Jimmy Breslin had Trump sussed in 1990

For example, in his Newsday column of June 7, 1990:

Suddenly, we have all these prudent, responsible bankers, loan papers crackling in their frightened hands, chasing madly after Donald Trump for money. It seems like great sport, but I must tell you that I believe this to be temporary and that Trump, no matter what kind of a crash he experiences now, will come back as sure as you are reading this. I now will tell you why.

Trump survives by Corum’s Law. This is a famous, well-tested theory and is named after Bill Corum, who once wrote sports for the Hearst papers when they were in New York. He had a great gravel voice and did radio and television announcing for the World Series and heavyweight championship fights.

Corum went on to run the Kentucky Derby on the invitation of local businessmen who were alarmed that the event had acquired a sleazy reputation. People who came to the race were routinely fleeced by hoteliers, touts and whores. Corum’s genius, according to Breslin, was that he understood that this was a feature, not a bug.

Corum glanced at the [newspaper] clips and threw them in the air. “This is great. There is nothing better for a championship event than a treacherous woman. If a guy from North Dakota goes home from here after the race and has to be met because he doesn’t even have cab fare left, that guy is going to say to himself, ‘Wow. I must have had a hell of a time. I can’t wait for next year.’ But if that same guy goes home and he still has half his money, he is going to say ‘I guess I didn’t have such a great time at the Kentucky Derby after all.’

“Because, gentlemen, this is the rule. A sucker has to get screwed.”

This is Corum’s Law and the one person who has understood it best is… Donald Trump. For years, the suckers he screwed were bankers, City planners and journalists. Now he’s playing for much bigger stakes, and the suckers are the unfortunate inhabitants of the United States.

One Nation Under Fox

If anyone thought that old-style media power was over, then Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox, is the living refutation of that comforting hypothesis. Fox News, according to the New York Times “has been the most watched cable news network for 15 years, but depending on the hour, the news narrative it presents to its large and loyal conservative audience can sharply diverge from what consumers of other media outlets may be seeing.”

Times reporters watched Fox News from 6 a.m. until midnight last Thursday to see how its coverage varied from that of its rivals on a day when cable news was dominated by the health care debate in Congress, the terrorist attack in London and the investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election.

One notable way Fox News stood apart from its competition, as it has been known to do for years, was in the stories it chose to highlight and the tone — in some of its opinion shows, unapologetically supportive of Mr. Trump and his agenda — with which it covered them.

There was extensive coverage of the health care vote, for example, but there was also considerable time given to topics, like a rape case in Maryland, that viewers would not have heard about if they had turned to CNN or MSNBC. The rape case, which involved an undocumented immigrant and went virtually uncovered on most networks, received almost hourly updates on Fox, and at times was used as proof that Mr. Trump’s calls for tighter borders and a crackdown on immigration were justified.

The key role played in the US election by TV is also a cautionary tale for those who thought that the Internet would eventually wipe out TV. This is the most common misconception about new communications technologies: what John Seely Brown calls “endism” — the belief that new media wipe out older media. That’s why I’ve argued for many years that a better metaphor for our communications environment is ecological. New media don’t wipe out older ones; but new relationships (many of them symbiotic, and sometimes parasitic) evolve. Broadcast TV has, of course, been eroded by the rise of ‘on-demand’ viewing, Netflix, etc. But TV hasn’t gone away, and Fox’s dominance confirms that.

Gary Kasparov on fake news

From an interesting interview:

Q: Does the term “fake news” have a Russian equivalent, and if so, what is it, who uses it and, in your experience, why?

Kasparov: My honest reply to this is that the word for “fake news” in Putin’s Russia is simply “news.” There isn’t a syllable uttered or printed in Russia without its author being very much aware of what the regime thinks of it and what would happen to him if he crosses a certain line—except perhaps the weather! Often those lines are explicit, sent out in memos about new topics and how to promote or spin them. But by now, after 17 years of Putin, everyone knows where the lines are. Under those conditions, what can news be except fake? Even if nearly everything that is published is, in and of itself, true, there is an ocean of falsity in what isn’t said, what isn’t asked, and how basic facts are presented. This is the story of the media in a modern dictatorship. It’s not like Pravda, with one official storyline that everyone knows is probably BS. There are hundreds of layers of carefully calibrated propaganda and censorship in Putin’s Russia, creating the illusion of freedom. One outlet says Putin is great 100 percent of the time about everything. Another only 80 percent, about, say, the economy or security. One writer can complain a little about education, while another is allowed to criticize the regime on one or two specific things, etc. It’s like the Matrix, a complex illusion. And since almost all Russians still depend on television news, it’s very effective.

