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I took a bunch of undergraduate courses in religious studies back in college–at one point I considered a minor in the subject, but I went to a school that discouraged minors and deliberately made them hard to get, requiring 30-40 units for an essentially worthless distinction. In any event, I (unlike the dittohead running Ahmed Mohammed’s town) actually do know a thing or two about Shari’a Law. Hardly an expert, but my recollection is that it’s about 90% unobjectionable love thy neighbor, give to the poor type of stuff, and about 10% stuff that is problematic from a secularist’s perspective–it does do things like proscribe how the judicial system is supposed to work, so it’s fair to say that under strict Shari’a Law, a separation between church and state is not really a thing that exists (though few Islamic countries implement the entirety of Shari’a Law in their legal codes), and it must be stated that for quite a long time the idea of church-state separation was marginal in the Christian sphere as well. And if you ever listen to Mike Huckabee for more than twenty seconds, you’ll find that it’s still not universal there either.

However, despite whatever misgivings one might have with those issues, what Shari’a Law does not have are (a) some kind of forced conversion to Islam on pain of death, (b) commandments to kill the infidels (a Latin-derived term, FWIW), (c) burka requirements, (d) fifty lashes for eating pork, or whatever else the fevered mind of right-wingers might ascribe to it. When you read these stories about the graying of the Republican Party and the conservative movement, I think the fact that large swathes of them are terrified of a legal code that they don’t understand anything about needs to be interpreted as a need for a substitute for Communism to make their whole right-wing paradigm work for septuagenarians who grew up terrified of the reds. However, it is ridiculous to equate it to Communism because the USSR actually did work to infiltrate, penetrate and take over various labor organizations, newspapers, and to a huge degree the intelligence services created to watch them (read this if you want to read the so-scary-it’s-funny story of that). Right-wingers of the era, of course, held inaccurate and silly views of Communism, and in the case of Joe “Precursor to Ted Cruz” McCarthy, you clearly had a demagogue who did not have the goods on this phenomenon, but was just trying to use fear of it to beat on liberals. But at least there was a central force that was doing some of the things they said they were doing in some of the ways they said they were doing them, however exaggerated. The whole “creeping Shari’a Law” thing, though, is simply stupid. Nobody knows what it is or what it does. There is no central actor in this conspiracy, no idea that can be communicated, no evidence, no known figures, no argument, just panicked email forwards by elderly shut-ins. And while right-wingers famously refused to accept the various rifts among the Communist sphere back in the day, it’s a lot harder to deny them in the Islamic world when they’re fighting to kill each other each and every day. Aside from Vietnam invading Cambodia in the late 1970s, there was simply nothing like this back then. There’s no reason to believe that radical Islamists are even trying to penetrate institutions to the same degree that the Soviets did back in the day, or that they’d have much success if they tried. The Shari’a freakout is something that exists because septuagenarian Republicans (such as Charlie Daniels) are used to thinking of enemies compromising America from within, period, end of paragraph.



I wrote my silly little piece about yesterday’s debate last night because I found the entirety of the debate to be silly, meriting no real deep analysis. For the most part, it was eleven grown-ups alternating between truthy bullshit and rageful hysteria, a setup for the punchline that one of these people will actually wind up with a decent chance of being President of the United States. It’s hilarious that they spent any time arguing over whether Donald Trump passes muster when you have Huckabee’s bad acid trip, Rubio’s apparent attempt to steal Dinesh D’Souza’s act and offer the nation a bunch of alarmist hypothetical future nonsense, Carson sounding like some civilian who they just picked off the street, etc. If this country had a press that wasn’t full of cynics and people just generally ignorant of policy, politics and power, todays headlines would have been in the vein of, “Major Political Party’s Collapse Embarrassingly Caught On National Television.” On foreign affairs, the attitudes ranged from war right away (Christie) to let’s wait until we get a good pretext for war (Kasich). Shibboleths of resolve and respect were invoked repeatedly with no pushback. On domestic policy, virtually all of these folks tried to sound like they supported the stupidest government shutdown in history while maintaining plausible deniability, with the exceptions of Cruz, who outright favored it, and Kasich, who seemed to oppose it due to past experiences, not because of the facts of the situation. And then there was that time when several candidates played footsie with anti-vaxxers. All in all, a tough night for the sorts of people who need to find “sane” Republicans in which to put an unrealistic amount of hope and then still hold up as some example of something long after any kind of relevance, i.e. the narrative-obsessed political press, you know, the ones who still talk to John McCain every weekend for some reason.

