Congress, Trump, Porn and More: An Analysis

Submitted by Charlie on Fri 13 Jan 2017 - 08:53

"Don't tell him you were at a bar! . . . But what else is open at night?" - Homer's Brain
"It's a pornography store. I was buying pornography." - Homer Simpson

Everybody masturbates, and porn is easier to find on the internet than reliable information. So chances are that the pixels currently displaying this sentence on your screen have previously been used for some kind of sexual material: erotica, artsy nudes, or hardcore, barely legal porno. We all do it, and we all know we do it, but we don't like to talk about it.

Thanks to Edward Snowden, we also know that the NSA has the ability to easily intercept and track the internet behavior of all but the most paranoid and technically sophisticated users. If the federal government wants to know what kind of porn you or any other citizen prefers, it's only a few keystrokes away.

For most people this is a vague and unsettling concern, but not a material threat, especially when you've had a hard day, finally got the kids to sleep, and just need a quick one before bed. After all, what would the government want with you? There is safety and anonymity in being unimportant, and the masturbatory habits of Debbie the office manager or Greg the plumber aren't exactly national security matters.

The same is not true for media executives, corporate titans, members of Congress, and everyone else in positions of real power. People like that have a lot to lose, and the incoming President is a man known for playing dirty. Trump crony Roger Stone once ginned up a fake grassroots campaign against a proposed Indian casino with Trump's personal approval. Trump used a private investigator to dig up dirt on a fellow casino mogul. And he famously bragged about sending "detectives" to Hawaii to sleuth around Barack Obama's birth certificate.

When Trump gets into a fight, one of his first instincts is to besmirch his opponent, either with real blackmail or by just making stuff up. Until now he's been limited to penny ante skulduggery like that linked above. But those are the circumscribed tactics of a private citizen with a few hundred grand sitting around. In a week he'll be the President of the United States, an office that comes with its own private army and access to the electronic communications of the entire world.

That new job also comes with a considerably expanded list of opponents. Where once Trump sparred with tabloids, divorce lawyers, and other developers, now he must tangle with national news media, foreign heads of state, federal courts, and the two-hundred-thirty year old bitchfest that is the United States Congress.

Trump is a fool and an ignoramus, but he knows that if he wants to do really yuge things as President, he'll need Congress. The border wall isn't going to build itself, nor will Obamacare roll up like a carpet on his say so. Right off the bat he's going to need the Senate to sign off on the pack of rich dolts he wants as his Cabinet. Conflict is inevitable, which brings us back to porn.

Let's say Rand Paul starts making a stink about confirming cartoonish oil tycoon Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. Well, Rand - Senator Aqua Buddha himself - isn't the world's most disciplined guy. The NSA could have his browser history on Trump's desk in a half hour, and I'll bet there is some humiliating stuff in there. Perhaps Rob Portman objects to Klan fan Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III as Attorney General and gets an email a day later detailing dates and durations of his visits to Big Black Women videos on PornHub.

Barack Obama had this power too, of course. But however little regard he has for American whistle-blowers and Yemeni civilians, he does care about checks, balances, and the separation of powers. Even more importantly, Obama has never shown even a hint of the kind of personal vindictiveness that is Trump's stock in trade.

Now for the really frightening part: porn isn't even the tip of this particular iceberg. Hell, porn isn't even the meltwater trailing behind the iceberg. With the knowledge and consent of just a handful of people in the NSA, CIA, or FBI (among other agencies), Trump could read Congress's mail, find out the personal secrets of all kinds of key Senators and Representatives, and squeeze them in ways ranging from the merely humiliating to the outright legally catastrophic.

Is someone sneaking off to a discreet D.C. hotel twice a week? Their phone will tell you exactly where they are. Someone collecting cash from an undisclosed source? Their bank logins will tell you everything you need to know. Does some Congressman have a wife who's cheating on him, or a kid with a heroin problem? Trump will know.

Anyone who stands up to President Trump can have their innermost secrets exposed or exploited in no time flat. Members of Congress have far more power to do so than anyone else. Porn, while common and easily embarrassing, is the least of our worries. 

 

5 Practical Lessons from the ONI and Golden Shower Reports

Submitted by Charlie on Thu 12 Jan 2017 - 07:45

"Milhouse, can you keep a secret?" - Bart Simpson
"No." - Milhouse van Houten
"Oh well, who cares?" - Bart Simpson

Last Friday, the terrifyingly oxymoronic Office of National Intelligence released a declassified version of a report concluding that the Russian government helped Donald Trump win the election. Earlier this week, CNN reported that Trump's campaign was actively working with Russian government agents during the campaign. Then Buzzfeed released an unsigned dossier from a private intelligence firm mentioned in the CNN report. That dossier included further charges of collusion between the Trump 2016 campaign and the Russians, as well as promises from Trump to sideline NATO military assistance to Ukraine.

And, as anyone reading this is doubtlessly aware, the report also contained a paragraph alleging that Trump paid sex workers to urinate in a hotel bed he believed was used by the Obamas. Sadly, there's no mention of whether Trump himself pissed on anyone or was pissed on himself. Happily, such details are irrelevant to excellent pee jokes on Twitter.

For an excellent rundown on the weaknesses of the ONI report, see Masha Gessen in the New York Review of Books. For an equally excellent rundown of the Trump-Hookers-Pee dossier, see Lawfare. In the meantime, and as fun as the golden shower jokes are, here are a few things we can say for sure that go beyond soiled bedsheets. 

1. Secrecy Is Killing the Republic, Part 1 - If the allegations contained in the DNI report are true, it constitutes the gravest attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor and represents the worst foreign interference in an election since the Constitution was adopted in 1788. Despite that, the federal government is withholding the specific technical details that could prove its charges. Why? Because it's got a few petty technical secrets it wants to keep using.

