Thursday, March 17, 2016

Why Moderate Republicans Are 2016's Most Important Voters

Though it certainly can happen here (especially if Hilary Clinton is the Democratic nominee and she runs her general election campaign as if she is entitled to the presidency, which I don't think she is going to do) I don't think Donald Trump can win a general election. Right now, even as the front-runner, he is not winning over the majority of Republican primary voters and given his national unfavorability rating, his lack of support from the Republican establishment, and the fact that he's a fascist, I think there is a good chance he is already close to his ceiling for support. Furthermore, the relationship between the electoral college and America's shifting demographics stacks the deck for whoever the Democrat is anyway. This doesn't mean a Trump presidency is impossible (hold on, let me swallow that vomit back down), but I think it is still relatively unlikely.

But it is not enough for Trump to lose. Trump losing to Clinton (or Sanders) 47% to 53%, as Mitt Romney did to Barack Obama, means that Trump is a legitimate candidate. A 53/47 tells us that Donald Trump was the legitimate representative of the Republican party. A 53/47 loss tells the world that the United States is capable of making Donald Trump the most powerful person in the world. A 53/47 loss means we'll go through this all again in four years, whether in the form of second tries by Trump himself, Cruz, or Rubio, or Chuck Norris, or some radical demagogue who hasn't become a celebrity yet, and all of them will emulate the radical, hateful, fascistic techniques that got Trump so close to the presidency.

It is not enough for Trump to be defeated in November. The unprecedented candidate must suffer an unprecedented defeat. It must be 60/40 at least, but 65/35 would be acceptable and 70/30 better. Only then can we prevent this year's catastrophic carnival from happening again in four years, and only then can we prove to the world that we actually can be trusted with the power we have.

And that kind of landslide requires moderate Republicans voting for the Democrat. There is a lot that Democrats can do to inch those numbers up. An effective ground game, a compelling campaign, the fear of a Trump presidency, along with unusually high turnout from largely Democratic demographics could get us to 55/45 or maybe even 58/42 if all of those new voting restrictions don't mess things up too much. But even that's not enough.

To prevent another Trump, there needs to be a significant Republican defection. We need to show ourselves and the world that we can get beyond the little letters next to a candidate when we need to prevent the election of a fascist. And that responsibility falls to moderate Republicans.

Of course, Trump is not sui generis. His candidacy is the natural, even logical, endpoint to a decades long process that could be traced at least back to McCarthy's Red Scare, through the Republican Southern Strategy, Bill Clinton's triangulation, and the Tea Party of 2010.

It is important to remember how the Tea Party came to power. They were elected in 2010 on a platform built almost entirely on misunderstandings, misrepresentations, lies, and fear. They told us Obamacare would destroy the economy, cost American jobs, rob us of our medical freedom and, I don't know, make it illegal to enjoy a big old ice cream cone on a hot July day, and absolutely none of that is true. Furthermore, they ran on the promise of repealing Obamacare and not only did they utterly fail to do that, they made absolutely no progress developing a legislative structure for the repeal, building a viable alternative, or proposing reforms with a chance in hell of being passed. In the process, they shut down the government, played chicken with America's credit rating, ended the political career of John Boehner, and, in general, ground legislative progress to a halt. Donald Trump is just the Tea Party with a few extra filters off.

So, not only is it important for moderate Republicans to vote for the Democrat in the presidential election, if they want to have a legitimate political party for the foreseeable future, they will need to kick out the Freedom Caucus legislators, who both, set the stage for Donald Trump and have been abject legislative failures, both in terms of policy and procedure (I think at least) and in terms of their own campaign promises. And with the radically gerrymandered districts (more on that later) the only way that will happen is if moderate Republicans who are currently represented by Freedom Caucus legislators vote Democrat.

And then there's that whole thing about radical gerrymandering. The same collective freak out over Obamacare that drove the Tea Party into federal government, drove the Tea Party into state governments. The result has been radical gerrymandering (49.15% of Americans voted for a Democrat in the house, compared to 48.03% who voted for Republicans in 2014, so that 33 seat Republican majority is....democracy?), a coordinated attack on voting rights targeting largely Democratic demographics, the spiteful rejection of Medicare expansion, and an obsessive war on reproductive rights, all while generally wrecking their states' budgets (school systems, water supplies...) through reckless tax cuts. Dwight D. Eisenhower would not improve. (Hell, Richard Nixon might not even approve.)

If moderate Republicans are truly serious about taking their party back from the radical fringe, all they have to do is lose big in 2016. They can then rebuild the party from there.

