Sunday, August 16, 2015

Fox News at the Crossroads: or, The Great GOP Divide

Fox News got record-breaking ratings for its Republican debate in Cleveland. It got one of the top-ten highest cable TV ratings of all time; the other nine are sporting events, mostly big bowl games on ESPN. So Chris Christie and the boys got better ratings than Tony Soprano, and if you'd like to make your own Mad Men joke, here's the place for it. On the other hand, thousands of Fox viewers have denounced Fox's moderators as biased and unfair. At least ten thousand have signed a petition demanding that Megyn Kelly be banned from all future debates. Roger Ailes has had to promise Trump that they'd promise him fairly, and Kelly has gone an an unexpected vacation. I've lost track of the back-and-forth. Fox is doing the best business it's ever done, and some of its most loyal customers are enraged. How did Fox get here?

What I think we're seeing is an important fracture between the two most important elements of modern American conservatism: the Republican Party's political operation and the conservative media. We can talk about the Establishment vs. the Tea Party, but the really profound split is between the Political Side and the Media Side. Yes, those sides have long worked together and depended on each other. But they also have their own separate agendas, and obey separate strategies defined by very different strategic logics. What is good for one is not always good for the other. The Media Side, especially, can thrive off things that are simply disastrous for the Political Side. And now we're seeing those two sides in conflict, catalyzed in part by Donald Trump, and Fox News, trying to remain loyal to both, is at war with itself.

Obviously, the conservative media complex (most importantly Fox News and conservative talk radio) actively advocate for conservative Republicans to win elections. But those media companies don't need the Republicans to win. Barack Obama isn't worse for their business than George W. Bush was; it many ways he's better, because he upsets and energizes Fox's (and Beck's and Limbaugh's) core audience. Remember, most of these conservative media outlets really got rolling during the Clinton Administration. They're designed to thrive in opposition.

More importantly, and this is where the trouble sets in, conservative media is designed to thrive in an extremely fragmented media environment, competing with a vast array of other choices. Fox News is one cable channel out of hundreds. A talk radio host competes against dozens of other stations in every market. Blogs ... don't even get me started. What this means is that conservative media has no hope of actually reaching a majority of the American people, or even a plurality. Fox News's highest-rated shows usually get a couple of million viewers: not even a single percent of the population. Put another way, on any typical night more than 99% of the American public does NOT tune in to Bill O'Reilly. But that's still a viable business model, because America is huge. You can make a lot of money on cable, or on AM radio, by getting a tiny slice of the market.

But the Republican Party ultimately competes in a two-party world, most of all when the presidency is on the line. The major parties need to be at least close to a majority to win. It's not even like the old three-network setup. It's more like the 1930s, when there were only two national radio networks, NBC and CBS. (Third parties in national elections function less like ABC than like independent TV stations or PBS.) A small and intense band of followers is not enough for the Republicans to take the White House. If you want to be elected President of the United States next fall, you're going to need at least 66 to 70 million votes. To put that in perspective, all of the people who watched the first Republican debate on Fox, put together, are only about a third of the votes the eventual nominee will need to win. In fact, that record number of viewers is only about 40% of the number of people who voted for Mitt Romney. To many Fox viewers, Mitt Romney is a big embarrassing failure while Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh are huge hits, but that's because totally different standards apply.

(And this is not strictly partisan. John Kerry got hundreds of times more voters than John Stewart or Stephen Colbert ever got viewers. Being a cable TV entertainer and running for the presidency are nothing alike.)

When you're trying to build a cable-TV or AM-radio audience, you want to get a small slice of the population as worked up as you can. You want to ramp up the intensity, no matter what that takes. Being polarizing and controversial is good. Making people upset is good. If half of America hates you -- hell, even if two thirds or three quarters of America hates you -- but fifteen percent likes you and two or three percent totally LOVES you, you are going to print money. Beck, Limbaugh, O'Reilly, and the rest are using Howard Stern's basic media strategy.