This is beyond irresponsible. First, it means the charges can never be proved, and so hands the permanent propaganda weapon of plausible deniability to the guilty parties. Second, it values secrecy over the things the secrecy is supposed to be protecting. That's so absurd as to border on psychotic.

Third and most importantly, the whole point of that gargantuan intelligence apparatus is to safeguard the United States, and it failed spectacularly. Heads should be rolling. A top down reform of every agency that knew about this should immediately be done (not that we'd want Trump doing it, of course). This kind of failure demands large scale institutional reform and a complete change in intelligence strategy. Speaking of which...

 

2. Secrecy Is Killing the Republic, Part 2 - The bright, flashing, neon lesson to be learned from this catastrophe is that the information systems the country depends on are helplessly insecure. The federal government has both the resources and the information to remedy that, but won't do so because it wants to preserve those vulnerabilities for its own use. Meanwhile, American citizens, businesses, and political organizations remain at risk.

Think about that for a second: the federal government has knowledge of critical security vulnerabilities that affect hundreds of millions of Americans, and it's keeping them secret so it can play spy vs. spy with the GRU. They're so obsessed with chasing bad guys that they've forgotten that the whole reason they do that is to protect the good guys. They're sitting on vulnerabilities whose potential damage runs into tens of billions of dollars. It's madness.

 

3. We Need Pen and Paper Ballots For Every Vote in the Country - The ONI report specifically states that voting tallies were not changed. But electronic voting machines can easily be tampered with in ways that are basically untraceable and could invalidate the votes of millions of people. As bad as things are right now, imagine if we didn't have accurate vote totals in a state that decided the election and didn't know the legitimate outcome . . . ever.

Paper ballots that can be counted by human beings need to be mandated in every state in the Union.

 

4. CNN, Network News, and Major Newspapers Did Far More Damage Than Putin - Overlooked in all the foofaraw over who hacked who and who Trump peed on is the fact that the main damage wasn't done by Putin or any shadowy figures. Mainstream American political media, which is increasingly indistinguishable from tabloid gossip rags, made selective and dribbled out email stories a months long obsession. Worse, they got played like fiddles. After the first one or two leaks contained little more than office gossip, it should've been apparent that there was nothing of value in any email from the DNC or John Podesta.

But every time a new piece of office gossip emerged, mainstream commercial media wrote stories, debated it for hours on television, and made it the center of that day's campaign coverage to the exclusion of any policy message from either candidate and the far more legitimate scandals that came from serial fraudster, tax dodger, and possible international blackmail target Donald Trump. American political media has become so dysfunctional that it cannot be trusted to cover an election.

 

5. Professional Trolling Is Very Dangerous - Let's say you're a foreign government and want to influence American election coverage, how much would it cost to do so? Just 100 people with passable English skills working in eight hour shifts would give you three round-the-clock trolls for each of the major television networks, each of the cable news networks, plus The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. And you'd still have half a dozen people left over to haunt social media hashtags. Overhead plus salary for that would probably come to less than $100,000 per month, also known as chump change.

In this day and age, it doesn't take a lot of resources to push coverage, gin up conspiracy theories (what we used to call "fake news"), and put a lot of agitprop into the world. Journalists need to be on guard about this, but more importantly they need to make it a regular talking point until the public is fully aware of it as well.

 

We'll Miss You, 2016

Submitted by Charlie on Sun 01 Jan 2017 - 12:02

"It's War!" Headline

"Hi, Dad, anything new in the paper today?" - Jay Sherman
"Oh, usual stuff. Big type, here. Little type, here." - Franklin Sherman

As I write this, the internet is brimming with people bidding a farewell to 2016, a year where everything seemed to get worse. In order to keep this short enough to finish, I will refrain from recounting specifics. Simply noting the functional collapse of the U.S. political system combined with 2016 being the hottest year on record should suffice as a generalized reminder.

There's a lot of dread in the air among people who pay attention to the way things work. The rickety systems that undergird so much of our mostly peaceful, mostly abundant, mostly free country and world all seem to be failing at once. More than any single catastrophe, that overall cascade of deterioration fuels the dread.

If the collective horrors that ruined 2016 were an aberration, then we could bounce back this morning and start afresh. But 2016 wasn't a blip, it was a culmination of trends and problems that have been allowed to fester and worsen for decades. Given the extended pedigree of the denial, ignorance, and stupidity that brought last year about, there's no reason to believe that 2017 won't stack bodies even higher as the survivors dig into ever deeper holes.

Some examples:

  • Internet security experts have been screaming for years that the information system upon which the world now depends is massively vulnerable to all kinds of deliberate attacks. From DDoS bots that work on unfathomable scales to critical national infrastructure like the DNC's email setup, the internet and the people who use it (a/k/a everyone) have never been more vulnerable.
  • The devolution of the American media ecosystem into a gossip driven infotainment cesspool started decades ago with corporate consolidation and the deprecation of real journalism from a public trust into just another source of revenue. Newspapers get bought by incompetent private equity people and shed reporters while PR has a hiring boom and billion dollar entities like Facebook and Google sell ads with conspiracy mongering that used to be the province of poorly xeroxed newsletters.
  • The ever increasing reliance of political parties on wealthy donors has left both the Republican and Democratic establishments beholden to economic philosophies that harm the great majority of Americans. The Republicans are far (FAR) worse, of course. But the Democratic establishment isn't willing to even contemplate the kind of taxes on the rich that would allow us to have decent roads, clean water, good schools, and available healthcare. The donor class has assumed uninterrupted power. (That said, the Democrats may be reformable, whereas at this point the Republican Party is little more than a suicide pact in business casual.)
  • 2016 was the warmest year on record and saw extreme weather of the kind that shrinks food supplies, costs billions, and squeezes more and more refugees into hostile and unwelcoming lands. Oh, and years as calm and cool as 2016 are going to be few and far between very soon. Speaking of refugees...
  • 2016 saw more people displaced from their homes than at any time since World War II. This trend has been increasing for decades and is likely to get worse in 2017.
  • American (and Western, more generally) bombing of foreign lands - the root cause of the subsection of global violence that gets labeled "terrorism" - has continued unabated and with gusto since 2001. It will not slow under the new Administration, and, therefore, neither will the blowback from it. 
  • The wealthiest and most powerful organization in history is about to be led by Donald Trump. 'Nuf said.

