Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Trump Brand

One of the reasons for Donald Trump's success in the polls is his understanding of that quintessential postmodern skill: branding.  Trump has cultivated a personal brand over decades.  The Trump Brand seems to be about being hard-edged, over the top, at least slightly outrageous, and aggressive.

This branding gives him a massive advantage in public recognition, but it has also helped him in his battles with his fellow Republican presidential candidates.  So far, two main attacks have been used against him.  One of them seems to have failed, and the other has uncertain prospects.

The first attack--popular among anti-Trump Twitterati--is personal: using either the politics of shame against him or outright picking a personality-oriented fight with him.  Both of these lines of attack have not borne much fruit because they reinforce Trump's brand.  When people attack Trump for being out of line, that's like attacking Gucci for being too expensive: the overreach is part of the brand.

Head-to-head personality battles have also so far proven a fraught enterprise for many of his opponents.  That's in part because his rivals have tried to create politician brands rather than media personality brands: Ted Cruz is the True Believer, Marco Rubio is the Next Gen Reformer, Jeb Bush is the Experienced and Earnest Wonk, and so forth.  To call them "politician brands" is not an insult (presidents are, after all, politicians), but this difference in branding genus has implications for how they can attack Trump.  In a battle of personal nastiness, Trump can win without damaging his brand; folks with standard politician brands usually can't (Christie might be an exception to this).  We expect a kind of restraint from politicians that we don't demand from media personalities.  Thus, when candidates get into a head-to-head personal match-up, Trump can go places that they really can't.  And so Trump wins exchange after exchange.  There's a reason why Marco Rubio has avoided getting into a direct personal battle with Trump: it would very likely injure his own brand.

Campaign surrogates or independent journalists/activists have also had limited success when attacking Trump personally.  These personal attacks only feed into Trump's brand as a polarizer.  Moreover, these attacks keep him in the news cycle as someone important.  So far at least, the oxygen given to Trump's campaign by personal attacks has helped him far more than these attacks have damaged his brand.

The second strategy is to argue that the Trump Brand is not a conservative one.  In many years, this might be effective.  But, this cycle, many Republican primary voters are (rightly or wrongly) so suspicious of conventional politics that they fear that, even if they vote for a "conservative" candidate, they will not get conservative outcomes.  Republicans have had such great support for outsider candidates during this presidential cycle because many of them fear that conventional politics no longer constitutes an effective vehicle for realizing their policy preferences.  Voters feel that they know the Trump Brand--he fights!--and thus they might think that they know what they're getting with Trump.  I'm not here arguing that these perceptions are necessarily true, but they do seem to exist.

Moreover, conservatism is having a rather large debate within itself about what exactly "conservatism" means in response to current problems.  Can conservatism make peace with populism?  How compatible is it with the vision of open borders?  What should be the national-security and foreign-policy goals of conservatives?  What is the role of reform for conservatism?  The proliferation of these questions makes it harder to police the bounds of conservatism.  (These questions may also help prompt a re-energized conservatism, too.)

Having a well-known brand isn't everything, of course.  Perhaps Trump will prove more effective at filling arenas than at actually winning caucuses and primaries.  Voters may tire of the Trump Brand or may view it as ultimately incompatible with the presidency.  It's also possible that attacks on Trump's conservatism will cause Republican voters to turn against him.  However, at the moment, these attacks have not toppled Trump.

Looking at the failures of other Republicans to take down Trump, David Frum has suggested that other candidates might do more to hammer home policy alternatives that address the concerns of Trump's supporters:
Or maybe it’s time for the party’s elites to let go of some of their cherished inward-facing policy priorities...Instead, they might try actually addressing the fears and anxieties of the American middle class: jobs, wages, retirement security. Negative advertising has been aired without success. Perhaps a positive program would do better? Before it’s too late?
Even many critics of Trump--such as Yuval Levin--have noted his skill in diagnosing the anxieties of many Americans.  There's an opportunity here for candidates who clearly address these anxieties and explain directly how their policies will respond to them.  Policy nostalgia or vague invocations of conservative stalwarts might not be enough to win the primary or the general election.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

National Review v. Trump

Whether one agrees or disagrees with National Review's anti-Trump manifesto, it would be a grievous mistake indeed to say that the institution has been a lapdog of unthinking Beltway consensus.  On many issues, National Review has risen to the challenge of forward-looking conservative policy innovation.

