February 27th, 2017 // 7:44 am @ Oliver DeMille
(The Reality of Today’s Political Protestors)
Thought vs. Feeling
No doubt about it. Symbols matter. The flag. The national anthem. Stories about great heroes from history, such as Paul Revere or George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr. In short, symbols move us. They take on a life of their own—above the historical facts, more important to peoples’ hearts and minds than mere reality. “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story,” as Samuel Clemens put it.
Symbol has power. But not as much power as truth. The simple, genuine truth is even more formidable than symbol. Not always as influential, or persuasive, in the short term—but more important. Compare two views of the world:
Symbol over Substance: “Perception is reality.”
Substance over Symbol: “The truth shall set you free.”
The truth is that perception isn’t reality; reality is reality. Period. But perception, or symbol, does have great power. That’s why the arts are often more influential than science or logic: symbols make us feel, and feel deeply, and when our feelings are at high pitch our minds usually follow.
When politics is added to this mix, the results are interesting. Or, in more symbolic language: when our emotions take over politics, everything becomes larger than life–even overwhelming. The feelings are strong, tied to deeply emotional symbols: the White House, the media, election night agony or ecstasy. As a child I was always surprised at how much emotion adults exhibited when the names Nixon or Carter were mentioned. Immediate anger, or sadness, or a smile. Then came the name Ronald Reagan—a certain cause of sudden frowns or grins, depending on whom I was talking to at the time.
I wonder at today’s children. Say “Barack Obama” to them, or “Hillary Clinton,” and the immediate response is extreme. Happy or sad. Smiles or anger. Hardly ever anything in between. Say “Donald Trump” to our youth, and adults, and the response is pretty much never boring or uninterested. Anger, yes. Joy, yes. Sometimes mixed emotions. But seldom lukewarm.
Look Both Ways
But substance still matters. It is, in fact, vitally important. If we limit our understanding of politics to symbol, we’ve got a major national problem. Jon Stewart pointed this out very effectively when he noted that while many of his friends voted for Hillary Clinton, those who alternatively voted for Donald Trump didn’t do so because they support racism or calling people names, but because they tended to believe he’d be better for the economy.
In short, every top political figure is really two people: the symbol and the substance. To understand both is mature. To ignore both, thinking that the political leader is really only the symbol, or only the substance, is inaccurate and short-sighted.
The old adages “Focus on the issues” or “It’s the economy, stupid,” suggest that substance is king, that ultimately the voters choose based on the issues. But daily media spin and the words of celebrities, singers, actors (Oscars, Grammys, Music Awards, Hollywood, etc.) emphasize the other view—that symbolism is the real battle. One popular song says that we don’t want science, we want signs.
In the Information Age, the symbols frequently consume us. Wise citizens see through media spin that paints a leader as all symbol. But such citizens aren’t so fully swayed by substance that they think symbol doesn’t matter.
This is complex. It’s difficult for wise citizens, because they must weigh both the symbol and the substance of each political candidate, and decide which mix is best for the nation.
The two big political parties make it even more difficult, by constantly trying to put symbol above substance, trying to convince voters that their party is best and their candidate best—regardless of the details or the optics, how things really are, or how things look. “Just vote for us” the parties assure us. “We’re right; the other side is wrong. Always.”
Again, astute citizens see through the smokescreen. They identify each candidate’s substance, and symbols, and make the difficult choice. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had more candidates who were strong both on issues and symbols?
For some, President Obama met that standard. The symbols were strong: first black president in the United States. Wonderful! The American Dream is real, the symbol of Obama assures us. For those who like weaker national security, supporting Israel’s enemies, more government intervention in the economy, and further regulating peoples’ lives, Obama made sense. But for people who wanted to reduce governmental regulation and get the economy booming, while strengthening our national security, Obama’s tenure left much to be desired.
Neither McCain nor Romney offered something clearly different. The overwhelming symbol of both was “more of the same,” “a repeat of the status quo,” “a continuation of the Bush Administration.” Both candidates actually offered significant differences in their policies—but the symbol most voters experienced was still “the same old thing.”
Hillary had a similar problem. Her policies and symbols offered voters “more years like the Obama era.” For many Americans, particularly among those who were hurting economically, the idea of more Hillary/Obama policies was appalling. They wanted something drastically different. They yearned for change. In fact, it is very possible that if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic nominee, with his powerful symbols of change, he would have won the White House.
This is the complexity of voting. Sanders and Trump both owned the symbol of “massive change”, while by 2016 the leading Hillary/Obama symbol was “no change, bad economy.” For some, Hillary symbolized “first woman president,” but the larger public view for many was “more of the same”. She found this symbol too deeply ingrained in the populace to overcome.
In other words, voters don’t just have to choose who to vote for in presidential elections, they also need to choose their personal voting criteria: for specific policies, or for the symbols. It can be even more challenging than this, in fact. Voters also have to choose between every candidate’s good and bad symbols, and good and bad policy promises.
For example, Trump lost a lot of votes because he too often symbolized “acting like a jerk, attacking people who disagree with him, being insensitive to women, minorities, the disabled, etc.” But he gained votes with citizens who believed he symbolized “truly big change in Washington” or who focused on the issues of “booming economy and stronger national security.” Many voters hated the first set of symbols, but liked the second.
In earlier elections, Obama supporters had to choose between the motivating symbols of “yes we can” or “breaking the glass ceiling of race” and the divisive symbols of “Americans cling to their religion and their guns,” as if personal faith and individual freedoms are somehow suspect. This lost him votes, but it gained him votes as well. No candidate’s take on the issues is perfect for a majority of voters.