Even celebrity deaths - the bright, shiny dollop of shit atop 2016's sundae of awful - are going to get worse. Television massively expanded the number of famous people, and it's now seven decades old. There are simply a lot more deaths out there that will resonate with people than there used to be, and a background hum of deceased famous people should be expected as the default more or less from now on.

TL;DR: 2016 sucked, and the reasons it sucked are still with us as we start 2017, which is likely to be even worse. 

Fixing the fundamental problems listed above (and there are more than just those) is the only way to turn things around. Perhaps 2017 will see at least some of them reversed, but that seems unlikely. So as happy as many people are to bid farewell to that terrible year, we may miss it. Things are going to get worse.

Happy(?) New Year. Only 364 days to 2018.

Box Score Cinema: Rogue One

Submitted by Charlie on Mon 19 Dec 2016 - 13:26

  Rogue One

"Talk about Star Wars!" - Database

Top Line: The elaborately titled Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a welcome and enjoyably creative addition to a franchise that hasn't released a good movie since 1983. It's got some significant flaws (clunky dialogue and too many pointless subplots), but it's a great story with fun characters, and the ending is genuinely big screen worthy. Perhaps best of all, it both respects and adds to the larger Star Wars universe.

Who (probably) should see this movie: Uh, Star Wars fans? 

Who (probably) should not see this movie: Non Star Wars fans.

Box Score:

Runtime - 2h:13m - Oof, and it feels like it in places. This could've and should've been about 15 minutes shorter.

Actual Start - Showtime + ~15 Minutes - Forgot to look, but it wasn't too bad.
 
Sunday Morning Demographics: Full house with people of all ages. 

Anything After the End Credits: Nope.
MPAA - PG-13 - "extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action"

What It's Got: For once, the MPAA and I agree. This is easily the most violent Star War ever, and will probably scare really little kids.

Should Be Rated: PG-10
Three Stars:
  1. Felicity Jones: She gets the only part that actually has any range, and knocks it out of the park.
  2. Forest Whitaker: Dies way too early, but plays crazy yet dedicated extremely capably.
  3. Mads Mikkelsen: Puts real soul into a very tiny role as a scientist with a conscience.
Worth Seeing In Theater (Baseline: 2):
  •   +8 - Is Star Wars

Final Score: 10

Worth Seeing Eventually (Baseline: 5):
  • +5 - Is Star Wars

Final Score: 10

 
Bechdel (Baseline: 5):
  • +5 - for Felicity Jones being the main character, and a near archetypal "strong female role".
  • -2 - Rest of it's kind of a sausage fest, though.

Final Score: 8

IMDb Sez:

Director:

  • Gareth Edwards: This is considerably less boring than that shittastic Godzilla movie he made a couple years ago.

Writers:

  • John Knoll: A CGI dude who gets story credit here. This is literally his only writing entry on IMDb.
  • Gary Whitta: Also gets a story credit here. He was responsible for that boring "Book of Eli" screenplay that Denzel did everything he could to make watchable. Also wrote After Earth, which may be the worst Will Smith movie ever made. 
  • Tony Gilroy: Got a screenplay credit, and mostly writes middle brow thrillers (e.g. Proof of Life, Michael Clayton) and Jason Bourne movies.
  • Chris Weitz: Wrote and directed that godawful Golden Compass adaptation. Remember that movie? Warner Brothers thought they were going to turn that into a franchise. Yikes.

Rotten Tomatoes Sez:

All Critics: 84% Top Critics: 77% Audience: 90%

Notes:

  • As usual, the "Top" critics are grumpy and hate fun.
  • I find it hilarious that Disney is run by the kind of dumbasses who thought not having the words "Star Wars" in the title would hurt this commercially. People wearing expensive clothes sat at a fancy table and decided that calling it "Rogue One" would cost them money versus calling it "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story". Morons.
  • Perhaps it was just me being less cranky overall, but I thought the CGI was a noticeable upgrade from Force Awakens.
  • The exception being all the dead characters they brought back. Please leave these glass eyed corpses in the uncanny valley, okay? If you really feel the need to have Grand Moff Tarkin in the fucking movie, hire an old British dude to play him. Ditto for that weird Leia cameo at the end. Find a hot twenty year old with big hair and a small chin and just film her. We know it's not the original actors, using computers to make new people look like other people is weird and ugly.
  • For the most part the fan service is unobtrusive and fun (blue milk!), but when Jimmy Smits says of Obi Wan that "he served me well" it's just awkward. You don't need to actually repeat the line, fellas.
  • Darth Vader should've just been the bad guy. James Earl Jones doesn't quite have the chords he used to, and they make Vader a lot more demonstrative than he is in the originals, but it's close enough. The scariest scene in the movie is when he goes ham near the end.
  • I know Hollywood feels that everything has to be CGI these days, but why couldn't the Admiral Akbar dude be a guy in makeup instead of a cartoon? Go watch Jedi. Akbar looks great three decades later with nothing but latex and makeup. Do that again.
  • Someday Disney will make the hard-R Star Wars movie we all secretly want. This isn't that, but it's not too far off either.
  • Props to Disney for (and this isn't really a spoiler) killing everyone at the end. They're not going to squeeze a sequel out of this, and it gives the story a real conclusion and a high stakes climax. Bravo.

