The New Era of Polite Bluntness

by Neil H. Buchanan

Today is Super Tuesday, the day that Democratic and Republican leaders created in the 1980's to make sure that insurgent or extreme candidates would always fail.  The idea was to force I-think-I-can candidates to compete in an overwhelming number of primary elections on the same day.  The only way to survive Super Tuesday, it was thought, would be to have the money -- which meant the backing of the party elites -- to fight a multi-front war.  The early excitement about a non-anointed outsider would thus be summarily doused, and the political narratives could get back on script.  Goodbye Rick Santorum, hello Mitt Romney.  Goodbye, Howard Dean, hello John Kerry.

This year's Super Tuesday primaries will surely play out as planned on the Democratic side.  Bernie Sanders will not drop out tomorrow, but it is at this point all but impossible to imagine anyone but Hillary Clinton as the Democratic Party's ultimate nominee.  From this day forward, Clinton will be trying not to alienate Sanders's supporters, instead looking for ways to harness their enthusiasm for November, even as she cruises to victory.  The only interesting question left for Democrats is the choice of Clinton's running mate.

Today could mark something very different on the Republican side. We are, it seems, about to begin a 252-day period in which we will spend every moment worrying whether America will actually elect a president whose actions raise reasonable questions about whether he is a fascist.  Interestingly, the most informed negative response to the fascism question came in mid-December 2015, from Dylan Matthews on the Vox site: "To be blunt: Donald Trump is not a fascist. ... He's simply a racist who wants to keep the current system but deny its benefits to groups he's interested in oppressing."  Feel better?  Given the growing evidence that Trump incites his minions into disturbing spasms of cyber-bullying, and that he so often speaks of using actual violence against his critics, perhaps even Matthews's tepid defense will soon seem quaint.

In any case, it is important to understand that Trump's possible nomination will require a recalibration of the way that reasonable people engage in public debate.  It is by now well known that fact-checking has had no impact on Trump.  On PolitiFact, 78% of Trump's statements that have been checked have been deemed "mostly false," "false," or "pants on fire."  (One percent have been deemed "true.")  Trump remains undeterred, as are his followers.  And given the decidedly uneven track record of these fact-checking sites, and their obvious decision to try to maintain the fiction that lying is equally bipartisan by selectively calling out lies, I would not want to rely on them to stop the Trump phenomenon.

But the issue with Trump goes beyond his willingness to simply say things that are false.  Among his many other scary traits, Trump is quick to jump on conspiracy theories and to distort facts in ways that make them sound conspiratorial.  One of the less incendiary of those claims is that the U.S. unemployment rate is not actually 4.9% (as the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported at the end of January), but is, Trump asserted, "probably 28, 29, as high as 35. In fact, I even heard recently 42 percent."

The New York Times has a section for data/policy wonks called "The Upshot."  One of their best economics writers, Neil Irwin, took on Trump's claim about the unemployment rate in a column on February 10.  Irwin starts tentatively: "Mr. Trump might be bombastic, but he’s not entirely wrong," because "[t]he truth is, there is no 'true' unemployment rate. There are a nearly infinite multitude of ways to think about, and calculate, joblessness."

This is true.  Indeed, one of the more common moves on the political center-left has been to question the usefulness of the official unemployment rate, because it leaves out "discouraged workers" (those who have given up looking for work in the perhaps reasonable belief that there are no jobs to find) and involuntary part-time workers.  When I was a graduate student, one of the first policy memos that I wrote for a professor summarized those arguments and found that such an expanded definition of joblessness showed the rate being about twice as high as the official rate.

Irwin's column then runs through a variety of other ways in which one can say, without actually lying, that the unemployment rate is even higher.  He notes that one can get the number above 40%, "[b]ut keep in mind that this counts as unemployed every retiree, every college student, everyone who is unable to work because of a disability and every parent who voluntarily stays at home to raise a child."  Irwin then mockingly suggests that, "[i]nstead of just including people 16 and above, the way the B.L.S. does, we could throw in those good-for-nothing children who are neither working, looking for work nor counted as part of the labor force.  Like my 2-year-old niece, Lilia, who if you ask me has had it too easy for too long."

This is beautifully written, and it makes its points effectively.  Yet it ultimately, I think, concedes far too much ground.  Responding to Trump's provocations with, "Well, he's got a point, and he's not wrong, exactly," is a classic form of academic riposte.  It is, in fact, what the best legal pedagogy embodies: Give one's opponent the full benefit of the doubt, fill in missing parts of her argument in ways that seem "more than fair" or at least not uncharitable, and then show systematically that there is still no valid argument -- or, as in this case, that the fact-based argument is simply embarrassing upon full inspection.

Again, there is nothing wrong with this.  In a better world, it would be the way that everyone treats everyone. I am glad that the norms of academia and in at least some high-level precincts of journalism are based on the conviction that this is the best way to engage with ideas. But we are now in a different era, an era where headlines like, "The Real Jobless Rate Is 42 Percent? Donald Trump Has a Point, Sort Of" (which is the real headline of that Upshot piece), empowers rather than diminishes the man who is shamelessly willing to distort the truth that the rest of us claim to care about.

This means that it is important not to bury the lead.  "Trump distorts again" is different from "Trump's point is not false but is kind of silly when you think about it."  If we were dealing with someone other than "a racist who wants to keep the current system but deny its benefits to groups he's interested in oppressing," maybe it would be reasonable to continue to pretend that we live in a world where nuanced retorts will carry the day, but that world is now in the rear-view mirror.

As an aside, I feel compelled to point out that the fundamental error that Trump commits in his claim about the 40-percent-plus unemployment rate is also at the heart of Mitt Romney's infamous "47% comment," which is near and dear to Republicans' hearts. One gets to the claim that there is something wrong with "only 53% of people paying federal income taxes" only by ignoring the reasons why that was so: most retirees do not pay income taxes, students and children do not pay income taxes, and unusually large numbers of people have no income to tax during a deep recession.  (The 47% number emerged in 2010).  For Trump's Republican detractors to be dismayed that he is playing similarly fast and loose with statistics is, shall we say, rich.

In any case, we now know how the favored candidate of that same Republican establishment has decided to respond to Trump.  On last night's "Daily Show," Trevor Noah showed a clip of Marco Rubio making "a dick joke" at Trump's expense, with Rubio acting even more like a 14-year-old boy than usual, yukking it up while suggesting that Trump's physical endowment is inadequate.  More generally, Rubio and Ted Cruz now seem intent on simply insulting Trump as shamelessly as he insults everyone.

That is obviously a losing proposition, because Rubio and Cruz (as bad as they are in so many ways) simply do not have the pathological skills necessary to make such insults stick.  But even if they could be the bullies that they now want to be, it is not necessary for everyone else to become their worst selves.  In this atmosphere, even speaking the blunt truth about Trump's lies, exaggerations, and distortions might ultimately not succeed.  At the very least, however, it is essential to get out of the habit of argumentative modesty that is so common among people who care about facts and logic.

It is important to say, "He is wrong," rather than, "Although I ultimately disagree with him on the substantive point, there is a way to view what he said in a way that is interestingly not wrong."  The second approach has been ingrained in too many people, to the point where the first statement seems affirmatively impolite.  And although it is both unnecessary and self-defeating to be crude or to engage in taunts, we must recognize that one can and must be polite but forthrightly say, "This is dangerous and wrong."  The stakes have never been higher.