Hamilton and Madison started the Federalist Papers with a discussion of this same reality. Specifically, Federalist 1 notes that a number of wise and good people opposed the new constitution, while a lot of wise and good people supported it. With any important issue, Hamilton assures us, there are wise and good people on both sides. How can this be? The answer, Hamilton explains, is that only bad people do the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, but good people act in three ways:
- good people sometimes do the right thing for the right reason
- good people sometimes do the right thing for the wrong reason
- good people sometimes do the wrong thing for the right reason
In other words, in our day not everyone who voted for Hillary wanted the economy to get even worse or for public officials to be lax with national security emails, and not everyone who voted for Trump looks down on women and minorities or hates immigrants. The symbols and the substance aren’t in lock step. This makes attacking someone who wears a Trump hat or openly supports Hillary, for example, particularly disgusting kinds of physical abuse.
Indeed, while supporters of Hillary often downplay her use of emails as much less important than the media suggested, or note that her views on national security and trade were actually much stronger than Obama’s, even though the media refused to effectively show it, and Trump supporters will point out that he’s spoken widely of wanting more legal immigration (going against the Republican norm), symbols once ingrained in the public mind are hard to overcome. The reality is usually far deeper and more complex than the symbol.
Response and Responsibility
The truth is important: the symbols and the substance aren’t the same. The way the press portrayed Senator Clinton is only partially true, full of spin and falsehoods; same with President Trump. The reality has layers and levels. Wise citizens need to look deeper than party, media, and popular spin.
All this makes the violent protests of the Left even more ridiculous. Many on the Right hated President Obama’s policies and his perceived symbol of “bigger and bigger government” every bit as much as many on the Left now hate Trump’s approach. But instead of breaking windows, starting fires, looting, and violently assaulting those with a different view of things, they focused on working hard in their jobs, raising families, and serving in their communities.
They suffered under a president whose policies and perceived arrogance they deeply disliked, and with every Obama increase in regulation that made the Bush-era economy even worse. But they accepted the votes of those with a different view who put President Obama in office. They didn’t mob together to destroy property or physically assault people. Even the Tea Parties, as vocal as they were, didn’t make a national trend of out looting, burning, and assaulting. They focused instead of sharing ideas, seeking for a more favorable election outcome in the future.
Those on the Left who have chosen violence to protest the new president are entirely out of line. There violent acts are, in fact, illegal and immoral. Both the symbols and the substance of violent protest are wrong. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. stood loudly and effectively for peaceful protest, and left a powerful and noble legacy of standing up for change, for what they believed in, for what is right—the right way.
James Madison considered every election a “peaceful revolution”. There are ways to disagree in a civil society. Violence isn’t one of them.
In fact, the worst negative symbol of the Trump era is calling names and acting like a jerk to people who disagree with you. It’s often offensive, and sometimes extreme. Note that some of the talking heads on MSNBC and other networks have done the same thing for a long time. Still, two wrongs don’t make a right; both sides are to blame when they overstep the bounds of civil discourse.
But as bad as this is, at least it is done with words. The physical violence of those on the contemporary Left who loot and destroy in the name of political anger is a true tyranny in our time, a literal fascism in our midst—and the media who encourage this by portraying it as noble, or somehow blame it on the president or anyone else, or who refuse to condemn it in the strongest terms because the looters agree with their politics, are just as bad. This is precisely the wrong kind of symbol—and substance.
January 26th, 2017 // 7:59 am @ Oliver DeMille
(How Bias in Media is Getting Even Worse, and What To Do About It)
The U.S. media hasn’t been so blatantly biased since the days of the muckrakers. For decades many Americans have known that the mainstream media has a liberal lean. It treated Bush I, Bush II, McCain and Romney differently (worse) than progressives like Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Hillary, and Obama. But in the Trump era the media has gone all in: it has largely lost its sense of objectivism or balance.
This isn’t limited to a few channels or outlets. Nearly every news organization that once claimed journalistic objectivism is clearly one-sided. Journalism is dead, for all practical purposes, as some political watchers have suggested.
Consider TIME magazine’s handling of its famous Person of the Year. In 2015 it refused to put Trump on the cover, even though by the end of that year he had clearly turned American politics on its head (for good or ill, depending on your viewpoint). When the magazine did choose Trump as the 2016 person of the year—even TIME couldn’t deny the surprising revolution he presided over—it did so in backhanded fashion. The cover announced: 2016 Person of the Year, Donald Trump, President of the Divided States of America.
Note the word “divided” in the last sentence.
This kind of bias is now the norm. Not that our nation isn’t divided. It clearly is, and no doubt Trump would gladly own responsibility for that in 2017. But it was deeply divided in the Obama era as well. Why would objective media attribute such divisions to Trump but not Obama? Indeed, this level of divisiveness is perhaps the major lasting feature of President Obama’s legacy. Much of the media simply ignored how many people were deeply alienated by Obama’s politics. Top media outlets literally fawned over Obama, and his heir-apparent, Hillary Clinton, during the past several years. It lauded them, praised them, discounted and downplayed failures—as if such things didn’t matter in the presence of such glowing leaders.