Still, while “All these people are crazy” would have been an awesome headline if the left had a Murdoch-style tabloid (HuffPo doesn’t count since Murdoch pays his writers), there was never any chance of that. So, instead, the narrative-smiths went to work and came up with a result that hit me with equal amounts of dismay and giddy enthusiasm: this was Carly’s night! No less a narrative master than Joe Klein had the hubris to argue that this debate had given a blueprint to neutralize Donald Trump (as if Trump’s success in the polls came from this sort of setting) and hailed Fiorina and, tellingly, Rubio as standouts. Rubio does indeed speak fluently, but the content is utter nonsense, little different from the discredited neocon pabulum of a Dick Cheney. Proving, perhaps, that the media only dings people who aren’t polished media presenters, the sort of clubbish bullshit that everybody recognizes and properly hates them for. But it is Fiorina’s performance that is shaking up the intertubes. And it should be admitted that Fiorina has a command of the conventions of modern political debating: the theatricality of her abortion bit was well-executed, sure, and she provided enough moments of drama to be endlessly replayed on Morning Joe and such over the next couple of days. She even managed to fight Donald Trump to a draw on their respective business records, which is frankly nuts if you think about it. Whatever you might say about Trump’s failed businesses–remember when he tried to start an airline?–it’s nowhere near the devastation that Fiorina visited upon HP. I lived quite near their corporate headquarters during this time, had lots of friends whose parents worked there. It wasn’t exactly like a Bruce Springsteen song or anything, though I did know people who lost jobs there, but the universal feeling was that Fiorina cared more about being featured in business magazines than in effectively managing the company, which in any event she seemed to have little talent at doing. Her lame excuse that the dot-com bubble bursting wrecked HP’s fortunes just isn’t going to cut it as her tenure corresponded with Apple’s big resurgence, the success of Dell, etc. Companies that took chunks out of HP’s market share while HP was reeling from a merger that Fiorina did not inherit and was not forced to make. People were buying fucking computers and digital cameras in the early aughts–lots of them!–even though a bunch of ill-conceived web ventures went belly-up. There’s no argument there, merely distraction.

But focusing solely on HP ignores her vast history of failure that has been exhaustively documented on this blog. To paraphrase Pesci’s character from Casino, this gal could fuck up a cup of coffee. The fact that she threw away the Republicans’ best chance to win a California Senate seat in decades and then had a hand in the party’s embarrassing 2012 Senate failure, along with getting yanked as a McCain campaign surrogate, should convince Republican elites even if her business record doesn’t that this woman is a walking disaster who has no business being anywhere the main stage. But it hasn’t. Fiorina is the perfect match for a party in denial about its history since she is, like St. Ronald Reagan, in complete denial of her own, including her apparent belief that she’s an “outsider” even though everything she’s done since branching into politics has been thanks to party contacts, certainly not due to her own record of escalating failures. And this makes her the perfect match for a party that likes to deploy rhetoric about meritocracy but is in reality committed to consolidating power among a small circle of insiders. She doesn’t have to learn that double game, she lives it. No failure is too great to wreck the reputation of someone who is on the inside, after all, as D’Souza, Ralph Reed, etc. have continually proven. I would say that she could be the Republicans’ presidential nominee except that it’s going to be impossible to paper over the HP problem. Romney’s record could be (and was) interpreted in multiple ways, but Fiorina’s can only be interpreted as a story of overreaching, incompetence and failure. But my original prediction stands, in fact, the probability of her failing upward to a veep nomination is I think an especially good possibility now. It will be amusing to see how she blows that up too.

