Archive for the ‘Bruni’ Category

Brooks, Bruni, and Krugman

February 26, 2016

Bobo has taken to his fainting couch, clutching his pearls and moaning.  In “The Governing Cancer of Our Time” he wails that Donald Trump’s candidacy is the culmination of 30 years of antipolitics.  He tried to weasel in some “both-siderism” but got called out in the comments.  In the comments “DNcgo” had this to say:  “”But not exclusive to the right”! – ??? Mr. Brooks, please devote a future column detailing all the “left-leaning” politicians who support a scorched earth policy. I suspect not much ink will be needed.”   (This comment was also a NYT pick.)  Also in the comments “Don Salmon” from Asheville, NC had this to say:  “”But not exclusive to the right”! – ??? Mr. Brooks, please devote a future column detailing all the “left-leaning” politicians who support a scorched earth policy. I suspect not much ink will be needed.”  Mr. Bruni, in “Five Big Questions After a G.O.P. Debate That Targeted Trump,” tells us what the Republican candidates accomplished and risked in their latest showdown.  Prof. Krugman, in “Twilight of the Apparatchiks,” says the Republican establishment’s “wingnut welfare” made Trump possible.  Here’s Bobo:

We live in a big, diverse society. There are essentially two ways to maintain order and get things done in such a society — politics or some form of dictatorship. Either through compromise or brute force. Our founding fathers chose politics.

Politics is an activity in which you recognize the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions. You try to find some way to balance or reconcile or compromise those interests, or at least a majority of them. You follow a set of rules, enshrined in a constitution or in custom, to help you reach these compromises in a way everybody considers legitimate.

The downside of politics is that people never really get everything they want. It’s messy, limited and no issue is ever really settled. Politics is a muddled activity in which people have to recognize restraints and settle for less than they want. Disappointment is normal.

But that’s sort of the beauty of politics, too. It involves an endless conversation in which we learn about other people and see things from their vantage point and try to balance their needs against our own. Plus, it’s better than the alternative: rule by some authoritarian tyrant who tries to govern by clobbering everyone in his way.

As Bernard Crick wrote in his book, “In Defence of Politics,” “Politics is a way of ruling divided societies without undue violence.”

Over the past generation we have seen the rise of a group of people who are against politics. These groups — best exemplified by the Tea Party but not exclusive to the right — want to elect people who have no political experience. They want “outsiders.” They delegitimize compromise and deal-making. They’re willing to trample the customs and rules that give legitimacy to legislative decision-making if it helps them gain power.

Ultimately, they don’t recognize other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.

This antipolitics tendency has had a wretched effect on our democracy. It has led to a series of overlapping downward spirals:

The antipolitics people elect legislators who have no political skills or experience. That incompetence leads to dysfunctional government, which leads to more disgust with government, which leads to a demand for even more outsiders.

The antipolitics people don’t accept that politics is a limited activity. They make soaring promises and raise ridiculous expectations. When those expectations are not met, voters grow cynical and, disgusted, turn even further in the direction of antipolitics.

The antipolitics people refuse compromise and so block the legislative process. The absence of accomplishment destroys public trust. The decline in trust makes deal-making harder.

We’re now at a point where the Senate says it won’t even hold hearings on a presidential Supreme Court nominee, in clear defiance of custom and the Constitution. We’re now at a point in which politicians live in fear if they try to compromise and legislate. We’re now at a point in which normal political conversation has broken down. People feel unheard, which makes them shout even louder, which further destroys conversation.

And in walks Donald Trump. People say that Trump is an unconventional candidate and that he represents a break from politics as usual. That’s not true. Trump is the culmination of the trends we have been seeing for the last 30 years: the desire for outsiders; the bashing style of rhetoric that makes conversation impossible; the decline of coherent political parties; the declining importance of policy; the tendency to fight cultural battles and identity wars through political means.

Trump represents the path the founders rejected. There is a hint of violence undergirding his campaign. There is always a whiff, and sometimes more than a whiff, of “I’d like to punch him in the face.”

I printed out a Times list of the insults Trump has hurled on Twitter. The list took up 33 pages. Trump’s style is bashing and pummeling. Everyone who opposes or disagrees with him is an idiot, a moron or a loser. The implied promise of his campaign is that he will come to Washington and bully his way through.

Trump’s supporters aren’t looking for a political process to address their needs. They are looking for a superhero. As the political scientist Matthew MacWilliams found, the one trait that best predicts whether you’re a Trump supporter is how high you score on tests that measure authoritarianism.

This isn’t just an American phenomenon. Politics is in retreat and authoritarianism is on the rise worldwide. The answer to Trump is politics. It’s acknowledging other people exist. It’s taking pleasure in that difference and hammering out workable arrangements. As Harold Laski put it, “We shall make the basis of our state consent to disagreement. Therein shall we ensure its deepest harmony.”

Next up we have Mr. Bruni:

Were Brakes Just Put on the Trump Juggernaut?

Something profound happened on the stage in Houston on Thursday night. Both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz stopped focusing on each other long enough to turn toward the person who is actually beating both of them and at this point favored to win the Republican nomination: Donald Trump.

Cruz dismissed Trump as someone who’d discovered certain concerns — who’d discovered conservatism, really — only when he became a candidate. Cruz said that while he was working to combat the illegal immigration that so inflames Trump now, “Where was Donald? He was firing Dennis Rodman on ‘Celebrity Apprentice.’”

But Rubio turned in Trump’s direction with particular force. Withferociousness, in fact. He recited a meticulously memorized litany of Trump’s transgressions, especially those that contradict Trump’s words now: the illegal immigrants that Trump reportedly hired for his construction projects, the litigation against a college bearing his name, multiple bankruptcies associated with him.

Referring to Trump’s promised barrier along the Mexican border, Rubio sniped: “If he builds the wall the way he built Trump Towers, he’ll be using illegal immigrant labor to do it.”

He went after the notion that Trump is a good businessman. He went after the idea that Trump is a straight talker. He called Trump a liar — repeatedly.

In other words, he finally hit Trump where Trump lives: image-wise. Thishad to happen, because one explanation for Trump’s success is how reluctant his adversaries have been to confront him as they quarreled with one another instead.

And this had to hurt Trump, because he was shown in a harsher light than he’d been shown in at any previous debate, and his face reddened in the glare.

But Thursday night may well have been too late, and Trump has been made to mimic a ripe tomato before — with minimal political damage to him.

Besides which, Trump at times pushed back as effectively as possible, brushing off charges of hypocrisy and painting Rubio as a pipsqueak with no knowledge of business, and Cruz as an obnoxious scold despised by his Senate colleagues. Those were the smart colors to apply to them.

Did Rubio Go Too Far?

Almost each of his attacks on Trump made good sense. All were entirely fair. But as they piled up higher than even the most majestic Trump-envisioned border wall could ever reach, he came across as strident, mocking, condescending, bratty.

And it was impossible not to wonder if he was doing precisely what Chris Christie had when he tried to take Rubio down in the debate just before the New Hampshire primary: bloodying his adversary at a cost of seriously wounding himself.

He talked over Trump. Trump talked over him. He talked louder over Trump. Trump talked even louder over him. There was one extended exchange, with each of them accusing the other of being more robotic and programmed, that will live on in highlight reels forevermore.

“Now he’s repeating himself,” Rubio pointed out, referring to Trump.

“I don’t repeat myself,” said Trump.

“You don’t repeat yourself,” Rubio responded — disbelievingly, facetiously.

And so it went. Rubio’s hectoring melody overlapped Trump’s exasperated harmony.

But when music gets that ugly, everyone involved can wind up sounding equally bad. And the flip side of Rubio’s — and Cruz’s — assertiveness was desperation. They were both on the offensive on Thursday night because they were both on the ropes. Some viewers undoubtedly perceived it that way.

What’s more, Rubio undercut his considerable efforts so far to be — and to label himself as — the candidate of optimism, uplift, positivity. He took another risk as well. He incurred Trump’s wrath, and while Trump has savaged Cruz and Jeb Bush during this campaign, he hasn’t vilified Rubio to the same extent.

Tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, he will.

How Much Does the Vagueness of Trump’s Proposals Matter?

It was predictable that Rubio and Cruz would portray Trump as someone whose campaign contributions over time, comments from yesteryear and herky-jerky swerves in the present all call into question how committed and trustworthy a conservative he is.

But they lavished nearly as much energy on revealing Trump as an empty suit — as someone who cannot provide any policy details because he doesn’t have any detailed policies. They asked for those details. Again and again. He responded with insults and boasts.

The moderators pressed him for those details. He responded with boasts and insults. And at one cringe-inducing moment, he batted away a question from Hugh Hewitt by saying: “Very few people listen to your radio show.”

Trump never got around to explaining how his health care plan would keep people from dying in the streets without committing the government to significantly increased spending. He never got around to explaining much of anything.

And in the context of that void — and of Rubio’s imitation of a typical Trump answer — his most shopworn, banal phrases stood out.

“We’re going to win a lot,” Trump said, for the millionth time.

And now we finally get to Prof. Krugman:

Lack of self-awareness can be fatal. The haplessness of the Republican establishment in the face of Trumpism is a case in point.

As many have noted, it’s remarkable how shocked — shocked! — that establishment has been at the success of Donald Trump’s racist, xenophobic campaign. Who knew that this kind of thing would appeal to the party’s base? Isn’t the G.O.P. the party of Ronald Reagan, who sold conservatism with high-minded philosophical messages, like talking about a “strapping young buck” using food stamps to buy T-bone steaks?

Seriously, Republican political strategy has been exploiting racial antagonism, getting working-class whites to despise government because it dares to help Those People, for almost half a century. So it’s amazing to see the party’s elite utterly astonished by the success of a candidate who is just saying outright what they have consistently tried to convey with dog whistles.

What I find even more amazing, however, are the Republican establishment’s delusions about what its own voters are for. You see, all indications are that the party elite imagines that base voters share its own faith in conservative principles, when that not only isn’t true, it never has been.

Here’s an example: Last summer, back when Mr. Trump was just beginning his rise, he promised not to cut Social Security, and insiders like William Kristol gleefully declared that he was “willing to lose the primary to win the general.” In reality, however, Republican voters don’t at all share the elite’s enthusiasm for entitlement cuts — remember, George W. Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security ran aground in the face of disapproval from Republicans as well as Democrats.

Yet the Republican establishment still seems unable to understand that hardly any of its own voters, let alone the voters it would need to win in the general election, are committed to free-market, small-government ideology. Indeed, although Marco Rubio — the establishment’s last hope — has finally started to go after the front-runner, so far his attack seems to rest almost entirely on questioning the coiffed one’s ideological purity. Why does he imagine that voters care?

Oh, and the G.O.P. establishment was also sure that Mr. Trump would pay a heavy price for asserting that we were misled into Iraq — evidently unaware just how widespread that (correct) belief is among Americans of all political persuasions.

So what’s the source of this obliviousness? The answer, I’d suggest, is that in recent years — and, in fact, for the past couple of decades — becoming a conservative activist has actually been a low-risk, comfortable career choice. Most Republican officeholders hold safe seats, which they can count on keeping if they are sufficiently orthodox. Moreover, if they should stumble, they can fall back on “wingnut welfare,” the array of positions at right-wing media organizations, think tanks and so on that are always there for loyal spear carriers.

And loyalty is almost the only thing that matters. Does an economist at a right-wing think tank have a remarkable record of embarrassing mistakes? Does a pundit have an almost surreal history of bad calls? No matter, as long as they hew to the orthodox line.

There is, by the way, nothing comparable on the Democratic side. Of course there’s an establishment, but it’s much more diffuse, much less lavishly funded, much less insistent on orthodoxy and forgiving of loyal incompetence.

But back to the hermetic world of the Republican elite: This world has, as I said, existed for decades. The result is an establishment comprising apparatchiks, men (mainly) who have spent their entire professional lives in an environment where repeating approved orthodoxy guarantees an easy life, while any deviation from that orthodoxy means excommunication. They know that people outside their party disagree, but that doesn’t matter much for their careers.

Now, however, they face the reality that most voters inside their party don’t agree with the orthodoxy, either. And all signs are that they still can’t wrap their minds around that fact. They just keep waiting for Donald Trump to suffer the fall from grace that, in their world, always happens to anyone who questions the eternal truth of supply-side economics or the gospel of 9/11. Even now, when it’s almost too late to stop the Trump Express, they still imagine that “But he’s not a true conservative!” is an effective attack.

Things would be very different, obviously, if Mr. Trump were in fact to lock in the Republican nomination (which could happen in a few weeks). Would his raw appeal to white Americans’ baser instincts continue to work? I don’t think so. But given the ineffectuality of his party’s elite, my guess is that we will get a chance to find out.

Bruni, solo

February 24, 2016

In “The Devil in Ted Cruz” Mr. Bruni says he makes angelic claims about his conduct and campaign. But he’s diabolically hypocritical.  Here he is:

When Ted Cruz announced this week that he was firing his campaign’s communications director for circulating a false insinuation that Marco Rubio had belittled the Bible, he told reporters, “Even if it was true, we are not a campaign that is going to question the faith of another candidate.”

Really? Huh. Then I must have been hallucinating last month at a Cruz event in Iowa where several of his handpicked supporters, who spoke just before him, mocked and dismissed Donald Trump’s professed Christianity.

