rule, such as Adolph Hitler who crusaded while administrating, but this example is precisely the reason why, in America, we don't eagerly accept mixing the two.

As common as it is for people to make our Presidents into superheroes or supervillains, the reality is that Presidents have limited power based on our Constitutional framework and separation of powers.

Batman may have Robin, but the President has Congress and a Supreme Court. You can't do much crusadin' with two branches of government tied to your cape.

Should Trump become a Batman President, it would play out like the "real" Batman needing to get permission from Robin and Commissioner Gordon before he did anything. This would not make for a very compelling Batman story.

P.S. As I was developing this article, David Brooks from the New York Times released an editorial titled The Dark Knight. Perhaps I'm onto something.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Dear David Cameron: Be a Leader, Not a Quitter

Dear David Cameron,

While it's true that Thursday didn't go so well (and let's be honest, Friday went even worse by most things that are measurable), it was very clear from the outset that you've been dealing with this crisis as a dyed-in-the-wool Brit.

From the American point of view, this is meant to be a back-handed compliment.

You gracefully fell on your sword by announcing your resignation when the people spoke and determined -- by a small margin, mind you -- that your vision for the country was not aligned with theirs. This move was novel and oddly dignified from the American perspective. When American political leaders are not aligned with the majority of Americans, they simply believe that cable news, talk radio, and/or the liberal media are to blame for the lack of alignment. They would never blame themselves. In fact, they would become even more determined to bend the beliefs of the country toward their will. 

You see, in American politics, it isn't about quitting -- it's about winning.  

So, David, instead of quitting like a quitter, why not instead act like the professional politician that you claim to be and walk it back like any self-respecting politician would?

With a host of Brexit voters admitting that they really didn't mean it, and a sizeable chunk of citizens suddenly Googling "What is the EU?" after the vote was tallied, it would seem only rational that instead of selling out your own people, you should instead be cutting them some slack and giving them the opportunity to try again.

After all, the last UK referendum was all the way back in 2011 on the decision of "whether to change the voting system for electing MPs to the House of Commons from first past the post to the alternative vote." Riveting stuff. It's no wonder that far less than half of your people participated in that vote. 

What you did with the Brexit/Remain vote was truly unfair: it's not like you put the citizens in charge of governing things on a regular basis so that they really understood what their job was on June 23. If we're calling this straight, you set up your people to fail. You expected all of your citizens -- who are already quite busy getting on with their lives -- to be foreign, domestic, and economic policy experts writ large, and gave them one shot to understand all the complexities of EU membership with a single vote, with no facility for a test vote to see how it would go, or any ability for a "Take 2."  Ridiculous. You really just set them up to let everyone down by making their dress rehearsal the only show they'd ever perform.

The good news, David, is that it's never too late to stop quitting and start winning. It's time to start floating some trial balloons to see which mental model can withstand the test of the UK's political will. Some example trial balloons could include:
  • "Thursday's vote was indeed historic, but what we're learning after the fact is that too many of our voters didn't vote with their full confidence and conviction. Because there is no law stopping me from calling another "full confidence" vote, I shall be calling for one immediately, to take place in 2017."
  • "Based on the feedback we're getting from those who voted "exit" that they would not vote the same way again, we feel it is our obligation as a government to ensure that the true will of the people is heard, not the first try of the people."
  • "I must deeply apologize for what I've done to the citizens of the United Kingdom. I gave you all significant amounts of responsibility to decide the future of our kingdom, yet I did not provide you with any kind of training, rehearsal or even official documentation to help ensure that you knew exactly what you were voting for or against. It's clear from the aftermath that I've failed you, and for that, I not only apologize, but I also will be linking my resignation with a call for another referendum vote. But this time, I promise to prepare you with materials that clearly outline what the EU does for the UK, and what the EU would no longer do for the UK if we decide to leave it."
This all must seem quite undignified compared to your super-dignified response to losing the Brexit referendum. But when it's obvious that your citizens are not even trusting themselves to act rationally on their (unrehearsed) opportunity to decide their own future, maybe it's time to treat them as they actually are: amateur, unrehearsed referendum voters that need more than just one chance to understand their role and their responsibilities.

Is holding another vote impracticable? Sure. Is it even a good idea for your political system? Surely not. But that's what makes American politics so dynamic: we don't let things like this stop us from doing what we think needs to be done!

In closing, Mr. Cameron, if you're going to put forth a decision with these kinds of complex consequences in your people's hands. At least from the American political perspective, you have the responsibility to ensure that they are adequately prepared to take on that kind of responsibility. You need to lead, not quit. 

