Kevin Drum

If You Don't Get Donald Trump's Appeal, You Really Need to Catch Up on Your "Celebrity Apprentice" Viewing

| Tue Aug. 4, 2015 2:16 PM EDT

What's the source of Donald Trump's appeal?1 Responding to one of David Brooks' periodic psychoanalysis sessions of the American voting public, Greg Sargent makes a wacky counterproposal: "What if a key source of his appeal is that a lot of Republican voters agree with what he’s saying about the issues?"

That's a thought. Trump's position on the issues is pretty much the same as all the other GOP candidates, except more, and "more" seems to be what a lot of Republicans want these days. You can never have too much "more" in today's tea-party dominated Republican Party, and Trump has more "more" than anyone.

But I want to toss out another suggestion. To a lot of us, Trump is a celebrity real estate developer who likes to get into petty feuds with fellow celebrities. That doesn't seem very presidential. But that's the old Trump. The modern Trump still gets into petty feuds with fellow celebrities, but he's also the star of Celebrity Apprentice, and that's how a lot of people view him these days.

You've seen the show, right? You're not one of those vegan weenie lefties who lives in a bubble of art museums and Audubon meetings, unwilling to sully yourself with popular TV, are you? The kind who looks down on regular folks?

Oh hell, sure you are. So here's how the show works. A bunch of C-list celebrities compete in teams each week at tasks given to them by Trump. At the end of the show, Trump grills the losing team in the "boardroom," eventually picking a single scapegoat for their failure and firing them. As the show ends, the humiliated team member shuffles disconsolately down the elevator to a waiting car, where they are driven away, never to be seen again. This is the price of failure in Trumpworld.

Now, picture in your mind how Trump looks. He is running things. He sets the tasks. The competitors all call him "Mr. Trump" and treat him obsequiously. He gives orders and famous2 people accept them without quibble. At the end of the show, he asks tough questions and demands accountability. He is smooth and unruffled while the team members are tense and tongue-tied. Finally, having given everything the five minutes of due diligence it needs, he takes charge and fires someone. And on the season finale, he picks a big winner and in the process raises lots of money for charity.

Do you see how precisely this squares with so many people's view of the presidency? The president is the guy running things. He tells people what to do. He commands respect simply by virtue of his personality and rock-solid principles. When things go wrong, he doesn't waste time. He gets to the bottom of the problem in minutes using little more than common sense, and then fires the person responsible. And in the end, it's all for a good cause. That's a president.

Obviously this is all a fake. The show is deliberately set up to make Trump look authoritative and decisive. But a lot of people just don't see it that way. It's a reality show! It's showing us the real Donald Trump. And boy does he look presidential. Not in the real sense, of course, where you have to deal with Congress and the courts and recalcitrant foreign leaders and all that. But in the Hollywood sense? You bet.

So keep this in mind, you liberal latte sippers and Beltway media elites. For the past seven years (11 years if you count the original Apprentice show), about 10 million people3 have been watching Donald Trump act presidential week after week. He's not a buffoon. He's commanding, he's confident, he's respected, he demands accountability, and he openly celebrates accomplishment and money—but then makes sure all the money goes to charity at the end. What's not to like?

1Actually, according to the latest polls, he appeals to about 24 percent of 23 percent of the electorate, which works out to a little less than 6 percent support. If you keep that in mind, Trumpmania starts to seem both a little less impressive and a little less scary. Still, let's ignore that and just work with the premise of trying to figure out Trump's appeal. Otherwise I don't have a blog post to write.

2Well, sort of famous, anyway. More famous than most cabinet members, certainly.

3Though that's dropped in the past couple of seasons. Maybe Trump decided he needed to run for president before the show finally suffered the ultimate disgrace of being canceled.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

It's Not Just You. Blockbuster Movies Really Have Gotten Incomprehensible Lately.

| Tue Aug. 4, 2015 12:34 PM EDT

Phil Hoad of the Guardian laments the rise of impenetrable plots in action movies, and suggests that it's a recent phenomenon. I disagree: I think it's been going on for years. Perhaps it's just finally gotten so ridiculous that no one can make excuses for it anymore.

The question is: why? Interestingly, Hoad says screenwriters aren't at fault:

The past decade has seen, in the struggle for prime spots on the movie-going calendar, the rise of release dates locked in years in advance. In order to hit those targets, production schedules have little room for deviation; finished scripts often lag behind the key special-effects sequences, which are devised early so mockups around which actors can be directed are ready when shooting starts. Screenwriters, says [Drew] Pearce, are often left to link the showpieces as best as they can.

“Because of that, you get these kind of labyrinthine machinations to desperately weave in character motivation, geography and the practical aspects of getting from one scene to another.”