They marveled at a past comment of Trump’s about never asking God for forgiveness. One of them chose a bizarre, religiously coded analogy for a boast Trump had just made about how much voters loved him, saying that the billionaire’s bragging was an echo of John Lennon’s infamous claim — an outrage to American Christians in the 1960s — that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.

But no, Cruz’s campaign would never question the faith of another candidate.

The Texas senator is some piece of double-talking, disingenuous work. While the so-called dirty tricks that he and his lieutenants have been charged with aren’t all that shocking by the standards of bruising presidential campaigns, they really do stand out in the context of Cruz’s flamboyant claims of rectitude and righteousness.

He directs you to his halo as he surreptitiously grabs a pitchfork. His rivals aren’t so diabolically hypocritical.

At a town hall in South Carolina that CNN televised, he answered a question about his miserable relations with fellow lawmakers in Washington by assuring voters that “it’s not that I speak with a lack of civility or respect.”

“The Bible talks about if someone treats you unkindly, repay them with kindness,” he added. “That has been the standard I’ve tried to follow. That’s how I’ve approached it in the Senate. So I have not attacked or insulted my colleagues in the Senate, Democrat or Republican.”

Is he suffering from delusions? Amnesia? On the Senate floor he called Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, a liar. He also likened Senate Republicans who recognized the impossibility of defunding Obamacare to Nazi appeasers.

Where was his vaunted “civility or respect” when, on the heels of his election to the Senate in November 2012, he derided Mitt Romney’s failed presidential bid — to an audience including Romney supporters — by saying that during one presidential debate, “I’m pretty certain Mitt Romney actually French-kissed Barack Obama.”

And where was that “civility or respect” during subsequent Senate hearings to confirm Chuck Hagel as the secretary of defense? Cruz’s repeated suggestions that Hagel had been corrupted by money from America’s enemies were so out of bounds that senators from both parties were appalled.

Cruz continues to congratulate his campaign for its high-mindedness even though his allies and operatives spread an erroneous report, during the Iowa caucuses, that Ben Carson was dropping out of the race. And they had the niftiest bit of counsel for Carson voters. Switch to Cruz!

Then, in South Carolina, Cruz operatives doctored a photograph so that it showed Rubio shaking hands with President Obama in front of the United States Capitol.

These shenanigans profoundly contradict the godly styling of a candidate who was the first ever to announce a presidential campaign at Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the world, and who incessantly invokes the Bible, Jesus and morality.

And they surely reflect the campaign culture that Cruz has created. Political allies and aides tend to behave in a manner largely consistent with their boss’s directives and understood values.

Or they’re brought aboard a campaign because they behave that way. As Matt Flegenheimer reported in The Times this week, Cruz hired a campaign manager, Jeff Roe, who is widely known for destructive gossip, for malicious tactics — and for winning.

Cruz’s hypocrisy may be catching up with him. In Iowa, he drew more evangelical Christian voters than his rivals did, but in South Carolina, Trump beat him among those voters, and Rubio wasn’t far behind. Some of them told reporters, including me, that they’d been turned off by behavior of Cruz’s that they deemed un-Christian.

This dynamic could cripple him in the Southern states that vote in the first half of March, and his strategy hinges on those states.

With their evangelical voters in mind, he frames himself as the candidate truest to Scripture and fiercest in the battle against such scourges (in his estimation) as gay marriage. That framing implicitly questions rivals’ devotion.

And his onetime proclamation that “any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander in chief” is a summons to rivals to prove their faith. He should focus instead on conduct that proves his own.

Bruni, Cohen and Krugman

February 22, 2016

Mr. Bruni has a question:  “Is There Any Stopping Donald Trump?”  He says there was thought—and hope—that he’d fade. Think again.  In “Smartphone Era Politics” Mr. Cohen says people are outpaced by forces they can’t grasp, and that in political discourse, reasonableness dies, provocation works.  Prof. Krugman considers the “Cranks on Top” and says the illusions of the G.O.P. elite may be no better than those of the leading candidate.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

Over the last few months and even weeks, the question among many flabbergasted Republican traditionalists and incredulous political analysts was when the forces of gravity would catch up with Donald Trump and send him tumbling to earth.

It was going to happen. Of course it was going to happen. You just had to be patient. You just had to be strong.

But in the wake of his victories in New Hampshire and now South Carolina, the question is no longer “when.” It’s “if.” And the answer isn’t clear at all.

Consider this: From 1980 forward, no Republican presidential candidate has won both the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries and gone on to lose the party’s nomination.

And this: Over that same time period, only one Republican victor in South Carolina failed to become the nominee, and that was Newt Gingrich, in 2012. But Gingrich didn’t have Trump’s durable (and sizeable) lead in national polls. He didn’t dominate the race’s narrative and capture an exasperated electorate’s mood the way Trump has.

As it happens, Gingrich was on Fox News on Saturday night to discuss Trump’s latest triumph, and he didn’t say: “South Carolina? It’s a muggy, marshy, inconsequential tease. I bagged it four years ago and all it got me was this gig babbling in the wee hours about election returns.”

No, Gingrich marveled at what he made clear was “a huge night for Donald Trump.”

“Nobody should kid themselves,” he added.

Trump didn’t just win South Carolina, and he didn’t just win it by a margin of 10 points. He won it despite what looked, over recent days, like a concerted effort to lose it. He won it after what appeared to be one of the worst weeks that a candidate could have.

It began at the most recent debate, where he trashed the last Republican president, George W. Bush, and accused him of lying to the American people as he led them into war in Iraq. He sounded like a liberal Democrat. Republican primary voters, especially those in the South, aren’t typically receptive to that.

Over the next days, Trump sounded even more like a liberal Democrat, at least as described by Ted Cruz, who went after him relentlessly, armed with Trump’s own past statements in support of abortion rights and Planned Parenthood.

The week got messier from there. Trump picked a fight with the Pope. Trump picked a fight with Apple. It became evident that no personage or brand, no matter how beloved, was safe from his wrath. You had to wonder what or whom he’d go after next. Kittens? Betty Crocker? Betty White?

Then Trump spoke up for a key aspect of Obamacare before realizing what he’d done and assuring everyone that he deplored every aspect of Obamacare, which paled in comparison with Trumpcare, whatever that might turn out to be.

This prompted extensive commentary on Trump’s inconsistencies and a fresh round of murmuring about an imminent tumble.

But what we incredulous political analysts keep failing to take into account—what I was reminded of when I went to a Trump rally last week and listened hard to his supporters—is that the people voting for him aren’t evaluating him through any usual ideological lens. They’re not asking what kind of Republican he is. They’re not troubling themselves with whether the position he’s selling today matches the position he was selling yesterday or even what that old position was.

They want to try something utterly different—utterly disruptive, to use the locution du jour—and that leaves them, on the Republican side, with the options of Trump and Ben Carson. Trump has the fire.

One woman told me that she loves the idea of a billionaire who is funding his own candidacy and won’t be beholden to contributors and special interests. Wouldn’t that be refreshing? Couldn’t that be transformative? Why not give it a shot?

She’d also been to a Marco Rubio rally and was impressed: what a nice young man. But she’s not in the market for nice and young, not this time around.

Another woman told me that she craves a president who is fearless, reallyfearless, and that of all the candidates in the race, Trump seems the least bowed, the least cowed. She trusts him to fight. All he does is fight. And a fight is what’s in order.

A man who served in the Air Force and now works as a trucker told me that over several decades, through several presidents, the Veterans Administration has remained dysfunctional and his wages haven’t gone up. If he keeps voting the same way, for the same run-of-the-mill politicians, shouldn’t he expect more of the same? Trump isn’t the same.

Gingrich analyzed his appeal perfectly during that Fox News appearance. “It’s a very simple rule,” he said. “If you think Washington is so sick you want someone to kick over the kitchen table, then you like Donald Trump and you frankly don’t care about the details.”

In an exit poll of voters who participated in the Republican primary on Saturday, there was a near even split between those who said that the best preparation for the presidency was political experience and those who put more faith in someone from outside the political establishment. Rubio performed best with the former group, getting 38 percent of their votes. But Trump performed best with the latter group—and got 63 percent of theirs.

Going forward, Rubio is probably the bigger threat to Trump than Cruz, who won only 26 percent of South Carolina voters who identified themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians despite having campaigned as narrowly and fiercely as possible for their favor. More of them chose Trump, who got 34 percent of the evangelical vote, and plenty of them chose Rubio, who got 21 percent.

That potentially spells trouble for Cruz in the Southern states on Super Tuesday that he’d hoped to dominate. Rubio, meanwhile, is better positioned than Cruz to pick up former supporters of Jeb Bush, who ended his candidacy Saturday night, and to compete well in states outside the South.

And in the days and weeks to come, Rubio will get even more help and money than he has so far from Republican bigwigs who are desperate to see someone less truculent and divisive than Trump or Cruz burst into the lead. His South Carolina showing redeemed his New Hampshire embarrassment and renewed their faith.

But Rubio hasn’t notched a single victory yet. Trump has notched two, and whether they fully lived up to the advance polling is irrelevant. They’re victories, plural. They’re no fluke, no fad.

Naysayers can’t claim that he’s just a bad gaffe or an ugly revelation away from doom. There have already been gaffes aplenty—if you can call them gaffes. There have been revelations galore.

All Trump’s fans see is someone barreling forward without apology and with a largeness that makes them feel a little less small. They see a winner. And it’s no longer an illusion.

They’re morons.  Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

The time has come for a painful confession: I have spent my life with words, yet I am illiterate. I can ape the vocabulary of my times but it is not mine. Certain things I cannot say, only mouth.

I grew up with readers and, by extension, readership. The readers have vanished like migrating birds. They have been replaced by users and by viewers and by audience. The verbal experience has given way to the visual experience. Where pages were turned images are clicked. Words, those obdurate jewels, have been processed to form content, a commodity like any other. The letter has given way to the link.

I do not have the words to be at ease in this world of steep migration from desktop to mobile, of search-engine optimization, of device-agnostic bundles, of cascading metrics and dashboards and buckets, of post-print onboarding and social-media FOMO (fear of missing out).

I was more at home with the yarn du jour.

Jour was once an apt first syllable for the word journalism; hour would now be more appropriate. The yarn of the day, culled from the local press, was the foreign correspondent’s bread and butter. “Yesterday’s news, today’s story!”

That was in the time of distance. Disconnection equaled immersion. Today, connection equals distraction.

I read therefore I am. I am “liked” therefore I am. I am of the place I am in. I am of the device I inhabit. Talk to me. Facebook me. These are distinct ways of being. They lead to distinct ways of communicating.

We find ourselves at a pivot point. How we exist in relation to one another is in the midst of radical redefinition, from working to flirting. The smartphone is a Faustian device, at once liberation and enslavement. It frees us to be anywhere and everywhere — and most of all nowhere. It widens horizons. It makes those horizons invisible. Upright homo sapiens, millions of years in the making, has yielded in a decade to the stooped homo sapiens of downward device-dazzled gaze.

A smartphone is no longer enough. We must have a smart car and a smart home. Or so we are told. A low-I.Q. home feels good enough to me.

Perhaps this is how the calligrapher felt after 1440, when it began to be clear what Gutenberg had wrought. A world is gone. Another, as poor Jeb Bush (!) has discovered, is being born — one where words mean everything and the contrary of everything, where sentences have lost their weight, where volume drowns truth.

You have to respect American voters. They are changing the lexicon in their anger with the status quo. They don’t care about consistency. They care about energy. Reasonableness dies. Provocation works. Whether you are for or against something, or both at the same time, is secondary to the rise your position gets. Our times are unpunctuated. Politics, too, has a new language, spoken above all by the Republican front-runner as he repeats that, “There is something going on.”

Yes, there is something going on. The phrase resonates with people who feel they have somehow lost control. Stuck, they seek movement above all.

I am not alone in my illiteracy. All around me I see people struggling to understand, anxious they cannot keep up, outpaced by forces they cannot grasp. With knowledge of, and access to, the billions of people sharing the planet has come a new loneliness. How cold and callous is the little screen of our insidious temptation, working our fingers so hard to produce so little!

That acronym, FOMO, is used by Nir Eyal, a former game designer, in his book “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.” In it he describes the fear-of-missing-out mood that triggers people to turn and return to a successful app: “Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation.”

I nodded my head at this in Jacob Weisberg’s review in The New York Review of Books. In the same review, Weisberg writes, “Once out of bed, we check our phones 221 times a day — an average of every 4.3 minutes — according to a U.K. study.” He also notes that one thing young people don’t do on their smartphones “is actually speak to one another.”

This appears to be some form of addictive delirium. It is probably dangerous in some still unknowable way.

But if this is a confession, it is not a lament. Yes, I feel illiterate. Technology has upended not only newspapers. It has upended language itself, which is none other than a community’s system of communication. What is a community today? Can there be community at all with downward gazes? I am not sure. But I am certain that cross-platform content has its beauty and its promise if only I could learn the right words to describe them.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

If prediction markets (and most hardheaded analysis) are to be believed, Hillary Clinton, having demonstrated her staying power, is the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination. The Republican race, by contrast, has seen a lot of consolidation — it’s pretty much down to a two-man race — but the outcome is still up for grabs.

The thing is, one of the two men who may still have a good chance of becoming the Republican nominee is a scary character. His notions on foreign policy seem to boil down to the belief that America can bully everyone into doing its bidding, and that engaging in diplomacy is a sign of weakness. His ideas on domestic policy are deeply ignorant and irresponsible, and would be disastrous if put into effect.

