Politics chat: Chaos as a ladder, soft coups, and radical education reform

Panel: Richard W. Sharp, Patrick W. Zimmerman, & James Stout

Hey folks, welcome to the inaugural Principally Uncertain politics slack chat!  We’re trying it out as a way to apply a more free-flowing discussion format to your weekly edification and entertainment.  “Banter,” I believe the people call it. We’d also like to acknowledge that we’ve shamelessly cribbed this general idea from fivethirtyeight because they’re smart like that and it’s a great idea.

Adult beverage not required for consumption of this article.  But recommended.

In this chat, we cover (click to jump):

Note: The transcript below has been edited for length and in a (possibly fruitless) search for coherent and logical thought.

pzed Let’s introduce our panelists!

  • In the purple corner, @rsharp (Richard W. Sharp), applied mathematician turned bean counter. Dude likes beer, predictive models, and puns.
  • In the skinny yellow spandex, @jamesisntstout(James Stout), sometime historian, all time cyclist, British invader. Day job: Dispenser of historical knowledge at San Diego County Community College.
  • And I’m going to be in red, @pzed (Patrick W. Zimmerman), recovering academic, historian, anthropologist, and all around font of questionable decisions. Currently editor of Principally Uncertain.
So, kicking it off, have we reached peak chaos? At least for this episode?  Or is someone going to be following the Scaramouche out the door soon? @rsharp or @jamesisntstout, either of you can go first.  Let’s see how far @rsharp has gotten into his beer.

jamesisntstout I think this is all super structural chaos. It’s when people lower down in the chain of executive appointees start leaving and it being replaced that we are in real trouble.

pzed The Grand Theory of Functionary Determination.  I’ll buy it.
How low are you talking @jamesisntstout? Like the diplomatic staffers who just haven’t been appointed, or like postal worker, FBI agent low?

jamesisntstout The latter. It seems like nobody in the White House understands that appointing someone and controlling them are different things.

pzed Well, that seems like an accurate statement.

No one hurries the DMV. Not the Donald, not anybody.

jamesisntstout They don’t seem to understand 8th grade civics either.  It seems unlikely we will see an impeachment.  So the farce will just keep escalating.
It’s interesting that none of the recent rejects have blasted Trump yet.

pzed And kind of surprising.

jamesisntstout For such dedicated narcissists, it is odd.

pzed Given Scaramucci’s track record of tact and restraint.
So, @jamesisntstout, it sounds like you see the administration as rather unlikely to figure out how to Make America Great Again any time soon. To create a false dichotomy as a shallow rhetorical device: is the malfunctioning Trump government a good thing / bad thing for the concerned citizen?  Is chaos a ladder or the first step down the road to the breakdown of civilization, to punkocalypse?

rsharp Ok, @pzed and @jamesisntstout, I’ll spot you the chaos in the junior ranks, but where does this lead? The most effective cabinet members have been the professionals, for example Sessions and Kelly. Sessions has so far successfully withstood the “will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” approach, and Kelly has exercised actual power (for all the talk about firing people, he’s the first other than Trump himself to actually wield this power).
Nature abhors a vacuum, so those positions will be filled. And this is some kind of survival of the fittest on a fruit fly time scale. Sooner or later a competent (but not very picky) administrator will turn up with a personal agenda that doesn’t require Congress. Say an LGBT ban for the military.  It’s fun to watch the pawns go down, but this thing is getting stronger.
Nevertheless, while the supporting cast may be getting tougher, the weakest link remains. Trumps own worst enemy remains himself
Once the pretenders have drifted away, who will be left?

pzed My guess: outside of La Famiglia, Bannon. Because he’s legit dangerous as a disgruntled former employee if, say, he goes back to Breitbart or to Fox.  He also seems like the kind of who wouldn’t lose much sleep over disloyalty to a former boss.
But yeah, @jamesisntstout has a point with his musing that it’s odd that such dedicated narcissists as Flynn/Spicer/Priebus haven’t yet started flinging dirt at the White House. Not sure Bannon would have the same restraint.
@jamesisntstout who’s your last man standing?

jamesisntstout – Bannon makes sense; he’ll fiddle whilst Rome burns and then blame the liberals for arson.