“People are so in the white-hot crucible of terror of making the movie,” he continues, “It’s very difficult for them to take a step back and look at the story at a macro level.” This often results in a storyline that’s hectoring but lacking in any emotional through-line; the kind of rickety plot-slalom that in the case of the interminable Transformers films, batters the viewer into a state of “weird, robot-based PTSD”.

Now, Pearce is himself a screenwriter, so perhaps it's only natural that he faults other parts of the filmmaking process. Still, this has the ring of truth to me. If your goal is to have as many big FX scenes as possible, and the screenwriter's job is to somehow weave each of them together in less than 200 words, that's a recipe for impenetrability. Especially when some of the bridge sequences probably end up on the cutting room floor during editing.

I guess the more interesting question is whether the target audience cares. I care, but Hollywood doesn't make blockbuster films for me. As we're told over and over and over, they're made for young males aged 16-25. If these folks don't care why things are happening on the screen, then there's not much point in wasting time on frippery like character development and narrative coherence, is there?

In any case, I'm glad someone has written about this. Back when I still went to movies, I really started to wonder if something was wrong with me. I'd watch these action films and then walk out of the theater wondering what the hell just happened. Do movies simply move too fast for my 55-year-old brain to keep up with? Am I like some member of a lost Amazonian tribe seeing a photograph for the first time?

That's still possible. But Hoad gives me hope. Maybe the real answer is that blockbusters really don't make much sense anymore, and don't even try. Pity.

GOP Plans to Kick Disability Can Down the Road

| Tue Aug. 4, 2015 11:32 AM EDT

The Social Security disability fund is running out of money, so Congress has to do something. But what? A simple reallocation of money from the main retirement trust fund is the usual solution, but Republicans are dead set against it this time. Unfortunately, they can't figure out what to do instead. Dylan Scott:

Lawmakers are planning to package some disability reforms together, but whatever bill Congress comes up with won't do enough quickly enough to fix the program's finances and stop the cut. So they'll have to move some money around to avert a crisis. According to lawmakers, aides, and other sources, one of the options being seriously considered is what's known as interfund borrowing: The much-bigger retirement fund would loan money to the disability program.

And because the disability fund would have to pay the money back, it would set the stage for another debate about Social Security in the near future. A loan would give Congress the ability to effectively set a date for when Social Security's disability program would need to be addressed again, which is part of the appeal to Republicans, and many in Washington think that would lead to a broader conversation.

So a loan would prevent the cut and serve a future political purpose. But that's also why the tactic is likely to be met with resistance from many Democrats and outside lobbying groups.

I guess I'm a little surprised by this, but maybe I shouldn't be. The obvious purpose of this is to pass a quick patch so the issue doesn't have to be addressed in mid-2016, right in the middle of a presidential campaign. Just give the disability fund another 12 months of money and then the whole thing can be shoved into 2017.

For some reason, I thought Republicans would welcome a showdown over the disability program during campaign season. The fact that they don't suggests they know that cutting disability benefits is a political loser. Better to do it when the spotlight isn't shining quite so brightly. Plus there might be a Republican in the White House by 2017. Maybe that's part of their thinking too.

Or maybe this is just like the Highway Trust Fund or the doc fix or a dozen other programs that Republicans can never figure out how to handle thanks to their theological insistence that spending more money sometimes requires higher taxes. When you take that off the table, even small budget shortfalls turn into nightmare crises. This is yet another one.

Abortion Is Not Murder

| Mon Aug. 3, 2015 3:49 PM EDT

Ramesh Ponnuru comments on Planned Parenthood's sale of fetal tissue from the abortions it performs:

A recent Sarah Silverman tweet distilled one argument many liberals are making about the Planned Parenthood videos into a few characters: ”Abortion is still legal in the great U.S of A. It would be insane not to use fetal tissue 4 science & education in such cases. #StandwithPP.”

The death penalty is also still legal in our great country. Should we employ methods of execution so as to yield the highest number of usable organs?....

Whenever I write about abortion, I usually get a bunch of tweets or emails asking if I even understand the conservative position. Answer: of course I do. Most conservatives say that abortion is murder. Given that premise, their opposition to funding abortion, legalizing abortion, using some day-after pills, selling fetal tissue, and so forth, makes sense.

So I'm going to ask the mirror image question here: does Ponnuru understand the liberal position on abortion? Most of us don't think of fetuses as persons, which means abortion doesn't involve killing a human being in any meaningful sense. Given that premise, our support of funding abortion, legalizing abortion, promoting day-after pills, selling fetal tissue, and so forth, makes sense.

To us lefties, the death penalty involves killing a human being. Abortion doesn't. So it's perfectly reasonable to have different views about how the remains are treated in each case.