The other man, of course, has very peculiar hair.

Marco Rubio has yet to win anything, but by losing less badly than other non-Trump candidates he has become the overwhelming choice of the Republican establishment. Does this give him a real chance of overtaking the man who probably just won all of South Carolina’s delegates? I have no idea.

But what I do know is that one shouldn’t treat establishment support as an indication that Mr. Rubio is moderate and sensible. On the contrary, not long ago someone holding his policy views would have been considered a fringe crank.

Let me leave aside Mr. Rubio’s terrifying statements on foreign policy and his evident willingness to make a bonfire of civil liberties, and focus on what I know best, economics.

You probably know that Mr. Rubio is proposing big tax cuts, and may know that among other things he proposes completely eliminating taxes oninvestment income — which would mean, for example, that Mitt Romney would end up owing precisely zero in federal taxes.

What you may not know is that Mr. Rubio’s tax cuts would be almost twice as big as George W. Bush’s as a percentage of gross domestic product — despite the fact that federal debt is much higher than it was 15 years ago, and Republicans have spent the Obama years warning incessantly that budget deficits will destroy America, any day now.

But not to worry: Mr. Rubio insists that his tax cuts would pay for themselves, by unleashing incredible economic growth. Never mind the complete absence of any evidence for this claim — in fact, the last two Democratic presidents, both of whom raised taxes on the rich, both presided over better private-sector job growth than Mr. Bush did (and that’s even if you leave out the catastrophe of Mr. Bush’s last year in office).

Then there’s Mr. Rubio’s call for a balanced-budget amendment, which, aside from making no sense at the same time he is calling for budget-busting tax cuts, would have been catastrophic during the Great Recession.

Finally, there’s monetary policy. Republicans have spent years inveighing against the Fed’s efforts to stave off economic disaster, warning again and again that runaway inflation is just around the corner — and being wrong all the way. But Mr. Rubio hasn’t changed his monetary tune at all, declaring a few days ago that it’s “not the Fed’s job to stimulate the economy” (although the law says that it is).

In short, Mr. Rubio is peddling crank economics. What’s interesting, however, is why. You see, he’s not pandering to ignorant voters; he’s pandering to an ignorant elite.

Donald Trump’s rise has confirmed something polling data already suggested, namely, that most Republican voters don’t actually subscribe to much of the party’s official orthodoxy. Mr. Trump has said the unsayable on multiple issues, from declaring that we were deceived into war to calling for higher taxes on the wealthy (although his own plan does no such thing). Each time, party insiders have waited to see his campaign collapse as a result, and each time he has ended up paying no political price.

So when Mr. Rubio genuflects at the altars of supply-side economics and hard money, he isn’t telling ordinary Republicans what they want to hear — by and large the party’s base couldn’t care less. He is, instead, pandering to the party’s elite, consisting mainly of big donors and the network of apparatchiks at think tanks, media organizations, and so on.

In the G.O.P., crank doctrines in economics and elsewhere aren’t bubbling up from below, they’re being imposed from the top down.

What this means, in turn, is that Mr. Rubio’s consolidation of establishment support isn’t a testament to his good sense. In fact, it’s almost the opposite, a reward for his willingness to echo party orthodoxy even, or perhaps especially, when it’s nonsense.

So don’t let anyone tell you that the Republican primary is a fight between a crazy guy and someone reasonable. It’s idiosyncratic, self-invented crankery versus establishment-approved crankery, and it’s not at all clear which is worse.

Friedman and Bruni

February 17, 2016

Tommy Friedman has a question:  “Who Are We?”  He gurgles that the leading presidential candidates are missing the real America if they believe their attacks on the pillars of the nation’s strength.  In the comments “Socrates” from downtown Verona, NJ had this to say:  “Who Are You, Tom ?  Your column is yet another superficial stalactite hanging from the cozy cave ceiling of 1% indifference, dismissal and condescension.  We’re not socialists, you say…except for our taxpayer-funded FBI, Justice Dept., SEC, EPA, police and fire departments, highways, public schools, NIH, CDC, the strongest army in the world, world-class national park system and a thousand other items of common good established by the government.  We are socialist to a large degree, but are afraid to use the word because right-wing propagandists have successfully brainwashed Americans into ignorance, incoherence and glorious myths of exceptional psychopathic greed.”  Mr. Bruni considers “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Trump” and says as new outrages overwrite old ones, it’s easy to forget the sum of his sins.  Here’s TMOW:

I find this election bizarre for many reasons but none more than this: If I were given a blank sheet of paper and told to write down America’s three greatest sources of strength, they would be “a culture of entrepreneurship,” “an ethic of pluralism” and the “quality of our governing institutions.” And yet I look at the campaign so far and I hear leading candidates trashing all of them.

Donald Trump is running against pluralism. Bernie Sanders shows zero interest in entrepreneurship and says the Wall Street banks that provide capital to risk-takers are involved in “fraud,” and Ted Cruz speaks of our government in the same way as the anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist, who says we should shrink government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” (Am I a bad person if I hope that when Norquist slips in that bathtub and has to call 911, no one answers?)

I don’t remember an election when the pillars of America’s strength were so under attack — and winning applause, often from young people!

Trump’s famous hat says “Make America great again.” You can’t do that if your message to Hispanics and Muslims is: Get out or stay away. We have an immigration problem. It’s an outrage that we can’t control our border, but both parties have been complicit — Democrats because they saw new voters coming across and Republicans because they saw cheap labor coming across. But we can fix the border without turning every Hispanic into a rapist or Muslim into a terrorist.

Trump seized on immigration as an emotional wedge to rally his base against “the other” and to blame “the other” for lost jobs, even though more jobs, particularly low-skilled jobs, are lost to microchips, not Mexicans.

What we have in America is so amazing — a pluralistic society withpluralism. Syria and Iraq are pluralistic societies without pluralism. They can only be governed by an iron fist.

Just to remind again: We have twice elected a black man whose grandfather was a Muslim and who defeated a woman to run against a Mormon! Who does that? That is such a source of strength, such a magnet for the best talent in the world. Yet Trump, starting with his “birther” crusade, has sought to undermine that uniqueness rather than celebrate it.

Sanders seems to me like someone with a good soul, and he is right that Wall Street excesses helped tank the economy in 2008. But thanks to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, that can’t easily happen again.

I’d take Sanders more seriously if he would stop bleating about breaking up the big banks and instead breathed life into what really matters for jobs: nurturing more entrepreneurs and starter-uppers. I never hear Sanders talk about where employees come from. They come from employers — risk-takers, people ready to take a second mortgage to start a business. If you want more employees, you need more employers, not just government stimulus.

I have just the plan for him: The 2015 “Milstein Commission on Entrepreneurship and Middle-Class Jobs” report produced by the University of Virginia, which notes: “The identity of America is intrinsically entrepreneurial [enshrined] by the founders, popularized by Horatio Alger, embodied by Henry Ford. … With enough hard work anyone can use entrepreneurship to pave their own way to prosperity and strengthen their communities by creating jobs and growing their local economy.”

In short, we’re not socialists.

The report outlines many steps government can take — from deregulation to education to finance — to unlock more entrepreneurship in America, and not just in Silicon Valley, but anywhere, like Louisville, where “a vibrant start-up community has developed. … Today, the city boasts five accelerators, a vibrant angel investor community and partnerships with large companies to support start-up enterprises like the GE FirstBuild center, which brings together micro-manufacturing and the maker movement.” We can do this! We are doing it. “Roughly half of private-sector employees work in small businesses, and 65 percent of new jobs created since 1995 have come from small enterprises.”

Unlike Sanders, Ted Cruz does not have a good soul. He brims with hate, and his trashing of Washington, D.C., is despicable. I can’t defend every government regulation. But I know this: As the world gets faster and more interdependent, the quality of your governing institutions will matter more than ever, and ours are still pretty good. I wonder how much the average Russian would pay to have our F.B.I. or Justice Department for a day, or how much a Chinese city dweller would pay for a day of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission or Environmental Protection Agency? Cruz wraps himself in an American flag and spits on all the institutions that it represents.

America didn’t become the richest country in the world by practicing socialism, or the strongest country by denigrating its governing institutions, or the most talent-filled country by stoking fear of immigrants. It got here via the motto “E Pluribus Unum” — Out of Many, One.

Our forefathers so cherished that motto they didn’t put it on a hat. They put it on coins and then on the dollar bill. For a guy with so many of those, Trump should have noticed by now.

Well, Tommy, in one and a half Friedman Units the election will be over and you can go back to talking to cab drivers in Bangalore.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

Donald Trump has been recognized for his mastery of the media, his fascination with gilt and his bold advocacy for baffling hair.

But I think his greatest distinction is as a surrealist. Not since Salvador Dalí has someone so ambitiously jumbled reality and hallucination.

I’m thinking of his news conference in South Carolina on Monday and of one assertion in particular, though with Trump it’s always hard to pick and choose.

In an appeal to African-American voters, he charged that Barack Obama had done nothing for them, and drew a contrast between himself and the president by saying: “I’m a unifier. Obama is not a unifier.”

The second of those sentences is debatable. The first is just a joke. Trump sneeringly divides the world into winners and losers, savagely mocks those who challenge him, dabbles in sexism, marinates in racism, and on and on.

To call that unification is laughable under any circumstances. To make that claim to blacks is perverse. Not long ago, he insistently questioned the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency by latching onto the popular right-wing conspiracy theory that Obama had been born in Kenya and couldn’t produce a proper American birth certificate.

Has he forgotten that? Or is he simply betting that Americans have?

Every campaign is a painstaking manipulation of memory, an attempt to get voters to focus on only certain parts of the past and disregard the rest.

Candidates say that they’re eager to run on their records, but what they want from voters isn’t total recall. It’s selective amnesia.

Hillary Clinton would have us dwell on her fight for civil rights in the 1960s. She’d prefer that we edit out bits of the 1990s, when she supported the crime bill and welfare reform.

Bernie Sanders would have us luxuriate in his vision of economic justice. He’d rather us not glance backward and note how little headway he’s made to date.

But Trump is in a different category altogether. He doesn’t so much recast his yesterdays as utterly reinvent them, confident that the brio of his proclamations will mask their bogusness.

Lately he’s been trumpeting his prescience in having urged the Bush administration not to invade Iraq back in 2003, but there’s no such urging on record.

The website PolitiFact went in search of it, combing through newspapers and television transcripts, and came up empty-handed.

“Trump makes it sound like he stood on a railroad to try to stop the Iraq war train in its tracks,” PolitFact reported. “In reality, by the time he got around to forcefully criticizing the war, that train had already left the station.”

His greatest trick, though, isn’t to toy with memory but to overwhelm it, rendering insults and provocations at such a hectic pace that the new ones eclipse and then expunge the old ones. It’s as if the DVR of the electorate and the media can store only so many episodes before it starts erasing earlier indignities.

His flamboyant present overwrites his distressing past. It’s the eternal sunshine of the spotless Trump.

His proposed ban on Muslims coming into the country exited the discussion much more quickly than it should have. So did his false claims that Muslims in Jersey City celebrated by the thousands on 9/11.

At the Republican debate last Saturday night, when Jeb Bush brought up Trump’s galling dismissal of John McCain’s ordeal as a prisoner of war, he was like a D.J. dusting off a golden oldie from the vault. We hadn’t heard that song in a while.

We seldom read much anymore about Trump the birther (unless it’s in relation to Ted Cruz and Canada). And while that’s partly because his Republican rivals see no profit in an attack on him that could be taken as a defense of Obama, it’s also because there’s been so much other, fresher fodder since.

The sheer volume of his offenses minimizes each affront, and as his shock tactics become predictable, they inevitably grow less menacing, too.

I hear it in the conversations around me; I see it in media coverage that increasingly treats him as a normal candidate. Familiarity breeds surrender, even rationalizations: He doesn’t actually mean what he says. He doesn’t ultimately believe in anything. It’s all strategy, all spectacle. Sit back and enjoy the show.

“It’s so fun to watch,” Ezra Klein of Voxrecently wrote, “it’s easy to lose sight of how terrifying it really is.”

I might quibble with “fun,” but not with the notion that Trump has used a kind of sensory overload to numb us to the fictions he spins, the indecency he indulges.

We can’t lose track. We must keep score. The sum of them is the essence of him, a picture worth a thousand slurs.

Bobo from yesterday, Friedman and Bruni

February 10, 2016

I had some minor eye surgery yesterday, so didn’t spend any time on the computer.  But I couldn’t POSSIBLY not post Bobo’s cri de coeur from yesterday, titled, and you can’t make this stuff up, “I Miss Barack Obama.”  Turns out that President Obama is okay after all…  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “Let’s skip the disingenuous ode to Obama. Of course he’s a decent man. But instead of mourning the upcoming loss of his grace and equanimity, we ought to be lamenting the loss of eight years of potential that Republicans squandered in their utter refusal to work with him. Conservatives like Mr. Brooks have undermined everything he’s stood for, and helped to create the polarized chaos out of which these embarrassing excuses for Republican candidates have emerged.  Brooks dismisses them all, except that he find Rubio charming when he breaks out in a nervous sweat and robotically repeats talking points under the pressure of a Republican debate. Imagine how charming he’ll be when North Korea launches missiles.”  Poor Bobo has a terrible case of the flop sweats.  Today The Moustache of Wisdom ponders “The Many Mideast Solutions” and says our presidential candidates can retire their platitudes about standing with Israeli and Sunni Arab allies.  Mr. Bruni considers “Feminism, Hell and Hillary Clinton” and says gender informs her quest, but it’s not the main reason to be for or against her.  Here’s Bobo from yesterday:

As this primary season has gone along, a strange sensation has come over me: I miss Barack Obama. Now, obviously I disagree with a lot of Obama’s policy decisions. I’ve been disappointed by aspects of his presidency. I hope the next presidency is a philosophic departure.