Caesar’s view of politics

From Christian Meier’s 1982 biography of Caesar:

“Caesar was insensitive to political institutions and the complex ways in which they operate. . . . Since his year as consul, if not before, Caesar had been unable to see Rome’s institutions as autonomous entities. . . . He could see them only as instruments in the interplay of forces. His cold gaze passed through everything that Roman society still believed in, lived by, valued and defended. He had no feeling for the power of institutions . . . , but only for what he found useful or troublesome about them. . . . In Caesar’s eye’s no one existed but himself and his opponents. It was all an interpersonal game. . . . The scene was cleared of any suprapersonal elements. Or if any were left, they were merely props behind which one could take cover or with which one could fight.”

Remind you of anyone?
HT to Eric Schliesser

Testosterone rules OK!

Hmmm… Interesting column by David Brooks about why Steve Bannon, Trump’s ideological counsellor who has a big influence on his speeches, has apparently zero impact on the policies (such as they are) that have emerged from the White House.

Why is Bannonism being abandoned? One possibility is that there just aren’t enough Trumpians in the world to staff an administration, so Trump and Bannon have filled their apparatus with old guard Republicans who continue to go about their jobs in old guard pseudo-libertarian ways.

The second possibility, raised by Rich Lowry in Politico, is that the Republican sweep of 2016 was won on separate tracks. Trump won on populism, but congressional Republicans won on the standard cut-government script. The congressional Republicans are better prepared, and so their plans are crowding out anything Bannon might have contemplated.

The third possibility is that Donald Trump doesn’t really care about domestic policy; he mostly cares about testosterone.

He wants to cut any part of government that may seem soft and nurturing, like poverty programs. He wants to cut any program that might seem emotional and airy-fairy, like the National Endowment for the Arts. He wants to cut any program that might seem smart and nerdy, like the National Institutes of Health.

But he wants to increase funding for every program that seems manly, hard, muscular and ripped, like the military and armed antiterrorism programs.

Indeed, the Trump budget looks less like a political philosophy and more like a sexual fantasy. It lavishes attention on every aspect of hard power and slashes away at anything that isn’t.

The Trump health care and budget plans will be harsh on the poor, which we expected. But they’ll also be harsh on the working class, which we didn’t.

The big question — as Brooks says — is what happens when the people who voted for Trump realise the extent to which they have been betrayed?

Timothy Snyder: post-truth is pre-fascism

Sobering interview with the Yale historian who has recently published On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. The interview was conducted by Steven Rosenfeld (SR in the transcript). Two segments in particular stand out.


We think about democracy, and that’s the word that Americans love to use, democracy, and that’s how we characterize our system. But if democracy just means going to vote, it’s pretty meaningless. Russia has democracy in that sense. Most authoritarian regimes have democracy in that sense. Nazi Germany had democracy in that sense, even after the system had fundamentally changed.

Democracy only has substance if there’s the rule of law. That is, if people believe that the votes are going to be counted and they are counted. If they believe that there’s a judiciary out there that will make sense of things if there’s some challenge. If there isn’t rule of law, people will be afraid to vote the way they want to vote. They’ll vote for their own safety as opposed to their convictions. So the thing we call democracy depends on the rule of law. And the things we call the rule of law depends upon trust. Law functions 99 percent of the time automatically. It functions because we think it’s out there. And that, in turn, depends on the sense of truth. So there’s a mechanism here. You can get right to heart of the matter if you can convince people that there is no truth. Which is why the stuff that we characterize as post-modern and might dismiss is actually really, really essential.

The second thing about “post-truth is pre-fascism” is I’m trying to get people’s attention, because that is actually how fascism works. Fascism says, disregard the evidence of your senses, disregard observation, embolden deeds that can’t be proven, don’t have faith in God but have faith in leaders, take part in collective myth of an organic national unity and so forth. Fascism was precisely about setting the whole Enlightenment aside and then selling what sort of myths emerged. Now those [national] myths are pretty unpredictable, and contingent on different nations and different leaders and so on, but to just set facts aside is actually the fastest catalyst. So that part concerns me a lot.

And then this:

SR: I want to change the topic slightly. You cite many examples from Germany in 1933, the year Hitler consolidated power. So what did ordinary Germans miss that’s relevant for ordinary Americans now? I know some of this is the blurring of facts. But when I have talked to Holocaust survivors, they often say, nobody ever thought things would be that bad, or nobody thought the Germans would go as far as they did.

TS: The German Jews then, and people now, don’t understand how quick their neighbors will change; don’t understand how quickly society can change. They don’t understand the fact that a life that’s been predictable for a long time, doesn’t mean that it will be predictable tomorrow. And people like to think that their experience is exceptional. German Jews might have thought, “Well, there were pogroms [ethnic cleansing] in Russia, but surely nothing like that could happen here.” That’s what many German Jews thought. So one issue is people need to realize how quickly things can change.