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MV5BMTUzMjAzMjMyMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTUzNDIyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR1,0,214,317_AL_A couple of observations:

  • An hour and a half in, and neither Rubio, nor Walker, nor (especially) Bush has had the Big Night that they were said to need. Bush in particular managed to diminish himself on almost every exchange, often trying to hit Trump but frequently and never really threatening the latter’s control on things. Walker really doesn’t belong here, and most likely won’t be for much longer. Easily the most inert thing on stage, including his podium.
  • Obviously, I’m a wildly biased observer, so take this with whatever quantity of salt you wish. But Carly Fiorina has to have one of the least appealing personalities of any politician to reach this point I’ve ever seen. Obviously, she can talk, and she has some command of details and specifics. She sounds credible even when saying nutty things. But there is a brittleness and a coldness that is frankly remarkable in such a public-facing role, not to mention an unfortunate tendency toward sour looks (i.e. defensiveness) when being challenged, and further not to mention that she is clearly a member of the club of people who should never, ever, ever smile (which also includes Bob Filner and Steve Buscemi). No trace of humor or charm (which Christie possesses in spades), and no apparent ability to project hope or optimism, even (especially?) when launching furious attacks. Their beloved Reagan could pull that off, recall. Obviously personality isn’t the only or most important characteristic in a potential president. But let’s face it, most people connect to politicians through personality, or at least the personality projected to the public. Fiorina is well suited to be an attack dog but I can’t imagine she has any real fans. Say what you will about Trump, but he can do all the things she can’t.
  • I don’t get Ben Carson at all. But I do get Trump. Even if you think of him as a racist, vulgar buffoon as I do, there’s no denying that he’s fun to watch. “Higher energy today Jeb, I like it!” Come on, that’s fucking funny.
  • Kasich did fairly well, and should probably continue to rise. Christie did pretty well as well–this is definitely his arena–but he has no chance. Everyone else both boring and crazy, a uniquely modern Republican combination.

All in all, not a ton of surprises–Tapper intended to stir up conflict and aside from Trump, none of the other candidates took the bait. Trump definitely seems to have taken some steps forward as a candidate–even though the topic of the first twenty minutes was basically, “Is Donald Trump a joke?” it is now patently clear that he isn’t one, nor is he the craziest person on stage. It’s passe to think of him as any more of a joke than Huckabee or Cruz or Carson. They’re all jokes. Except maybe for Kasich? I dunno. I can’t believe they expect people to sit through three hours of this.

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As I’ve written more than once, Obama didn’t win the 2008 primaries because people hated Hillary Clinton. Some did, but many of his supporters thought Hillary was perfectly acceptable. Obama won them because of the contrast he cut with George W. Bush in every sense: background, style, intellect. Clinton obviously offered a contrast as well but it wasn’t as dramatic as the one Obama offered: Obama is neither white, nor a Boomer, nor an Iraq War supporter, nor part of a prominent political family. Clinton is all of those things, as was Bush. Replacing a white evangelical with some studied roughness around the edges with a secular black intellectual who was (and remains) quintessentially smooth was an unspoken driver of Obama ’08. I’m speaking mostly of the primaries here: in the general election, fundamentals reign mostly supreme. But I think that was a bit part of the general as well.

Looking at 2016, I was wondering who it is that could have a similar kind of pull for the Republicans, and I think the only real one that plausibly could is John Kasich. Just look at the field. Bush is drowning under the weight of his own family baggage and weaknesses as a candidate. He’s the exact wrong kind of contrast they’re going to want to draw with HRC. Walker has quickly faded and clearly seems to have no feel for presidential level politics. Rubio is obviously a possibility but he’s taking exactly the wrong angle, trying to cast himself as another biography-driven, cool and charismatic Obama type when that is simply not the mood of the moment, nor is he a natural fit for that persona. (Obama would never have grabbed the water bottle.) Go down further and it just gets crazier. Huckabee and Cruz are at this point interchangeable Tea Party dimwits who won’t get anywhere near the nomination. Trump is Trump. Fiorina and Carson have not one day’s worth of experience in office between them. And so on. But Kasich? Almost a perfect response to Obama, if you think about it. Conservative, but with some willingness to break with orthodoxy. Actual blue collar roots. An unexciting but popular politician with significant executive experience. That’s a pretty good contrast, and certainly a better one than the others can provide. But stuff like this makes me think that he’s also the sharpest political operator in the Republican field. Kim Davis’s actions are hilariously counterproductive, more likely to kill off resistance to marriage equality than to spur mass backlash. To drag her case through the courts and then just ignore the ruling? Dumb. Putting aside Davis’s own serial marriages, there’s simply no real principle at stake here. If Davis doesn’t want to sign the licenses, she can always resign. But she won’t. Hilariously, she has forced conservatives to back a literal incarnation of their oft-invoked vision of crooked, parasitic government employees who draw paychecks and don’t do their jobs. Kasich understands this and condemns it, and is also going for a kind of Sister Souljah moment here, finding an undamaging way of breaking with the cultural politics that much of the country has fallen out of favor with. It says something about the field that nobody else has thought to do this, even though none except for the two aforementioned dimwits have actually made a show of standing with the woman. It’s not going to change the race on its own, but it’s a sign of tactical sophistication, if nothing else. And unless you want to count what Trump’s been doing as tactically sophisticated (which is not quite how I’d describe it), then this is rare indeed.