But over the course of this campaign it feels as if there’s been a decline in behavioral standards across the board. Many of the traits of character and leadership that Obama possesses, and that maybe we have taken too much for granted, have suddenly gone missing or are in short supply.

The first and most important of these is basic integrity. The Obama administration has been remarkably scandal-free. Think of the way Iran-contra or the Lewinsky scandals swallowed years from Reagan and Clinton.

We’ve had very little of that from Obama. He and his staff have generally behaved with basic rectitude. Hillary Clinton is constantly having to hold these defensive press conferences when she’s trying to explain away some vaguely shady shortcut she’s taken, or decision she has made, but Obama has not had to do that.

He and his wife have not only displayed superior integrity themselves, they have mostly attracted and hired people with high personal standards. There are all sorts of unsightly characters floating around politics, including in the Clinton camp and in Gov. Chris Christie’s administration. This sort has been blocked from team Obama.

Second, a sense of basic humanity. Donald Trump has spent much of this campaign vowing to block Muslim immigration. You can only say that if you treat Muslim Americans as an abstraction. President Obama, meanwhile, went to a mosque, looked into people’s eyes and gave a wonderful speech reasserting their place as Americans.

He’s exuded this basic care and respect for the dignity of others time and time again. Let’s put it this way: Imagine if Barack and Michelle Obama joined the board of a charity you’re involved in. You’d be happy to have such people in your community. Could you say that comfortably about Ted Cruz? The quality of a president’s humanity flows out in the unexpected but important moments.

Third, a soundness in his decision-making process. Over the years I have spoken to many members of this administration who were disappointed that the president didn’t take their advice. But those disappointed staffers almost always felt that their views had been considered in depth.

Obama’s basic approach is to promote his values as much as he can within the limits of the situation. Bernie Sanders, by contrast, has been so blinded by his values that the reality of the situation does not seem to penetrate his mind.

Take health care. Passing Obamacare was a mighty lift that led to two gigantic midterm election defeats. As Megan McArdle pointed out in her Bloomberg View column, Obamacare took coverage away from only a small minority of Americans. Sanderscare would take employer coverage away from tens of millions of satisfied customers, destroy the health insurance business and levy massive new tax hikes. This is epic social disruption.

To think you could pass Sanderscare through a polarized Washington and in a country deeply suspicious of government is to live in intellectual fairyland. President Obama may have been too cautious, especially in the Middle East, but at least he’s able to grasp the reality of the situation.

Fourth, grace under pressure. I happen to find it charming that Marco Rubio gets nervous on the big occasions — that he grabs for the bottle of water, breaks out in a sweat and went robotic in the last debate. It shows Rubio is a normal person. And I happen to think overconfidence is one of Obama’s great flaws. But a president has to maintain equipoise under enormous pressure. Obama has done that, especially amid the financial crisis. After Saturday night, this is now an open question about Rubio.

Fifth, a resilient sense of optimism. To hear Sanders or Trump, Cruz and Ben Carson campaign is to wallow in the pornography of pessimism, to conclude that this country is on the verge of complete collapse. That’s simply not true. We have problems, but they are less serious than those faced by just about any other nation on earth.

People are motivated to make wise choices more by hope and opportunity than by fear, cynicism, hatred and despair. Unlike many current candidates, Obama has not appealed to those passions.

No, Obama has not been temperamentally perfect. Too often he’s been disdainful, aloof, resentful and insular. But there is a tone of ugliness creeping across the world, as democracies retreat, as tribalism mounts, as suspiciousness and authoritarianism take center stage.

Obama radiates an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance that I’m beginning to miss, and that I suspect we will all miss a bit, regardless of who replaces him.

About the only thing I’ll add to that is to take everything he said with a larger than usual pinch of pink Himalayan salt because he cited Megan “Where Does That Decimal Point Go?” McArdle.  Now we get to TMOW:

In December at the Brookings Saban Forum on the Middle East, Atlantic magazine reporter Jeff Goldberg asked the right-wing former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman this provocative question: “Things are shifting radically not only in non-Jewish America but in Jewish America as it concerns Israel and its reputation. My question is: (A) Do you care? (B) What are you going to do about it? And (C) how important is it to you?”

“To speak frankly, I don’t care,” Lieberman responded, adding that Israel lived in a dangerous neighborhood. Give Lieberman credit for honesty: I don’t really care what American Jews or non-Jews think about Israel.

That conversation came back to me as I listened to the Democratic and Republican debates when they briefly veered into foreign policy, with candidates spouting the usual platitudes about standing with our Israeli and Sunni Arab allies. Here’s a news flash: You can retire those platitudes. Whoever becomes the next president will have to deal with a totally different Middle East.

It will be a Middle East shaped by struggle over a one-state solution, a no-state solution, a non-state solution and a rogue-state solution.

That is, a one-state solution in Israel, a no-state solution in Syria, Yemen and Libya, a non-state solution offered by the Islamic caliphate and a rogue-state solution offered by Iran.

Start with Israel. The peace process is dead. It’s over, folks, so please stop sending the New York Times Op-Ed page editor your proposals for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. The next U.S. president will have to deal with an Israel determined to permanently occupy all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, including where 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians live.

How did we get there? So many people stuck knives into the peace process it’s hard to know who delivered the mortal blow. Was it the fanatical Jewish settlers determined to keep expanding their footprint in the West Bank and able to sabotage any Israeli politician or army officer who opposed them? Was it right-wing Jewish billionaires, like Sheldon Adelson, who used their influence to blunt any U.S. congressional criticism of Bibi Netanyahu?

Or was it Netanyahu, whose lust to hold onto his seat of power is only surpassed by his lack of imagination to find a secure way to separate from the Palestinians? Bibi won: He’s now a historic figure — the founding father of the one-state solution.

And Hamas is the mother. Hamas devoted all its resources to digging tunnels to attack Israelis from Gaza rather than turning Gaza into Singapore, making a laughingstock of Israeli peace advocates. And Hamas launched a rocket close enough to Tel Aviv’s airport that the U.S. banned all American flights for a day, signaling to every Israeli, dove or hawk, what could happen if they ceded the West Bank.

But Hamas was not alone. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, sacked the only effective Palestinian prime minister ever, Salam Fayyad, who was dedicated to fighting corruption and proving that Palestinians deserved a state by focusing on building institutions, not U.N. resolutions.

They all killed the two-state solution. Let the one-state era begin. It will involve a steady low-grade civil war between Palestinians and Israelis and a growing Israeli isolation in Europe and on college campuses that the next U.S. president will have to navigate.

Meanwhile, a no-state Syria — a Syria that Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers only partly control — will be a chest wound bleeding refugees into Europe. I am certain that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is deliberately bombing anti-regime Syrians to drive them into Europe in hopes of creating a rift in the European Union, strain its resources and make it a weaker rival to Russia and a weaker ally for America.

And the non-state Sunni caliphate (ISIS) and rogue-state Shiite Iran will feed off each other. I love it when both Democratic and Republican candidates say, “When I am president, I’ll get Sunni Arabs to take the lead in fighting ISIS.” Gosh, I bet Obama never thought of that!

The Sunni Arabs are never going to destroy a non-state ISIS as long as Iran behaves like a Shiite rogue state, not a normal one. It’s true, Iran is a great civilization. It could dominate the region with the dynamism of its business class, universities, science and arts. But Iran’s ayatollahs don’t trust their soft power. They prefer instead to go rogue, to look for dignity in all the wrong places — by using Shiite proxies to dominate four Arab capitals: Beirut, Damascus, Sana and Baghdad.

So my advice to all the candidates is: Keep talking about the fantasy Middle East. I can always use a good bedtime story to fall asleep. But get ready for the real thing. This is not your grandfather’s Israel anymore, it’s not your oil company’s Saudi Arabia anymore, it’s not your NATO’s Turkey anymore, it’s not your cabdriver’s Iran anymore and it’s not your radical chic college professor’s Palestine anymore. It’s a wholly different beast now, slouching toward Bethlehem.

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

I’m 51. My health is decent. And while my mother died young, there’s longevity elsewhere in the family tree.

I could live to see an openly gay presidential candidate with a real chance of victory.

Will there be a “special place in hell” for me if I, as a gay man, don’t support him or her?

I can guess Madeleine Albright’s answer. She more or less told women that they’re damned if they’re not on Hillary Clinton’s team.

I’m still trying to get my head around that — and around Gloria Steinem’s breathtakingly demeaning assertion that young women who back Bernie Sanders are in thrall to pheromones, not ideas or idealism, and angling to score dates with the young bucks in the Sanders brigade.

That’s right, “democratic socialism” is a known aphrodisiac: the oyster of politics. There’s nothing like denunciations of oligarchs to put you in the mood.

Also, has Steinem forgotten about lesbians? More than a few of them support Sanders, and it’s not because of the way some 26-year-old doctoral candidate looks in his L. L. Bean flannel.

There’s a weird strain of thought swirling around Clinton’s campaign: that we should vote for her because she’s a woman. Or that she’s inoculated from certain flaws or accusations by dint of gender. Or that, at the least, there’s an onus on forward-looking people who care about gender inequality to promote her candidacy.

I care about gender inequality, and I don’t buy it. It’s bad logic. It’s even worse strategy. People don’t vote out of shame. They vote out of hope.

Perhaps that was among the lessons of Clinton’s defeat in New Hampshire on Tuesday, where she lost to Sanders among all women by at least seven percentage points, according to exit polling, and among women under 30 by more than 60 points.

Clinton is on sturdy ground, morally and tactically, when she mentions a double standard for women. So are her surrogates. Actually, there are so many double standards that you couldn’t fit them in a column eight times the length of this one, and she has bumped into plenty, including, yes, the fuss over her raised voice.

But the argument that she’s somehow not a full-fledged member of the establishment because she’s a woman — as she contended during the most recent Democratic debate — is nonsense. On that night, she also echoed a past statement to CBS News that she “cannot imagine anyone being more of an outsider than the first woman president.”

Really? Anyone? Off the top of my head I can think of a person who might quibble with that. His name is Barack Obama.

Admittedly, there’s no easy way to navigate the terrain she inhabits. Eight years ago, she denied her campaign the romantic sweep of Obama’s by playing down and trying to correct for gender. This time around, she was advised, rightly, not to repeat that mistake. But how to do that without going too far?

I think she started out perfectly, with incontestable reflections on women’s challenges in the workplace and with casual asides about the historic nature of her bid. Discussing her age, she said, “I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States.”

But more recently, things have fallen out of whack. Bill Clinton’s diatribeabout the misogyny of some Sanders supporters sounded like a defensive outsourcing of blame for the Clinton campaign’s disappointments in the polls and the returns: the narrowest of victories in Iowa followed by the resounding New Hampshire defeat.

The Clintons are always quick to point fingers and slow to look in the mirror. On top of which, Bill Clinton’s invocation of sexism felt too pat, his citation of gross language on Twitter (which, sadly, brims with it) too easy.

Clinton’s gender indeed matters. Just as you couldn’t properly evaluate Obama’s arc without factoring in race, you can’t see her accurately without recognizing that she’s a woman of her time, with all the attendant obstacles, hurts, compromises and tenacity.

That informs — and, ideally, illuminates — her perspective. And her presidency would carry a powerful, constructive symbolism that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.

But those are considerations among many, many others in taking her measure and in casting a vote. To focus only or primarily on them is more reductive than respectful, and to tell women in particular what kind of politics they should practice is the antithesis of feminism, which advocates independence and choices.

We’re all complicated people voting for complicated people. We’re not census subgroups falling in line.

I’ll go to the barricades for that imagined gay candidate if he or she has talents I trust, positions I respect and a character I admire. If not, I’ll probably go elsewhere, because being gay won’t be the sum of that person, just as womanhood isn’t where Clinton begins and ends.

Friedman and Bruni

February 3, 2016

In “Social Media: Destroyer or Creator?” The Moustache of Wisdom says a man who helped set off the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt has drawn some conclusions about “Facebook revolutions.””  Mr. Bruni, in “Hillary Clinton’s Dutiful Slog,” says her campaign declared victory in Iowa, but she has no reason to celebrate.  Here’s TMOW:

Over the last few years we’ve been treated to a number of “Facebook revolutions,” from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street to the squares of Istanbul, Kiev and Hong Kong, all fueled by social media. But once the smoke cleared, most of these revolutions failed to build any sustainable new political order, in part because as so many voices got amplified, consensus-building became impossible.

Question: Does it turn out that social media is better at breaking things than at making things?

Last month an important voice answered this question with a big “ yes.” That voice was Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google employee whose anonymous Facebook page helped to launch the Tahrir Square revolution in early 2011 that toppled President Hosni Mubarak — but then failed to give birth to a true democratic alternative.

In December, Ghonim, who has since moved to Silicon Valley, posted a TED talk about what went wrong. It is worth watching and begins like this: “I once said, ‘If you want to liberate a society, all you need is the Internet.’ I was wrong. I said those words back in 2011, when a Facebook page I anonymously created helped spark the Egyptian revolution. The Arab Spring revealed social media’s greatest potential, but it also exposed its greatest shortcomings. The same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart.”