A commentary in The Atlantic noted that Trump voters tended to take his words seriously but not literally, while Hillary supporters took Trump’s words literally but not seriously. But progressives applied the same standard to Obama: they took him seriously but not literally, quickly dismissing broken promises about Syria, Guantanamo, keeping one’s healthcare provider, the cost of insurance going down, etc. They excoriate Trump on the details of his promises, while giving Obama a pass on a long string of failed promises.
Extremism in media is now the fashion. Extreme flattery of Obama and Clinton coupled with extreme vilification of Trump and anyone who voted for him. Even if you dislike Trump’s approach or politics, this development in our national media is alarming.
Moreover, we seem to be entering a new era of media behavior. During the Bush years the mainstream media was clearly liberal, but conservatives, centrists and even progressives could find some balance in media coverage by reading and watching both sides of the media: The New York Times and also The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC and also Fox, The Atlantic and also The Weekly Standard, The Huffington Post and also National Review.
For every mainstream liberal media outlet there were comparable conservative publications and networks. This is no longer the case. Conservative news is still available, but much of Fox is anti-Trump, and many traditionally conservative media outlets publish articles that read like The NY Times or Huffington Post in their attacks on Trump and his embryonic administration.
The reason for this is obvious. Many on the Right distrust Trump, considering him an authoritarian at best (which may or may not turn out to be true), and the old balance of Right versus Left is almost entirely gone in the media landscape. Where are the publications or channels that support the administration’s platform, viewpoint and interests? They are practically nonexistent.
Regardless of how you feel about Trump as president, this is a dangerous development. Americans have long decried Soviet-style media in nations where the government controlled journalistic outlets and the people only got one side of the story—the official line as approved by the dominating state. In the United States we are witnessing the rise of the opposite extreme: a one-sided media that only tells the American people one story: zealous anti-Trump rhetoric. The media that blasts Trump for his bombast also frequently surpasses him in pomposity (toward Obama and Clinton) and arrogant anger (toward Trump and Trump voters). They spin and inflate (and quite simply misreport) policies, utterances and choices he makes, without clarification or retraction.
Again, this is alarming, even if you dislike Trump. A one-sided media simply cannot be objective, and to aggressively set out shape public opinion in such a fashion is a reprehensible tact for a sector of society that has traditionally been a watchdog of democracy. If this continues, we won’t be getting the full story, or the real story, in the years ahead. And we won’t be able to balance mainstream views with strong media reporting from the other side—because pretty much no media anywhere cares about truthfully communicating both sides. Nearly the entire industry is committed to either passionately attacking the new administration, or misrepresenting its loyal opposition.
On a deeper societal level, part of this growing media problem is couched in the national antipathy toward the so-called experts. Our economy has become so specialized in many sectors that people are increasingly expected to rely on experts for major decisions in their lives (educational, financial, parental, healthcare, etc.), often without even seriously questioning the “accepted expert wisdom” or making their own choices. For the Establishment, Trump voters represent the opposite of this trend.
For example, a political cartoon from The New Yorker showed a middle-aged man, balding and portly, standing up in the aisle of an airplane and announcing to the passengers: “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?”
At first blush, few of us want some regular guy from our next flight to use democracy to take over the cockpit. But the cartoon hits an even deeper chord. While it is apparently meant to criticize many American voters, it actually does a lot to point out flaws in the expert-dependent Establishment.
First, nearly all passengers shown in the cartoon are raising their hands. Democracy is strongly against the expert-dependent Establishment right now. Most people are skeptical of experts, seeking a second or even third opinion even in arenas where expertise is most sacred.
Second, the word “smug” in the cartoon is poignant. Only smug experts would believe such a political cartoon would make their point; the truth is that most voters, unlike most airline passengers, aren’t seeking a political expert in the White House. They specifically prefer a non-expert, a non-politician. The Establishment can’t quite grasp why anyone would hold this view. They really are out of touch.
These people want a wise and effective leader, not a bureaucratic manager. They want a visionary and strong commander-in-chief, not another smug political specialist. (There is an excellent commentary on the same cartoon in USA Today, January 6, 2017.) Voters want an outsider. They want someone who doesn’t actually like the bureaucracy and the lobbyists. Most of the media realizes this on a logical level, but just can’t bring themselves to believe it in their gut. Mainstream media wants government by experts. A lot of voters don’t.
Of course there is an important place for expertise in society. But clearly elections should be up to the people, all the people across the U.S. – not just the population-dense regions on the right and left coasts. Our era of over-reliance on professional political experts and bureaucratic dominance has caused a lot of problems. Concerning journalism, we want experts in telling us the truth and letting us make our own decisions, not experts of spin who sway the populace to a certain political view—whatever it is. Unfortunately, for decades many in the media have been telling us that their opinion is the truth—to trust them—to follow them—because they know what is best for us. The people are calling their bluff.
At the highest level, the Establishment acts on the assumption that experts determine elections. For example, most elites are convinced that expert choices, not voters, really swayed the latest election, and other elections as well. This is broadcast in various ways, including the following Establishment beliefs:
- Obama’s social media gurus and ground game won 2008 and 2012, while Jared Krushner’s Silicon Valley-style analytics and online campaign won 2016 for Trump.
- Russian hackers were responsible for election outcomes, since clearly the American people wouldn’t have voted this way without some kind of sinister expert intervention.
- Media sway makes the biggest difference in presidential elections, and the mainstream media was clearly anti-Trump; therefore, Fox and talk radio are responsible for the “skewed” results on election night.