Bottom Line: Rogue One is the eighth Star Wars movie and managed to avoid basically all of the mistakes that made the prequels and that rehash they released as Episode VII last year suck so hard. It treats the fantastically cool Star Wars universe with respect and colors inside those lines instead of scrawling all over the screen in an effort to be innovative. There are no midichlorians (or however the fuck you spell that). Nor does anyone acquire lightsaber skills instantly.

Instead of that kind of crap, we get a view into a galaxy where the Force is revered as a religion, so people believe in it, and might be sensitive to it (Donnie Yen's blind monk being the big example, but there are others), but can't quickly lose or acquire the power to use it. This respect is why the film ties in so nicely with Star Wars: it expands that movie's backstory without undermining or contradicting it.

For example, a longstanding fan joke/critique about the 1977 classic is to wonder why the Empire would build an invincible super weapon with a critical weak spot that blows it up. Rogue One provides an answer to that: they didn't. The scientist who designed it grew a conscience and put the weak spot there deliberately. That's cool as hell.

Fidelity to the mythos of the franchise like that is what makes Rogue One so much fun. This is a Star Wars movie that actually likes the first three movies in a way that the prequels and that J.J. Abrams disaster simply didn't. The prequels tried to overwrite the original trilogy, and Abrams ripped off the shiniest parts and hoped they would make a coherent film. Rogue One, on the other hand, adds to Star Wars by showing us what ordinary rebels went through in order for Luke to be in a position to fire those proton torpedoes.

The movie is not without its problems. It takes a while to really get going, could use more comic relief than Alan Tudyk can provide by himself, and basically has no villain. That last one is usually a killer flaw in an action movie, but Rogue One gets away with it because the Empire is plenty evil even without the empty cape that is "Director Krennic". Also: Vader. (Fucking Vader, man. Damns!)

The only really distracting problem, and it's also what makes the movie too long, is the rather clumsy handling of the internal politics of the Rebel Alliance. The movie tries to have a theme of "you must act" (very Trump appropriate), but it mostly boils down to one scene of rabble-rabble yelling and some contradictory orders. It's a relief when everyone gets on the same page near the end, but mostly because it means the script starts to move faster, not that any of the characters actually developed.

All that said, the ending is spectacular. Rogue One successfully apes Jedi by showing us a big fleet space battle at the same time as a ground battle and our heroes trying to save the day. It is not as good as Jedi, but it's pretty damn good and well worth the price of admission.

Movies Deemed Commercially and Demographically Similar Enough to Merit Trailers Before Rogue One:

- Cars 3 - It's rapidly becoming apparent that the outstanding Inside Out was a fluke and not a return to form for Pixar. Cars 1 was bad. Cars 2 was worse. And this will be no better.

- Pirates of the Caribbean 5 (6? Honestly, I lost count) - Fuck you, Disney. This is getting into Rocky sequels level of tarnishing the original.

- Guardians of the Galaxy 2 - Has anyone else noticed that the weird Marvel movies are the only ones that are fun anymore? Hope this is a goofy as the first one.

- Wonder Woman - Meh.

- Power Rangers - For the first minute and a half of this trailer, I thought they were rebooting Fantastic Four again. Feh.

There's No More Point in Fighting Over Grandma vs. Grampa

Submitted by Charlie on Fri 25 Nov 2016 - 19:43
"Okay, you asked for it, Boggs!"

"And I say, England's greatest Prime Minister was Lord Palmerston!" - Barney Gumble
"Pitt the Elder" - Wade Boggs
"Lord Palmerston!" - Barney Gumble
"Pitt the Elder!" - Wade Boggs
"Okay, you asked for it, Boggs!" - Barney Gumble

The "Bernie vs. Hillary" flare up in the wake of Trump's election reached an absurd zenith this week over - no shit - a conjunction. Should Bernie have used "and" in a tweet, or was "but...also" sufficient? It is hard to imagine a fight more pointless than this, though pre-Inauguration backbiting still has two months to go, so we may yet find something.

The basic format of this argument goes like this:

Sanders Person: Bernie could've won!
Clinton Person: No, he couldn't have!
Everyone: [Angry Crosstalk]

There's plenty of circumstantial evidence for both sides, which I will not rehash here since if you're reading this you've probably heard all of it already, whichever side you support. (Incidentally, if the robots ever do come for us, the fact that we make incredibly sophisticated pieces of software and hardware carry this kind of self important drivel is likely to be high on the list of indictments.)

The problem with these arguments is that they're speculative and unprovable either way. We'll never know if Sanders would've beaten Trump the same way we'll never know the precise reasons Clinton fell critically short in a few unexpected states.

It's like a family argument about a long ago incident that can never be settled. Did Uncle Bert deliberately spill Aunt Helen's soup, or did he slip? That Hot Wheels car was on the floor, but whose kid left it there? Nobody's ever going to agree, and analyzing this stuff like it's the Zapruder film won't change the fact that the soup hit the deck. Meanwhile, we're all still in this together.

I understand that people are grieving over Trump's win, still in shock to a certain extent, still uncertain just how awful things are about to become. (Spoiler: very^10 awful.) Relitigating an old intra-Blue feud can be cathartic when the alternative is facing the Red nightmare to come. But there's no practical benefit to it. Consider:

  • Neither Clinton nor Sanders is going to be on the ballot in 2020: Sanders will be pushing 80, and Clinton isn't going to get a third crack at this even if she wanted one.
  • Nor will there be an obvious "heir" to either of them: Clinton was a unique political creature, a former First Lady and the head of the political machine she and her husband built. Sanders was also a unique political creature, an independent Senator from Vermont with limited formal ties to the Democratic Party. Nobody like either of them is in the pipeline.
  • Finally, there will undoubtedly be some kind of "left-center" divide - there always is - but it's not going to be anything like the one this year: Is the lesson you want to draw that the Democrats need a candidate who can better appeal to Polling Tested Issue X? Or one who knows how to energize Base Voter Group Y? All of those arguments will get tossed into a sack and scrambled around depending on the candidates, their relative fundraising abilities, personalities, and support groups.