I’m beginning to think that Kasich might be the only person who could conceivably beat Clinton, barring some kind of economic disaster, though obviously he’s going to have his problems with his party’s purists and obviously there’s that Lehman Brothers thing. But no pol is without weakness, and I’ve not seen as well played and subtle a moment as this from the other candidates. Something to keep an eye on.

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Current polling:

The Quinnipiac University poll, released Thursday, also shows Donald Trump smashing the GOP presidential competition garnering 28% support from registered Republican voters in the 17-member field. The real estate mogul’s closest competitor is retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who tallies 12%.

A total of 40% support for two complete nutjobs…

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Reading about the Donald Trump campaign day after day has gotten me thinking about one of the most influential–and mostly forgotten–media figures of our modern era, Morton Downey Jr. No, he wasn’t Iron Man’s brother, he was a career media guy who, among other things, had a right-wing talk radio show in the very time slot on Sacramento radio that Rush Limbaugh took over after he left (we native Sacramentans have so much to be proud of) and later had a televised talk show that was, for a moment, the biggest thing on television. It was a very big deal, actually–the obvious progenitor of the angry political confrontationalism of Bill O’Reilly, though it included a lot of the trashy/sleazy material that would later find a home with Jerry Springer and Maury Povich. Hell, even someone as anodyne as Jay Leno borrowed some moves from the guy, namely the running into the audience and shaking hands bit. Seriously, all of that stuff gets traced right back to Downey. And, for a year or so, people couldn’t get enough of it. Downey became a TV superstar who somehow managed to fit a music career alongside taping a daily show into what wound up being a very short window of fame. (Seriously, you have to check out his music. It’s insane.) Watch this (featuring a surprise special guest) and tell me that Trump isn’t cribbing Downey perfectly:

Downey’s show keyed off of confrontation. It was a sort of fantasy for very, very angry people: Mort Downey would tell the smartypants pointyheads to their face exactly what they wanted to say to them. There’s no intellectual component to the debate whatsoever. The clip is interesting because Paul is clearly getting the better of the argument on intellectual terms, and obviously is used to dealing with a hostile audience. But he clearly wasn’t used to dealing with someone who had no interest in debating ideas, and was only using Paul as a prop, in effect. He starts to get rattled. Downey keeps escalating, invades his space, lobs gratuitous insults at Paul. And yet Paul winds up looking not much better in the end. Now, admittedly, Ron Paul is a crank in real life, and is perhaps not the best example of a stable person. But this shows just how brilliantly Downey’s method of confrontation worked. Downey is clearly able to reach down into a person’s emotional core, bully them, shatter their composure. Paul after a point just sounds crazy, even though the points he makes are generally solid. It’s Downey who maintains his composure and control, so he ultimately “wins” in the eyes of his audience. Downey may prefer “scum” to Trump’s “loser”, but it’s the same basic strategy of using confrontation to allow an audience to experience some measure of uptake on their anger, vicariously of course. (Also, if you watch long enough, you get a spiel from Congressman Charles Rangel which serves as a forgotten reminder of just how avidly black elected officials supported the war on drugs, once upon a time.)