Last man standing? Photo credit: Gage Skidmore (Flikr).

pzed The Deep State comes for us all.
So, let’s turn things around, then.  Seems like we’re kind of all agreed on this administration not being the most apt at effecting policy.  How about flipping the question a bit: Let’s hear worst case scenarios from the perspective of the opposition (either popular opposition or the Opposition Party, your choice).  It’s not like this is in the clear and a 2018 reaction against the Trump-led GOP is a sure thing.  What do you guys see as the most likely scenarios in which The Donald pulls things together?

rsharpDonald can’t pull it together, but he could get or be gotten out of the way (while still remaining in office). On every initiative so far, where he inserts himself he causes damage to his side’s aims. Dinner with supporters and insults for Republicans on the fence failed to win him health care. During Comey and following up with a public statement about it being for that “Russia thing” only fueled the investigation. Taking him out of the political equation could work. Republicans in Congress could just pass what they please.
Fortunately, there’s a second factor contributing to the lack of progress: internal dissent on the side of Congress.  They can’t get themselves together, and have admitted needing help from Democrats

jamesisntstout Dunning Krueger or pathological narcissism? Either way, the problem is that nobody dares tell him to stop.

rsharp So maybe the worst-case scenario for the opposition looks something like a quiet Donald (somebody takes away his phone, maybe exchanges for a new toy?) that abandons the hard right, and the GOP teams up with a couple Democrats who realize that the potential for tipping-point leverage and want to wield a little power (look for potential Lieberman clones).
Also, I’ll take the bait here, @jamesisntstout.  I think they do dare. Or they are learning to. Maybe not in the White House itself, but at least in Congress. He just signed the Russia sanctions bill (with gritted teeth).
In the White House you have to strike a delicate balance between effectiveness and telling gthe boss what he wants to hear (which nobody has really yet demonstrated), but outside there are plenty of signs of dissent.

rsharp A question for all: if things quiet down, will Democratic unity crack? Who is the weakest link in the senate?

pzed Yes, the single most powerful force creating Democratic unity is the daily reminder of a common enemy.  For the short term it’s likely to create a stronger uniting force than the arguments between the various factions within the Democratic Party are to tear it apart (Bernie Bros v. why-can’t-we-all-get-along-and-reach-across-the-aisle centrists is a simplistic but not entirely inaccurate basic split).
Joe Manchin: You are the weakest link!

Bernie: can he play nice with others? Photo credit: Gage Skidmore (Flikr).

rsharp Let me reframe my question a bit in light of this week’s new initiatives.  There are some new bills up on Capitol Hill, so which will become law?

  • Affirmative action
  • Tax cuts (for business)
  • Immigration quotas
  • Health care zombie 5… Thousand?
In any case, no rest for the weary. Hot off last week’s defense of health care comes a new slate of initiatives as Trump searches for that first win. Lets take a stab at their short term chances (we’ll define this as chances of passage between now and the Christmas break).  Will a Dem defect for one of these?  Or does chaos continue to unite resistance? 

rsharp My vote: immigration.  This one might actually break the pattern I imagined above: that a divided GOP and united Democrats meant that nothing could pass and therefore the trick was to divide Dems.  Instead, this one has a chance at uniting Republicans. Taxes don’t seem to enter the equation, so the hard right can’t complain about big government but the center can still appreciate that it plays to their base’s baser instincts.
Dems know that their base want them to stand firm, we saw the impact of the travel ban, but it’s not enough if the majority is in sync.  Could face a court challenge, but they learned that lesson and would probably design a bill that defends against it.
Best hope for defeat: Trump.  I don’t know how, but he’ll find some way to shoot himself in the foot.  Perhaps by angering an eminent senator who extracts his revenge with a made-for-tv Roman Emperor-style thumbs down.
For that matter, the math might stop it. Presumably McCain will be in treatment and only available for big votes.  So now it only takes 2 to block any Republican measure (Murkowski & Collins?)

pzed @rsharp I would have agreed with you if Trump and the GOP had tried that without first poisoning the public image of any immigration initiative (in the short-term) with the travel ban and wall pushes. I see a decent likelihood of those all getting connected under an umbrella of racism and the Dems staying united due to pressure.  Immigration reform seems as likely to slide into a Trumpcare quagmire redux as it does to sail smoothly through both houses.
My bet for most likely? Tax breaks. The Dems cave on breaks for the 1%, the GOP on increasing the debt, and everyone sells it as a conservative analog to the Obama stimulus if they also agree to a middle class tax cut.

rsharp I agree that Dems stay united on immigration, but claim that it isn’t enough to stop it because it’s a GOP unifier. Who balks?

pzed Murkowski. Probably McCain.

rsharp Whats in it for them?

pzed Well, both of them because they kind of seem personally pissed off at The Donald right now. Murkowski with good reason.  And also that plays well in The Last Frontier

rsharp McCain gets to be mavricky again.  Murkowski has a chip to cash in, though.  Her vote has a value ($$$) and she’ll determine market price.  No need to be the thorn in this case since you can play it either way at home.