To illustrate how meaningless all of this is, let's recall 2004, the last time the Democrats fell to recriminations over a failed White House campaign. John Kerry eventually won the nomination on "electability" grounds, but there were plenty of Howard Dean supporters who thought he got a raw deal from the DNC and the press. (Remember, this was when even using the word "insurgents" to describe the Iraqis fighting our troops was considered controversial and politicizing.) Would Dean have won? Or even just done better? It doesn't matter, and it certainly didn't hold any lessons for 2008, by which time the Iraq War and Bush the Younger himself had both become politically toxic.

Bernie supporters are always going to wonder, "what if?" just as Clinton supporters are always going to believe that she was the best option in what turned out to be a very tough year. Each side has staked out its positions, neither can ever be proven, and that's okay. Changing someone's mind on this isn't worth ten seconds of effort, much less days on end of Twitter fights and bitter recriminations.

We've all got to vent post-Trump. There's no point doing so at our own side.

Worst Case Scenario

Submitted by Charlie on Tue 22 Nov 2016 - 10:48

After lunch, can I whip you?, Nope., Aw, no fair.

"My life can't get any worse." - Homer Simpson
"Homer Simpson, report for Much Worse duties." - Mr. Smithers
"D'oh!" - Homer Simpson

It has been two weeks since Donald John Trump was elected President of these United States. In that time I have started and abandoned about a dozen blog posts attempting to say something meaningful about it. These serial failures are made even more frustrating since I am under no illusion that anyone but me cares what I say on the internet. In other words, I can't even organize my thoughts internally, nevermind coming up with some semi-insightful puffery for other people. For me to be unable to profoundly bullshit is like a sprinter forgetting how to run or a violin guy forgetting how to violin.

Every time I try to wrap my thinking around the vast damage of last week's result, I find myself chasing some specific thread to unfathomably dark conclusions. For example, Trump is going to put Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III in charge of the Justice Department. Not only is the man dimmer than a basement lightbulb, he's also an unreconstructed (<- see what I did there?) bigot, a holdover model from the '53 line of Polite Southern Assholes. He hates black people voting the way drunken Little League dads hate umpires: he's convinced he's being cheated, he just can't say why in public.

The implications of this are so far reaching as to disappear beyond the shit horizon. Not only are we going to have a Justice Department that doesn't bother to enforce what's left of the Voting Rights Act; we're going to have one that actively turns the bottomless pit of federal resources against it. This will prevent countless Americans from voting in elections from President to Sewer Commissioner. On top of that, defeats and legal intimidation will discourage and disempower whole crops of future Democratic politicians and office holders. Oh, and Sessions is going to be in charge of the racist Drug War, the even more racist War on Terror, and the slap-on-the-wrist kabuki that is the Securities and Exchange Commission. Hooray.

Things are no rosier elsewhere: a Labor Department that works for the bosses, a State Department filled with cronies who wouldn't know how to negotiate a grade school lunch room trade, a Department of Health and Human Services that views medical care as a luxury and birth control as a sin. Bush the Younger's Administration demonstrated how a years long slow-down strike built on sustained incompetence could cripple the federal government ("Heckuva job, Brownie!"), and we are now in for far worse.

I could go on, but the inescapable conclusion is that any attempt to catalog or predict the horrors to come is doomed to overwhelmingly incompleteness. (And that's without even mentioning the retch inducing rulings a Trump packed Supreme Court will make.) The only thing we know for sure is that it's going to be bad, as in "pine for the days of Bush the Younger" bad.

Nor am I heartened by anti-Trump protests, conscientious Broadway cast members, or people on Twitter chanting "This. Is. Not. Normal." every time Trump and his henchmen announce another terrible appointee or nakedly feather their own nest. It's nice to see, but that pompous dipshit and his cronies are going to be in power for four years at a minimum, and the politics of total opposition simply cannot be sustained for that length of time, not in the face of bills to pay, kids to pick up from school, and fun new shows on Netflix. Day to day life will always take precedent over politics, and the toilet in the upstairs bathroom is still running after you flush.

(Besides, the overpaid hacks who command the biggest media outlets and audiences haven't exactly covered themselves in glory recently. They're far more likely to adopt a profitable go-along-get-along attitude towards the new Administration than the antagonistic one the country so desperately needs. Trump's evil deeds will go unseen by all but the most dedicated newshounds.)

The only meaningful consolation at this point is that, legislatively, the 2020 election is more important than the 2016 election. (Like I said, I'm not even thinking about the Supreme Court.) The 2010 REDMAP gerrymander will be at its weakest, the 2020 redistricting will be on tap, and the Democrats will have their best shot at unified federal government since 2008. But that's four years from now, four years of increased carbon emissions, looser regulation of Wall Street, and god knows what else.

We are so screwed.

It's Gonna Get So Much Worse

Submitted by Charlie on Wed 09 Nov 2016 - 04:58

"There's three ways to do things: the right way, the wrong way, and the Max Power way!" - Max Power
"Isn't that the wrong way?" - Bart Simpson
"Yeah, but faster!" - Max Power

First things first: I was wrong. Between the polls, the "fundamentals" (decent economy, popular incumbent), and the fact that Trump was running a disastrous looking campaign both up front (scandal after scandal) and in back (no discernible ground game), Trump 2016 looked set for a catastrophic election night. Twas not to be.

It is no consolation that I have a lot of company. Nate Silver of 538 was taking a lot of heat the last few days for daring to suggest that Trump was only *very likely* to lose, and not *certain* to lose. He was wrong too, just less wrong than many of his competitors.