However, if you are running for president, 60 percent of the country disliking you is just deadly. National candidates need broad appeal, even if that means doing without the hard-core loyalists. (Think Tom Hanks instead of Howard Stern.) And candidates need to make a broad appeal to win nationwide. The kind of divisive positions that strengthen a media figure with a niche audience (and every openly-partisan media figure, right or left, has a niche audience) are just poison to a national candidate.

But Fox and AM have been building up Republican primary candidates who play well on Fox and AM, meaning niche politicians who have electoral troubles outside their safe GOP districts. Fox wants to promote the politicians, or would-be politicians, who make good TV, meaning good niche-cable-news-TV.  Ron Paul. Rand Paul. Michelle Bachman. Herman Cain. Ted Cruz. Bobby Jindal. Ben Carson. Those people aren't realistic candidates for president, because their strategies are aimed at ramping up a small, passionate segment of the base by turning off the wider electorate. Mike Huckabee has taken to talking openly about subordinating the Supreme Court to his religious beliefs; that's a frightening thing to hear, but Huckabee would never say that if he believed he had a prayer of being nominated. Trump is just the culmination of these conservative-media-friendly fringe candidacies. He understands the media logic intuitively: be as outrageous and polarizing as possible, to whip up your small section of support.

Simply put, what's good for Fox News is bad for the Republicans right now. The Republicans need to be rolling out broadly palatable general-election candidates, and taking positions that will help them win next fall. But their primary is clogged with people who are trying to build small, intense followings by taking the most controversial positions possible. And there's no way to tell the core Fox/AM talk radio voters to get with the program. Those voters have been with the program, literally, between elections: whipped up and made angry or frightened every 24-hour news cycle, fed whatever extreme positions moved the dial on a given day, and -- worst of all, from the perspective of the GOP as a political organization trying to win elections -- taught to demonize anyone who disagreed. The motto of Conservative Media is "No Compromises. No Middle Ground." But you win the White House by winning the middle ground. Now the Political Side and the Media Side are in fundamental conflict, and apparently there's no compromise to be had.

cross-posted from, and comments welcome at, Dagblog


Sunday, August 09, 2015

Goodbye, My Second City

Although "Doctor Cleveland" is my nom du blog, I've been splitting time between two cities for years. Like many academics in my generation, I've struggled with the "two-body problem" as part of a couple with teaching jobs at universities in different places. We've had homes in both places, but I've been the primary commuter and my spouse has held down the home front. I've really been "Doctor Eastern Great Lakes" or "Professor I-90." Now, at long last, we have solved that problem. My trusty Buick has made the last of its round trips.

The bittersweet part is that being together means saying goodbye to one of our cities: the city where we were married and bought our first house, the city where we made our primary home. Today, the sale of our house in Rochester closed. I have come to love Rochester, and I will miss it.
The Kodak Building from the cheap seats

Rochester and Cleveland are not so different: they are resilient Rust Belt cities on the shores of Great Lakes. And both have been home. But Rochester taught me the charms of the small city. Hundreds of thousands of people, rather than millions, live in and around Rochester. It lacks the major amenities of a big city: no big-league sports, no Big Five orchestra, no Art 101 masterpieces in the local museums. But the scaled-down versions of those amenities make for a pretty good life. Rochester taught me the pleasures of Triple-A baseball and the local Philharmonic, the quirkiness of small museums, the pleasures of a pocket-sized amusement park tucked alongside the small beach. Aristotle writes that The Good is that which needs no addition, and there were many days and evenings when I had no desire for any finer place.

Guarding my study on a summer night
I will miss the Japanese maple in our backyard, and grilling dinner on a crisp September night. I will miss the mated pair of cardinals that nested nearby, and our evening strolls along leafy side streets. I will miss the annual Oscar party in fancy dress at the George Eastman house, and the Rochester Philharmonic's annual Messiah. I will miss our church, where we were married, and the pastor who married us. I will miss Sunday brunch at the Highland Diner, where we eventually became such regulars that we weren't always given menus. I will miss driving past the Kodak building late on winter nights, knowing that when I saw it I was nearly home.