In reality, voters gather information in many ways, consider their options, and then select whom they want to lead (or vote against the candidate they least want to be in charge). It is ironic that the Establishment lauds democracy at every turn, but doesn’t actually believe in it. The Establishment believes, rather, that experts ultimately determine votes, one way or the other. And that they should.
Again, this arrogance is only expanding in the current media environment. I expect it to widen and deepen in the months and years ahead.
In all this, what are freedom-loving citizens to do? What about those who sincerely want to get both sides of the news and really compare what the White House is doing and thinking to what the mainstream media is reporting? Answer: such citizens are largely out of luck. They aren’t getting much help from institutional media.
They can try reading The Economist, which is certainly not a pro-Trump or even remotely conservative publication but is at least European and not quite so caught up in the anti-Trump venom of the American national media. This is a good option for some readers. Or they can read the business news, like Fortune and Forbes, for example, which focuses on commerce and addresses the news only tangentially—and with less extremism. Again, some readers can use this kind of sidebar-journalism to get a more objective read on the new.
But it’s hardly a solution. The real answer is for the media to self-regulate and deliver objective, quality journalism. Until this happens—if it ever does—citizens who want to know what is really happening are going to need to find quality sources of knowledge. Most sources of this kind will come not from big media outlets, but rather from deep thinkers who share important views online.
Find writers and thinkers—instead of relying on publications or channels—that spark your thinking and help you see things differently than the major media retailers and showrooms. Since the big media isn’t doing its job anymore, it’s up to us as individuals to more actively seek out ideas and knowledge.
The silver lining in this new era of media is real. In the current news environment, it is up to each of us to dig deeper and think more independently if we want to see through media spin and really keep an eye on the news. The mainstream media is taking much of the nation on a pied-piper-style spin, and only the vigilant will actually know what’s really going on in current events.
(Consider taking our Current Events Course, which helps participants learn to more effectively see through the media, whatever its agenda, and know what’s really happening. Once you’ve completed this course, try getting your news by reading a major publication from both sides of the aisle, such as The Atlantic and also The Wall Street Journal, and then adding one or more of the sources listed above to get a more objective view of things. We all need to read more closely in this new era of media, and keep our thinking caps on no matter what we’re reading.)
January 23rd, 2017 // 1:55 pm @ Oliver DeMille
(What it Means for the Future of America)
First of all, the very idea that each president must aim to leave a lasting legacy of some sort is wrong-minded. Some of the best presidents in history did little except what they were elected to do: keep the nation safe, follow the Constitution, and stop other branches of government from intervening in the economy.
This is precisely what they should do. For example, presidents Madison, Harding and Coolidge are seldom given props for their legacies—but they were better presidents (using the Constitution as a measuring stick) than many others who used their time in office to “do more”, and in the process went beyond the Constitution and reduced American freedoms.
At its root the concept of legacy as a vital part of the presidency comes from the Establishmentarian desire to have a king. Establishment media, political parties, and many professional politicos want the pomp and circumstance of looking up to “royalty,” and the perks that come with close connections to those who hold executive power.
Jefferson once chided John Adams for this same tendency. In the Jeffersonian spirit, the president should…well, we already said it: keep the nation safe, follow the Constitution, and stop other branches of government from messing up the economy with too much regulation and/or bureaucratic intervention. This bears repeating over and over in our generation—until we get it.
In fact, this is the opposite of Obama’s legacy, which could be summed up as: “The more government intervention in the economy and people’s lives, the better.”
But let’s put aside the battle over ideals for a moment and focus on the practical side of governing.
Obama established at least four major precedents that could be a serious problem for Americans—depending on how Trump and future presidents apply them. These include the following presidential disasters:
1. Do what you want unilaterally, using executive orders, instead of doing the hard work to lead and persuade Congress to work with you—as required in the Constitution. Just dictate things from the Oval Office.
2. Use the “nuclear option” to get things through Congress (the Barack Obama and Harry Reid approach of forcing things with a majority vote instead of sixty Senators). One more check and balance gone.
3. Doggedly ignore the views of people and groups who didn’t vote for you. Act like your supporters are the only Americans who matter, and like those who didn’t support you are sub-par citizens whose concerns aren’t important. Treat opponents as enemies (and idiots), not the loyal opposition whose voices carry some important truths. President Obama was a master at this approach.
4. After you’ve been voted out of office, before the next president is inaugurated, reject two centuries of precedence and don’t try to make things smooth for the incoming president—instead, do everything you can in your last two months of office to establish policies and take actions that make it more difficult for the next president to implement the agenda voters selected during the campaign. Simply assume you know better than the people.
This is the Obama legacy. If Trump adopts it (any of it, for that matter) he’ll do much harm to our nation. We can only hope that the Trump Administration will take a better approach to leadership. Note that he can use executive orders and push the “nuclear option” in the Senate to undo Obama overreaches without using these tactics to engage any additional policies that unwisely expand executive power.
Rise or Fall
I have friends who believe he’ll do exactly that, and others who think he’ll use these negative Obama precedents early and often. If he does the latter, such behaviors will become forever part of the executive branch and the Obama-Trump legacy will further damage our society.
Historically, few presidents choose to exert less power than their predecessors. Jefferson and Madison did, and Jackson. As mentioned, both Harding and Coolidge did the same. Washington is a special case, because he had no predecessor. He belongs on the list of those who did it right, because he chose to exert less power than he was offered.
Other U.S. presidents built on the power they inherited and tried to expand it. That’s a dangerous pattern, one we need to reverse. It remains to be seen what president Trump will do.