But enough of that. There will be finger pointing a plenty and it will take weeks or longer before there's a coherent tale to tell about just how Donald J. Trump pulled off this most improbable of electoral victories. That won't stop the same pundits who got this so comprehensively wrong from opining, of course. But even the most sober and analytic takes right now are guesswork, and there's plenty of blame to go around.

What we do know is that Donald Trump is going to be the President of the United States. He is going to appoint at least one Supreme Court Justice and possibly more. He is going to have Republican majorities in both houses of Congress that will send him all kinds of right wing dream legislation from upper class tax cuts to repealing Obamacare to defunding PBS and Planned Parenthood. Maybe they'll finally do away with the Department of Education just for fun. Assuming the Republicans eliminate the filibuster (which everyone expects them to do, not that "everyone" has a great track record of predictions of late), it's going to be open season.

In terms of foreign policy, it's really anyone's guess. Trump himself seems basically uninterested, and the Republican Party isn't exactly short of foreign policy "experts" who will be happy to bend his ear about what to do in various parts of the world. The viziers will be running things, and which ones he takes a shine to will have huge consequences for the world. If we're lucky, he'll pick guys (and it will be guys, let's not kid ourselves) who won't rock the boat too badly. If we're not lucky, we'll be bombing Syria before spring and NATO will be a memory by next winter.

The most likely outcome is a repeat of the rolling degradation of America that was the Bush the Younger Administration. The Super Bowl will still be held. Blockbuster movies will continue to fill the multi-plexes. Cable news will yammer about nothing most days. Beneath the surface, however, the country will erode.

Like Bush the Younger, Trump has no reality based solutions to the problems that afflict our country. His plans amount to little more than the usual Republican litany of tax cuts for the rich and friendlier government oversight of big business. The Republican Congress isn't going to let him depart from that in any but the most superficial ways. It'll be the same old Republican fantasies about personal responsibility paying for medical care, fewer regulations bringing manufacturing jobs back, and lower taxes on rich people making the economy boom. None of it has worked before, and there's no reason to think any of it will work now.

The economy will become more concentrated in the hands of those who already have more than they can spend. The laws and democratic norms that keep this giant nation together will be flouted in ways that would've been scandalous and are now merely routine. The gap between the daily, lived experiences of white Americans and brown Americans will expand. The seas will rise faster than they otherwise would have. And those are just the real problems. The not real problems, things like having to press 1 for English when you call your cable company, will also continue.

And that's the real flaw in Donald Trump: he's full of shit and he cannot deliver on his promises. He promised to fix everything, yet will be unable to fix anything. He has bad solutions for real problems, and imaginary solutions to non problems. And as he spends the next four years presiding over a worsening reality, real people - people who voted for him - will continue to get squeezed and angry.

Where things go from there? Who knows? The one thing we can say for certain is that the real pain that propelled Trump this far will still be with us in 2018, and 2020, and the damage he does in the meantime will take a long time to repair.

Election 2016: Gwyneth's Head In A Box

Submitted by Charlie on Tue 08 Nov 2016 - 08:40

Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt Discuss Donaly Trump

"From the stench, it's obvious he's been dead for several hours. The deceased appears to be about seventy years old." - Coroner
"I've been declared dead by better coroners than you!" - Jay Sherman

There's a great scene in Se7en where Morgan Freeman (the old, jaded homicide detective) and Brad Pitt (the young, eager homicide detective) are looking at grisly crime scene photos together. Freeman tells Pitt:

"Let's take a fresh look at these. Even though the corpse is there, look through it. Edit out the initial shock. The trick is to find one item, one detail, and focus on it until it's an exhausted possibility."

Pitt sensibly responds by getting himself a beer, which everyone who's been covering or following this year's election easily deserves by now. But the advice to see through the horror in order to concentrate on something real and possibly meaningful rings true.

Donald Trump is going to lose. This has been apparent since at least summer if not earlier. For all the blaring headlines and overhyped poll fluctuations since then, Clinton has always held a lead, usually between 3-5 points. It is not as large a lead as those of us who fear a Trump presidency would like, but polling-wise it's been the least close election since 1996. Even the doomed McCain campaign pulled into a slight (if brief) lead in the immediate afterglow of the Republican convention. Trump couldn't even manage that.

Yet Trump has still provided a horrorshow, every bit as gory as uncensored homicide photos. He's mainstreamed white supremacy (a/k/a the alt-right, or "white nationalism"). He's called for his opponent to be jailed. He's threatened the press. He's tacitly admitted to serial sexual assault. And he lies at a speed so breakneck that even the age of social media and instant reaction can barely keep up with him. But to understand 2016, you have to edit out that shock and look through all that.

The scariest thing about a Trump Administration isn't Trump himself or whatever chintzy antics he'd bring to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (gold rimmed toilet in the Roosevelt Room anyone?, stripper poles on the South Lawn?). The scariest thing about Trump is the legislation he'd sign.

(Sure he'd also illegally turn the federal government against his enemies, but Bush the Younger was no slouch in that department. Let's not forget that his Administration tortured people for political purposes, fired independent prosecutors for not indicting enough Democrats, and even put a guy who denies the Big Bang in charge of NASA. Trump would undoubtedly be worse, but it'd be a difference of degree, not kind.)

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have a whole host of things they'd push under his pen, everything from revoking health insurance from millions of Americans to taking food from poor children. And then there's the tax cuts: yuge ones that would let every millionaire in America get a bigger yacht and every billionaire get a bigger jet while hospitals close, schools crumble, and poor people literally die.

Trump wouldn't do that on his own or because he's uniquely evil or dangerous. (Given all he's said, it's doubtful he could even name more than two or three federal agencies.) No, Trump would do that because those have been the stated goals of the Republican Party for a generation and longer.