Not amused by your skinny repeal. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

pzed She’s got a chip in the big game, just like in Clear and Present Danger.  Spoiler Alert: Harrison Ford totally cashes in his chip.  #whatwouldjackryando

jamesisntstout This immigration bill might be the one they squeeze through. Australia has managed to pass similar and they’re not a million miles from us politically. It hits the misconception of the “good and bad” migrants.
And has the appearance of logical objectivity

pzed So what beverage goes best with a side of schadenfreude, @rsharp and @jamesisntstout?

rsharp London Pride cometh before the fall @pzed.

jamesisntstout New topic: The leaks just keep on coming!

pzed The Donald is going to be really pissed about that leak.  There might be nothing else (even getting ignored) that makes him as livid as looking week.  Mexico “publicly defies” the idea that they won’t pay for our wall.  Hah.  Looks like the Mooch didn’t fire all the leakers, did he?

jamesisntstout I wonder if it was a response to the latest purge.  A warning shot that someone has ammo should they be canned?

pzed Seems like it.  These seem to be pretty much always dropped when one faction inside the White House is pissed at another and wants to make it look bad.  Though, in this case, the only one who really does have egg on his face is El Presidente.
Hmmm.  Completely un-supported wild guess: Tillerson?
Only because of 2 things.  1 – context (diplomacy), 2 – every reason in the world to be frustrated with Trump.

rsharp Ok, so the problem with leakers is you gotta catch em all.  There’s a whole bag of potential candidates. So we’re going to need a leader board, not a dart board, if we’re going to start playing leaker wack-a-mole

pzed Leaker Leader Board?
As an aside, when the Donald feels criticized, he tends to take solace in rallies.  Sticking to that pattern.

jamesisntstout The crowd reaction in those rally videos always gets me. The capacity for self–delusion in the face of overwhelming evidence is what got him into power, but seeing it still shocks me.

pzed It’s terrifying, @jamesisntstout.
Regarding self delusion, there’s a similar effect with the idea that whites are discriminated against. We have trouble reconciling the idea that we benefit from a system while simultaneously see unemployment, factories closing, etc. People have trouble admitting, even to themselves, that they were advantaged relative to other groups but still find themselves struggling. In that context, any attempt to account for, say, socioeconomic factors affecting college admissions is interpreted as discrimination, not correcting for it.
I know several older folks who talk about “reverse discrimination” and reject the entire concept of white privilege. “I never got any privilege,” meaning, really, “my life wasn’t easy.
This is particularly prevalent in situations where you have endemic racism and an extreme income gap. Most white people who benefit from the former are still on the wrong side of the latter. So they can’t see it.

rsharp Sigh, indeed. 
To quote my friend B.S., hasn’t Trump already sucked all the oxygen or of the room?  That is, if we are to discover something that is left to say and worth saying, then let’s shift gears a bit.  Let’s ask what should happen, rather than what has or what will. We ought to ask how our leaders should behave in order to define what is right for the citizen. Rather than wait for the authority to dictate such to us.
So here’s a topic that seems to be on the tip of everybody to the right of Hannity’s lips: the “soft coup.”  So, has it started?  Should it?
Has it: unclear. Leading indicator is Kelly, who has shown the ability to fire, but that’s nothing new. It’s not a coup in my book until he is making policy. Who is his first hire? When will his/the military interest win out over Trump’s instincts?
The real problem of course is, how could you tell?  Trump is already a big government, flag waving champion when it comes to wearing flight suits and doing aircraft carrier photo ops.
For the most part, there’s nothing for a general to do except stay out of the way.
But then there are two big questions: preparedness (personnel policies such as the recent transgender ban), and aggression (what constitutes a red line, when do the bombs start to fall)?
Should it? Yes, the must be a limit at which those in charge on paper have abdicated their responsibilities.
There’s even a slow process in place now. The president can be declared incapacitated and responsibility transferred to others.  However, to date, that has only occurred with the president’s agreement (e.g., while under anesthesia for surgery).  Can it be done in a contested manner?
It takes only minutes for an unstable C-in-C to push the big red button because somebody laughed at his incompetence.
So yes, a soft coup can be appropriate.

pzed No, it hasn’t happened. What’s happened so far is basically how the Montesquieu system was supposed to function, with the branches of government in tension.
Is there a scenario where it should happen? Of course. There are potential scenarios that would justify a hard coup (think: Trump playing football with the nuclear football).  Does that make them likely? Nah.