Now that "the cast" understands how their vote plays on the "big stage," it's your duty as a leader to call for another vote -- a vote to confirm that the true will of the people has been heard. Otherwise, you've simply handed over your country's future to a bunch of amateurs who never even got a chance to rehearse.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Yeah, About That Second Amendment

The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution reads: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

While there have been countless debates, tests and judgments that have defined and re-defined how to interpret this amendment, the current prevailing interpretation and belief in America is that individual gun ownership is a constitutional right. As a result, America has seen a steady and consistent stream of deregulation around gun ownership, even as mass shootings appear to be on the rise. As progressives get increasingly concerned about the gun culture in America, as a tactic, they try to make their case by comparing gun ownership to other safety-related, common-sense laws:

While certainly humorous while making a practical point, this tweet burn completely misses the larger point: people don't have a constitutional right to buy Sudafed. You simply cannot compare a constitutional right to anything else not on the fundamental rights playing field. 

This lack of focus on the constitutional argument is where progressives have lost their way. They have been so focused on the practical utility of public policy that they end up losing the larger fights that define America. Constitutional interpretation lends itself to a more strategic (and philosophical) debate platform than arguing the facts and stats on how laws can and should protect people. Constitutional theory the debate platform that conservatives have been playing on for decades while progressives get frustrated and lose ground.

The remarkable irony is that the wording and intent within the Second Amendment is actually on progressive's side. In fact, the Second Amendment is a progressive's dream: the third word in the amendment is "regulated" for heaven's sake.

No matter the interpretation of every other word and phrase after the first three words, the entire context of the amendment is that it will be a regulated right. Through this lens, the Second Amendment is barely even comparable to the First Amendment in terms of what rights it enables. There is simply no language in the First Amendment that regulates the right to free speech... and yet we still regulate speech despite the unassailable strength of the the First Amendment constitutional language.

The upshot? Even in today's hardcore gun rights environment and culture, the Constitution itself provides the guidance -- and mandate -- to not just regulate arms, but to regulate them well.  

How our culture defines "well" can and will certainly evolve over time, but we shouldn't let gun rights ideologues and arms industry special interests continue to convince the public that they're the only ones who have the Constitution on their side in this debate. 

Yes, current Supreme Court interpretation is that every citizen has the right to bear arms. But it's also constitutionally mandated that we regulate these arms well. Seeing as the right to bear arms has been implemented pretty effectively in America, perhaps now it's time to start implementing regulation well too, as the Constitution also mandates.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

No, Donald Trump Isn't a Racist

Contrary to popular belief, Donald Trump is not a racist. According to Google, the definition of racist is "a person who believes that a particular race is superior to another."

Trump's charge that Judge Curiel cannot fairly adjudicate the Trump University lawsuit is based on his belief that Curiel's Mexican heritage creates a natural bias against a presidential candidate that wants to build a wall between the judge's born nation and nation of his family ancestry. While the merits of this charge are certainly debatable (they seem to have earned precious little merit in the court of public opinion), there has been no statement from Trump that indicates that he actually feels superior to Judge Curiel based on the judge's Hispanic descent. Rather, its just another example of Trump demonstrating that he is an unapologetic nationalist.

In fact, counter to the racism charge, Trump is actually telegraphing to the nation, through  psychological projection, that he would most likely behave the same way as the judge given the same situation. This is not racism. This is Trump reminding us that his entire life has been defined by winning, at any cost.

But, you may be asking, isn't it racist when he talks about banning Muslims from entering the U.S. and saying that illegal Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals?  Nope. Why? Because:
  • Muslims aren't a race
  • Mexico isn't a race
Yes, many of Trumps's statements seem racist, but it's just a plain fact that they're not.

Why does linguistic accuracy matter?  Because there's an actual danger for those who inaccurately impugn someone's character: it can backfire and damage the accuser's credibility. Also, it misdiagnoses the problem many have with Donald Trump as a political candidate. If we misdiagnose our candidates, then we'll be voting for or against them for the wrong reasons.

Imagine if -- after all of the damage he has done to his candidacy by saying what he said about Judge Curiel, Mexican immigrants, and foreign Muslims -- Trump parsed this out himself and turned it all around on his accusers? He would be able to use the rhetorical overreach of racism to re-enforce the point that the political class and the media elite simply can't be trusted, because they just can't help themselves from exaggerating to make a point, and ultimately get the analysis wrong as a result.

That would be a spectacular irony.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Could The Transgender Bathroom Debacle Been Avoided?