It has attacked executive overreach, led a charge or ten against the disastrous Gang of Eight bill, called for the GOP to move in the direction of pro-middle class policies, and has again and again fought against the transnationalist siren-song that has proven so dangerous to the hopes of republican governance and personal liberty.  National Review has devoted worthy and needed attention to a variety of cultural issues, including religious liberty, socioeconomic stratification, and a vibrant public square.  When many in the corridors of power have rushed to declare a "New Normal" of imperial executive power and economic decline, National Review has continued to defend a narrative of limited government.

Many of Donald Trump's supporters like that The Donald has been willing to challenge a dysfunctional status quo.  Well, National Review has also been advancing that critique of elite malfeasance and economic stagnation.

(Disclosure: I contribute to NRO semi-regularly.)

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Pete Wilson in Hindsight

At National Review, I indulge my contrarian streak and dispute the claim (much beloved by consultants and pundits) that Pete Wilson lost California for the GOP by running as a staunch opponent of illegal immigration during his 1994 reelection campaign.  According to the conventional narrative, Wilson's hawkish stand on illegal immigration might have helped him in the short term but over the long term sent the California Republican party into a demographic death-spiral.  Pundits always cite Pete Wilson as a warning to the national GOP to not get too strenuous in opposition to illegal immigration.

However, as I suggest in this piece, if you look at the evidence, it seems that broader, architectonic shifts caused California to trend Democratic over the past 20 years. At least those shifts had a bigger influence on GOP voters in California than did Pete Wilson's opposition to illegal immigration.

(One brief note: in this piece, I use the conventional language of ethnic categorization--such as "white"--not because I necessarily endorse conventional narratives of ethnicity and race or the reifications of identity politics.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Value of SCOTUS on Executive Actions

The Supreme Court announced today that it would rule on the dispute between the Obama administration and 26 states over the White House's decision to grant unilaterally work permits to millions of illegal immigrants:
The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to entertain four legal questions raised by Obama’s immigration action.
Three of the questions were laid out by the Justice Department in the petition asking the justices to take up the case: whether states create legal standing to challenge the deferred actions grants by providing benefits to such immigrants, whether the actions Obama ordered in 2014 were arbitrary and capricious under federal law, and whether the administration was obliged to go through a formal notice-and-comment period before proceeding with its plan.
The fourth question, added by the justices in their Tuesday order, is whether Obama’s actions violated the Constitutional provision requiring him to “take care that the Laws be faithfully executed”—in essence, whether existing law bars the president from making the kinds of enforcement changes he sought to make.
The 26 states backing the lawsuit the court will take up argue that Obama did breach his duty to "take care" that the laws are enforced and that his actions amounted to a power grab that violated "the Constitution’s separation of powers more generally."
The Supreme Court might have allowed this case to wend its way through the appeals process; Daniel Horowitz has some thoughts about why defenders of checks and balances should be wary about this SCOTUS intervention.

It's understandable, though, why the Supremes have decided to weigh in on this.  Beyond the partisan squabbles, we have seen the Obama administration advance a theory of the executive in which the president gains the ability to act when Congress doesn't.  This obviously turns the principle of checks and balances on its head, and Candidate Obama ran proclaiming his belief in limiting executive power.  However, as often happens, the enticements of power won out over the commitments of the campaign.  The president has already rewritten health-care and immigration law, and, in his final year, the White House has pledged the "audacious" use of executive power.