POSTSCRIPT: There are, of course, nuances in these positions regarding abortion on both sides. We're all familiar enough with them that it seems unnecessary to repeat them here. That said, at its most basic, liberals don't generally consider aborting a fetus to involve killing a human being. Obviously the rest of our views follow from that.

Malaysia Announces Biggest "Donor Contribution" In History

| Mon Aug. 3, 2015 2:42 PM EDT

From the Wall Street Journal:

Malaysia’s anticorruption agency said Monday that 2.6 billion ringgit (about $700 million) was deposited into Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal account and that the money was from a “donor contribution,” not from 1Malaysia Development Bhd, a state investment fund also known as 1MDB.

$700 million! That makes Sheldon Adelson look like a piker. I think American donors need to pick up their game.

Obama's New Power Plant Regulations Are Modest, But Still a Big Deal

| Mon Aug. 3, 2015 12:51 PM EDT

President Obama is unveiling his plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants today, and it's generally being hailed as the most important environmental regulation of his presidency. Tim McDonnell has the details here. Rebecca Leber outlines the probable legal attack on Obama's plan here.

But Michael Grunwald isn't buying the hype. He's not impressed with Obama's plan to reduce power plant emissions 32 percent by 2030:

That’s nice, but by the end of this year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the power sector’s emissions will already be down 15.4 percent from 2005 levels — about half the anticipated reductions in just a decade, and before the plan goes into effect. In other words, even under the strengthened plan, the rate of decarbonization is expected to slow over the next 15 years. What, did you think the strongest action ever taken to combat climate change would actually accelerate the nation’s efforts to combat climate change?

....If you’re really ranking them, the Clean Power Plan is at best the fourth-strongest action that Obama has taken to combat climate change, behind his much-maligned 2009 stimulus package, which poured $90 billion into clean energy and jump-started a green revolution; his dramatic increases in fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, which should reduce our oil consumption by 2 million barrels per day; and his crackdown on mercury and other air pollutants, which has helped inspire utilities to retire 200 coal-fired power plants in just five years.

This is a little unfair in two ways. First, the 15 percent reduction of the past decade was the low-hanging fruit. The initial cuts are always the easiest. The next 15 percent will be harder, and mandating that it happen at about the same rate is more stringent than it sounds.

Second, the decrease over the last decade happened mostly because gas-fired plants became cheaper than coal thanks to the boom in natural gas fracking. That's a one-time deal, and there's no guarantee that something similar will drive further decreases. Having a mandate in place forces it to happen regardless of future events in the energy market.

That said, Grunwald has a point in a technical sense: the reductions mandated in the EPA plan are good but not great, and the mandates for renewable energy are pretty unambitious. Obama could have done better.

Or could he? That's a never-ending source of disagreement. Should Obama have gotten a bigger stimulus? Should he have insisted on a public option in Obamacare? Could he have put in place stronger financial regulations than he got in Dodd-Frank? Could he have negotiated a stronger treaty with Iran?

The answers are: maybe, maybe, maybe, and maybe. We'll never know the absolute maximum that Obama could have gotten in these situations. The same is true for the EPA regs. Congress and the courts—and the public—will have something to say about them, and it's not clear if Obama could have safely gone further than he did. We'll never know.

In the meantime, Grunwald is right to say that the new mandates aren't really all that tough. At the same time, the fact that we have any power plant mandates at all really is a big deal. Just setting the precedent that the federal government should regulate carbon emissions from power plants is a critical first step, and if it survives court challenges and congressional temper tantrums it will likely lead to further cutbacks in the future. And that's a big deal.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Jeb Bush Takes on Lazy Bum Members of Congress

| Mon Aug. 3, 2015 12:01 PM EDT

Steve Benen points us to Jeb Bush's latest YouTube video: a cheap 15-second spot calling out members of Congress for being lazy bums and suggesting that the laziest ones deserve to have their pay docked. "Bush's proposed solution is quite foolish," Benen says, but is it? If Jeb were serious, then yes, it would be pretty dumb. But I'm sure he knows perfectly well that presidents aren't allowed to cut congressional pay any more than Congress can cut the president's pay. This is pretty clear from the oddness of his phrasing—is he talking about Congress or about individual members of Congress or what?—which means he's not really proposing anything at all.

So what's the point? Once again, affinity marketing. Lots of people think Congress is doing a lousy job, and Jeb wants them to know that he agrees. But is it good affinity marketing? Well, the YouTube spot went up two weeks ago, and so far has gotten 767 views. That's about as well as my cat videos perform. So this is probably just a routine attempt to throw some mud on the wall and see if it sticks. If it does, great. It becomes a campaign message. If not, move on. After all, you don't think Jeb actually cares about this, do you?