Shocks And Aftershocks Rock Politics

The latest shot across the bow in the transgender bathroom access debate was the Obama administration telling schools and colleges nationwide that they must allow transgender students access to bathrooms consistent with their gender identity. This action, while in line with evolving social justice mores, doesn't appear to take into consideration any sense of empathy for those who recently experienced the social equivalent to a natural disaster.

In nature, tectonic plates generally move slowly and steadily, with little noticeable effect on their surroundings. Yet, when the shift on a fault line suddenly moves faster than expected, there are a myriad of effects including a violent disruption in the foundation and status quo -- an earthquake. If you happen to be close to that fault line, earthquakes can be incredibly scary situations: the ground that you once found safe and secure is suddenly moving right underneath you. And, as nature tries to settle in with the new normal, aftershocks follow as the fault line continues to adjust.

The recent spat consisting of laws and ensuing lawsuits over transgender people's access to public bathrooms in North Carolina is clearly an aftershock from the political earthquake created when the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015. This Supreme Court ruling was an unexpectedly robust achievement for the marriage equality movement. The speed of which gay Americans gained this right was nothing short of astonishing to all observers, detractors and advocates alike.

While progressives cheered and celebrated this sudden and abrupt social justice win, there seemed to be precious little concern -- nevertheless empathy -- in the progressive community for people who happen to live on that fault line who were shocked by the sudden societal shift. For these people, the ground under them shook hard, and the ideals they built up upon that fault line abruptly came crashing down around them. Yes, those on the losing side of the fault line did treat gay Americans like second class citizens with regards to marriage, but that doesn't change how it feels when a belief system -- wrong-headed as many may feel it is -- is overruled by sudden and clear national mandate.

Yet no one from the winning side of this social debate came to help calm fears or help make sense of the change for those whose foundations were rocked by this earthquake. Yes, in the arc of social justice, these people were inevitably going to feel the shock of social progress (they almost always do), but that doesn't change the real anxiety, fear and even anger that occurs when a foundation you've lived on has suddenly been so disrupted.

So it should be of no surprise that there are now aftershocks coming from those who experienced the earthquake. The transgender bathroom laws are just one of many aftershocks that will be felt in response to the initial quake.

In cases like this where social earthquakes occur, wouldn't it behoove the people on the winning side of the fault line to show some compassion and empathy to the losing side that took on the sudden and unexpected collateral damage? While it is understandable that the social progressives may not have much compassion for the views of social conservatives, shouldn't progressives at least feel compelled to have empathy for how these conservatives must feel now that they've lost a sudden, crushing defeat? Or is it all warfare now, where everyone's a soldier?

Would all of these LGBT-related laws and lawsuits transpired if more empathy and care were directed toward the social conservatives who were shocked and shaken by the gay marriage ruling? Probably. But if proper concern were given to the losers of this debate, the aftershocks may have been just a bit more muted, and the rationale slightly less justifiable.

Friday, May 6, 2016

No, That Anti-Trump Ad Is Not Brutal

Donald Gets Campaigns. Does Hillary?
Mother Jones recently posted an article entitled "Clinton Releases a Brutal Anti-Trump Ad." Take a look:

I can just imagine the ear-to-ear grins in the Clinton camp when they saw the Mother Jones headline, thinking, "yeah, we nailed it."

The problem, for Mother Jones and the Clinton campaign, is that the ad isn't the slightest bit brutal. Sure, Democrats who demonize Trump instead of studying him may get a thrill out of this and other similar negative ads, but a clear-headed perspective will lead to the real truth:

Hillary is not going to be able beat Donald Trump by attacking his weaknesses. She will only be able to beat Donald Trump by converting his strengths into questions and concerns. 

This is harder to do than it sounds, but it's the necessary work that needs to be done if the Clinton campaign is serious about winning the Presidential race.

This ad -- and the Mother Jones headline -- represents a microcosm of the challenge the Clinton camp is going to have running against Donald Trump in the general election: Mainstream media outlets like Mother Jones continue to see things through the blurry-cam lens of Washington establishment thinking, which re-enforces outdated thinking in the Clinton campaign -- the thinking that Donald Trump is anything resembling a typical candidate.

Let's be clear: If Donald Trump were a regular candidate, this ad would have indeed been "brutal." But the very fact that Donald Trump has said the things he has said -- and yet is the presumptive Republican nominee -- is a clear indicator that this particular candidate runs on charisma and cult of personality. With Trump, there is a relationship deal he makes with everyone he speaks to: "If you like what I say, then I meant it. If you don't like what I say, then don't worry, I didn't really mean it." This implicit "deal" may be a deal-breaker for some, but for many, it makes them feel special -- like they are in on the grand plan.  It's interactive, and, as we've seen, it can be contagious.