This shift toward the audacious executive could have dire implications for constitutional traditions regarding the balance of power in the federal government.  In the wake of the Obama administration, leading presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, have pledged to build on this precedent of executive supremacy.

A new paradigm of governance is potentially evolving, and this case could give the Supreme Court a chance to weigh in on this paradigm: will it defend constitutional checks and balances, or will it endorse executive supremacy?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Expanding the Coalition

Henry Olsen has a very interesting piece up that talks about how the GOP needs to expand its electoral coalition by appealing to blue-collar voters.  In this piece, Olsen draws on the 2014 Pew political typology, a work near and dear to my heart.  He finds that one of the key types that the GOP might expand with is the "Hard-Pressed Skeptics."  These Skeptics are more economically populist, mistrust government, and have sympathies with a number of conservative values.

Skeptics voted heavily Democratic in 2012, but they seem perhaps the Democratic type that could be most open to Republican overtures (though I think gains could be made in the Faith and Family Left, too).*  Olson suggests that winning over this group would demand at least understanding its worldview:
Winning the support of blue-collar voters means gaining their trust, and that means first affirming the core elements of their worldview. They have to believe that the GOP nominee understands that they have been the losers in the transition to a modern economy. They have to believe that the nominee will be on their side when the chips are down and that he is willing to take on the powerful.
Gaining among Skeptics, Olsen suggests, could require policy reforms for immigration, taxation, and other issues.

As this Washington Post story hints, some Republican presidential candidates are coming around to the understanding that, to win in November, the GOP nominee will have to be able to appeal to working-class voters.  One of the underlying arguments in the 2016 primary has been about whether and how to make this appeal.

*And, obviously, Republicans should try to offer an inclusive, expansive message that could win a variety of voters.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Vacuousness of Change

In tonight's State of the Union speech, Barack Obama returned to the form of his 2004 DNC address: broad, thematic, heavy with hopes of a newly united America.  But now he speaks not as a fresh-faced political newcomer but a man who has been president for seven years.

President Obama had affecting and eloquent moments in this speech, as he does in many remarks.  But this address had many limits.  Some of the claims were mistaken.  For instance, it's hard to blame technology on the declining income of many nontradeable service jobs, such as home-health aides, which are projected to increase over the next decade.  While the president rightly noted the declining incomes for the middle, he did not explain how his efforts to increase the number of guest workers would increase these incomes.

As Tim Carney has noted, President Obama has failed to deliver on many of his promises (on health-care, lobbying, and so forth).  On financial reform, the president blamed the financial crisis on large financial institutions.  But his administration has defended Too Big to Fail.

This failure of aspiration is particularly striking for the more thematic points of this address.  The president is right to claim that reaffirming the bonds of trust is crucial for strengthening the Republic's foundations.  However, his administration and its allies have often subverted rather than supported this trust.  The president castigates partisan polarization--when his party attacked the filibuster.  The president rightly criticizes tribalism as an opponent of civil republicanism.  But, unfortunately, many of the president's allies and the administration itself have indulged in identity politics.  One of the great threats to the public trust is the fear that leaders can set themselves above the law, and the executive supremacy championed by the White House inflames public passions and discounts legislative solutions.

Perhaps one of the biggest failings of this speech is its reliance on a false choice.  The president has a tendency to conceive of "Change" as a force with its own agency.  Change is coming, he tells us, and we can either be on the side that accepts this change (i.e., my side) or the one that futilely fights against it.

However, men and women have agency, and change in part depends upon their desires.  People have every right to interrogate Change so that it is in accord with their values.  The vision of Change promulgated by progressive mandarins is not the only one, and one is not a retrograde troglodyte for having doubts about a given course of change.  "I believe in change," President Obama said at the end of his remarks, but this statement says less than he might think.  What kind of change--in what places, to what degree, in what manner?  Change can be good, but it can also be bad.  As we have some limited power to direct change, we have the responsibility to weigh which particular changes to make.