One Pollster Has Stopped Polling the Republican Primary. Will Others Follow?

| Mon Aug. 3, 2015 12:28 AM EDT

I've been wondering for a while who the first pollster would be to stop polling the Republican primary. Today I got my answer:

As candidates jostle to make the cut for the first GOP presidential debate this week, the McClatchy-Marist Poll has temporarily suspended polling on primary voter choices out of concern that public polls are being misused to decide who will be in and who will be excluded.

....“It’s a problem when it’s shaping who gets to sit at the table,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute....“It’s making candidates change their behavior. Kasich is trying to get a big bounce. Rand Paul has a video with a chain saw. Lindsay Graham is hitting cell phones with golf clubs,” Miringoff said. “Now the public polls are affecting the process they’re supposed to be measuring.”

Miringoff is also concerned that candidates may be excluded from the debate due to differences between 10th and 11th place that are so close they're within the margin of error. I think those concerns are overblown, but that doesn't mean they aren't real. There's clearly a certain amount of arbitrariness at work here.

I doubt that very many outfits will pull out of primary polling. But a few more might, and of course that also affects which candidates will make the cut. In the end, then, McClatchy might be kidding itself here. There's just no way for news organizations that make editorial and placement judgments to avoid affecting the events they report on. It might be best to accept that and deal with it openly instead of pretending they can make it go away.

As Federal Aid Goes Up, College Costs Rise Enough to Gobble It All Up

| Sun Aug. 2, 2015 5:46 PM EDT

Josh Mitchell of the Wall Street Journal writes today about the spiraling cost of college:

The federal government has boosted aid to families in recent decades to make college more affordable. A new study from the New York Federal Reserve faults these policies for enabling college institutions to aggressively raise tuitions.

....Conservatives have long held that generous federal-aid policies inflate higher-education costs, a viewpoint famously articulated by then-Education Secretary William Bennett in a 1987 column that came to be dubbed the Bennett Hypothesis.

Regular readers know that I have at least a bit of sympathy for this view.  But Mitchell doesn't really explain how the data supports this hypothesis. So I'll give it a try. As you can see on the right, federal aid increased very modestly from 2000 to 2009. Then it went up sharply starting around 2010. If this aid were truly helping make college more affordable, out-of-pocket expenses for students (i.e., actual cash outlays net of loans and grants) would start to flatten out or even go down.

But that hasn't happened. You can lay a straightedge on the red line in the bottom chart. Basically, families received no net benefit from increased federal aid. Actual cash outlays rose at exactly the same rate as they had been rising before.

My guess is that this will continue until universities get to the point at which students and families simply don't value higher education enough to pay any more. That's the gating item, not aid programs. When out-of-pocket expenses finally equal the value that students put on a college degree, prices will stabilize.1 That's my guess, anyway.

The Journal article has more on this, and the Fed study is here if you want to read more about the methodology—much more sophisticated than mine—that the authors used to come to a similar conclusion.

1Actually, it's when the perceived value of a college degree equals current cash outlays plus whatever burden students associate with future loan paybacks. However, the latter is pretty tricky to quantify since it varies widely depending on the university, the student's major, and their subjective discount rate.

Tell Us What You Really Think About Donald Trump

| Sat Aug. 1, 2015 7:23 PM EDT

I've sort of promised myself not to write about Donald Trump, but (a) it's a weekend, and (b) David Fahrenthold has a pretty entertaining piece about Trump in the Washington Post today. Here's a brief excerpt of some of the reactions Fahrenthold got to a variety of Trump's blatherings:

Mark Krikorian, a foe of illegal immigration, on Trump's immigration ideas: “Trump is like your Uncle George at Thanksgiving dinner, saying he knows how to solve all the problems. It’s not that he’s always wrong. It’s just that he’s an auto mechanic, not a policy guy.”

David Goldwyn, a former State Department official in the Obama administration, on Trump's plan to fight ISIS by simply bombing them and then taking all their oil: “That is sheer lunacy on so many counts, it’s hard to start.”

Some anonymous sources on the same idea: “Oil-industry experts expressed skepticism about this plan. Skepticism, in fact, may not be a strong-enough word.”

Michael Tanner of Cato, on Trump's endless vision of new building projects combined with his insistence on lowering taxes: “You can’t spend more and collect less. That’s kind of basic math. You can argue about how the math adds up in the other people’s plans. But there’s math there. This, there’s just no math.”

Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute on Trump's plan to jack up tariffs on countries he doesn't like: “If you thought this had a ghost of a chance — which it doesn’t — you would sell all your stocks,” because of the damage that a trade war would do to the U.S. economy.

You know, when Mark Krikorian is critical of your anti-immigration ideas; Michael Tanner is skeptical of your tax-cutting ideas; and oil companies want no part of your oil-stealing ideas, you just know there's something wrong.

Anyway, Fahrenthold's piece is worth a weekend click. And you might as well do it while you can. We won't have Trump to kick around forever.