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

Friday, July 10, 2015

Lame Duck Amok (or, Barack Obama in Winter)

So President Obama is having a couple of pretty good months for a lame-duck President. Obamacare upheld, same-sex marriage legalized nationwide, and the Confederacy-lovers suddenly on the ropes. Things can change fast in national politics, and this post might seem completely wrong in six weeks, but right now, today, Obama's opposition seems about as hapless as they've ever been: unable to cope with events, usually on the defensive and mostly on the wrong foot. And yes, some of this is the usual ups-and-downs of partisan politics. But it's still remarkable that halfway through his second term, when most presidents are largely irrelevant, Obama seems to have stronger mojo than he's had in years.

Maybe it's luck. But maybe Obama's opponents have done this themselves. They have forced him to govern like a lame duck for years now, unable to get almost anything through Congress, so that he had to rely on executive action and the bully pulpit. Most presidents get reduced to using those tools around this point in their second term, and it takes most of them a while to adjust. But Obama has been practicing using his lame-duck toolkit since the 2010 elections; he is right in the middle of his comfort zone at exactly the point when most presidents get thrown out of theirs. In fact, being a lame duck has liberated him to use the bully pulpit more, to be more energetic and direct in his rhetoric. There are no more mid-term elections to worry about, no more swing districts to lose. Obama can just be Obama.

And to some degree, what we're seeing is the overreach of conservative opposition to Obama. Obama has not gone on the offensive; he hasn't had the muscle to do that, and it seems not to be his nature. Instead, the conservative right has largely chosen their own battlegrounds on which to fight Obama, and they're losing to him badly on those chosen grounds. They decided to make repealing Obamacare into a hopeless crusade, long after the point of realism, and they've lost. They made gay marriage a core issue, and lost completely. If the last Supreme Court term has been largely liberal in its decisions, it's because conservative activists overreached, proposing cases that they hoped would produce huge 5-4 wins but that instead turned into 5-4 and 6-3 losses. The conservative Supreme Court Bar has kept swinging for the fences, striking out, and giving the ball to the other side.

Barack Obama could not have started the Black Lives Matter movement. The First Black President could never have done that. And remember, back in 2010 people were publicly scolding Obama for even suggesting that maybe Henry Louis Gates, Jr. shouldn't have been arrested on his own front porch because a cop was annoyed at him. But over the last few years conservative media have chosen to actively champion a series of white men who killed unarmed black men, beginning with Fox News's attempt to lionize George Zimmerman: not just to defend him, but to hold him up as an actual hero. That has meant that increasingly, over the past few years, national media has covered shootings that previously got nothing more than a brief story in local papers. Young black men being shot by cops is not a new phenomenon. What's new is that young men being shot by cops get national press attention, which starts to make it clear just how often this goes on. This has become a national conversation because the conservative media chose it as an area of focus, because they chose the inalienable right to shoot a teenager with Skittles as their preferred cultural battleground. It gets Fox News's viewers excited, but it turns out that repeatedly advocating for killing unarmed youths is not a winning mainstream position. And now Black Lives Matter has a life of its own.

And, to be fair, Obama's success (at least for the moment) in his lame-duck phase may ultimately come down to something much simpler: discipline. At this point in their second terms, most two-term presidents have been wrestling with a major scandal. In July of 1987, the Iran-Contra hearings were already on TV every day. In July of 1999, Bill Clinton had survived impeachment and we all knew much too much about blue dresses, cigars, and the President's favorite sex acts. In July of 1975, Richard Nixon had already been replaced by Gerald Ford. The second half of most second terms have involved a lot of self-inflicted bleeding. And while the last two years of George W. Bush's presidency might not have had a signature scandal per se, an iconic American city got all but completely destroyed on his watch and he seemed neither equipped nor strongly inclined to deal with that. The debacle of Hurricane Katrina clearly destroyed the public's confidence in Bush's leadership, and he never got it back.

For all the chatter, almost since he was inaugurated, about "Obama's Katrina," he simply hasn't had one. There has been no disaster of that size, compounded by negligence, on Obama's watch. And despite the endless harping on possible scandals (Ben-ghhhhaaaazzziiii!) by the Republican base, none of them has seemed like much of a scandal outside the Republican base. Obama is partly helped by the fact that things that could and arguably should be scandals -- wiretapping foreign leaders, aggressive drone strikes without oversight -- are things that his predecessor began doing and that his opposition wants to intensify, not to stop.

That said, we're at the point where most second-term White Houses are plagued by scandal, a muckraker's paradise, but journalists are hell-bent on digging up dirt on Hillary Clinton instead. The Candidate of Hope never quite turned into that guy, but No Drama Obama has pretty much delivered what he promised: a disciplined White House with no major scandals and little serious self-inflicted damage. You can beat Barack Obama; we've seen it done. But you can't get Barack Obama to beat himself. And he's been more than willing to let his opponents knock themselves out.

cross-posted from (and comments welcome at) Dagblog