How the Democrats Are Failing the Resistance

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CASA In Action protests an appearance by Senator Marco Rubio, Representative Barbara Comstock, and GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie at the Inspiration Plumbing Company in Sterling, Virginia, on October 30, 2017. Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

There was a giddiness in D.C. this week, as the fantasy of removing Trump by impeachment seemed marginally less fantastic. I do not begrudge this excitement for a millisecond. God knows we could do with some cheer. Hope also came from the latest polls, which show Trump sliding ever more deeply in public esteem. FiveThirtyEight’s poll of polls now shows Trump near record lows: 38.0 percent approval with 56.4 percent disapproval. Gallup now has his disapproval around 60 percent. The possibility that the various hoodlums, sleaze merchants, and swamp creatures involved in Trump’s campaign might have witlessly talked to a wired Papadopoulos for the last few months is straight out of House of Cards. In D.C., we cannot get enough of this.

But on Fox, none of this was happening at all. And next Tuesday, we will get a dose of outside-the-bubble political reality. Ed Gillespie and Ralph Northam will be duking it out in the Virginia governor’s race in an evenly balanced, but Democratic-trending, state. It has morphed into a real-life test of how strong Trumpism will be in 2018, how effective the Democrats are as an alternative, and the future of the country. I don’t know what the result will be. But it is not looking good — for the Democrats or the country as a whole.

Northam seems to me almost a classic Democratic politician of our time. I have no idea what his core message is (and neither, it seems, does he); on paper, he’s close to perfect; his personality is anodyne; his skills as a campaigner are risible; and he has negative charisma. More to the point, he is running against an amphibian swamp creature, Ed Gillespie, and yet the Washington lobbyist is outflanking him on populism. Northam’s ads are super lame, and have lately been largely on the defensive, especially on crime, culture, and immigration. He hasn’t galvanized minority voters, has alienated many white voters, and has failed to consolidate a broader anti-Trump coalition. In Virginia, Trump’s approval rating is 38/59, but Northam is winning only 81 percent of the disapprovers, while Gillespie is winning 95 percent of the approvers. Northam’s early double-digit lead has now collapsed to within the margin of error.

If all this sounds like a rerun of 2016, well, that’s what it is. But insofar as it also represents Trump’s consolidation of the GOP, it’s all too 2017. Ed Gillespie is the last person you’d predict to become a Trump-style populist, and bring out the enraged base. He’s deeply Establishment, formerly moderate, and easily identified as part of the Washington-as-usual crowd. And yet he’s morphed — successfully — into a Bannonite, without losing mainstream Republican support. Somehow, the GOP still manages to rally together; and somehow, even now, the Democrats cannot. Gillespie also has a killer instinct. Putting what’s left of his conscience and decency in cold storage, he has been pushing out ads that make the Willie Horton spot look like Mr. Rogers. One ad targets Northam for believing that the Confederate statues should come down or be placed in museums; another blasts him for his waffling on sanctuary cities (in a state where none exist!) and links him to weakness against the MS-13 gang; another all but calls him sympathetic to pedophiles. The ads are brutal, foul, racist, demagogic, and effective. They embrace Trumpism with fervor and shamelessness and, in Gillespie’s case, staggering cynicism.

Now go to Northam’s website and you see a near-copy of Clinton’s agenda last year. Drenched in wonky micro-policies, one of its exhausted themes is actually “Working Together.” If you plumb the message, behind various poll-tested good-government bromides, he even has policy proposals on concussions and STEM curricula, and a smoking ban. This is Establishment Democratic boilerplate. And Democratic turnout, in response, looks wobbly, especially among minority voters.

