The party of gridlock holds a primary

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The standard narrative is that both political parties, Democrats and Republicans alike, are equally responsible for the gridlock that has turned Washington into an object lesson in partisan dysfunction.

My colleagues who study American politics dutifully point to data showing that both sides have drifted away from the center toward their respective extremes, and then solemnly conclude that this as much as anything accounts for the paralysis.

But look what’s happening in the brutal trench warfare that is the 2016 Republican primary. The real party of gridlock has been exposed. Cue Molly Ball at The Atlantic:

The paralyzed state of the field has even raised the possibility that no candidate will have a majority of delegates when the Republican convention opens in Cleveland in July, forcing a second ballot and a chaotic fight on the convention floor. The idea of a contested convention, perennially batted about but usually a rules-nerd’s pipe dream, seems a distinct possibility this time around.

The primary, in other words, is just as gridlocked as Washington, where bills can’t get passed and the Supreme Court can’t make decisions. A majority of Republican voters value standing on principle more than compromise; they see gridlock as the only bulwark against tyranny, and refusing to back down as the mark of character. Now that attitude has come to the political campaign, with six remaining candidates who swear they will never yield, and a party so divided its factions may be fundamentally irreconcilable.

This stalemate in the Republican race isn’t likely to be broken by the outcome of tomorrow’s voting in South Carolina. And from there a clear path forward to victory isn’t obvious for any of the GOP hopefuls at the top of the race.

So now it all makes sense. The Republicans are so enamored of gridlock they decided to pack it up and take it along for a ride through the primaries, maybe all the way to their convention this summer. Hello Cleveland!

Thanks for nothing, Ulster

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I hate to break this to my friends in Belfast, but according to Reihan Salam writing at Slate, we here in the states have the Scots-Irish, descended sons and daughters of Ulster, to thank for propelling Donald Trump to his commanding lead atop the GOP primary heap:

[In Iowa] … the counties that went for Trump tended to have higher rates of unemployment and a higher share of adults who identify as Scots-Irish, or simply as “American.” …

The Scots-Irish or “American” whites who see Trump as their champion are profoundly different from the metropolitan whites who dominate the upper echelons of U.S. society—so much so that the convention of lumping them together as “white” detracts far more from our understanding of how they fit into our society than it adds to it. J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, a forthcoming book on the place of Appalachian whites in modern America, estimates that roughly one-quarter of whites belong to the Scots-Irish tribe that has embraced Trump.

Then again, I suspect my Belfast friends would likely be unsurprised by this given that most of them are labeled Catholic (whether they’re religious or not) in Northern Ireland’s dysfunctional identity-centric society, and America’s Scots-Irish are the descendants of Ulster Protestants.

In fact, given the arrogance, aggressive ignorance, xenophobia, and religious bigotry that Trump gleefully espouses, he’d fit right in among Belfast’s fleggers

Running to be torturer-in-chief

trump greatI was traveling last weekend, and as I was packing my bags to return home to Michigan Sunday morning I turned on the TV and caught Donald Trump’s interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week.”

I consider myself pretty hardened, but even I was taken aback when Trump not only doubled down on his Saturday night debate pledge to bring back waterboarding, but vowed to become America’s new torturer-in-chief should we be foolish enough to elect him president.

You can read the transcript below, or, if you can stomach it, watch the clip for yourself. If you’re like me you’ll want to take a hot shower afterwards to wash off the stench.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The issue of waterboarding front and center last night as (INAUDIBLE). You said, I would bring back waterboarding and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.

What did you have in mind?

TRUMP: Well, George, you’re not talking about what I said before that. I said we’re living in a world where, in the Middle East, they’re cutting people’s heads off. They’re chopping a Christian’s head off. And many of them, we talk about Foley, James Foley, and you know, what a wonderful young man. Boom, they’re chopping heads.

So then I went into this. I said, yes, I would bring back waterboarding. And I would make it a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes.

What did you have in mind?

TRUMP: I had in mind going worse than waterboarding. It’s enough. We have right now a country that’s under siege. It’s under siege from a people, from — we’re like living in medieval times. If I have it to do and if it’s up to me, I would absolutely bring back waterboarding. And if it’s going to be tougher than waterboarding, I would bring that back, too.