In the early 2000s, Arabs were flocking to the web, Ghonim explained: “Thirsty for knowledge, for opportunities, for connecting with the rest of the people around the globe, we escaped our frustrating political realities and lived a virtual, alternative life.”

And then in June 2010, he noted, the “Internet changed my life forever. While browsing Facebook, I saw a photo … of a tortured, dead body of a young Egyptian guy. His name was Khaled Said. Khaled was a 29-year-old Alexandrian who was killed by police. I saw myself in his picture. … I anonymously created a Facebook page and called it ‘We Are All Khaled Said.’ In just three days, the page had over 100,000 people, fellow Egyptians who shared the same concern.”

Soon Ghonim and his friends used Facebook to crowd-source ideas, and “the page became the most followed page in the Arab world. … Social media was crucial for this campaign. It helped a decentralized movement arise. It made people realize that they were not alone. And it made it impossible for the regime to stop it.”

Ghonim was eventually tracked down in Cairo by Egyptian security services, beaten and then held incommunicado for 11 days. But three days after he was freed, the millions of protesters his Facebook posts helped to galvanize brought down Mubarak’s regime.

Alas, the euphoria soon faded, said Ghonim, because “we failed to build consensus, and the political struggle led to intense polarization.” Social media, he noted, “only amplified” the polarization “by facilitating the spread of misinformation, rumors, echo chambers and hate speech. The environment was purely toxic. My online world became a battleground filled with trolls, lies, hate speech.”

Supporters of the army and the Islamists used social media to smear each other, while the democratic center, which Ghonim and so many others occupied, was marginalized. Their revolution was stolen by the Muslim Brotherhood and, when it failed, by the army, which then arrested many of the secular youths who first powered the revolution. The army has its own Facebook page to defend itself.

“It was a moment of defeat,” said Ghonim. “I stayed silent for more than two years, and I used the time to reflect on everything that happened.”

Here is what he concluded about social media today: “First, we don’t know how to deal with rumors. Rumors that confirm people’s biases are now believed and spread among millions of people.” Second, “We tend to only communicate with people that we agree with, and thanks to social media, we can mute, un-follow and block everybody else. Third, online discussions quickly descend into angry mobs. … It’s as if we forget that the people behind screens are actually real people and not just avatars.

“And fourth, it became really hard to change our opinions. Because of the speed and brevity of social media, we are forced to jump to conclusions and write sharp opinions in 140 characters about complex world affairs. And once we do that, it lives forever on the Internet.”

Fifth, and most crucial, he said, “today, our social media experiences are designed in a way that favors broadcasting over engagements, posts over discussions, shallow comments over deep conversations. … It’s as if we agreed that we are here to talk at each other instead of talking with each other.”

Ghonim has not given up. He and a few friends recently started a website, Parlio.com, to host intelligent, civil conversations about controversial and often heated issues, with the aim of narrowing gaps, not widening them. (I participated in a debate on Parlio and found it engaging and substantive.)

“Five years ago,” concluded Ghonim, “I said, ‘If you want to liberate society, all you need is the Internet.’ Today I believe if we want to liberate society, we first need to liberate the Internet.”

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Late Monday, as the unfinished vote count suggested the slimmest of victories for Hillary Clinton, she stepped to a microphone, flashed an Oscar-worthy smile of triumph and told supporters that she was “breathing a big sigh of relief.”

She wasn’t. She isn’t. And she definitely shouldn’t be.

That’s not because what happened in Iowa — almost a tie between her and Bernie Sanders — substantially loosens her grip on the Democratic presidential nomination. Iowa was better terrain for Sanders than much of what lies ahead, and the dynamics that made her a heavy favorite to be the nominee before the state’s caucuses make her a heavy favorite still.

But Iowa demonstrated, yet again, what a flawed and tarnished candidate she is. And on the Republican side, the caucuses augured the possibility of a retreat from the party’s craziness and the rise of an adversary, Marco Rubio, who could give her trouble in a general-election matchup.

She should have trounced Sanders. Yes, he communicates authenticity to an electorate ravenous for it and has given potent voice to Americans’ economic angst. But little in his Senate career suggests that he’d be able to turn that oratory into remedy.

He’s no gushing font of political charisma. He’s a 74-year-old, self-proclaimed socialist who until fairly recently had minimal name recognition outside of Vermont.

President Obama clearly prefers Clinton. And in a poll of Democrats showing up for the Iowa caucuses, well over half said that they wanted someone who would continue Obama’s agenda — which is the precise pledge that Clinton has been making over the last few weeks — while only about one-third said that they preferred someone more liberal.

Even so, Clinton appears to have edged out Sanders by mere decimal points. How to explain it?

Perhaps with the sturdiest truism of politics: Elections are about the future. And so much about Clinton screams the past.

A rally of hers that I attended in Iowa last week actually began with a highlights reel of Clinton through time, including plenty of footage from the 1990s.

I understand why. The retrospective underscored her extraordinary experience. But nothing in her subsequent speech looked forward as stirringly as those images looked backward.

She’s forever stressing what she’s put up with, what she’s survived. “I’ve been around a long time,” she said in Des Moines a week ago, answering — but not really — a young voter’s question about the dearth of enthusiasm for her. “They throw all this stuff at me, and I’m still standing.”

It’s the language of drudgery and duty rather than inspiration, and she can sound as if she’s collecting on an i.o.u. and asking voters to complete hertrajectory rather than begin one of their own.

Bill Clinton may well garner applause, but every time he stumps for her, it’s an implicit promise to revisit yesterday, not to chart tomorrow. On Monday night, he and Chelsea stood with her as she spoke, and I was struck by the overwhelming familiarity of that tableau. It has been with us for a quarter of a century.

At this point the Clintons are royalty, and royalty sits at a remove from all else. Among Democratic caucusgoers most concerned about voting for a candidate who cared about people like them, 74 percent picked Sanders, while only 22 percent chose Clinton. (Martin O’Malley got the remainder.)

For caucusgoers acting primarily on the basis of who they deemed most “honest and trustworthy,” 83 percent voted for Sanders, while just 10 percent voted for Clinton. That’s the toll of all the attention to her emails, a topic that’s not disappearing anytime soon.

She has a habit, whether addressing a large group or a small one, of diving so deeply into the weeds of a subject that she doesn’t so much impress listeners as exhaust them. To her credit, she has educated herself more thoroughly than other politicians. But she somehow hasn’t learned to wear that erudition lightly.

For months Democrats have been heartened by the absurdity with which Donald Trump infused the Republican primary and by the prospect of him or Ted Cruz as the party’s nominee. But his second-place showing could be his twilight, and Rubio’s strong third-place finish supports the scenario that he’s the one.

He poses a bigger threat to Clinton. He understands that she, like Jeb Bush, is an awkward fit for the national mood, and he’d try to take advantage of that. He leans hard on his youth. He talks about a new generation.

Clinton needs to persuade voters that as much as they’ve seen of her, she can still lead them to a place they’ve not yet seen. She hasn’t succeeded, and she slogs on from Iowa much as she did eight years ago: with more to prove than to savor.

Brooks, Bruni, and Krugman

January 29, 2016

Bobo thinks he knows “What Republicans Should Say.”  He says David Cameron has outlined a truly conservative, pragmatic response to poverty, and we need an American version of it.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “This is why conservatives make my skin crawl. They treat poverty as a disease that some people catch, and then try to cure it by improving their character. Feed them religion instead of steak. Teach them how to live in poverty instead of paying higher wages.  Conservatives fret about values, as if they don’t emerge from the day-to-day experiences of people who struggle through unemployment and the economic abandonment of entire cities.”  Mr. Bruni, in “G.O.P. Debate Stars the Ghost of Donald Trump,” says during a night of spirited exchanges, there was no getting away from the spirit of the missing Republican front-runner.  In “Plutocrats and Prejudice” Prof. Krugman says an unspoken agenda is behind the ugliness in American politics.  Here’s Bobo:

For a few decades, American and British conservatism marched in tandem. Thatcher was philosophically akin to Reagan. John Major was akin to George Bush.

But now the two conservatisms have split. The key divide is over what to do about the slow-motion devastation being felt by the less educated, the working class and the poor.

Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have appealed to working-class voters mostly by blaming outsiders. If we could kick out all the immigrants there wouldn’t be lawbreakers driving down wages. If we could dismantle the Washington cartel the economy would rise.

In Britain David Cameron is going down another path. This month he gave a speech called “Life Chances.” Not to give away the ending or anything, but I’d give a lung to have a Republican politician give a speech like that in this country.

First, he defined the role of government: basic security. In a world full of risks, government can help furnish a secure base from which people can work, dream and rise.

Cameron argued that both sides in the debate over poverty suffered real limitations because they still used 20th-century thinking. The left has traditionally wanted to use the state to redistribute money downward. The right has traditionally relied on the market to generate the growth that lifts all boats.

The welfare state and the market are important, but, he argues, “talk to a single mum on a poverty-stricken estate, someone who suffers from chronic depression, someone who perhaps drinks all day to numb the pain of the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. Tell her that because her benefits have risen by a couple of pounds a week, she and her children have been magically lifted out of poverty. Or on the other hand, if you told her about the great opportunities created by our market economy, I expect she’ll ask you what planet you’re actually on.”

Cameron called for a more social approach. He believes government can play a role in rebuilding social capital and in healing some of the traumas fueled by scarcity and family breakdown.

He laid out a broad agenda: Strengthen family bonds with shared parental leave and a tax code that rewards marriage. Widen opportunities for free marital counseling. Speed up the adoption process. Create a voucher program for parenting classes. Expand the Troubled Families program by 400,000 slots. This program spends 4,000 pounds (about $5,700) per family over three years and uses family coaches to help heal the most disrupted households.

Cameron would also create “character modules” for schools, so that there are intentional programs that teach resilience, curiosity, honesty and service. He would expand the National Citizen Service so that by 2021 60 percent of the nation’s 16-year-olds are performing national service, and meeting others from across society. He wants to create a program to recruit 25,000 mentors to work with young teenagers.

To address concentrated poverty, he would replace or revamp 100 public housing projects across the country. He would invest big sums in mental health programs and create a social impact fund to unlock millions for new drug and alcohol treatment.

It’s an agenda that covers the entire life cycle, aiming to give people the strength and social resources to stand on their own. In the U.S. we could use exactly this sort of agenda. There is an epidemic of isolation, addiction and trauma.

According to an AARP survey, one-third of adults over 45 report being chronically lonely. Drug overdose deaths of people ages 45 to 64 increased 11-fold between 1990 and 2010. More than half the American births to women under 30 are outside of marriage. Poorer parents are too strained and stressed to spend as much quality time raising their kids. According to the sociologist Robert Putnam, college-educated parents spend 50 percent more “Goodnight Moon” time with their kids than less-educated parents.

Meanwhile social support systems are fraying, especially for those without a college degree. Religious affiliation is plummeting. Since 1990 the number of people who declare no religious preference has tripled. Social trust is declining. Only 18 percent of high school seniors say that most people can be trusted.

There are two natural approaches to help those who are falling behind. The first we’ll call the Bernie Sanders approach. Focus on economics. Provide people with money and jobs and their lifestyles will become more stable. Marriage rates will rise. Depression rates will drop.

The second should be the conservative approach. Focus on social norms, community bonds and a nurturing civic fabric. People need relationships and basic security before they can respond to economic incentives.

But Republicans have walked away from their traditional Burkean turf. The two leading Republican presidential candidates offer little more than nativism and demagogy.

David Cameron has offered an agenda for a nation that is coming apart. There desperately needs to be an American version.

Next up we have Mr. Bruni, writing from Des Moines:

Donald Trump’s absence, of course, was the most compelling presence.

At the Republican debate here on Thursday night, Fox News didn’t put up an empty lectern. It didn’t need to. Trump was remembered. Trump was invoked. His ghost lingered, because he’d reshaped his Republican rivals’ images, reconfigured the challenges in front of them, rewritten the rules of this extraordinary race.

“Let’s address the elephant not in the room tonight,” said Megyn Kelly at the very start, and there was no doubt that the tusked behemoth in question had an oddly shaped swirl of vaguely cantaloupe-colored hair. She then asked Ted Cruz what message Trump’s failure to attend the event sent to the voters of Iowa.

Cruz didn’t just discuss Trump. He imitated him.

“I’m a maniac, and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly,” Cruz said. Addressing Ben Carson, he added: “You’re a terrible surgeon.”

“Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way,” he continued, “I want to thank everyone here for showing the men and women of Iowa the respect to show up.”

He was mocking Trump, but in the process affirmed that everything revolves around Trump.

Almost a half-hour later, he was still making fun of Trump.

“If you guys ask one more mean question, I may have to leave the stage,” Cruz warned sarcastically.

Marco Rubio got in on the action by chiming in: “Don’t worry, I’m not leaving the stage no matter what you ask me.” The point of reference remained Trump, who was also the subject of some of the first words out of Jeb Bush’s mouth.

“I kind of miss Donald Trump,” Bush said. “He was a little teddy bear to me.” He then claimed that in debates past, he had taken on Trump more boldly than any of his competitors on the stage. Trump, in other words, was the proof of his mettle, the dragon that he alone set out to slay.

Shortly before the event began, Rupert Murdoch, the founder of Fox News, tweeted, “Republican candidates must be looking forward to tonight’s debate. Speaking without Donald getting all attention.”