Enter the resurgent activist left. Yes, the party needs more direct aggression and energy and left-populism. But the Latino Victory Fund, worried about low Latino enthusiasm, put out an ad last week that shows how much of the energy in the party is now dominated by the fight against “white supremacy.” And so the LVF ad would give your average Vox or Coates reader an intersectional orgasm — while dooming the party on the ground. It depicts a white man in dark glasses in a pickup truck wth Gillespie and tea party bumper stickers, brandishing a Confederate flag, and driving aggressively through a suburban neighborhood, terrifying young Latino and Muslim kids, and forcing them into a back alley. Just as this Republican terrorist seems about to murder the children, the scene changes and we realize that this was all a nightmare for the kids. And they wake up. This, the ad hammers home, is what the “American dream” means for the GOP. Cue to scenes from Charlottesville.

The ad was aimed at Latino voters. But, of course, it went viral, instantly erasing Northam’s relatively clean image, and tripling contributions to Gillespie’s campaign overnight. It helped cement the Trump base’s support for Gillespie. It seemed to imply that every Virginia Republican is a terrorizing white supremacist, and makes the fatal Clinton mistake of attacking a swath of actual voters. And, of course, it was about immigration. The GOP are on the smart side of this issue; the Democrats still don’t have a clue. In one final flailing, Northam first distanced himself from the ad, and then was shown to have helped finance it. Then the GOP managed to ambush him on the bogus “sanctuary city” issue. In the closing stages of the campaign, he said he would now veto any attempt to establish such a law-free enclave, a position he had once voted against. Even now, it appears, the Democrats have no practiced response to a GOP attack on this question. They don’t want to offend Latinos, and they don’t want to alienate whites. So they twist in the populist wind. Are they capable of focusing on economic populism and a defense of the working classes against GOP plutocracy? At this point, the answer is no.

This is not a good omen. If Gillespie wins, or the result is close, it means the Trump-transformed GOP is electorally viable in every swing district in 2018. That it could win in the state where actual white supremacists marched this past summer and when the president is 20 points underwater is a sobering reminder of the actual state of play in our politics. I can only hope it’s a wake-up call to the Dems. In 2017, they are either useless or actively counterproductive in the struggle to resist right-authoritarianism. They have learned nothing from 2016. Their intelligentsia seems determined to ensure that no midwestern whites ever vote for the party again. Their public faces are still Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi. They still believe that something other than electoral politics — the courts, the press, the special counsel — will propel them back to power. They can’t seem to grasp the nettle of left-populism. And they remain obsessed with a Russia scandal that most swing voters don’t give a damn about.

They think they are “woke.” They are, in fact, in a political coma.

Seriously, Put Down Your Phone

If you haven’t read Jean Twenge’s book on how Steve Jobs’s legacy is destroying the happiness and well-being of an entire generation, I highly recommend it. It’s deeply disturbing. Some stats from her Atlantic excerpt:

The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015; the decline has been especially steep recently … Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly. Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan … As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another, and more likely to kill themselves. In 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate.

Smartphones have not just increased depression, isolation, and anxiety for an entire generation, they also impair cognitive function for all of us. This much is proven, but it may be true even when you’re not looking at the bloody thing:

Results from two experiments indicate that even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention—as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones—the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity. Moreover, these cognitive costs are highest for those highest in smartphone dependence.

The effects in that study are small, and need replicating, but make sense to me. If I have my phone in my pocket, a small part of my brain is thinking about checking it, or waiting to check it, or otherwise marginally distracted from the task at hand. One way I’ve found to counter this proactively is meditation or silence with eyes closed for 30 minutes a day. I’ve found this is most effective if you do it before the day really begins. It helps steady the addled mind, twitching and eager for an iPhone update. It’s helped to turn off all notifications — as long as you don’t then compulsively check every app for updates. And then there’s simply leaving the phone at home as often as I can. Walking my beagles twice a day, phone-free, helps. Every few minutes, I get an addictive tug to consult the black mirror, but when it’s not there at all, my mind slowly calms and I start seeing the actual world again. The same thing happens at the gym if I leave the phone in my locker. It’s just an hour of pushing weights around — but you’d be surprised how your mind wanders in that little oasis, and how creative and productive that wandering can be.