What ended Downey’s brief reign as the hottest star on television? As the truly excellent documentary about Downey from a few years back tells us, the show ran out of gas because, after a certain point, they couldn’t book guests anymore. Nobody was desperate enough to air their views and get subjected to such savage treatment. As a result, the show simply couldn’t provide the sort of confrontation that set it apart in the first place, and became increasingly reliant on the sort of sleazy programming that would become commonplace on Springer in the next decade. Didn’t save Downey, though, as his show was canceled not quite two years after it began, a mere part of the cycle of self-destruction that characterized Downey’s life generally. (Modern equivalents of Downey–O’Reilly and Bill Maher come to mind, though the latter obviously has different politics, both only go up to a certain point in their confrontations in order to keep guests coming and ensuring a steady dose of conflict that keeps those ratings aloft. Downey didn’t and maybe couldn’t.) Trump’s campaign has been highly successful in much the same way Downey was: by providing the thrill of confrontation with all manner of superior know-it-alls: the mainstream media, John McCain, Megyn Kelly. He knows how to deal with all of them, the respectable types are shocked, Trump wins. But eventually he’ll run out of targets, just like Downey ran out of guests. There are only so many people he can get into a public spat with, and eventually when he runs out of new ones, the thrill will be gone. Then and only then will his poll numbers begin to fade. The real question is: when does this happen? November? Next August? You really have to wonder if the Republican Party will actually be able to field someone other than Trump as the nominee if he’s able to suck all the oxygen out of the room until then. Couldn’t happen, you say? Keep in mind that Silvio Berlusconi–an extremely Trumplike figure–actually served multiple terms as Prime Minister of Italy. During which time he did such things as: have (not alleged, he was convicted) sex with underage prostitutes, comment incessantly and crudely on the attractiveness of female politicians, have all manner of tangles with legal authorities over enriching himself at public expense, not to mention speaking positively of Mussolini and Hitler. His Wikipedia controversies section is longer than most peoples’ full entries. Didn’t matter. After years of political instability and politicians’ scandals, people were extremely, utterly pissed off, didn’t trust politicians, loved the brash anti-politician. In fact, were he not legally ineligible to run for office, he could be running the country right now. Obviously, that’s a different country with a different political system. But people are people.

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I’ve just about had it with the theory that because Carly Fiorina is a woman, therefore she cannot be sexist/misogynist, and as a result can use whatever language she wants without giving offense. It’s profoundly silly. It’s perfectly possible to have self-loathing that manifests itself as a hatred for your own race/ethnicity/gender. It doesn’t count for any more or less than if someone of a different group does it. It makes me think of one of the Coen Brothers least-loved, most underrated films, The Man Who Wasn’t There, which is obsessive in its attempt to recreate the postwar era (many argue too much so), but it brings some interesting, often forgotten things to light. In the movie, Frances McDormand plays a full-blooded Italian woman who displays nothing but open contempt for Italian people, employs the usual stereotypes and uses derogatory language about them. This is because the character aspires to a certain WASPy suburban ideal, which leads to her disastrous marriage to the main character, played by Billy Bob Thornton, and these attitudes continue to work and lead to her affair with her boss at work, who is richer and more socially successful than BBT, and who is ironically played by James Gandolfini, though with a hearty hail-fellow affect. What we’re talking about here is identity politics, basically, though the flip side of the usual kind of identity politics, in which people aspire to a more “desirable” identity by dragging down the one they were assigned. FOX News makes the most of these folks when they happen to be women or minorities, of course. But it’s a sign of some kind of delusion at work to think that they will to any degree work in solving the Republican Party’s many diversity problems, as the only reason to make use of them is to convince older white FOX viewers that they’re right-on, everyone’s a right-winger deep down, they’re just being brainwashed, etc. Just let Michelle Malkin tell you all about it. Pushing Carly Fiorina’s candidacy is thus too clever by half: it is a non-serious bid by a notorious self-aggrandizer which is more likely to convince Republicans that horribly abusive language toward women is fine, which will ultimately be a disadvantage. The fact that she was, as Trump might say, a total disaster as a CEO and a loser at every political position she’s been in are beside the point.

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