If the Clinton campaign doesn't soon come to grips with the fact that they need to first decipher Trump's appeal before using their (suddenly outdated) political instincts, they may be just as culpable as the 16 Republican presidential candidates in letting Trump waltz into the Oval Office, essentially unchallenged.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Yes, the primaries are rigged, but they can be rigged better

Swing States, USA
There has been much scuttlebutt this election season about how the primary process isn't democratic enough and how it's "rigged" to benefit establishment figures over insurgents. Here's the hard truth:

Primaries are rigged by design.

They are setup this way because the only objective of a political party is to have their nominee win the national election, full stop. As a result, the major national parties do leverage some democracy to make the process somewhat representative, but ultimately, primaries on both sides are setup to empower state delegates to nominate candidates.

Introducing Swing State Super-Weighting 

Given that the parties' primaries are designed exclusively to find the strongest general election candidate, it is arguable that the political parties should take this to its logical end and further rig the primary process to add additional delegate weight to the electoral college swing states (i.e., FL, NC, VA, OH, etc.). Implementing swing state super-weighting would help ensure that a party's nominee has proven to perform the best in the most important states in the general election.

Ask yourself these questions:
  • Is a Democrat winning Oklahoma over other Democrats in the primary really going to help predict general election performance? 
  • Will a Republican winning a California primary over other Republican candidates show any kind of real general election strength? 
Looking at this through a strictly analytical (and non-democratic) lens, primary performance in "base states" for each respective party seems trivial at best, and a distraction at worst. Case in point: Donald Trump's recent clobbering of his opponents in New York seems to have re-invigorated his campaign, yet practically, Trump will not win New York in the general election, so it should have much less bearing on the Republican nomination process.

Replacing Bad Rigging with Better Rigging

As a result of the historic success of Bernie Sanders' insurgent candidacy, the Democratic Party has been put on the defensive with regards to superdelegates because these insider delegates symbolize the least representative aspect of their primary system. The Democrats would benefit far greater (from both a primary effectiveness and PR perspective) by replacing superdelegates with swing state super-weighting of delegates. Instead of party insiders picking the winner before the primary process even begins, candidates would earn additional party support based on how they actually performed on the most important states in the primary process.

Republicans do not have superdelegates (although it's a safe bet that a lot of party managers wish they had them now!), but they have all sorts of other non-democratic systems to help ensure that their candidate is the most likely to win the general election: winner-takes-all state primaries, state conventions, post-election horse trading, and more. These all reek of thumb-on-the-scale maneuvers that Donald Trump has exploited and as a result has tarnished the Republican party brand. Changing to swing state super-weighting would have the same positive effect it would have for the Democrats: it would better identify the candidate most likely to win the general election while being more transparent and obvious as to why and how the system is undemocratically rigged.

Replacing Rigging with Democracy Introduces New Problems

Another school of thought is that primaries should be more democratic and less driven by party managers tipping the scales in favor of electability. This approach could work as well, but it would require heavy regulations applied to the national parties, ensuring that they play by the same rules so that the process were truly democratic. For example, currently, primaries happen in a sequence, state by state, giving certain states more voting weight than others. This is not democratic at all, yet we accept it because we're used to it, but we've also bought into the idea that limiting voting to a small set of early states helps ensure that candidates of all levels of financial resources can afford to get their message out to the people, and fairly compete with candidates with much larger resources.

Yes, the "free market" system that the political parties enjoy now does favor establishment candidates, but a fair and completely democratic national primary process would have, for example, enabled only Donald Trump and Jeb Bush to be viable Republican candidates, and would have completely shut out a viable Bernie Sanders candidacy. In addition, any kind of regulation applied to political parties may unintentionally lock out new political parties looking to gain a foothold in our body politic.

Repeal and Replace the Rigging

Despite how rigged the current process is, it has some under-appreciated features that many critics take for granted. But that doesn't mean we can't rig it better. Both parties should consider scrapping their existing sloppy and parochial rigging systems and replace them with a more effective, transparent and easier-to-justify system like the swing state super-weighting approach..

There is no perfect system, but a rigged primary system that favors swing state performance will make more sense to voters -- and it will actually work better for political parties -- than the current rigged system. This win/win prescription may be just what the doctor ordered for angry voters and struggling political parties.