If you need to do some concentrated reading, I’ve found going to a local coffee shop without a phone is helpful. Going back to a watch to tell the time also helps you leave it behind. Ditto an old-school alarm clock for the bedroom. Or setting a time each day to look at Twitter, preferably on a laptop or iPad. Every little roadblock helps. Then there’s simply what humans used to call the Sabbath. Pick a weekend day and make it phone-free — or at least as phone-free as anyone can in our overconnected age. You might be surprised at the relief you feel, the absence of stress, of compulsion, of distraction. You might reconsider the deep wisdom of the great religions in insisting on such a space apart from the deadliness of constant doing.

And last week, I tried an app to counter the apps. It’s called Moment. It measures your phone time throughout the day, and tells you which apps and habits are driving your use. I was shocked at how much time I spend looking at the little shiny gizmo, and surprised by which apps took away most of my daily life. It also helps you cut down. You can set yourself a daily limit — say, three hours — and each half-hour the phone will ping you to show you how much time you’ve already spent. When your three hours are up, it sets off an alarm. When you blow through your limit — and you will — it just keeps reminding you how far over the limit you’ve gone. It can’t stop you but it can help you. This epidemic is not going away. I keep relapsing. But we can try to develop habits and practices that help. Short of checking yourself into a monastery, it may be the best you can do.

Are Students Finally Rebelling Against PC?

My buddy and former Dish colleague Chris Bodenner reports from Reed College — that super-liberal but also old-school-rigorous school in Oregon (colloquially also known as Weed College). It’s another center for intersectional cry-bullies. Here’s a message from a leader of the Reed Against Racism group, or RAR, that has successfully traumatized, silenced, and intimidated professors teaching Reed’s classic humanities curriculum, i.e., “white supremacy.” It is from a Facebook post directed at Reed students not showing sufficient dedication to disrupting lectures:

To all the white & able(mentally/physically) who don’t come to sit-ins(ever, anymore, rarely): all i got is shade for you. [… If] you ain’t with me, then I will accept that you are against me. There’s 6 hums left, I best be seein all u phony ass white allies show-up. […] How you gonna be makin all ur white supremacy messes & not help clean-up your own community by coming and sitting for a frickin hour & still claim that you ain’t a laughin at a lynchin kinda white.

But the problem the chiding RAR leader was identifying — insufficient ideological zeal among students — was becoming real. The shutting down of lectures was beginning to wear thin on many students, especially those who thought they were going to school to learn something other than anti-racism. And this year, the freshman class began to rebel. The uprising started after the usual disruption of a humanities class on the first day of school. The RAR protesters interrupted the professor, grabbed the mic, and declared “[our] work is just as important as the work of the faculty, so we were going to introduce ourselves as well.” And then:

The pushback from freshmen first came over Facebook. “To interrupt a lecture in a classroom setting is in serious violation of academic freedom and is just unthoughtful and wrong,” wrote a student from China named Sicheng, who distributed a letter of dissent against RAR. Another student, Isabel, ridiculed the group for its “unsolicited emotional theater.” … [In a subsequent open mic session organized by RAR,] Rollo, a freshman from Houston, described how difficult it was to grow up poor, black, and gay in Texas. He then turned to RAR: “No, I won’t subject myself to your politically correct ideas. No, I won’t allow myself to be a part of your cause.” He criticized the “demagoguery” that “prevents any comprehensive conversation about race outside of ‘racism is bad.’”

Read the whole thing. The protests against the protests have since spread — led by students of color.

I’ve been despairing about the future of education given the climate on campuses, and have been dismayed by how easily so many students have been brainwashed by their PC professors, and intimidated by their peers. But, just as in the 1990s, that wave of extremism may be cresting and even faltering, as more and more students realize that real transformation comes not from shutting down debate and learning, but from actually opening both up.

Know hope.

And see you next Friday.

How the Democrats Are Failing the Resistance