The second thing that German Jews were not aware of, or Germans were not aware of, was how new media can quickly change conversations. In that way, it’s not exactly the same, but radio at that time often ended up being a channel for propaganda. There are parallels with the internet now, where there were hopes that it would be [primarily] enlightening. But in fact, it turns out that with presidential tweets, or with bots, or isolated habits of viewing, it isn’t necessarily enlightening. It’s the opposite. A lot of us were blindsided by the internet in much the same way that people could be blindsided by radio in the 1930s.

But here’s the other view. The one that we have that German Jews didn’t have in 1933 is we have their experience. That’s the premise of the whole book; the premise is that the 20th century showed us what can happen, and there’s lots of wonderful scholarship by German historians and others, which breaks down what can happen and how. And so, one of the first things that we should be doing is taking advantage of the one opportunity that we really have that they didn’t, which is to learn from that history. And that’s the premise of the book.

The problem with ‘facts’

Tim Harford has a terrific article in the current issue of the Financial Times magazine about the current ‘post-truth’ hoo-hah. He starts in an unusual place — the way the tobacco industry reacted to the research in the early 1950s that smoking caused lung cancer. Summary: the ‘facts’ didn’t carry the day — or at any rate took an awful long time to have a major impact.

“The facts about smoking — indisputable facts, from unquestionable sources — did not carry the day. The indisputable facts were disputed. The unquestionable sources were questioned. Facts, it turns out, are important, but facts are not enough to win this kind of argument.”

The piece leans heavily on the work of the Stanford historian Robert Proctor who studied the tobacco case closely and coined the term ‘agnotology’ — the study of how ignorance is deliberately produced. Proctor’s book (a collection of essays edited by him and Linda Schiebinger) is Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance

The instinctive response of those of us who care about the truth, says Harford, is “to double down on the facts”. Hence all the recent initiatives. But,

“will this sudden focus on facts actually lead to a more informed electorate, better decisions, a renewed respect for the truth? The history of tobacco suggests not. The link between cigarettes and cancer was supported by the world’s leading medical scientists and, in 1964, the US Surgeon General himself. The story was covered by well-trained journalists committed to the values of objectivity. Yet the tobacco industry lobbyists ran rings around them.”

How? By deploying several tactics:

  1. Appear to engage with the issue, promising high-quality research into the question, but (of course) not delivering.
  2. Complicate the question and sow doubt: lung cancer might have lots of causes.
  3. Undermine serious research and expertise. Autopsy reports were merely anecdotal, epidemiological research was merely statistical, animal studies were irrelevant to human physiology.
  4. Normalisation: the cancer story was old news. Couldn’t journalists find something interesting to write about?

So can we see these tactics returning in our contemporary politics? Answer: yes. Harford cites a famous 1969 internal memo from the Brown & Williamson tobacco company which contains the phrase: “doubt is our product”. Because “doubt is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means for establishing a controversy”.

He adds:

“Doubt is usually not hard to produce, and facts alone aren’t enough to dispel it. We should have learnt this lesson already; now we’re going to have to learn it all over again.”

So what’s wrong with the strategy of fighting lies with facts? Harford sees three.

  1. “A simple untruth can beat off a complicated set of facts simply by being easier to understand and remember.” e.g. the £350m for the NHS used by the Leave campaign in the Referendum debate. “When doubt prevails, people will often end up believing whatever sticks in the mind… Once we’ve hears an untrue claim, people can’t simply unhear it.” So the lie-and-rebuttal strategy won’t work There are even studies showing that “repeating a false claim, even in the context of debunking that claim, can make it stick”.

  2. Facts tend to be boring. This is one reason why fake news and untruths stick in the mind — they seem interesting or striking. (And we know from the Buzzfeed study that they were more shared in the 2016 campaign.) So “in the war of ideas, boredom and distraction are powerful weapons”. This is why (as Gary King and his colleagues found) the famous Chinese “50c army” don’t get into arguments of any kind. The strategic objective of the regimes to distract and redirect public attention”. Trump understood this intuitively. Harford claims that the tobacco industry also understood the value of distraction — so they funded interesting research in areas not at all related to lung cancer (like the work that won Stanley Prusiner a Nobel prize). Much more interesting than boring old stuff on lung cancer.

  3. The truth can feel threatening if accepting it means that you have to rethink your own behaviour.

So it’s a depressing picture. Facts are toothless, boring and dull — and they can provoke a defensive reaction in the people who most need to hear them.

Is there a solution?