Hillary & Comey
Probably not talking strategy for the soft coup.

jamesisntstout I’ve seen coups first hand and this isn’t one ! Sometimes I find the whole #resist thing a little challenging when it’s privileged people who think they can change the world with a bumper sticker and a hashtag. With that said, I think a total breakdown in government efficacy is far more likely than an open revolt .
Regarding the military, a good friend does cybersecurity in the Navy and is being deployed to China. I think most of those guys are smarting for a kinetic war to go with the cyber one they’re already fighting. They see Russia as the issue, not China, so that might not help Trump.

rsharp I’m using Hannity as a source more often from now on.  Stirs things up.
So is it fair to say then that the White House is simply adrift? Trump’s “policy” is to react to any challenge to his legitimacy, which come fast enough that no significant legislation is likely pass. Even in areas where he could effect significant changes, like immigration, he tends to handle it so badly as to slow himself down.
There’s no hidden hand on the tiller. The generals in the room might interact with the government and the public better than the Mooch, but cannot do much about Trump himself.
Very interesting statement @jamesisntstout about the divergence in properties between the president and the military.  Has this happened before?

pzed Can the military be part of Hannity’s Deep State?  Or, is that venturing into Rule ∅ territory for you @rsharp?  I’ve seem clashes between the military hierarchy and the Executive branch in the US before, and it has generally ended with the President winning (See MacArthur, Douglas).  That’s, of course, not always the case around the world (See Pinochet, Augusto, among many, many others). I don’t think the split between Trump and the Military is really much to talk about, yet.  It seems to be primarily a disagreement over tactics and focus, rather than something fundamental that would cause anything remotely approaching a coup-like situation.

jamesisntstout What’s fascinating about the cyber stuff is the way it blurs military / state boundaries and undermines trust. 

pzed Also, how there’s so much malicious activity out there that it’s really, really hard to trace to its ultimate source.  Our servers get hit by random hack attempts from Ukraine, Russia, China, all the time.  Averaging 66 per day. 
Are most of them probably bot nets trying to steal user information to either a) sell to ad nets, b) steal IDs/credit card numbers, etc?  Ayyyup.
Are at least some of them either directly or indirectly funded/directed from the FSB or Chinese state security?  Almost certainly.
Do we have any idea which is the case for any particular hack attempt?  Nnnnooope.
When the street is full of pickpockets, you don’t know which ones are also spies, @jamesisntstout.

rsharp And now, @pzed, back to your topic – with a twist. If you are right, that some whites cannot distinguish between their position in a system that favors them and one that merely favors the rich, and the consequence is that politics of a Trump, how should one proceed?
What is necessary to change a vote?

pzed Long term, @rsharp? A significant investment in primary and secondary education focusing on critical thinking skills and logic.
That’s not so much going to help with the current MAGA crowd, of course. So you’re left with competing for control of the information they base their decisions on. The messages they are exposed to regularly. So ads, but not just campaign ads. Things that are political but not connected to a specific candidate up for reelection. D.A.R.E. to keep kids off drugs. Smokey the Bear. etc.
Translation: not just money. A shitload of money. So, basically the same as most things in politics.