Wishful thinking.

Trump got plenty of attention, because the drama offstage matched the drama onstage. For the two days leading up to the event, the main story — seemingly the only story — was his decision to skip it: Political suicide or stroke of genius?

In the hours before it, CNN could speak of almost nothing but Trump. It kept flashing footage of the fan-packed rally he had orchestrated just a couple of miles from the debate, to compete with it.

“There are thousands who have waited hours throughout the day,” the anchor Erin Burnett marveled.

When her colleague Anderson Cooper then interviewed a CNN correspondent at the debate itself, the first question he asked her was about how the debaters were likely to adjust to a Trump-less event.

“His shadow is looming large, even though he is not there,” Cooper said to the correspondent, then he turned to the network’s panel of political analysts, who talked about Trump, Trump, Trump.

And here I am, writing about Trump, Trump, Trump.

It’s impossible not to. It would be irresponsible not to, because believe it or not, hate it or love it, he’s the Republican campaign’s great and sobering lesson to the country, telling us things about its discontents that we didn’t properly understand. He’s the campaign’s undeniable force of gravity, exerting a pull on everyone and everything around him.

You could feel that pull at the debate, where the toughness with which Kelly grilled Cruz and Rubio on immigration — even showing footage of past remarks that caught them in flips, flops and contradictions — was a clear demonstration of her readiness to put any candidate on the skewer, not just Trump.

You could feel that pull in the fieriness of many candidates’ manners and the extremes to which they pushed their positions. Trump has set the temperature of the conversation, and it’s a blistering one that had Rubio pledging over and over to keep Guantánamo Bay open and stuff it full of terrorists.

You could feel that pull above all in the duration and emotionalism of the immigration discussion itself. It’s Trump’s promised wall and Trump’s pledges to deport millions of immigrants that have made this issue so prominent and compelled Republican candidates to take harder lines than they previously had.

On Thursday night, those lines tripped up Rubio and Cruz, whose difficult time onstage had everything to do with the fact that Trump wasn’t there. He’s the front-runner; he would have been the main target. Without him, they drew more fire.

“I’m kind of confused,” Bush said of Rubio’s approach to immigration reform over the years. “He led the charge to finally fix this immigration problem that has existed now for, as Marco says, for 30 years. And then he cut and run because it wasn’t popular among conservatives, I guess.”

Rubio didn’t have a persuasive response, but later went after Cruz, insinuating that he once had an approach to immigration less unyielding than the one he’s promoting on the campaign trail.

“Now you want to trump Trump on immigration,” Rubio said.

Political observers have been waiting for Rubio’s breakout moment, and many predicted that he’d have it at this debate. He didn’t. Put frequently on the defensive, he reverted to lines he’d used before and nuggets from his stump speech, and he kept returning to ISIS and military might, military might and ISIS. He came across as overly programmed, one-dimensional and itchy to go to war.

And Cruz couldn’t banish a sour expression and an air of grievance.

Three of the underdogs — Bush, Chris Christie and Rand Paul — had the best moments. Christie circled back too frequently to his beloved, overworked boast that he would make sure that Hillary Clinton never again got close to the White House, but he had a terrific retort to Cruz’s and Rubio’s explanations of their legislative histories on immigration reform.

“I feel like I need a Washington-to-English dictionary,” Christie said.

Bush was genuinely funny, as when he reintroduced Trump toward the end of the debate.

“I mentioned his name again just if anybody was missing him,” Bush said.

Missing him? Not really. I’d be glad to have him gone for good.

But he isn’t and he wasn’t, not on a night when the candidates molded their answers to the reality (and the reality show) that he’s created, not when they felt obliged to bring him up, not when he dominated the discussion without even taking part of it. Nifty trick, that.

Elephant, bear, dragon: Those aren’t the right beasts.

What the debate made clear is that Trump is all fox.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Every time you think that our political discourse can’t get any worse, it does. The Republican primary fight has devolved into a race to the bottom, achieving something you might have thought impossible: making George W. Bush look like a beacon of tolerance and statesmanship. But where is all the nastiness coming from?

Well, there’s debate about that — and it’s a debate that is at the heart of the Democratic contest.

Like many people, I’ve described the competition between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as an argument between competing theories of change, which it is. But underlying that argument is a deeper dispute about what’s wrong with America, what brought us to the state we’re in.

To oversimplify a bit — but only, I think, a bit — the Sanders view is that money is the root of all evil. Or more specifically, the corrupting influence of big money, of the 1 percent and the corporate elite, is the overarching source of the political ugliness we see all around us.

The Clinton view, on the other hand, seems to be that money is the root of some evil, maybe a lot of evil, but it isn’t the whole story. Instead, racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice are powerful forces in their own right. This may not seem like a very big difference — both candidates oppose prejudice, both want to reduce economic inequality. But it matters for political strategy.

As you might guess, I’m on the many-evils side of this debate. Oligarchy is a very real issue, and I was writing about the damaging rise of the 1 percent back when many of today’s Sanders supporters were in elementary school. But it’s important to understand how America’s oligarchs got so powerful.

For they didn’t get there just by buying influence (which is not to deny that there’s a lot of influence-buying out there). Crucially, the rise of the American hard right was the rise of a coalition, an alliance between an elite seeking low taxes and deregulation and a base of voters motivated by fears of social change and, above all, by hostility toward you-know-who.

Yes, there was a concerted, successful effort by billionaires to push America to the right. That’s not conspiracy theorizing; it’s just history, documented at length in Jane Mayer’s eye-opening new book “Dark Money.” But that effort wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far as it has without the political aftermath of the Civil Rights Act, and the resulting flip of Southern white voters to the G.O.P.

Until recently you could argue that whatever the motivations of conservative voters, the oligarchs remained firmly in control. Racial dog whistles, demagogy on abortion and so on would be rolled out during election years, then put back into storage while the Republican Party focused on its real business of enabling shadow banking and cutting top tax rates.

But in this age of Trump, not so much. The 1 percent has no problems with immigration that brings in cheap labor; it doesn’t want a confrontation over Planned Parenthood; but the base isn’t taking guidance the way it used to.

In any case, however, the question for progressives is what all of this says about political strategy.

If the ugliness in American politics is all, or almost all, about the influence of big money, then working-class voters who support the right are victims of false consciousness. And it might — might — be possible for a candidate preaching economic populism to break through this false consciousness, thereby achieving a revolutionary restructuring of the political landscape, by making a sufficiently strong case that he’s on their side. Some activists go further and call on Democrats to stop talking about social issues other than income inequality, although Mr. Sanders hasn’t gone there.

On the other hand, if the divisions in American politics aren’t just about money, if they reflect deep-seated prejudices that progressives simply can’t appease, such visions of radical change are naïve. And I believe that they are.

That doesn’t say that movement toward progressive goals is impossible — America is becoming both more diverse and more tolerant over time. Look, for example, at how quickly opposition to gay marriage has gone from a reliable vote-getter for the right to a Republican liability.

But there’s still a lot of real prejudice out there, and probably enough so that political revolution from the left is off the table. Instead, it’s going to be a hard slog at best.

Is this an unacceptably downbeat vision? Not to my eyes. After all, one reason the right has gone so berserk is that the Obama years have in fact been marked by significant if incomplete progressive victories, on health policy, taxes, financial reform and the environment. And isn’t there something noble, even inspiring, about fighting the good fight, year after year, and gradually making things better?

Friedman and Bruni

January 27, 2016

In “Friends and Refugees in Need” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us that a tidal wave of people threatens to overwhelm our top ally, the E.U.  In “The Twinned Egos of Cruz and Trump” Mr. Bruni says the Republican front-runners are quite the self-infatuated pair. What does that say about the future of politics?  Here’s TMOW, writing from Stockholm:

Now in his last year in office, President Obama is in legacy mode. He has much to be proud of. But if he doesn’t want his achievements muddied by foreign policy, he’ll spend his last year redoubling his efforts to contain the Middle East refugee crisis before it goes from a giant humanitarian problem to a giant geostrategic problem that shatters America’s most important ally: the European Union.

I know — putting “European Union” into the lead of a column published in America is like a “Do Not Read” sign. Maybe I should call it “Trump’s European Union.” That would go viral. But for the two of you still reading, this is really important.

The meltdowns of Syria, Somalia, Eritrea, Mali, Chad and Yemen and our takedowns of Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan — without proper follow-up on our part, NATO’s part or by local elites — has uncorked the worst refugee crisis since World War II. This tidal wave of migrants and refugees is a human tragedy, and their outflow from Syria and Libya in particular is destabilizing all the neighboring islands of decency: Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, Kurdistan and Turkey. And now it is eating away at the fabric of the E.U. as well.

Why should Americans care? Because the E.U. is the United States of Europe — the world’s other great center of democracy and economic opportunity. It has its military shortcomings, but with its wealth and liberal values, the E.U. has become America’s primary partner in addressing climate change, managing Iran and Russia and containing disorder in the Middle East and Africa.

This partnership amplifies American power and, if the E.U. is hobbled or fractured, America will have to do so many more things around the world with much less help.

At a seminar in Davos, Switzerland, sponsored by the Wilson Center, I interviewed David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, which oversees relief operations in more than 30 war-affected countries. He made several key points.

First, one in every 122 people on the planet today is “fleeing a conflict” at a time when wars between nations “are at a record low,” said Miliband, a former British foreign secretary. Why? Because we now have nearly 30 civil wars underway in weak states that are “unable to meet the basic needs of citizens or contain civil war.”

Second, he said, last year the rescue committee assisted 23 million refugees and internally displaced individuals. Some 50 percent of those going to Europe come directly out of Syria and most of the rest come from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea — and the international humanitarian relief system “is now being overwhelmed by the numbers.”

Last year, within the E.U. bloc there were 56 million truck crossings between countries and every day 1.7 million crossings by people. Preserving that free movement of trucks, trade and people, Miliband added, is a huge “economic prize,” but it will not be sustained if E.U. countries feel swamped by refugees who can’t be properly registered or absorbed.

More and more countries are now sealing their borders, and anti-immigrant parties are rising everywhere. Sweden has imposed border controls, and its ultranationalist Sweden Democrats party has grown from the fringe to one of the largest. Many in Germany, Sweden and Austria, which have accepted the lion’s share of refugees so far, want to seal off Greece from the E.U.’s passport-free internal travel zone if Greece — the first port of entry of many refugees — is unable or unwilling to hold them.

In the past few days, The Guardian reported, national leaders and top E.U. officials warned “that Europe’s passport-free travel zone could crumble within weeks, risking the dissolution of the union.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was well intentioned when she opened her country to 1.1 million Arab, African and Afghan migrants last year, but it was also reckless of her to think that so many immigrants, primarily Muslims, could be properly absorbed so quickly into society in Germany — a country that took two decades and billions of dollars to absorb East Germans. Merkel’s open-door policy drew even more refugees to the E.U., and now that the Germans want to stop the flow, their neighbors won’t take them.

“This refugee crisis is a real arrow pointed at the heart of the European Union,” said Miliband. “There is no solution that confines itself within the borders of Europe.” As long as there is “war without law and without end in Syria,” the refugee flow will continue, with all its destabilizing implications.

Obama did not cause this Syria problem, and he can’t fix it alone — but it’s not going to get fixed without U.S. leadership. I have shared the president’s caution about getting involved on the ground in Syria. But I now believe we need to take another look at establishing some kind of U.S./E.U./NATO safe zone inside Syria and Libya to create space for refugees to remain in these countries. It’s not a panacea or cost-free, but letting this refugee disaster fracture the E.U. will be a lot more expensive.

Next up we have Mr. Bruni, writing from Osceola, Iowa:

For a few minutes I wondered if I’d wandered into the wrong barn.

Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, was introducing the candidate I’d come to see, but with descriptions that bore no relation to the candidate I’d come to know.

He called this man “one of the great listeners that I’ve ever been around in my entire life.” He praised him as “a person who is full of humility.”

Then it hit me: Perry was playing defense and asserting the precise virtues that the candidate famously lacks.

Because when most people think of Ted Cruz, they don’t think: listener.

And when Cruz took the microphone and made his remarks, I hardly thought: humble.

It was Tuesday morning, six days until the caucuses. Dozens of voters sat among bales of hay and cows could be heard mooing in the background at such perfectly staggered intervals that I suspected a soundtrack rather than the real thing.

Cruz explained what he regarded as the seven battles of our time, and guess who was the conquering hero in each? (Hint: not Barack Obama.) He expressed the need for a Ronald Reagan of the here and now, and guess who’s perfect for the part? (Hint: not Donald Trump.)

His voice swelled and swooped and dropped at times to a whisper so fraught with foreboding that it belonged in a bad afternoon soap. There are speakers who smoothly get the job done, and then there are those who dance to the music of their own voices, pirouette after pirouette. Cruz is the 2016 campaign trail’s prima ballerina.

But then Trump is its black swan.

As each tries to muscle the other into the wings, they emphasize their contrasts. So does the media, describing the dissimilar paths that these two Republican front-runners traveled.

But to me they’re as alike as they are different, with an overlap that helps to explain the intensely, passionately negative reactions they elicit. They’re both transcendently — and transparently — self-serving and self-infatuated. They scale new pinnacles of egotism in a profession (politics) and pursuit (the presidency) that’s already a veritable mountain range of it.

They’re grim prophecies come true. Many of us have worried that the increasingly circuslike, invasive, round-the-clock nature of modern campaigns would frighten off anyone with an inkling of modesty, an iota of self-doubt. Who would endure this ordeal and make this bargain?