It is especially ironic for the president to cast himself as the avatar of the future when he has so often clung to the past.  As I've suggested in the past, the president has too often fallen into the nostalgia trap:
The president talks much about History and the importance of being on the “right side” of It. However, so much of what counts as “progressive” these days seems like a tired remake of Sixties politics: The Great Society meets New Left radicalism but with iPhones and skinny jeans. As with many remakes, this version is less exciting (we’ve seen how this movie ends) and less current. I don’t mean to discount the differences between the Great Society and the Great Disappointment of the Obama years. For instance, a globalized faux cosmopolitanism — simultaneously tribalist and anti-national — seems to have taken much greater hold in the current administration (and perhaps even among some of its supposed political opponents). Yet the Left’s allegiance to the comfortable pieties of the Sixties seems part of the reason for its many failures.
This worldview sees a rural good ol’ boy clinging to his guns and his religion as the greatest foe of “progress.” Thus, it is woefully unprepared to confront the reality of black-robed fanatics beheading religious minorities, enslaving villages, and setting fire to the Middle East. Because of its limited moral imagination, it also struggles to persuade a heterogeneous body politic. Early proponents of Great Society welfare policies might not have foreseen how, too often, well-intentioned government dictates could destroy communities, tear apart families, and destroy the foundation of economic opportunity. Experience has — or should have — disabused us of this naïveté. And say what you will about the dangers of central planning, the technocrats of the past were at least able to do things like put a man on the Moon. The mandarins of today struggle to get a health-care website up and running. Outside the narrowly political realm, as the Far Left claims a resurgent voice in cultural affairs, we have increasingly seen how radical progressive politics are a cultural dead end: Rather than a spirit of creativity, exploration, and accomplishment, radical leftism gives us only the petty tyranny of a Maoist struggle session.
There are real challenges facing the nation: middle-class stagnation, diminished opportunity, a disintegrating public square, increasing global uncertainty, strained entitlements, exploding drug-overdose deaths, decentralized terrorism, and many more.  It is not pessimism or alarmism to note them.  It's realism.  We need responsive thinking--not the warmed-over pieties of the New Left--to address them.

For all its good intentions, the Obama administration has so often failed to confront the problems of the present with the pragmatism, deliberation, and openness to dialogue that the president praises in the State of the Union and many other speeches.  Rhetoric and political action differ, but some of the seeds of the failures of the president's political actions can be seen in the underlying assumptions of his political rhetoric.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Public Interests, Public Interest

Earlier this week at RealClearPolicy, Robert VerBruggen had a thoughtful piece exploring how the facts have caused him to have some doubts about his libertarian inclination to legalize drugs.  In addition to questions of principle, VerBruggen had thought that the negative consequences of legalizing drugs would be relatively few:
But I did think legalization would easily pass a practical cost-benefit test: reduce incarceration, if perhaps not as much as some might think; end an illegal market whose violence spills far beyond our borders; and expand personal freedom, all for the acceptable price of an extra overdose or other health problem here and there, plus maybe some extra property crimes by addicts stealing to feed their habit.
Drug addiction couldn't go up that much. The War on Drugs is an utter failure and drugs are widely and cheaply available anyway. Everyone knows that.
However, as VerBruggen notes, some of the facts seem to indicate that a more permissive approach to various powerful drugs might increase the real risks of drug addiction after all.

Due to a variety of reasons (including a more permissive approach to opioid prescriptions and, probably, a drop in the price of heroin), the rate of drug-overdose deaths has skyrocketed.  VerBruggen marshals CDC data to find that the drug-overdose death rate has gone from 6 per 100,000 people in 1999 to 14.8 per 100,000 people in 2014.  Thus, over 15 years, the drug-overdose death rate has more than doubled.

VerBruggen notes that a lot of forces influence drug usage, but this picture causes him some concern:
I don't know; this is not an issue I write about frequently or have studied in much depth. But it sure looks like loosening control of a drug made all hell break loose, and that's not what I would have predicted, say, ten years ago.
Regardless of whether a substantial increase in deaths from legalizing drugs would be a sufficient argument against drug legalization (and Jonah Goldberg says that it might not be), there's another perspective we can use here: that of public concern.