Ironically, in all of this, the Obama legacy is a devil on Trump’s shoulder. We can only hope that better angels prevail in the next four years.
January 6th, 2017 // 5:44 am @ Oliver DeMille
The New Reality
The election is over, and the new Trump Administration has a problem. In fact, it’s a major problem. To begin with, governing is a whole different thing than running for office. And “draining the swamp of Washington” while also governing the nation is more than doubly difficult.
But the problem goes deeper. The very things that brought a Trump victory at the ballot boxes can be a serious liability in the White House.
Here’s why: Trump won in large part because he mastered the new media—something the Clinton team mocked and laughed at (until their shocked experience on election night).
In fairness, as Democratic strategist Van Jones pointed out, past media revolutions brought similar results. FDR used the radio to put together multiple winning elections, while opponents tried to stick with the old newspaper approach to media. Years later, Republicans were surprised by the rise of television media and how effectively JFK used it to create broad national popularity.
Another few decades, and the rise of Internet media changed the way presidential campaigns worked. While McCain and then Romney attempted to do things the old way, Obama and his team mastered social media and dominated two very effective campaigns.
Note that in all these cases, Democrats adapted to changing media realities while Republicans remained stuck in the old way. This changed in 2015-2016. As Jones put it, Trump tapped into a new media model—a nation of viewers steeped in Reality Television.
Neighbor or Villain
In this new medium, candidates win by emulating what winning participants do on reality TV. The quickest way to the stay on the show, week after week, is to jump in as the villain during week one. Say outrageous things, stir the pot, get a bunch of Americans hating you, boost the ratings, and do it every week. In fact, if you ever lose the focus of the camera, say more outrageous things. Survivor, The Bachelor, The Amazing Race, The Apprentice, even Duck Dynasty, Real Wives, Jersey Shore, etc.—this formula is effective.
The quickest way to lose in this format is simple: try to fit in, attempt to be popular, don’t make waves. Even worse: try to impress people. Today’s generation of Americans increasingly see this as acting like a politician. It feels slick and glib, a la Bill Clinton, Bush, Romney, Rubio, etc. Saying whatever you think the voters (or other contestants) will like is the sure road to losing. In contrast, in this new Reality Television media system, being the villain, saying outrageous things, and picking repeated fights, frequently brings victory.
This media shift shocked the Obama and Clinton machines in 2016, despite the fact that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump had been proving the opposite for many months. But now the election is over, and a new reality is setting in.
It’s almost impossible to predict what this will mean in the years ahead. In the last three major media shifts, the new media worked both during the campaign and after. FDR used radio to his benefit during elections and even more while governing. Presidents did the same with television when it took over the media world. Online media kept Obama’s popularity high, and even helped boost his ratings on numerous occasions during the years between elections.
The question now is whether the newest media system, the Reality Television model of “Be the Outrageous Villain and Keep Doing It, Week after Week,” will work for the next four years. Think about it. This is a big deal.
Breaking or Building
Clearly the liberal mainstream media (led by NBC, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, ABC, CNN, etc.) are an unwitting asset; they have shown they are willing to keep supporting Trump in this approach. They want to tear him down in any way they can, and as long as so many Americans distrust the media, this turns to his advantage.
If Trump wants to maintain this strategy in the months and years ahead, he’ll routinely support major reforms that drastically change Washington, he’ll pick a continuous series of fights with special interests and federal bureaucracies, and he’ll vilify someone new every few weeks.
In all this, he’ll usually blame the media. In fact, he’ll look for as many ways as possible to fault the media. The more the better. He’ll tweet, call names, use bombast, and overstate things, all in the name of stirring the pot and keeping the media focus on him and his policies.
The media will think it’s tearing him down, but if this strategy works he’ll be more popular than ever when the next election comes. If you think the mainstream media was shocked in the 2016 election, imagine how they’ll feel after attacking Trump for four years and seeing his electoral numbers increase in 2020. They’ll be positively apoplectic.
But here’s the rub. What a lot of people don’t want to hear is that this kind of bombastic, extreme tone is a lot more likely to coincide with truly, actually, “draining the swamp in Washington.” If the Trump Administration decides to try to play the mainstream media game and attempt to look like a Bush, Clinton, Bush II or Obama style system, we likely won’t see much real change in Washington.
Not So Revolutionary
Somehow the kind of professionalism and antidisestablishmentarianism [I can’t believe I actually just used one of the longest words in the English language is a serious sentence] exhibited by many presidential administrations create a tone of “Washington staying the same.” And that path guarantees bigger and bigger government. Not draining the swamp, but expanding it.
Consider the Reagan Revolution. It started out with what the establishment in both parties considered outrageous, extreme, and even irresponsible. But it also began by making some real changes. By Reagan’s second term, however, the administration wasn’t a revolution anymore. It started fitting in with the establishment, and by the time Bush was elected, the Reagan Administration was pretty much part of the establishment.
This led to the Gingrich revolution in 1992, which was considered extreme, irresponsible, and outrageous (sound familiar?), but by 1996 the Gingrich/Kasich Revolutionaries had become part of the establishment. The party of Reagan, Kemp, Gingrich and Limbaugh became the party of Dole, W, McCain, Romney, and Jeb. Not really a troop of boat-rockers.
It’s hard to tell where the Trump team is headed. Some of Trump’s White House and cabinet picks are from the revolutionary wing, while others are more establishmentarian. It’s a mix. Moreover, the tone out of Trump Tower and president-elect golf clubhouses is largely mild, professional–and leaning establishment.