I know there is still a good chance Trump will not be the nominee, but honestly, this principle holds for any of the other current options. Ted Cruz believes he is on a mission from God, Marco Rubio has proven himself to be utterly incapable of functioning in high pressure situations, Paul Ryan's policies live in a Randian fantasy world, and somehow John Kasich might be even worse, especially on women's issues. Given what the Republican party has become, how they have let racism, cheap power grabs, and radical strains of Christianity infect their party, the only responsible thing for moderate Republicans to do in November is hold their nose and vote for the Democrat.

There is a lot that Democrats and liberals can do to beat Trump, but, ultimately (unless there is truly miraculous voter turnout), that just treats the symptom, not the cause. The power to truly stop Trump, not just the person, but the political concept, rests in the hands of moderate Republicans.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Homage as Criticism: On The Ballad of Black Tom

Victor Lavalle is one of my favorite living writers. Like Edgar Allen Poe, he is able to layer weirdness on top of weirdness so that, as you dig through the monsters and the radical suicide death cults and the mysterious librarians, you find it's our real obsession with higher powers and our real attitudes toward mental health that are truly strange.

His new book, The Ballad of Black Tom is an homage to the work of H.P. Lovecraft (based primarily on "The Horror at Red Hook") that draws elements from Lovecraft's entire ouvre into a story about a young black man from Harlem trying to make his way in the world. In some ways, Lovecraft is as influential to horror writing as Tolkien is to fantasy writing, providing a lexicon, a fundamental structure, and a mythology that horror writers still use today. Lovecraft was also racist. And not older-relative-after-a-few-glasses-of-wine-at-Thanksgiving racist; he was hatefully, maliciously racist.

Lavalle has talked about what it means to be an African American author writing an homage to a racist so I don't need to here, but I think he does something interesting that reveals one of the powerful, critical aspects of homage. Homage can be more than just a celebration, more than just a retelling, more than just a depositing of a story or style in a new place or time (though all of those are fun, important aspects of homage). Homage also allows authors to critique those past works, turning up the volume on certain traits, emphasizing certain ideas, elucidating aspects that are not otherwise obvious, and even re-appropriating the works for different, even opposed purposes.

What made Lovecraft's work powerful, and what still resonates in the horror genre today, is the idea of another world of unseen forces pushing us this way and that through life. Whether it was magic, Cthulhu, or some other mysterious force, the characters in Lovecraft's stories were subject to forces vastly more powerful than they were that determined the course of their lives or even their deaths. We might feel as though we are in control, we might even believe we can harness some of those powerful forces, but that is only because we haven't dug far enough into the basement, sailed far enough into the ocean, looked deep enough into the eyes of the stranger. Lovecraft made daily life's simple anxieties visceral, bodily, and horrifying. Lavalle's homage taps into that existential anxiety, but by twisting it ever so slightly, by setting it partially in Harlem and by making one of the protagonists a young African American man, Lavalle has revealed an aspect of Lovecraft's unseen forces that Lovecraft himself never saw.

At one point, Tom comes home to find that his father has been murdered by the police. Tom's apartment was searched in connection to an investigation and one of the investigators saw Tom's father with a guitar, assumed it was a gun, shot him six times, and—because the officer “feared for his life”—reloaded his revolver and shot five more times. For most people, for pretty much everyone in this country who is not a straight white cisgendered man born in America, those mysterious powerful forces casually dealing death and destruction, those otherworldly beings, those dark underground cabals deciding the fate of those they do not regard as worthy of dignity are real. They are not forces of magic or hauntings or Cthulhu, they are institutional racism, systems of power, and the residual structures of colonialism. They are Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and 75 cents on the dollar. In some ways this really isn't even a metaphor. If a magic spell is a string of words able to bring about some kind of corporeal action, “Hello, police, there's a man in my neighborhood, um, he's tall and black” might be America's deadliest spell. Is there any ritual that signals the loss of one's personal agency more than the chanting of “Stop resisting?” I mean, the Klu Klux Klan leaders call themselves wizards and dragons for fuck's sake.

What is most interesting to me about this is how otherwise faithful to Lovecraft The Ballad of Black Tom is. The creeping unease. The protagonist in way, way over his head. The magic. The monsters. The skin of the universe peeled back for just a second to reveal the contorted organs of being beyond our conception. And yet twist it all just ever so slightly, and an entirely new conversation is created. Lavalle has been utterly faithful to Lovecraft and told a story that would've horrified him.

To me, this is where the real power in literature resides. All books are only semi-stable. Though the words on fixed on the page, the efforts of readers give them vitality, make them move, transform them into something (and some things) beyond the imagination of the individual creator. The act of writing is powerful and flexible enough that a potent reader can transform the work of a malignant racist into a statement on the experience of institutional racism. No story is ever really dead. No work of literature ever irredeemable. The Ballad of Black Tom begins with Tom delivering a magic book, which in its complete form would give the reader the complete magic alphabet and access to unspeakable power. Of course, we already have the complete alphabet and when it's used by a writer and reader like Victor Lavalle every book is magic.