Time to be going

 I will miss our first house. I will miss our dining room and the old two-way swinging door to the kitchen, I will miss the old butler's pantry with its 1920 woodwork, and the fireplace that my wife loved building fires in. I will miss coffee on our front porch, and the garden which managed (thanks to the foresight of the previous owners) to have something in bloom or berry almost all year round. I will miss our lilac trees and our holly bush. Most of all, I will miss the little window in the room I used as an office, which looked out into the enclosed porch that was my spouse's office. And most of all I will miss looking up from the sidewalk in the evening and seeing her in her well-lit aerie, looking down at something on her desk.

Near the end of summer
I will miss the dinner parties we had for friends. I will miss hosting our parents, both sets, for Thanksgiving in that dining room. I will think fondly of the friends who visited us in that house, for a weekend or an afternoon.

As we were doing our last weeks of yard work, packing away our garden tools until next year, I realized that one of the bushes in our back yard, which we had never identified and which had only just begun bearing its first green, immature fruit, was actually a peach tree. The little mystery fruits yellowed and reddened into small, half-grown peaches, too small still to eat.

As ripe as this summer allowed

The full ripening, and the taste of backyard peaches at the kitchen table, will not come until another year. But I was happy that I got to see that color on the tree, promising better things to come.

cross-posted from Dagblog.


Thursday, July 30, 2015

Still Killing Citizens: The Death of Sam Dubose

A University of Cincinnati cop has been indicted for murder. He killed an unarmed black citizen named Sam Dubose, whom he had initially stopped over a minor traffic issue: no front license plate. Why are we still doing this?

We've heard this story before. A ridiculously minor offense, the kind of thing that cops routinely let go, escalates into homicide when a cop kills a black citizen who has no weapon. After Eric Garner and Mike Brown, after Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland and Walter Scott, we are still doing this. Why?

The facts in evidence in the Cincinnati case are appalling. The killer was wearing a body camera. His police report is flatly refuted by the video from that camera. A number of other police officers made sworn statements, backing up the killer, that are also flatly contradicted by the video evidence. All of that is a disgrace. But even more shocking than what they did is when they did it.

After Ferguson, after Baltimore, after Tamir Rice and Walter Scott, after months and months of protests against police killing black citizens, and after months and months of increasingly less plausible denials of the problem, these cops went out in the second half of July 2015 and did EXACTLY what apologists for the police have been telling protestors cops don't do. A cop escalates a chicken-shit traffic stop over a license plate into a homicide, for no perceptible reason. His fellow cops lie and perjure themselves to back him. We are still doing this. Apparently, some of us insist on doing this.

Protest and conscious-raising have not been enough. There are still some cops out there, people who should never have been police for even a minute, who do not see killing unarmed black people as a problem. Attention to the issue has not made such people more cautious; Sam Dubose's killer is unbelievably reckless. Watch the tape. Attention to the issue has not dissuaded some cops, sworn peace officers, from this terrible crime against peace and justice.

Our national conversation about race and policing is not working, because some people, some actual cops, are refusing to accept that conversation. They are not willing to stop killing unarmed civilians. It is, apparently, a privilege they insist on.

There is nothing left to be done but to apply the full force of the law. We are still doing this, because some people refuse to stop doing this, refuse even to have an honest conversation about this. It is time to stop talking. It is time to put some people, as many people as insist upon it, in jail.

cross-posted from, and comments welcome at, Dagblog

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Citizen Vain: or, Trump the Narcisissist

Why did Donald Trump say in public that John McCain is ""not a war hero" because he got "captured?" Is Trump insane? Not quite, but close. Trump most likely has a major personality disorder. That's not a medical diagnosis, which I can't give; I'm not a psychologist or psychiatrist, and I haven't met Trump. But Trump's long, continuing history of weird and sometimes toxic behavior makes a lot more sense if we think of Trump as a narcissist. His attack on McCain definitely fits the profile.