The answer, all too often, is someone who finds the spotlight so mesmerizing that the ugliness on its periphery doesn’t matter, or someone whose hunger for validation is so prodigious that only Air Force One will sate it.

Here in Iowa four years ago, I marveled at the Everest of vanity that was Newt Gingrich. But he doesn’t even reach base camp on the slopes of Trump, whose campaign is one bottomless, boundless soliloquy of self-congratulation. On Sunday he stunned journalists by sitting through a church service, but it wasn’t really the religious gesture that impressed them. It was the fact that for a solid hour, he assumed a posture of deference, and he couldn’t brag.

Cruz is cut from the same flamboyant cloth. It’s striking how many explorations of his past wind up focusing on the magnitude of his confidence, the scale of his ambitions and the off-putting nakedness of both.

As a cocky teenager, he said that his life goals were to “take over the world, world domination, you know, rule everything.” He separately wrote of plans to “achieve a strong enough reputation and track record to run for — and win — president of the United States.”

That last detail comes from a recent story in Politico whose themes included Cruz’s zest for attention, quickness to grab credit and utter self-consumption. It opened with a scene in which Cruz, gearing up to run for the Senate, visits George W. Bush to get his backing, then holds forth at such tone-deaf length about his disruptive plans for the Republican Party that the former president is appalled and repelled.

In The Times on Monday, Matt Flegenheimernoted discrepancies between Cruz’s accounts of his vital contributions to Bush’s legal team during the 2000 Florida recount and the memories of others. “There are a lot of people who claim to be in Florida at the time of the recount,” Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s campaign manager, told Flegenheimer.

Every successful politician is a self-promoter. Every campaign is a sequence of boasts. In an ideal political environment, the narcissism is tempered and the worst narcissists foiled.

But the current ecosystem is toxic, and Trump and Cruz flourish. Neither demonstrates an especially robust appetite for listening, though listening is important. Both are full of a great many things. Humility isn’t among them.

Friedman and Bruni

January 20, 2016

The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “What If?”:  What if the eras of the E.U., high growth in China, expensive oil and newly independent nations’ economic foundations are all over?  In “Rethinking College Admissions” Mr. Bruni says a new report suggests that we’re on the cusp of important, necessary changes in the way colleges evaluate applicants.  Here’s TMOW, writing from Zurich:

Just get me talking about the world today and I can pretty well ruin any dinner party. I don’t mean to, but I find it hard not to look around and wonder whether the recent turmoil in international markets isn’t just the product of tremors but rather of seismic shifts in the foundational pillars of the global system, with highly unpredictable consequences.

What if a bunch of eras are ending all at once?

What if we’re at the end of the 30-plus-year era of high growth in China, and therefore China’s ability to fuel global growth through its imports, exports and purchases of commodities will be much less frothy and reliable in the future?

“Now that this debt bubble is unwinding, growth in China is going offline,” Michael Pento, president of Pento Portfolio Strategies, wrote on CNBC.com last week. “The renminbi’s falling value, cascading Shanghai equity prices (down 40 percent since June 2014) and plummeting rail freight volumes (down 10.5 percent year over year) all clearly illustrate that China is not growing at the promulgated 7 percent, but rather isn’t growing at all. The problem is that China accounted for 34 percent of global growth, and the nation’s multiplier effect on emerging markets takes that number to over 50 percent.”

What if the $100-a-barrel oil price era is over and all these countries whose economies were directly or indirectly propped up by those prices will have to learn to grow the old-fashioned way — by making goods and services others want to buy? Thanks to steady technological advances in America for fracking, horizontal drilling and using big data to identify deposits,OPEC’s pricing power has disappeared. Countries that have set their budgets based on $80- to $100-a-barrel oil will find themselves vastly underfunded just when their populations — in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Indonesia and Venezuela — have surged.

What if average is over for countries? During the Cold War you could be an average, newly independent state with artificial borders drawn by colonial powers. There were two superpowers ready to throw foreign aid at you, educate your kids in America or Moscow, build up your armed forces and security services and buy your crummy manufactured exports or commodities.

But what if the rise of robots, software and automation mean that these countries can’t rely on manufacturing to create mass labor anymore, that the products they can make and sell can’t compete with Chinese goods, that climate change is pressuring their ecosystems and that neither Russia nor America wants to have anything to do with them because all either wins is a bill?

Many of these frail, artificial states don’t correspond to any ethnic, cultural, linguistic or demographic realities. They are caravan homes in a trailer park — built on slabs of concrete without real foundations or basements — and what you’re seeing today with the acceleration of technology, climate change stresses and globalization is the equivalent of a tornado going through a trailer park. Some of these states are just falling apart, and many of their people are now trying to cross the Mediterranean — to escape their world of disorder and get into the world of order, particularly the European Union.

But what if the E.U. era is over? Reuters reported this week that Germany is telling other E.U. countries that if they don’t prevent the influx of more refugees into Europe from the Mediterranean and “relieve Berlin of the lonely task of housing refugees, Germany could shut its doors.” Some Germans even want a border fence. One senior conservative was quoted as saying, “If you build a fence, it’s the end of Europe as we know it.”

What if the era of Iranian isolation is over, just as the Arab system is collapsing and the two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians is history? How will all those molecules interact?

And what if all this is happening when the two-party system in America seems to be getting most of its energy from the far left and the far right? Bernie Sanders’s platform is that we can solve our most onerous economic problems if we just tax “The Man” more. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are running on the theme that they are “The Man” — the strongman — who can magically fix everything.

What if our 2016 election ends up being between a socialist and a borderline fascist — ideas that died in 1989 and 1945 respectively?

And what if all of this is happening at a time when our government’s ability to stimulate the economy through either monetary or fiscal policy is constrained? Unless we go to negative interest rates, the best the Fed can do now is rescind the tiny rate hike made in December. Meanwhile, after all the vital government spending to stimulate demand after the 2008 crisis, there is no consensus in the country for another big round.

These what-ifs constitute the real policy landscape that will confront the next president. But here’s the worst “what if”: What if we’re having a presidential election but no one is even asking these questions, let alone “what if” all of these tectonic plates move at once? How will we generate growth, jobs, security and resilience?

There’s still an opportunity for someone to lead by asking, and answering, all of these “what ifs,” but that time is quickly coming to an end, just like the last dinner party I ruined.

I’m sure he can ruin a dinner party just by showing up…  Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Over recent years there’s been a steady escalation of concern about the admissions process at the most revered, selective American colleges. And little by little, those colleges have made tweaks.

But I get the thrilling sense that something bigger is about to give.

The best evidence is a report to be released on Wednesday. I received an advance copy. Titled “Turning the Tide,” it’s the work primarily of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, though scores of educators — including the presidents and deans of admission at many of the country’s elite institutions of higher education — contributed to or endorsed it. Top administrators from Yale, M.I.T. and the University of Michigan are scheduled to participate in a news conference at which it’s unveiled.

“Turning the Tide” sagely reflects on what’s wrong with admissions and rightly calls for a revolution, including specific suggestions. It could make a real difference not just because it has widespread backing but also because it nails the way in which society in general — and children in particular — are badly served by the status quo.

Focused on certain markers and metrics, the admissions process warps the values of students drawn into a competitive frenzy. It jeopardizes their mental health. And it fails to include — and identify the potential in — enough kids from less privileged backgrounds.

“It’s really time to say ‘enough,’ stop wringing our hands and figure out some collective action,” Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s education school, told me. “It’s a pivot point.”

Weissbourd is one of the directors of the school’s Making Caring Common project, which produced the report. He’s also the author of research that was one motivation for it — specifically, a survey of more than 10,000 middle- and high-school students that asked them what mattered most: high individual achievement, happiness or caring for others. Only 22 percent said caring for others.

The new report contemplates how the admissions process contributes to that psychology and how it might be changed. Some of those alterations would simultaneously level the playing field for kids applying to college from less advantaged backgrounds.

“Colleges spend a huge sum each year sending signals that influence the behavior of millions of students,” the report notes. Why not rethink those signals to reshape that behavior?

The report recommends less emphasis on standardized test scores, which largely correlate with family income.

It asks colleges to send a clear message that admissions officers won’t be impressed by more than a few Advanced Placement courses. Poorer high schools aren’t as likely to offer A.P. courses, and a heavy load of them is often cited as a culprit in sleep deprivation, anxiety and depression among students at richer schools.

The report also suggests that colleges discourage manic résumé padding by accepting information on a sharply limited number of extracurricular activities; that they better use essays and references to figure out which students’ community-service projects are heartfelt and which are merely window dressing; and that they give full due to the family obligations and part-time work that some underprivileged kids take on.

Stephen Farmer, the vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, praised the report as consistent with his school’s desire “to be humbler and more alert to the many ways in which people can stake a claim on a place here.”

He said that the school had already, for example, downgraded the importance of “A.P. everything,” which doesn’t necessarily measure true ability or intellectual hunger.

“Just making people jump through hoops because we can — we don’t want to do that,” he told me, especially when some hoops are so arbitrary that “we might as well be admitting these people on the basis of their height or the size of their neck.”

“Turning the Tide” follows other reexaminations of the admissions process. A growing number of colleges have made the SAT or ACT optional. And late last year, more than 80 colleges, including all eight in the Ivy League, announced the formation of the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, which is developing a website and application process intended in part to diversify student bodies.

Colleges are becoming more conscious of their roles — too frequently neglected — in social mobility. They’re recognizing how many admissions measures favor students from affluent families.

They’re realizing that many kids admitted into top schools are emotional wrecks or slavish adherents to soulless scripts that forbid the exploration of genuine passions. And they’re acknowledging the extent to which the admissions process has contributed to this.

But they still need to stop filling so much of each freshman class with specially tagged legacy cases and athletes and to quit worrying about rankings like those of U.S. News and World Report. Only then will the tide fully turn.

Bobo, Cohen, Bruni and Krugman, and not Kristof

January 15, 2016

In “When Beauty Strikes” Bobo gurgles that modern art has certain kinds of social value, but we have suffered the loss of an old understanding of how beauty transforms the soul.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “I miss the days when Mr. Brooks simply tried to convince us to vote Republican. Since recent candidates have pulled that rug out from under him, he now tends to wax philosophical. His conservative urges have not left him, but they’ve changed form. Instead of an artist descending to the level of pundits, our pundit has become an artist, masterfully constructing a platonic ideal of a world, and longing for a time that never really existed.”  Mr. Cohen, in “Fermi, Sinatra, DiMaggio — and Capone” says the benefits of immigration outweigh the costs, but American openness is shrinking.  Mr. Bruni says “Trump and Cruz Set an Ugly, Nasty Tone” and that with time running out, the Republicans went for broke at their most venomous meeting yet.  Prof. Krugman has a question:  “Is Vast Inequality Necessary?”  He says of course not, despite what many of its beneficiaries believe.  Mr. Kristof treated us to more of his tweets and is being ignored again.  Here’s Bobo:

Across the street from my apartment building in Washington there’s a gigantic supermarket and a CVS. Above the supermarket there had been a large empty space with floor-to-ceiling windows. The space was recently taken by a ballet school, so now when I step outside in the evenings I see dozens of dancers framed against the windows, doing their exercises — gracefully and often in unison.

It can be arrestingly beautiful. The unexpected beauty exposes the limitations of the normal, banal streetscape I take for granted every day. But it also reminds me of a worldview, which was more common in eras more romantic than our own.

This is the view that beauty is a big, transformational thing, the proper goal of art and maybe civilization itself. This humanistic worldview holds that beauty conquers the deadening aspects of routine; it educates the emotions and connects us to the eternal.

By arousing the senses, beauty arouses thought and spirit. A person who has appreciated physical grace may have a finer sense of how to move with graciousness through the tribulations of life. A person who has appreciated the Pietà has a greater capacity for empathy, a more refined sense of the different forms of sadness and a wider awareness of the repertoire of emotions.

John O’Donohue, a modern proponent of this humanistic viewpoint, writes in his book “Beauty: The Invisible Embrace”: “Some of our most wonderful memories are beautiful places where we felt immediately at home. We feel most alive in the presence of the beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul. … Without beauty the search for truth, the desire for goodness and the love of order and unity would be sterile exploits. Beauty brings warmth, elegance and grandeur.”

The art critic Frederick Turner wrote that beauty “is the highest integrative level of understanding and the most comprehensive capacity for effective action. It enables us to go with, rather than against, the deepest tendency or theme of the universe.”

By this philosophy, beauty incites spiritual longing.

Today the word eros refers to sex, but to the Greeks it meant the fervent desire to reach excellence and deepen the voyage of life. This eros is a powerful longing. Whenever you see people doing art, whether they are amateurs at a swing dance class or a professional painter, you invariably see them trying to get better. “I am seeking. I am striving. I am in it with all my heart,” Vincent van Gogh wrote.

Some people call eros the fierce longing for truth. “Making your unknown known is the important thing,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote. Mathematicians talk about their solutions in aesthetic terms, as beautiful or elegant.

Others describe eros as a more spiritual or religious longing. They note that beauty is numinous and fleeting, a passing experience that enlarges the soul and gives us a glimpse of the sacred. As the painter Paul Klee put it, “Color links us with cosmic regions.”