The Real Challenge
This may be a smart chess move, keeping things hush-hush until after inauguration. Once the new president is in charge, his team will be a lot more effectively armed to take on the mainstream media.
But what if the Trump team takes the other approach? What if they decide they want to be popular? Or hope to get The NY Times, NBC, and CNN to like them? What if Trump hopes to be loved, or gets tired of being vilified, mocked, called a clown, a buffoon, and a devil? What if he wants popularity in New York and Washington? It might happen early, but even if it doesn’t happen for several years, the pressure will always be there.
The way the mainstream establishment fawned over Bill, Barack, Michelle, and Hillary—that’s a lot of incentive; and The Donald has, in the past, shown an affection for the spotlight and a particular aversion to being mocked or blamed.
And beyond his own instincts of self-preservation: Will his chivalry for his wife or his allegiance to his youngest son (who have both been in the cross-hairs of some harsh media treatments in recent months) begin to figure into the equation? All things considered, who wouldn’t want to be loved and popularly lauded when faced with such extremes? Will this opportunity for validation and praise prove too compelling a siren song?
The hard-working voters in the rust belt, Southwest, or rural America will never be able to provide such flattery or accolades, even if they were inclined to do so. But such fawning isn’t even part of their culture. If President Trump wants that kind of love and admiration, he’s going to have to look for it in the elite class. (They’ll never give it to him, of course. They couldn’t even be objective about Dole, Bush, or McCain–committed cronies of the establishment, all.)
Whatever you think of the new president, if he’s actually going to drain the swamp, as promised, he’s going to have to play the villain. Week after week. Month after month.
In short: Being outrageous won’t be his problem. The challenge will be vanity. And endurance. Will he embrace the role of villain and drain the swamp no matter how bad the media attacks become? Or will he follow the pattern of many presidents before him and go after popularity—by increasing the size and scope of government?
Ultimately, the new president will have to make this choice. The consequences will drastically impact America in the months and years just ahead.
December 27th, 2016 // 7:50 am @ Oliver DeMille
Part II: The Central Issue of the Trump Era*
“The median [U.S.] family debt went from an average
of $25,000 per family in 1989 to over $70,000 in 2010.
It’s getting harder to make ends meet,
and harder to stay financially afloat.”
—The 5 S’s of Money (citing the Center for American Progress)
LET’S get straight to the point. The biggest battle in the Trump Era probably won’t be capitalism versus socialism. It will be free enterprise versus crony capitalism. For America’s future, free enterprise simply must win.
But crony capitalism is far ahead in this battle right now.
To understand this, we need to define some terms. There are two major types of economies: market economies and command economies. The first is based on freedom, the second on force.
Within these two branches there are a number of subtypes, including various kinds of command economies such as socialism, communism, fascism, collectivism and different applications of economic authoritarianism and totalitarianism.
The divisions of market-style economies are sometimes more confusing to people from free societies, because most of us have been trained to evaluate political and economic issues in binary mode where we narrow any debate down to only two sides—such as liberal vs. conservative, socialist vs. capitalist, democratic vs. totalitarian, good or evil, Allies or Axis, believers and atheists, idealists and realists, free or not free, and so on.
That said, we live in an era where the various types of market economics are now in conflict. During the Cold War the world was divided between two great camps, with market economies of all types firmly allied against the command economies–the NATO nations of the West versus the Soviet Bloc and world communism.
But after the Cold War (and especially in the post-9/11 world), this has dramatically changed. There are forces supporting each of the various types of market economies, and these are often pitted against each other in ways unthinkable before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Differentiating between these sub-types is important for anyone who wants to accurately understand what is happening in today’s world. When people use the term “capitalism,” they may be referring to any of the following five types of market economies. And the truth is that each of these models has drastically different goals and processes:
- Mercantilism: A system where the law allows market forces but gives preference and special benefits to the sector of the economy owned (or directly controlled) by the government. Also known as “state capitalism.” This system was historically used by the British Empire. As Parag Khanna put it in 2016: “…all countries practice some form of ‘state capitalism’ today, whether subsidizing strategic industries, restricting investments in key sectors, or mandating financial institutions to invest more at home.” (Khanna, 2016, Connectography, 33)
- Corporatism: A system where the law encourages market forces and also gives preference and special benefits to the sector of the economy owned by big corporations within the nation, sometimes referred to often as “Big Business,” “The Military-Industrial Complex,” or simply “The Establishment.”
- Keynesianism: A system where the law allows market forces but gives preference and special benefits to companies and institutions that are so big that they tend to care more about their public image for societal responsibility and promoting social justice than about profit(s), market share or stock value. According to Keynes himself, Keynesianism seeks the goals of socialism through market means.
- Capitalism (crony capitalism): A system where the law encourages market forces and also gives preference and special benefits to the sector of the economy owned by big capital—including big corporations like in Corporatism, but also wealthy foreign and multinational corporations, and highly influential non-corporate institutions such as rich foundations, moneyed trusts, political parties, well-funded lobbies and special interest groups, affluent non-profit entities, wealthy families, moneyed foreign investors, and others with large amounts of capital. Under this system, the rich rule society, and they naturally influence government to maintain policies that benefit the rich more than others.
- Free Enterprise: A system where the law encourages market forces and gives no special preferences; it protects equal rights for all individuals and entities and leaves initiative and enterprise to private individuals, groups, businesses and organizations that are all treated equally and with minimal legislation by the legal code.