Narcissism, one of the few ideas from classical Freudian psychoanalysis that turns out to be reliably testable, is a deep investment in an idealized, better-than-real version of yourself: a dream self who is incredibly great, who always wins and never loses. That super-self is, by its nature, an illusion, and reality constantly threatens it, but the narcissist invests everything in it. Narcissists organize their whole psychology around projecting and defending that delusional image of themselves.

This is a "personality disorder" rather than a "mental illness," because it's not really amenable to treatment and because the patient doesn't want to be cured. They're not sick; they're just jerks on a clinical scale. There is no pill that cures narcissism, and if there were narcissists wouldn't take it. People who are mentally ill suffer from their illness. People with personality disorders inflict suffering on people around them.

It's not just that narcissists bend, distort, and deny reality in order to promote their fantasies of greatness. Many, perhaps most, also build themselves up by actively tearing down other people. Contempt for others is part of the typical clinical profile. I am a winner and you are a loser is the narcissist's motto, unless they need to recruit you as a true believer in their greatness. Then you're a winner by association until they don't need you anymore. After that you're a loser again. You're fired!

But worst of all is a narcissist who feels that his or her self-image is under attack. They will go on attack themselves against anyone whom they perceive as threatening their vision of themselves. Those attacks can be incredibly toxic: ruthless, and no holds barred, because the narcissist will perceive an attack on their false self as more or less an attack on their lives.

For a long time I've wondered, idly, about what was going on with Trump. I've understood his appeal to others: he's a perfect foil for comedy, exactly the kind of egotistical buffoon for whom the ancient Greeks invented irony. (Ancient Greek comedy had two characters called an alazon and an eiron. The alazon was a dimwitted blowhard who boasted about himself and the eiron was a smarter character who ironically pretended to go along so the blowhard would embarrass himself. Trump is a born alazon. If he did not exist, Will Ferrell would have had to invent him.) And I understand his appeal to non-ironic fans; Trump is like a blue collar fantasy of being a billionaire, an enormously rich person with mostly working-class tastes. He does what poor people think they would do with millions of dollars, which makes a more satisfying fantasy than what most rich people really do with millions of dollars.

What I've never understood is what Trump got out of letting people like David Letterman (the eiron's eiron), mock him in public. Did Trump not get the joke? Was he being a good sport about it? Was he simply, and wonderfully, too dim to get that he was being mocked? I couldn't tell.

Today, the answer seems to be that Trump refuses to get the joke. His commitment to his own grandiosity may run so deep that Trump simply refuses to take the fact he's being mocked on board. His ability to edit or distort incoming information to suit the needs of his ego are apparently so formidable that he can be mocked on TV every week and take it as evidence that he's a big, big star. I find that unsettling.

Trump's campaign speeches so far have been extremely simply repetitions of the Narcissist's Mantra: I am a winner, and the others are losers. No petty details like actual policy ideas clutter up the purity of his core message. "America used to have victories. We don't have victories any more," so Trump, through his personal greatness, will lead America back to the top. Trump will be "the greatest jobs president God ever created." He will drive much better trade deals with foreign countries than the losers who have been negotiating those deals for years. How will he do these things? By being himself, baby. Or rather, by being the imaginary version of himself he holds dear, the invincible SuperTrump. SuperTrump always wins and never loses (because Trump cannot bear to face his fallibility or the basic reality of the world), so by that logic President SuperTrump will always win everything. Trump's campaign speeches could be illustrations in intro psych textbooks.

He's traded in racism because that's what gets certain voters excited, but also because contempt comes naturally to him. He can only keep believing in SuperTrump while he's putting other people down. So, he puts down Mexican immigrants with the deep, scathing contempt that his narcissism makes possible. He puts down John McCain, because if McCain disagrees with Trump about anything (I mean anything) then one of them has to be wrong, and Trump cannot tolerate the idea that SuperTrump is ever, ever wrong. So John McCain has to be a loser, too. Got shot down by the North Vietnamese while serving the country Trump didn't serve, like a loser.