Long-term solution?. Photo credit: Woodly Wonderworks

rsharp Education is not part of the Republican agenda – it’s openly despised. Even if the states were to take up the issue, it would be applied very unevenly. So where do you start? I was about to suggest a Gates Foundation approach, but that wouldn’t have any legitimacy. Worse than a non functioning government would be a private one. So chicken vs. egg: how do you make this a popular issue?
Side note: there’s a new Smokey the Bear billboard near work. I wonder if the park service revolt is widening.

pzed Well, since education is the long term solution, not sure you have to make it a popular issue and have an Obamacare-style national law that tries to take care of it all at once. Though that’d be nice. 
Tactically, if you focused on primary and secondary education, hit up the “training our children for the future” line hard, and really blanketed some key areas (Rust Belt, anywhere else where Trump’s “JobsJobsJobs” message is landing).
Yeah, individual states moving in this direction is the most likely solution but also not the one that covers everything.  But it’s movement in the right direction.

rsharp I meant popular in the same sense you used it, that there should be an issue like jobs for the future to drive it vs. a privately funded approach that promotes education for its own sake.
But I’m not sure that jobs for the future necessarily does the trick. The importance of school hasn’t diminished, but the topics considered appropriate have. In particular, state education standards that have been modified to encourage application of FUD to critical thinking, e.g., redefining the word theory to reduce it from a useful model to something that is not to be trusted (evolution, climate change, etc.)
So maybe there’s a response: time to get more interested in school district elections.

pzed Good response.  That might even be a better strategy than at the state level.  States tend to control curricula, but local school districts dictate application @rsharp.
When the top of the federal education system is occupied by those who aren’t particularly keen on the very concept of public education, then the logical approach is focus your efforts on the bottom.
If we want to get radical @rsharp and @jamesisntstout?  How about this:

  • State-sponsored trips for everyone: Kids could be required to spend 6 months studying somewhere else sometime between 16-20 years old.  This could be opted for either in high school or college.  Grades would count (transcripts required), so it’s not just a vacation; you’d have to learn at least something.  You could give every citizen (even the ones with minor maladies like bone spurs) the choice of EITHER this study abroad OR a year of military service (when you stop continual schooling) OR a year of civil service (think AmeriCorps, Habitat for Humanity, Teach for America, etc).
  • If you do the study abroad in a school system where the primary language of instruction is not English, you get a tax deduction for life.
If people are forced to confront foreign ideas (literally), it expands their perception of normality.  Which, whether or not they end up agreeing me, is good for an intelligent, healthy society.

rsharp So, love the radical thought, but what about strategies that can work in the face of broken promises.

pzed In terms of getting those people’s votes, remains to be seen whether it will work. Also, my above strategy wasn’t particularly aimed at getting specific votes but denying the susceptibility to demagoguery that facility with basic logic and standards of evidence can help inoculate a population against, @rsharp.

pzed So, that about wraps us up. Just short of this slack chat submitting the final draft of its 500 page dissertation.
Final question: Wild Predictions: What are we going to talk about next time?
I’ll go first, @rsharp and @jamesisntstout.
Trump throws his weight behind high-speed rail as an infrastructure investment, vowing to build trains connecting every single county in Real America. And the Blue States are going to pay for it.

jamesisntstout What are we talking about next time? Clearly, a leak. What I would really like to see is a leak regarding Pence. One wonders the VP is engaging in a long-term campaign to undermine and remove Trump and have the homphobe-in-chief step up and take the stage.
What I think is more likely, though, is that we find that Trump spent his vacation trying to sell advertising on the front lawn of the White House to arms companies.

pzed Oooo! Ads on the White House lawn for Trump Golf clubs?
Or, how long until he tries to tee off on the Capitol building? Holds a competition in the Cabinet: next Chief of Staff is the guy (of course it’s a guy) who can hit a Congressman or Senator (either party) from the White House lawn.

jamesisntstout Maybe he will turn it into a Yuge casino. Most luxurious casino ever.

pzed Everyone knows that place is a total dump.

What an embarassing hovel.

rsharp Well there’ll at least be some big beautiful chocolate cake.
The thing I like about his vacations is how public they are. He likes schmoozing with the paying, cellphone-toting members of his clubs. And they like tweeting photos of impromptu strategy sessions in return.
So I’m predicting not a leak, exactly, but an embarrassing story that’s something done in public and relayed by his supporters to score internet points, but that ends up causing a lot of embarrassement.

pzed So that’s all, folks! If any of us are right….then don’t blame us, we’re just the messengers. ‘Till next time, peoples.

About The Author

Richard is a Seattle area data scientist who builds predictive models and the services that deliver them. He earned a PhD in Applied and Computational Math from Princeton University, and left academia for the dark side of science (industry) in 2010, following his wife to the land of flannel. Fan of coffee, beer, backpacking and puns. Enjoys a day on the lake fishing, and, better, cooking up the catch for a crowd.

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