All five of these sub-types are market-based, and sometimes called “free market” or simply “market economy” systems. But please carefully re-read the differences between these five economic models, because, again – while they are all market systems, they differ drastically in theory and practice.
For the last three generations, these five types of market economics have frequently been lumped together under the label of “capitalism.” While this is technically inaccurate—because capitalism is a sub-type rather than the whole of market economics—this is the way the word “capitalism” has been used and understood by most people.
Under this popular definition, capitalism is synonymous with “market economics” and is a label for the entire free-market model. But even when people use this broader definition, it is important to distinguish which of the five types is being discussed—because the future of freedom under capitalism, corporatism or mercantilism will be a very different reality than it would be under true free enterprise.
So, to summarize, we have five definitions of “capitalism” in the current usage, and another definition which uses “capitalism” to refer to all the five types together. Naturally, these definitions are frequently confused in our contemporary language. Note that even the broader definition of “capitalism” includes every market approach from corporatism and Keynesianism to mercantilism and crony capitalism. In all of this, free enterprise is often forgotten.
Even worse, in the realm of modern politics all five of these systems are frequently lumped together and referred to as “democracy” or simply “freedom.” While this is a partially accurate definition, it confuses the fact that these five kinds of systems behave very differently and offer different results to society.
Madison Weighs In
Understanding the details and nuances of how these words are used is extremely important to maintain freedom. The American founders dealt with several similar language challenges, such as when Madison felt the need to write Federalist Papers 10 and 14 explaining the important differences between democracies and republics.
He also used papers 18, 19 and 20 to clarify the differences between federations and confederations, as well as national and federal governments. Without such clarity, the Constitution would have been confusing to many Americans who were deciding whether or not to ratify it. The fact that today most Americans don’t understand these differences illustrates how far we have devolved from the level of education exemplified by the founding generation.
There are numerous similar examples, and part of being a free people is taking the time to understand the nuances of economic and political freedom and the language of liberty. No nation in history has long maintained freedom at a level deeper than that understood by the regular citizens in the society. And note that few things are more essential for free people than clearly understanding what type of economic system they want.
Based on the definitions above, consider the following three observations:
- All five types of market economies are better (meaning they have more freedom, opportunity and prosperity for more people) than all types of command economies.
Even the market approaches with the least freedom (Keynesianism and mercantilism) are significantly better than the command systems with the most freedom (collectivism and socialism).
- Still, when comparing the five subtypes of market economies, free enterprise is significantly better (with more freedom, opportunity and prosperity for more people) than mercantilism, corporatism, crony capitalism, and/or Keynesianism.
- The United States, Canada, Britain, France, Switzerland, Japan and other leading free nations of the world today have far too much mercantilism, corporatism, crony capitalism, and Keynesianism—and not enough free enterprise.
This is surprising to most citizens of America and the free world. For example, many conservatives in the United States argue that we are a “capitalist” nation or vote for the “capitalist” candidate and conclude that all is well, when in fact free enterprise is under attack from socialism but also just as strongly from mercantilists, corporatists, Keynesians and crony capitalists.
Voters and citizens must know what to look for when a policy or candidate claims to promote “capitalism.”
Real Life Differences
Some might argue that most of this is mere theory, and that the United States today is a free enterprise society rather than a crony capitalist system as outlined here. Such an assumption is incorrect. The U.S. commercial code has numerous laws which are written specifically to treat people differently based on their wealth—and extending special benefits to those with more capital.
For example, it is illegal for those with less than a certain amount of wealth to be offered many of the best investment opportunities. Only those with a high net worth (the amount is set by law) are able to invest in such offerings. This is capitalism, not free enterprise. Under free enterprise, the law would be the same for all people.
Also, in many cities employees of the wealthy are allowed special legal benefits—such as carrying firearms (personally or through body guards), operating under false names, or traveling with different security measures—that are withheld from the regular citizens. However a person feels about gun laws or financial policies, such laws specifically treat the rich and powerful differently than the rest. Crony capitalism gives them special benefits.
This bears repeating: The laws of the United States stipulate that if you have more money you can invest in business opportunities that people with less money cannot (to study this in more depth, see the terms “sophisticated investor,” “accredited investor,” and SEC regulations on private investment offerings). The specific amounts and details are changed by law over time, but we are absolutely a crony capitalist nation where the laws give higher benefits to the rich.
In fact, many of these laws, including all the examples above, specifically benefit the wealthy to the detriment of wage earners. Regular working people are excluded by law from the best investments and various other perks and benefits. This system is called capitalism, and it is a bad system—better than socialism or communism, to be sure, but not nearly as good as free enterprise.
With all this said, the amazing thing is that this reality is basically ignored by almost everyone, mainly because those who point out the flaws of capitalism tend to be promoting socialistic solutions rather than free enterprise.
As a result, people are accustomed to attacks on the rich by those who want bigger government. But almost nobody has experienced those who want more free enterprise and much smaller government pointing out that the rich have terribly unfair legal advantages in our society—and that this is a bad system.
In fact, this is so deeply ingrained in most people that when they hear anyone criticizing the unfair benefits enjoyed by the rich, they seldom believe that the speaker is making a case for smaller, limited government and less socialism. We are so conditioned, that this possibility just does not compute.