No, Trump does not recognize the sacrifice that McCain made all those years as prisoner of war. It is incomprehensible to Trump that McCain learned any wisdom, that he matured or grew, through that suffering. Trump has no room for understanding that because narcissists refuse to accept or acknowledge failure. They don't want to learn from their mistakes and setbacks, because they can't allow themselves to accept that failure is possible. If Trump lets go of his conviction that SuperTrump is invincible and infallible, for even a second, he can't even begin to cope with his fears.

A lot of Trump's nine-day-wonder appeal on the campaign trail has been the appeal of vicarious narcissism; he allows his fans to identify with his fantasy self, to be winners by association with SuperTrump, and to share the toxic thrill of his contempt for others. Trump's pitch is I am strong and everyone else is weak; I can make you strong; everyone else is a loser. It's an ugly appeal, but there are always weak, scared people willing to buy it.

Now, I've been more or less practicing psychiatry without a license for this whole post. And it may be that Trump isn't an actual narcissist. Maybe he just plays one on TV. But if I'm offering a hypothesis to explain his behavior, that hypothesis should predict future behavior. So let me make three predictions about Candidate Trump.

First, Trump is not going to apologize for ANYTHING he does on the campaign trail. As I wrote this post, the news came that he was refusing to apologize for insulting McCain. But let me say that I don't expect him to back down on that, or to apologize for anything, no matter what future awful  things he says or does. Trump is not capable of apologizing in any remotely convincing way, because Trump is not capable of accepting that he has ever been in the wrong. If he admits to himself that he is not perfect in every way, his whole world falls apart. He might rather die.

Second, if Trump stays in the race another three weeks, he WILL do and say something else appalling and self-destructive. He has to. Contempt for others is one of his basic tools for propping himself up and getting through the day. This a man who made, "You're fired!" his TV catchphrase. Trump cannot continue to speak in public without dumping on people who actually deserve far more respect than Trump does.

Third, as I suggested in my post about Trump in the polls, Trump will not expose himself to any public defeat or embarrassment. This one is complicated by Trump's incredible ability to distort his own perception of reality and deny any reality that does not fit the SuperTrump image. But we should also remember that a serious narcissist defines "embarrassment" much more broadly than the rest of us do. Trump will either 1) never release a standard FEC financial disclosure, 2) file an inaccurate disclosure, or 3) release a disclosure as the price of staying in the race but deny that his own filing is accurate. Trump will not, cannot admit that he is not as rich as he pretends. he will not back down from his ludicrous claim that he has a net worth of $10 billion assets after liabilities. And by standard accounting, he might not even be a billionaire at all, If he is forced to submit an accurate reckoning of his net worth to the FEC, he will turn around and claim that he is actually much, much richer than his campaign claims. Yes, that would be absurd. But we're talking about Donald Trump.

Just as importantly, Trump will do his best to avoid any situation where he risks losing or has to admit losing. Remember, Trump's core belief is that he never loses, and he takes anything that threatens that as a threat to his core identity. He may not run in a single primary, because if you run in a primary you can lose. Trump cannot deal with that. He might continue running if he has a built-in excuse for not winning. Trump would probably enjoy a Ross-Perot-style third-party candidacy, where he isn't expected to win even 3 electoral votes but gets treated like a serious candidate on national TV. And whatever happens, Donald J. Trump will never admit that he lost the Presidency. He will go to his grave saying, over and over again, that he could have been President. Most likely Trump will pretend that he chose not to continue his candidacy, but would have won if he did. If he persists long enough to be handed a clear defeat, he will claim to have been robbed and to be the rightful winner. You heard it here first.

cross-posted from, and comments welcome at, Dagblog


Trump and the Polls

I don't believe Donald Trump is really running for President. Even before The Donald decided to slam John McCain as "not a war hero" because he "got captured" (as if Trump, who did not serve, would ever have been trusted with a plane),  it hasn't looked like a real campaign. I'm not convinced that Trump will ever consent to a real FEC disclosure filing, and I don't believe he will ever expose his ego to the risk of public defeat at the ballot box. Trump will only stay in if he finds some built-in excuse for losing, like running as a third-party spoiler. Actually being the Republican nominee would mean facing a fear that Trump has built his life around not facing: losing a contest in public. But the fact that Trump has briefly led (!) in the Republican polls tells us something about the rest of the Republican primary field.