Since the 2000 campaign, the Republican Party has shorn itself of all distractions to concentrate on only one (1) goal and only one (1) means of achieving it. The goal is lowering taxes for the rich. The means is stoking white people's fear. That's it.

Trump is the purest distillation of both yet seen (a fascistic white guy who doesn't pay any taxes), but he didn't come from nowhere. And tomorrow, after he's been soundly defeated, the Republican Party will still exist, will still have the same goal, and will still have the same method of realizing it.

That's the one thing. That's the exhausted detail underlying all the lies, grotesque statements, and self aggrandizement. 

After 2012, the Republican Party famously conducted an "autopsy" on itself. The conclusion was that stoking white fear was a losing electoral strategy (at least on the Presidential level, it still works great lower down). It won bigly in 1980, but it only won narrowly in 2004, and it was an increasingly loser proposition.

Perhaps they will write another autopsy, and perhaps they'll focus on keeping unqualified non-politicians away from their nomination. But the Republican Party can't change.

Whether it's voices in their head, God telling them what to do, or just wealthy donors who will excommunicate anyone who dares suggest anything but tax cuts, they're stuck with who they are. They are the party of rich people. They are the party of white people. And American is going the other way.

Donald Trump changes none of that. If you doubt it, see whether his absence dims their eagerness to demonize Muslim and Mexican Americans. See if his defeat cools Republican fervor for voter suppression. See if his humiliation shames them into allowing a vote on a Democratic Supreme Court nominee.

Tax cuts. White fear. They've driven our politics to this new low, and they won't be gone on Wednesday morning, or in 2018, or even 2020. To quote Se7en Morgan Freeman one more time: "It's just going to go on and on and on."

Respectability Politics Strikes Back: College Degree Holders and the 2016 House

Submitted by Charlie on Thu 27 Oct 2016 - 11:34
Irish Suck - Vote for Duke

"Sir, the polls show you're doing great with voters across the board, except women." - Phillips for President Campaign Manager
"Do they vote?" - Duke Phillips
"Yes. We do." - Alice Tompkins
"Really? Well, what about the Irish?" - Duke Phillips
"Them too." - Alice Tompkins
"Uh-oh, better change these posters." - Duke Phillips

There has been a slight downturn in the House generic ballot since last week, with the Pollster average down to 4.6% and the RCP average at just 3.8%. (Remember, the magic number is 7.0%, but the 2012 polls understated the eventual Democratic vote by a point or two, so anything north of 5.0% is possible, and north of 6.0% is outright good.) However, there's a wrinkle that needs a lot more attention than its getting: Trump's collapse with college educated white voters.

Non-college whites have been the belle of this year's ball, with seemingly every reporter, pundit, and blogger writing about them. Minority voters have been under-covered (as usual), but there are only so many ways to write "brown people don't like Trump for lots and lots of very good reasons". But the biggest historical anomaly in this year's polls is the abandonment of the Republicans by white voters with college degrees.

White degree holders have been reliable Republican votes since time immemorial (or at least since modern polling got figured out). These are small business owners, dentists, engineers, office managers, etc., work-a-day white collar folks who want their taxes low, don't care much about social issues, and fear terrorism and crime with abandon. They've been trending away from the GOP for years as the Republicans increasingly became the "stupid party", but 2016 has seen the bottom fall out. 

In 2012, Romney won college educated whites by about 14 points (+21 with college educated men, and +7 with college educated women). This year, college educated women are heavily backing Clinton, and college educated men are frequently drawing even, which means this once reliable Republican voting bloc has crumbled. The ABC tracking poll that debuted Sunday is fairly typical of ones I've seen this year: Clinton is +32 with college women, and dead even with college men (0), for a total of +16 overall.

The big unknown for the House is how much of that flaming Trump wreckage is going to translate down to individual district races. In the absence of publicly available House polling, we've got to make some guesses, but the best place to start is the Census bureau's demographic information on House districts. Pulling from that, I've generated a spreadsheet with all the Republican held House districts that are rated as competitive by Kos, Cook, Rothernberg & Gonzales, and Larry Sabato, plus a few that were closer than they maybe should have been in 2012 or 2014. Sorting by highest percentage of people with a college degree, you get this:

Stay in school, kids, the you won't vote for fascistic loons.

If we're going to get a majority (unlikely but not impossible) or make serious inroads and get their majority to <10 seats (looking better all the time), some of these listed as Lean or Likely Republican should be ripe for the plucking. The national average for college degrees is 33%, so anything north of that is bad for Trump and (hopefully) bad for the Republican on the ballot as well. The big target at the top of that list is VA-10, which is a very Republican district that is nevertheless seriously in the mix this year because it's full of people with four year degrees.

But it's the races listed as Leaning Republican, Likely Republican, and "N/A" (which means they're considered Safe) that we need to keep an eye on. Trump is likely to do worst in these heavily college educated districts than elsewhere, but these races are still friendly to Trump for other reasons (primarily that they're wealthier and whiter). However, IF (1) there really is a wave going against the Republicans across the board, and IF (2) Republican turnout is down generally, and IF (3) that wave crests among college educated white people (which polling indicates is likely), then these are the districts that are most likely to tip the House (or at least get us close enough to pass better legislation than has been possible since the 2010 disaster).

So if districts like VA-10 and NJ-05 go Blue early on Election Night, that's a very good sign. If districts like MI-11 and PA-06 don't get called quickly, that's also a very good sign.

Beyond this year, these numbers are also going to be the first piece of data we get about whether or not becoming the party of Trump and stupidity has hurt the Republicans once Trump is off the stage. If it's a Trump blip, then in 2018 and 2020, college educated white people will return to their old ways. If Trump isn't a blip, but rather the hair plugs that broke the camel's back, then these patterns will remain, and suburban Republicans will find their prospects a lot dimmer than they used to be for years to come.