For months now, President Obama and many in the media have devoted great attention to the challenges of "gun violence."  Often, the language of crisis has been used in talking about firearms.  Some on the left have even moved in the direction of supporting gun bans (and perhaps even confiscation) in the name of ending gun violence.

However, unlike drug overdoses, the rate of firearm homicides has dropped substantially over the past 20 years.  Drawing on federal data, Pew finds that the firearm-homicide rate dropped from 7 per 100,000 in 1993 to 3.4 per 100,000 in 2014.  Most of this drop occurred in the late 1990s, but it has declined a bit since 2000, too.  This drop in the homicide rate likely cannot be simply attributed to improvements in medical technology over the past 20 years; the non-fatal firearm crime victimization rate has plummeted as well (it's about a quarter of what it was in 1993).  People today are much less likely to be shot and/or killed by firearms than they were 20 years ago.  (The overall firearm death rate has been fairly stable since 2000; a drop in the homicide rate has been counterbalanced by a rise in the suicide rate.)

Thus, we have seen many of those in positions of power and influence devote great attention to gun-related deaths, even though the gun-homicide rate is lower than the drug-overdose death rate and is shrinking rather than growing.  In 2014, the drug-overdose death rate was about 435% the firearm-homicide death rate.  Since 2000, the risks of dying from a drug overdose more than doubled, while the risks of having someone kill you with a firearm went down.

Obviously, we can work solve multiple problems at once.  Let's leave to the side for a moment whether President Obama's executive actions on firearms would actually do anything to reduce violent crime and whether they are in accord with Constitutional principles (including the Bill of Rights and separation of powers).  Those are clearly huge questions.  But we shouldn't overlook the fact that, in terms of public safety, drugs are currently racking up more bodies than firearms in the United States.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Integration and Liberty

In my NRO piece today, I argue that, just as the struggle against totalitarianism was one of the central challenges of the 20th century, the struggle against sociopolitical disintegration may be one of the great battles of the 21st.  I suggest that technocratic transnationalism, among other forces, has helped undermine senses of local community, and this undermining has led to a more economically and socially polarized society.  Economic stagnation, social alienation, and the terrorist threat can all be connected to this broader trend of disintegration.

This piece continues to explore a long-standing theme of mine: the connection between the institutions of union and the preservation of liberty.  Things like a vigorous public square, a well-earned faith in governing institutions, and a sense of the civic commonwealth provide a crucial infrastructure for defending our freedoms.  A society that dissolves into tribalistic identity politics is, I fear, one less likely to cherish the recognition of individual rights.

Disintegrating trends have also had a substantial impact on contemporary political currents.  Because the public has not yet been convinced that the so-called "establishment" has solutions to its underlying concerns, it is more open to the appeals of outsider politicians, such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  The middle class has now experienced a decade and a half of economic stagnation (median household income levels peaked in 1999), and some suggest that the "new normal" of stagnation might go on for many more years.  Corporate cronyism like Too Big to Fail and expanded guest-worker programs distort the market and feed into the cycle of alienation.

Some--including Rich Lowry, Matt Lewis, and others--have worried about the United States succumbing to a pessimistic demagoguery, which substitutes tribalism for principle and seeks to cast blame rather than find solutions.  If we want to ward off that kind of demagoguery, we'll have to find responsible solutions to those real problems.  Policy elites can't shame them away; they need to confront them with imagination and diligence.

I'm hopeful that these disintegrating trends can be addressed in a way that is in accord with the principles of ordered liberty.  We can have forward-looking policies that adapt to the challenges of the 21st century and advance the causes of  happiness, virtue, and liberty.  However, it will take some reform to arrive at those policies.

(PS: On the theme of integration as it applies to immigration, Reihan Salam's latest NR piece is well worth reading.)