1. WTF, Jeb? Trump's early (and probably brief) success as a novelty candidate can largely be chalked up to name recognition. It's July 2015, and most voters have no idea who's running. The campaign is meant to tell them who those other guys are. So a lot of Trump's poll numbers are about the fact that he's on TV and people recognize his name.

But what is Jeb Bush's excuse? I think people are pretty clear who the Bushes are. Jeb(!) could only have better name recognition if he changed his last name to Lincoln, or maybe Bartlett. Based on name recognition, Bush should start out with a big early lead. But that is not happening. People who basically only know who Jeb Bush and Donald Trump have been splitting their votes between them. That cannot be good for Jeb Bush.

2. There is no front runner. Trump has been the "front-runner" in some polls, but he hasn't even hit 20% of any poll. No one has. Nobody ever gets more than 15% or 18%. So in reality, no one is the front runner, and no one has been.

Now, somewhere between 15 and 17 Republican candidates means that the vote gets split up a lot of ways. 16 candidates means an average support level of 6.25% apiece, leaving out "Undecided" and "Don't Know." But votes don't usually split evenly. You could have a candidate with 25% or 30%, another two or three polling between 10% and 15%, and a peloton of backup riders polling in the low single digits. You could have a front-runner with 30%, a main rival with 25%, and a bunch of others polling around 2% or 3% apiece. Instead, the vote-share distribution is looking pretty flat.

Undecided is your Republican front runner right now. Undecided in the lead, Don't Know in second, and Maybe That Guy, You Know the One, in the third.

3. The Size of the Field Helps Keep the Field Large

At this point, the fact that the GOP field is so large, and the differences in polling relatively flat, actually keeps the field large. If it were a field of 6 with two predominant front-runners, candidates #5 and #6 would have to ask themselves what they thought they were doing. More importantly, donors would start asking candidates #5 and #6 what they thought they were doing, and stop paying for them to do it.

But none of that happens when you're candidate #11 of 16 and nobody has even 20% of the vote. You can always tell yourself that all you need is one or two strong showings, or one or two strong debate performances, to launch yourself into the top tier. After all, there isn't a settled top tier yet. The top of the field is totally undefined, so you can tell yourself you have a puncher's chance of fighting your way in.

Nobody so far is ever more than ten or fifteen points behind the leader. That's enough to keep you from winning, but not enough to keep you from trying. And, while no one has more than 15% or 18% of the voters, there's an incentive to stay in as long as you can. If you outlast enough other candidates, you have a chance of picking up their supporters, and picking up most of the votes from two of the others, or maybe even from one of the others, could put you neck and neck with Jeb Bush. But if you drop out early, your votes will go to other people. No one else running for President expects Trump to be around by South Carolina, and Trump's voters have to go to somebody. Why leave the dance before you've had a chance to pick up the early departers' dates?

And remember, some of the candidates, likely including Trump, don't genuinely expect to win and aren't trying to. They're staying in the race to raise their profiles for other reasons. If they were the distantly trailing 6th candidate of 6, that would quickly stop being worth their time. But if there's still a massive field without any clear front runner, the sheer number of other candidates provide cover for the opportunists who are just hanging around so they can be in the debates.

So while what benefits the Republican Party most would be a primary that quickly boils down to a few serious candidates with major support, the actual Republican primary candidates are being incentivized to stay in as long as possible, keeping the field large and chaotic. That's not good for the Republican Party at all. But that's how it will be until one or two clear leaders emerge from the pack.

cross-posted from, and comments welcome at, Dagblog