Why the Presidential Debates Are Always a Shitshow

Submitted by Charlie on Fri 21 Oct 2016 - 08:20
Obnoxious hooting and hollering

"The League of Uninformed Voters presents the Springfield Mayoral Debates, I'm your moderator Larry King. Now, a word to our audience. Even though we're being broadcast on FOX, there's no need for obnoxious hooting and hollering." - Larry King

There has been much lamenting and rending of garments over the low substance and feculent quality of this year's Presidential debates. Much of this commentary has focused on the nonsensical babble of one Donald John Trump, Republican Nominee(TM). And that's understandable. From substantive offenses like denying the legitimacy of an election that hasn't happened yet and promising to lock up his opponent if he wins down to trivialities like his constant interruptions and sniffles, Trump *always* provides something to talk about.

But the sad reality is that the 2016 debates weren't outliers, they were typical. The 2012 debates were just as vapid. The 2008 debates were just as irrelevant to what people actually care about. Go back twenty years or more and you'll see the same amount of style over substance, the same fact free and outright false claims flying out to tens of millions of voters. To understand why, please allow me three quick paragraphs of background.

1) After the 1960 debate that is widely credited with having cost Nixon the election, there were no debates until 1976. After Watergate left no doubt that Nixon was just as sleazy as he had looked on TV in 1960, the League of Women Voters came along and tried to rinse his stains away with honesty and transparency. They sponsored three televised Presidential debates and a Vice-Presidential undercard, each one hosted by a different moderator and featuring a different panel of print and television reporters. That first year, moderators and panelists represented the following news organizations: NBC News, ABC News, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker(!), NPR, The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Sun Times, Newsweek, and the Associated Press.

2) While not perfect, this system worked quite well. Substantive questions were asked on a wide variety of topics, and the panelists and moderators were mostly working reporters, not mega-bucks TV celebrities. The debates quickly developed into a civic ritual. Tens of millions of people watched them, and they became the one chance ordinary voters got to see their potential leaders live and unscripted.

3) However, the Republican and Democratic parties quickly realized that the non-partisan do gooders at the LWV had created a media spectacle that was beyond their control. And so, in 1988, they decided to tamper with this fine system and create the Commission on Presidential Debates, a front group that allowed both parties to shape the debates to their liking. The LWV pulled out, calling the new debates, "a fraud on the American voter" that would be, "campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions".

For a couple of elections, the kneecapped debates hobbled along in something like their old format even as TV gimmicks (no panelists! audience questions only!) gradually eroded the discussions. By 1996, the parties had neutered this once grand idea by completely removing the working reporters and letting all the debates be moderated by a single, elderly TV celebrity, Jim Lehrer of PBS. (He was so inoffensive that they let him do all three Presidential debates in 2000 as well.) No more reporters, no more tough questions, no more diversity of opinions or topics, just TV fluff dressed up as serious debate.

Yesterday, David Leonhardt of The New York Times published a list of the number of times different topics were asked across this year's four exercises in public futility. For simplicity, I've combined them into categories:

Sensational Stuff the Media Loves: 25 - (Trump’s taxes: 3, Trump’s molestations: 3, Clinton’s emails: 2, National debt: 2, Uniting the country: 2, Birtherism: 1, Cyberterrorism: 1, Clinton Foundation: 1, Trump Foundation: 1, Opponent's strengths: 1, V.P. nominees’ skills: 1, Candidates’ faith: 1, Candidates' low favorability: 1, Clinton’s paid speeches: 1, Basket of deplorables: 1, Trump’s tweets: 1, Clinton's 'look': 1, Candidates' behavior: 1,)

Actual Issues Voters Care About: 20 - (Immigration: 3, Job creation: 3, Supreme Court: 2, Social Security: 2, Taxes on wealthy: 2, Obamacare: 2, Expectations of police: 1, Race relations: 1, Abortion: 1, Guns: 1, Energy jobs: 1, Islamophobia: 1)

Scary Stuff Abroad: 16 - (Syrian civil war: 6, Terrorism: 4, Russia: 3, Iraq: 2,)

Important Stuff That Doesn't Fit a Category: 4 - (Nuclear weapons: 2, Election's legitimacy: 2)

Climate Change: 0

People care about different and less stupid things than the media.First of all, let's have a good laugh that there's even a category called "Trump's molestations". Second, let's remember that for the most part these questions have nothing to do with Trump as a candidate. This is what the moderators, who were hand picked by the Democratic and Republican parties, considered good and proper topics for discussion.

Now take a gander at the Pew Research survey at right about what topics Americans say are "very important" to them in this year's election. Even being generous with the categories above, we see that the moderators (and the "undecided" voter questions they selected) spent most of their time asking about things a majority of Americans do not consider worthwhile while ignoring matters about which the electorate cares a great deal.

Substantive issues like Supreme Court picks and Social Security got the same amount of attention as media trivialities like "Uniting the country". Or take Syria, a legitimate issue, but surely one that is not as important to the American electorate as Immigration, Race Relations, Abortion, and Gun Control combined. According to Pew, 40% of the country thinks LGBT treatment is very important, it didn't come up once. The "environment" is very important to 52% of Americans. It also got zero mentions.

Presidential debates have been a regular feature of our elections since before most Americans were born. We expect them, and we like them. They routinely draw ratings figures that can only be compared to the Super Bowl. And yet this sacred civic ritual has been surrendered to multi-millionaire television celebrities who ask about trivia. 

Trump is a disgrace, but he didn't bring the debates low. They were already as dumb as any reality show he's ever hosted.

If we want to make the debates meaningful again, we need to go back to having a panel of reporters from many different news outlets. We need to banish the Republican and Democratic parties from any say in the moderators or the questions. And we need to put things back in the hands of the League of Women Voters.