This is bullshit

The view form the north

I am snowed under around here, figuratively and damn near literally. While Combat! blog slept off an inordinate quantity of work last night, Missoula got a couple inches of snow. It was 85 this time last week. For the second year in a row, my lilac bush has taken a brutal beating, and dazzling mountain springtime has lapsed back into drear. Every year, I learn the same hard lesson—don’t trust spring—and every year I forget. Speaking of lessons repeatedly unlearned, President Trump put out another scandal yesterday. Perhaps you heard that he tried to get James Comey to call off the investigation of Michael Flynn. That’s obstruction, right? This one has to be the one that brings him down. Yet part of me thinks it won’t matter. Maybe it’s just the pervasive sense of unreality that the Trump presidency has generated, but I have become scandal fatigued. I have a hard time believing that anything can derail the Trump train before it pulls us all over the edge of a cliff.1 Either way, though, we’re watching history. This is either the unfolding of a Watergate-style meltdown or the beginning of the era when literally nothing that happens matters to American democracy. We live in interesting times.

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  1. We all have a scandal meter in our heads. We like to take readings off it and share with other people. “How scandalous do you find this newest development?” “This is super scandalous.” But these scandalometers measure media tone and clicks. They are not calibrated based on the damage to future public outcomes. If they were, Trump asking the FBI director not to investigate him or his associates would probably have a low rating.

    Certainly it’s damaging, but it’s not like spending billions on something that doesn’t help the public, like a wall. Trump acting inappropriately damages our perception of the office, but it doesn’t actually increase the likelihood that the next officer is inclined to follow suit. If anything, it decreases the likelihood. So this doesn’t set precedence that will be followed, and even if it does, can we really argue that precedence harms public outcomes as much as rolling back local police reform efforts or clean stream protections? Our scandal meters are attuned to the drama of the situation, not the outcomes. Likewise, during the campaign we follow the horserace instead of the policies at play.

    Scandals like these highlight how necessary self-restraint, analytical capacity, and experience are for our leaders. There’s nothing to prevent corruption in a conversation between Trump and Comey except for the virtues they bring. And popular elections are poorly designed to select for such virtues. We’ll continue to have scandals (probably the policy-insulated voter prefers this) so long as our popular elections select for bullshit like likeability and making the right promises instead of the candidate we’d hire to run a large organization.

    I am gratified that Trump is helping Americans remember the stakes. It’s a shame that the obvious need for experienced candidates will disappear under the blinding light of partisanship. The folks on my social media feeds, almost exclusively left-of center Democrats to total Marxists still think we can arbitrate socialist/centrist/whatever policy preferences without first ensuring we don’t elect people who are very likely incompetent and easily corrupted. If anything kills us, it’s the average voter’s failure to realize what public office entails, and it’s the enlightened voters failure to set aside their preferences for stability.

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