Some may say that I am overstating this point. “Of course the rich and powerful are treated differently than the rest. After all, they are rich and powerful!” While this may be true, such a view is itself a symptom of aristocratic society with preferential class divisions. And in nations where the laws and government treat the rich and powerful differently, freedom is always in decline.
In free enterprise systems, the law allows all people to take part in any investments. If there are laws about bodyguards, firearms, using false names, or anything else, they are the same for every single citizen in the nation. This is what free enterprise means, because such a system gives everyone truly equal opportunities. In a system where Congress creates one set of laws for some, and different laws for those with wealth, status, or position, free enterprise isn’t allowed to give people the full benefit it should.
Indeed, in our system, Congress goes so far as to exempt its own members from certain laws and guidelines; this is especially harmful when members of Congress are allowed special financial opportunities that other people are not. Thus it isn’t surprising to see people elected to Congress and within a few terms become extremely wealthy, even though their actual salary could never generate such prosperity. They are allowed (by their own votes in Congress) to make deals that are illegal for regular people. This is crony capitalism, not free enterprise.
The Local Test
Another way to test the level of free enterprise in your society it to start a business in your local area. In fact, start two. Let the local zoning commissions, city council and other regulating agencies know that you are starting a business, that it will employ you and two additional employees, and then keep track of what fees you must pay and how many hoops you must jump through to gain the needed approvals.
At the same time, have your agent announce to the same government officials that a separate company, a big corporation, is bringing in a large enterprise that will employ 4,000 people—all of whom will pay taxes to the local area and bring growth and prestige. (Don’t really announce this—because if it’s untrue you might be breaking the law, unlike big corporations that are allowed to routinely float such trial balloons.)
Then simply sit back and watch how the two businesses are treated. In most towns, counties and cities in the United States, the small business will face an amazing amount of red tape, meetings, filings and obstacles—the big business will likely be courted and given waivers, benefits and government-funded publicity.
Add up the cost to government of both of your proposed businesses, and two things will likely surprise you: 1) how much you will have to do to set up a small business, and 2) how much the government will be willing to spend to recruit the large business.
This is the natural model in a crony capitalist system. Capital gets special benefits and a different level of treatment by the government. The result in such a system is that the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, entrepreneurialism is discouraged, and many jobs, innovation, investments and growth move to other nations.
In contrast, under free enterprise, everyone is treated the same by the law. Free enterprise is a better system than capitalism—it provides more freedom, opportunity and prosperity to many more people.
Bait and Switch
All of this is more than a mere philosophical or semantic argument about which word we should use. The truth is that many people, probably most people, who feel positively about capitalism actually mean free enterprise when they say “capitalism.” The things they admire about “capitalism” aren’t special benefits to the rich and different laws for the rich versus the poor or middle class, but rather a true free market where everyone is treated equally by the law and where each person has true and equal freedom of opportunity.
The problem is that this definition of capitalism seldom makes its way into official government policies or the law. People support free enterprise, which they call “capitalism,” and the government implements public policy that is certainly capitalism (because it favors those with more capital) but violates the principles of free enterprise. This “bait and switch” is one of the main problems with using the term capitalism.
If by capitalism we mean true economic freedom and laws that treat everyone the same, regardless of their level of wealth, and if this thing we call capitalism made it into our laws and became our operational policies, I would ardently support it. In fact, I would support such a system whether we called it free enterprise, capitalism, or even zebra- or giraffe-ism. The system, not the label, is the important thing.
The problem occurs when people support a thing called “capitalism” because they believe it is free economics for all, and then those in power take this popular support and use it to enforce something very different. This is the current reality, and it is hurting the middle and lower classes by decreasing their opportunities and abilities to prosper. Again, most people don’t even realize this is happening to them.
Freedom for All
In short, call it what you will, but we need a system of truly free economics with laws that treat everyone the same. Words mean things, and the word “capitalism” emphasizes special benefits to the wealthy with capital just as naturally as the phrase free enterprise promotes freedom and enterprise for all. Still, it is the actual system that matters, and all of us would do well to carefully observe political and economic details and nuances—regardless of how things are labeled.
When the laws are altered at all levels so that government entities treat all businesses and individuals the same, regardless of how much capital they have (or don’t have) in the bank or as assets, the natural result is the spread of more business, innovation, entrepreneurialism, jobs and economic growth. Free enterprise, not government favoritism of any sort, is the most effective economic model.
If we want to call the future of our society by the name capitalism, fine. But we must find ways to effectively change the current model to a system where the law treats everyone the same by maintaining true freedom and opportunity for everyone—without special government benefits for a few elites.
It is important to recognize that this is about more than quibbling over what word to use. As long as our society gives special legal and financial benefits to elites, while withholding them from the rest of the people, freedom will continue to decrease and the gap between the 1 percent, and even the .01 percent, and the rest will keep expanding. For the typical family, this means they will have to work longer and harder in increasingly scarce jobs in order to earn less and less. This is a bad economic model—bad economically, and bad for freedom and society.
Today’s Major Challenge
To put this all in perspective, the Trump Era is on target to emphasize mercantilism, corporatism, Keynesianism, and especially crony capitalism.
This needs to change. We need to focus on free enterprise.
But first, people need to realize that this is even an issue. The truth is, the battle between free enterprise and other types of capitalism isn’t just an issue right now—it is the central issue of the Trump Era.
We need to start acting like it.
*(Note to Reader: This post is part of an upcoming new book by Oliver DeMille, entitled Free Enterprise versus Capitalism: Battle for the Future of Freedom.)