STEPHANOPOULOS: As president, you would authorize torture?

TRUMP: I would absolutely authorize something beyond waterboarding. And believe me, it will be effective. If we need information, George, you have our enemy cutting heads off of Christians and plenty of others, by the hundreds, by the thousands.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Do we win by being more like them?

TRUMP: Yes. I’m sorry. You have to do it that way. And I’m not sure everybody agrees with me. I guess a lot of people don’t. We are living in a time that’s as evil as any time that there has ever been. You know, when I was a young man, I studied Medieval times. That’s what they did, they chopped off heads. That’s what we have…

STEPHANOPOULOS: So we’re going to chop off heads…

TRUMP: We’re going to do things beyond waterboarding perhaps, if that happens to come.

Donald Trumpcydides

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Donald Trump’s critics and rivals have it all wrong. In his boycott of tonight’s debate hosted by Fox News, a product of his ongoing feud with the network, the GOP frontrunner isn’t showing fear or weakness, though that’s not how Fox itself sees it:

In a Tuesday statement to Business Insider, a spokesperson for the network mused about whether global leaders would be fair to a potential President Trump.

“We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president — a nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings,” the Fox spokesperson said.

Slate’s Jim Newell was particularly blunt:

Opting out of the last debate before presidential voting begins, because the network hosting the debate issued a snarky statement, is a very big risk. Not only because, on first glance, he looks like a petulant coward.

But they’re wrong. Trump isn’t displaying petulance, cowardice, or weakness. Instead he’s channeling the principles first committed to writing nearly 3,000 years ago by the Athenian general and historian Thucydides, whose History of the Peloponnesian War is one of the foundational documents of the realist school of international relations.

Trump is acting from what he believes to be a position of superior power, and as Thucydides wrote, and Trump knows, the powerful make their own rules. Is it right that Trump walk away from a debate he had committed to in what his detractors consider a fit of pique? In “The Melian Dialogue” portion of his History, Thucydides gives us the answer:

You know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

As Trump sees it, he’s the one with the power. He’s the one who has tapped in to the anger and frustrations of the Republican grassroots. He’s the one who can seemingly say anything, no matter how outrageous, and see his polling numbers rise. Trump boasted to an ecstatic crowd of supporters at a rally in Iowa on Saturday, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” That’s how he sees his power.

From where he sits, Trump can with confidence declare that Fox News needs him on that debate stage, with the ratings he drives and the revenue that he generates, far more than he needs them. After all, as Thucydides observed, the powerful cooperate only when it is in their own selfish interests to do so. Trump, who can dominate the news cycle like no candidate before him, has no interest in helping Fox draw viewers. Which is exactly what he told them:

… as someone who has a personal net worth of many billions of dollars, Mr. Trump knows a bad deal when he sees one. Fox News is making tens of millions of dollars on debates, and setting ratings records (the highest in history), where as in previous years they were low-rated afterthoughts.

Unlike the very stupid, highly incompetent people running our country into the ground, Mr. Trump knows when to walk away. Roger Ailes and Fox News think they can toy with him, but Mr. Trump doesn’t play games.

Trump does not fear the power of Fox News and so has no reason to give it what it wants or to seek the network’s good will. Having taken this stand, Trump is unlikely to back down. Thucydides explains why:

No; for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power … If any maintain their independence it is because they are strong, and that if we do not molest them it is because we are afraid.

To back down, to compromise with Fox, to give it what it wants when he, not the network, holds all the cards, would be a demonstration of weakness on Trump’s part. A man in his position can’t afford to go down that road.

Meanwhile, political observers, the Republican establishment, and the remaining contenders in the GOP field, cling to the hope that the Trump bubble will eventually burst, that the man will finally take it one step too far, that voters will sober up, turn away, and bring his improbable rise crashing back to earth. But Thucydides offers them a blunt warning:

Your strongest arguments depend upon hope and the future, and your actual resources are too scanty, as compared with those arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious.

Before a single vote has been cast, Trump has more support than any Republican in the race. He doesn’t need the establishment’s money or its endorsements. He dismisses the criticisms of the punditocracy. No rival has gone after him directly and come out on top.

Has Trump finally overplayed his hand? Even the powerful can miscalculate. But I for one am no longer willing to bet against him.

Not yet.