These days we all like beautiful things. Everybody approves of art. But the culture does not attach as much emotional, intellectual or spiritual weight to beauty. We live, as Leon Wieseltier wrote in an essay for The Times Book Review, in a post-humanist moment. That which can be measured with data is valorized. Economists are experts on happiness. The world is understood primarily as the product of impersonal forces; the nonmaterial dimensions of life explained by the material ones.

Over the past century, artists have had suspicious and varied attitudes toward beauty. Some regard all that aesthetics-can-save-your-soul mumbo jumbo as sentimental claptrap. They want something grittier and more confrontational. In the academy, theory washed like an avalanche over the celebration of sheer beauty — at least for a time.

For some reason many artists prefer to descend to the level of us pundits. Abandoning their natural turf, the depths of emotion, symbol, myth and the inner life, they decided that relevance meant naked partisan stance-taking in the outer world (often in ignorance of the complexity of the evidence). Meanwhile, how many times have you heard advocates lobby for arts funding on the grounds that it’s good for economic development?

In fact, artists have their biggest social impact when they achieve it obliquely. If true racial reconciliation is achieved in this country, it will be through the kind of deep spiritual and emotional understanding that art can foster. You change the world by changing peoples’ hearts and imaginations.

The shift to post-humanism has left the world beauty-poor and meaning-deprived. It’s not so much that we need more artists and bigger audiences, though that would be nice. It’s that we accidentally abandoned a worldview that showed how art can be used to cultivate the fullest inner life. We left behind an ethos that reminded people of the links between the beautiful, the true and the good — the way pleasure and love can lead to nobility.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

President Obama showcased a Syrian immigrant, Refaai Hamo, during his State of the Union address as evidence of “our diversity and our openness,” qualities that have long defined and sustained the United States.

But given the degree of openness America has offered Syrian refugees over close to five years of war in which a quarter of a million people have been killed, this political choreography qualified as serious chutzpah.

Hamo, who lost his wife and daughter in the war, is one of about 2,500 refugees Washington has admitted since 2012. That’s roughly 0.06 percent of the 4.4 million Syrians who have fled their country, most of them marooned in neighboring Middle Eastern states, many staggering into Europe.

In fact Hamo, in his relative isolation on this side of the Atlantic, might better have been offered as a symbol of the closing of the American mind — its post 9/11 susceptibility to fear of terrorism, its anxiety about downward social drift, its uncertainty about the future, its postwar fatigue, its plague-on-all-their-houses dismissal of the war-without-victory Middle East.

Obama tried to inject hope. That’s where the world began with Obama. Yes, we could. In truth, after seven years in the White House, he seemed weary himself, straining for conviction.

As the world knows by now, Obama’s temperament is more inclined toward explanation than exhortation. The president is primed to out-reason the Islamic State — they want this, so we’ll do that — as if reason even flirts with the outer galaxies of the Raqqa universe. When feeling does take over, as with Obama’s passionate appeal this month for America to rein in its gun madness, the effect is particularly powerful because rare.

Republicans have sought to block Obama at every turn, not least on immigration, balking even at his plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees this year. The politics of anti-Muslim bigotry will not be far from the surface throughout this American election year.

For everyone — from Donald Trump to rightist parties in Germany and Sweden — itching to close borders, the sexual assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve have become the great I-told-you-so moment. Germany last year admitted 1.1 million refugees and asylum seekers, of whom close to 40 percent are Syrian. That’s a huge number. Sweden’s admission last year of up to 190,000 refugees is also substantial, relative to its population.

In small towns, when hundreds of newcomers abruptly arrive, social tensions are inevitable. Far-right forces — Germany’s Pegida movement or the Sweden Democrats — believe they can benefit.

The refugee flow is unlikely to stop. Saudi Arabia just took a hatchet to already forlorn international peacemaking efforts through a mass execution that infuriated Iran. No peace is possible in Syria until the Saudis and Iranians both want it.

Still, I’d bet on Germany and Sweden, societies that have absorbed substantial numbers of refugees in the past, to prove resilient, and the aging European countries most open to immigration to be the more dynamic over time. What happened in Cologne was vile. Chancellor Angela Merkel has rightly spoken of “disgusting, criminal acts,” and responded by toughening laws. She should go further. As a woman who reached the pinnacle, addressing refugees who have fled Muslim countries where women are often demeaned, she is uniquely placed to address the direct relationship between successful societies and female dignity, freedom and independence.

Meanwhile, let’s keep some perspective. Even the most aggressive estimate of the number of asylum seekers involved in the Cologne incidents still leaves more than 1,099,500 newly admitted refugees in Germany who had nothing to do with what happened.

Merkel has done the right thing. Where would Europe be today with 1.1 million desperate people trudging from closed border to closed border? The Western responsibility for the Syrian debacle is immense. Her decision, alone among leaders, implicitly acknowledges this fact. Germany, over the past quarter-century, has absorbed 16 million former East Germans and ushered them from the paranoid, subjugated mind-set of the Soviet imperium. Its large Turkish community is unevenly integrated, but ever better with the years. Germany will handle the current influx.

Immigration is a challenge but also a measure of the confidence of a society, its preparedness for self-renewal. That confidence is low in America right now. “The dignity of a person is untouchable” — so begins Germany’s postwar Constitution, with words drawn from bitter experience. Merkel has shown the conviction that this idea can eventually be absorbed by everyone now in Germany. She will be vindicated.

The United States, between the 1880’s and 1924, admitted about 4 million Italian immigrants. As Leon Wieseltier, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, observed to me, “We got Enrico Fermi, Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Antonin Scalia — and Al Capone. Who in their right mind would suggest that the Italian immigration was not a great blessing for our country?”

Call it the Capone Principle: Costs of immigration are outweighed by benefits.

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

Remember that phase of the campaign when Ted Cruz spoke no ill of Donald Trump, who returned the favor?

You may now forget it. Bury it. Write its obituary, in a pen dipped in acid.

At Thursday night’s Republican debate, the two frontrunners didn’t merely spar, as was expected. They glared at and scolded each other with a venomousness that was initially mesmerizing, then horrifying and finally just sad—very, very sad.

The trajectory of the Republican primary has been one of growing pessimism, intensifying acrimony and abundant pettiness, and it reached its ugly nadir on the stage in North Charleston, S.C.

This happened when Cruz was asked to respond to Trump’s claim that he might not qualify as a “natural-born citizen” eligible for the presidency. Cruz was ready for it, asserting that as recently as four months ago, Trump had sung a different tune.

“Since September, the Constitution hasn’t changed,” Cruz said. “But the poll numbers have, and I recognize that Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa.”

The two men argued about what the numbers really said, Trump insisting that his were bigger. They battled over the legitimacy and motivations of a Harvard law professor who had weighed in skeptically on Cruz’s eligibility. They traded barbs about Trump’s mother. Yes, his mother.

Some of their lines were wicked—some of Cruz’s, at least. He’s frighteningly talented at this sort of thing, and told Trump: “I’m happy to consider naming you as V.P., and so, if you happen to be right, you can get the top job at the end of the day.”

But as the scabrous exchange went on (and on) and John Kasich visibly slumped in frustration and the other candidates gaped in what seemed like genuine disbelief at the length of this endless digression, it was impossible to be entertained or amused.

The only sane response was sorrow—that this is a presidential election in the greatest democracy on earth, and that blowhards like Trump and Cruz are, for now, setting the pace and the terms in one of our two major political parties.

Over the course of this sixth meeting of the leading Republican candidates, serious issues were indeed broached, and the candidates raised legitimate questions about what President Obama had and hadn’t done to make Americans feel safe. They had a warranted discussion about whether the American economy had improved enough and in the right ways.

But the tone eclipsed the substance, and the tone was nastier than it had to be, sometimes to the point of pure silliness.

With the Iowa caucuses less than three weeks away, the New Hampshire primary right after that and several of the seven men onstage still looking for elusive traction, they went for broke: exaggerated words, extreme claims, voices raised high and chests puffed out as never before.

Trump was, as ever, at center stage.

For such a small-minded man, he hovers so large over this country’s political landscape, casting the longest and most sinister of shadows. He was the sire of President Obama’s State of the Union address, which could be heard as a point-by-point retort to the gloom, doom and bigotry that Trump peddles. He was the sire of Nikki Haley’s State of the Union response, which was as concerned with chastising him as with contradicting the president.

And he was the sire of this debate, inasmuch as the anger that he summons and the uncompromising toughness that he projects have infected his adversaries, tugging them toward truculence. On Thursday night, several of them seemed intent on out-Trumping Trump.

Chris Christie didn’t merely portray himself as the most effective opponent for Hillary Clinton.

“If I’m the nominee, she won’t get within 10 miles of the White House,” he proclaimed.

He didn’t merely state his differences with Obama. He compared the president to “a petulant child” and made him a promise.

“We are going to kick your rear end out of the White House come this fall,” he said. Trump couldn’t have expressed it more crudely.

Rubio, for his part, wholly abandoned the upbeat message and mien that once defined him. There’s no sunshine in a race that orbits around a star as dark as Trump. There’s only thunder, fear, apocalyptic musings and bellicose vows to exert America’s muscle around the world.

Rubio talked about handing out many a “one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay.” Cruz talked about “the full force and fury of the United States of America.”

Rubio and Cruz squared off against each other just before the debate clock ran out, with Cruz calling Rubio soft on immigration and Rubio calling him soft on national defense. But it wasn’t typical political theater: It was more sneering and more savage than that—jarringly so.

“That is not consistent conservatism,” Rubio said of Cruz’s record. “That is political calculation.”

Cruz insisted on ample time to respond. “He had no fewer than 11 attacks there,” he said, and then, addressing Rubio directly, added: “I appreciate your dumping your oppo research folder.”

By the time it was all over, I was fantasizing about Trump’s promised wall, only it didn’t separate the United States from Mexico. It separated Cruz from Trump, Rubio from Cruz and all three of them from the rest of us, who are looking for leadership, not egos and vitriol.

And last but never least here’s Prof. Krugman:

How rich do we need the rich to be?

That’s not an idle question. It is, arguably, what U.S. politics are substantively about. Liberals want to raise taxes on high incomes and use the proceeds to strengthen the social safety net; conservatives want to do the reverse, claiming that tax-the-rich policies hurt everyone by reducing the incentives to create wealth.

Now, recent experience has not been kind to the conservative position. President Obama pushed through a substantial rise in top tax rates, and his health care reform was the biggest expansion of the welfare state since L.B.J. Conservatives confidently predicted disaster, just as they did when Bill Clinton raised taxes on the top 1 percent. Instead, Mr. Obama has ended up presiding over the best job growth since the 1990s. Is there, however, a longer-term case in favor of vast inequality?

It won’t surprise you to hear that many members of the economic elite believe that there is. It also won’t surprise you to learn that I disagree, that I believe that the economy can flourish with much less concentration of income and wealth at the very top. But why do I believe that?

I find it helpful to think in terms of three stylized models of where extreme inequality might come from, with the real economy involving elements from all three.

First, we could have huge inequality because individuals vary hugely in their productivity: Some people are just capable of making a contribution hundreds or thousands of times greater than average. This is the view expressed in a widely quoted recent essay by the venture capitalist Paul Graham, and it’s popular in Silicon Valley — that is, among people who are paid hundreds or thousands of times as much as ordinary workers.

Second, we could have huge inequality based largely on luck. In the classic old movie “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” an old prospector explainsthat gold is worth so much — and those who find it become rich — thanks to the labor of all the people who went looking for gold but didn’t find it. Similarly, we might have an economy in which those who hit the jackpot aren’t necessarily any smarter or harder working than those who don’t, but just happen to be in the right place at the right time.

Third, we could have huge inequality based on power: executives at large corporations who get to set their own compensation, financial wheeler-dealers who get rich on inside information or by collecting undeserved fees from naïve investors.

As I said, the real economy contains elements of all three stories. It would be foolish to deny that some people are, in fact, a lot more productive than average. It would be equally foolish, however, to deny that great success in business (or, actually, anything else) has a strong element of luck — not just the luck of being the first to stumble on a highly profitable idea or strategy, but also the luck of being born to the right parents.

And power is surely a big factor, too. Reading someone like Mr. Graham, you might imagine that America’s wealthy are mainly entrepreneurs. In fact, the top 0.1 percent consists mainly of business executives, and while some of these executives may have made their fortunes by being associated with risky start-ups, most probably got where they are by climbing well-established corporate ladders. And the rise in incomes at the top largely reflects the soaring pay of top executives, not the rewards to innovation.

But the real question, in any case, is whether we can redistribute some of the income currently going to the elite few to other purposes without crippling economic progress.

Don’t say that redistribution is inherently wrong. Even if high incomes perfectly reflected productivity, market outcomes aren’t the same as moral justification. And given the reality that wealth often reflects either luck or power, there’s a strong case to be made for collecting some of that wealth in taxes and using it to make society as a whole stronger, as long as it doesn’t destroy the incentive to keep creating more wealth.

And there’s no reason to believe that it would. Historically, America achieved its most rapid growth and technological progress ever during the 1950s and 1960s, despite much higher top tax rates and much lower inequality than it has today.

In today’s world, high-tax, low-inequalitycountries like Sweden are also both highly innovative and home to many business start-ups. This may in part be because a strong safety net encourages risk-taking: People may be willing to prospect for gold, even if a successful foray won’t make them quite as rich as before, if they know they won’t starve if they come up empty.

So coming back to my original question, no, the rich don’t have to be as rich as they are. Inequality is inevitable; the vast inequality of America today isn’t.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 167 other followers