Harford cites a study exploring the role of scientific curiosity (rather than scientific literacy). What the researchers found, Harford reports, is that “while politically motivated reasoning trumps scientific knowledge” it appears to be negated by scientific curiosity. Scientifically literate people are more likely to be polarised in their answers to politically-charged scientific questions. But scientifically curious people were not.


”We journalists and policy wonks can’t force anyone to pay attention to the facts. We have to find a way to make people want to seek them out. Curiosity is the seed from which sensible democratic decisions can grow. It seems to be one of the only cures for politically motivated reasoning bit it’s also, into the bargain, the cure for a society where most people just don’t pay attention to the news because they find boring or confusing.”

So what we need, Harford thinks,

“is a Carl Sagan or David Attenborough of social science — somebody who can create a sense of wonder and fascination… at the workings of our own civilisation: health, migration, finance, education and diplomacy”.

Someone like Tim Harford, for example?

Getting a handle on ‘fake news’ and the ‘post-truth’ stuff

I’m temperamentally suspicious of the “fake news” and “post-truth” discourse, for various reasons: it’s short on really hard evidence and detailed analysis; it attributes too much to non-mainstream media; it has an implicit nostalgia for a non-existent ‘truthful’ past; and it downplays the reasons why so many people in the UK and the US were willing to administer such a counterproductive (and perhaps self-defeating kick) to the (neo)liberal democratic system which has got us into this mess.

So it’s good to see more cautious, scholarly analyses emerging. Like this study by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, Hal Roberts, and Ethan Zuckerman.

Our own study of over 1.25 million stories published online between April 1, 2015 and Election Day shows that a right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world. This pro-Trump media sphere appears to have not only successfully set the agenda for the conservative media sphere, but also strongly influenced the broader media agenda, in particular coverage of Hillary Clinton.

While concerns about political and media polarization online are longstanding, our study suggests that polarization was asymmetric. Pro-Clinton audiences were highly attentive to traditional media outlets, which continued to be the most prominent outlets across the public sphere, alongside more left-oriented online sites. But pro-Trump audiences paid the majority of their attention to polarized outlets that have developed recently, many of them only since the 2008 election season.

Attacks on the integrity and professionalism of opposing media were also a central theme of right-wing media. Rather than “fake news” in the sense of wholly fabricated falsities, many of the most-shared stories can more accurately be understood as disinformation: the purposeful construction of true or partly true bits of information into a message that is, at its core, misleading. Over the course of the election, this turned the right-wing media system into an internally coherent, relatively insulated knowledge community, reinforcing the shared worldview of readers and shielding them from journalism that challenged it. The prevalence of such material has created an environment in which the President can tell supporters about events in Sweden that never happened, or a presidential advisor can reference a non-existent “Bowling Green massacre.”

Thee’s also a really interesting NBER paper by Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow on “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election. The Abstract summarises it thus:

We present new evidence on the role of false stories circulated on social media prior to the 2016 US presidential election. Drawing on audience data, archives of fact-checking websites, and results from a new online survey, we find: (i) social media was an important but not dominant source of news in the run-up to the election, with 14 percent of Americans calling social media their “most important” source of election news; (ii) of the known false news stories that appeared in the three months before the election, those favoring Trump were shared a total of 30 million times on Facebook, while those favoring Clinton were shared eight million times; (iii) the average American saw and remembered 0.92 pro-Trump fake news stories and 0.23 pro-Clinton fake news stories, with just over half of those who recalled seeing fake news stories believing them; (iv) for fake news to have changed the outcome of the election, a single fake article would need to have had the same persuasive effect as 36 television campaign ads.

Extracting the moral signal from the populist noise

Apropos that earlier post, I was struck by this essay by danah boyd, and particularly by this passage:

If we don’t account for how people feel, we’re not going to achieve a more just world — we’re going to stoke the fires of a new cultural war as society becomes increasingly polarized.

The disconnect between statistical data and perception is astounding. I can’t help but shake my head when I listen to folks talk about how life is better today than it ever has been in history. They point to increased lifespan, new types of medicine, decline in infant mortality, and decline in poverty around the world. And they shake their heads in dismay about how people don’t seem to get it, don’t seem to get that today is better than yesterday. But perception isn’t about statistics. It’s about a feeling of security, a confidence in one’s ecosystem, a belief that through personal effort and God’s will, each day will be better than the last. That’s not where the vast majority of people are at right now. To the contrary, they’re feeling massively insecure, as though their world is very precarious.

I am deeply concerned that the people whose values and ideals I share are achieving solidarity through righteous rhetoric that also produces condescending and antagonistic norms. I don’t fully understand my discomfort, but I’m scared that what I’m seeing around me is making things worse.