Chaos theory: On the Electoral College, Hamilton Electors and the Donald Trump Show

 

 

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Good day Austin:

One of my earliest memories was being in the back seat of the family car on Election Day 1960. It was pretty late at night and we had been driving a long time coming back from I know not where. We were listening to the Kennedy-Nixon election turns on the car radio, and the news crackled. The election was close, very close, and the outcome was in doubt. It all depended, the voice on the radio kept saying, on  the electoral college. It would all come down to the electoral college.

I assumed this would work to Kennedy’s benefit, because, even at six, I knew that JFK would have an edge with any college crowd.

I finally got to see the Electoral College in action at the Capitol on Monday, and, it turned out that it was not your typical college crowd. Somehow, because Texas was home to the only going-into-it, you-can-count-on-it faithless Trump elector in Chris Suprun of Dallas, the eyes of the nation were on Texas, and the timing was such that the faithful Texas electors got to put Trump over the 270 mark, securing his victory for president.

It was a moment in history, but it was also the latest episode of the Donald Trump  Show, the one in which, amid the chaos, the star somehow always emerges victorious, thanks, in no small part to his enemies, who don’t even seem to understand that they are on the show, playing their dutiful role.

The next day, on Tuesday, Michael Hirschorn, who developed reality TV shows for VH1 and who in the 2007 Atlantic  wrote The Case for Reality TV: What the snobs don’t understand, was on Ari Melber’s show on MSNBC putting this in context.

Of Trump’s election, Hirschorn said:

Trump was speaking to an audience that really understood reality TV. People like us, well-meaning urbanites, tend not to watch reality TV, don’t really understand that language and it is a very different language from the one we’re used to. It’s a language of conflict, of being an alpha male, about dominance and it doesn’t really seek any resolution, and Trump is really the greatest celebrity reality talent of all time.

On reality television, resolution is undesirable. Hirschorn said, They seek endless conflict because conflict is interest.

Of Trump’s assembling his Cabinet as president-elect:

It literally is “The Bachelor,” down to the candlelit dinner with Mitt Romney  after he which he got kicked off the show at the end of the hour right after the commercial break.

So everyone has kind been of sucked in, including this network, CNN, other networks into really covering this presidency or incipient presidency as a kind of reality television show where everyone wins.  It’s a proven formula that’s great for ratings but it’s terrifying for the country  because it has nothing to do with governance.

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And I think the thing I found about reality talent, is that reality talent, really great reality talent either doesn’t know or soon forgets the difference between reality and television and Trump strikes me as someone where we really don’t know if he understands what the joke is or not  and if I came across this guy and i had a chance to put him on the says show, I’d be, “this guy is really awesome, I’m sure he’s a lot of fun at a poker game or  dinner party, but as president he’s kind of terrifying.

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I think were almost like rats in a cage feeding off this.

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We’re all enabling this guy. We’re also all the saps. On all these reality television shows, the person who breaks down and cries is the loser. For liberals and progressives  who are moaning and upset and  angry, that’s a win (for Trump) in the reality TV production paradigm and giving him that is really what he wants and what people who support Trump want.

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When we go into a pitch meeting with a reality star we say, “Go crazy, do some nutty stuff, it really doesn’t matter what you say,” whereas in the news business people are looking at him based on content. It really isn’t about content, it’s about show, it s about  performance, it’s about what Jeb Bush said,  which is kind  of endless chaos.

Chaos was the watchword of the Trump campaign.

Endless roiling scandal and controversy is much to be preferred to the discrete and episodic.

From the Washington Post’s Dan Balz at the Democratic National Convention this summer.

The big story at the Democratic convention for most of Wednesday was not the Democrats — not Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine or even President Obama, the evening’s star speaker. It was Donald Trump, whose loose and provocative talk about the Russians and Clinton’s emails seemed exponentially beyond even his standards for creating turmoil and controversy.

Trump thrives on chaos and above all else demands attention. When the spotlight falls elsewhere, such as on the Democrats this week in Philadelphia, he looks to shift it back in his direction. He is a candidate who uses disruption as a strategic force. Wednesday was a textbook example — whether for good or ill.

Trump veered into controversy at a Wednesday morning news conference in Florida. He suggested that the Russians should hack into Clinton’s private emails if they have not already and then release publicly those that she deleted before turning over the server to the federal government.

No one could remember a serious candidate for president seeming to urge a foreign power to carry out espionage on the United States and at the same time call on that country to intrude on a presidential election and possibly influence the outcome. It is another example of Trump doing and saying the unthinkable and daring the Democrats and his opponents to make it cost him politically.

The controversy came on a day that Democrats were planning to use their prime-time speeches to frame the contrast between the major-party nominees and attempt to paint Trump as wholly unsuited, temperamentally and by lack of knowledge, to serve as president and commander in chief. 

And from the New York Times” James Poniewozik earlier this month:

His cabinet vetting has been as much “The Bachelor” as “The Apprentice,” complete with luxurious backdrops (Trump Tower, Mr. Trump’s club in Bedminster, N.J.), public sniping among associates about the suitors and even a candlelit dinner, at Jean-Georges with the secretary of state hopeful Mitt Romney.

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The whole process reflects Mr. Trump’s worldview, which was reality TV before reality TV even existed: to see life, even within a team, as gladiatorial combat. On “The Apprentice,” he relished letting candidates go crabs-in-a-barrel on each other in the boardroom. Now it was Newt Gingrich, an early supporter of Mr. Trump, calling Mr. Romney a potential “disaster” on Fox News.

Mr. Trump and cable news have the same metabolism. Cable news demands a steady stream of excitations and “breaking” updates, a constant instability that keeps you tuning in.

Mr. Trump is glad to supply that, and cable news is glad to respond. This creates a perpetual-motion machine. Mr. Trump sees something in the news; he gets mad; he tweets; that becomes the news; repeat. He’s the Hate-Watcher in Chief.

The last president with a history in entertainment, Ronald Reagan, came from the movies by way of the California governor’s mansion. He knew how to read a script and had already learned to marry politics to smooth stagecraft.

Mr. Trump, on the other hand, is all stream of consciousness, improv, roll the cameras and we’ll clean it up in postproduction. It’s unsteadying, disorienting. The national narrative becomes a reel of explosions and contradictions with no thread. Controversies follow one another too fast to remember any of them. Last week seems like a year ago.

This chaos may benefit only the president-elect because when there is no certainty, when there is no logic, there remains only the leader — only Mr. Trump.

The effort to block Trump in the Electoral College was a gift to Trump, enabling him to win yet again while leaving the opposition looking feeble, deluded and out of touch.

They were, in Hirschorn’s paradigm, the moaning, upset, angry, crying losers. They were Trump’s enablers.

And, it was a good story, an ongoing source of controversy and speculation even though it had zero chance of success. And, if it had somehow succeeded, the result would have been the destruction of norms that those worried about Trump ought to be seeking to bolster not weaken, leading almost certainly to a convulsion of violence in the streets, followed by the House of Representatives restoring order with the election of  a strengthened President Trump.

And so, in spite of itself, the whole episode was given a relatively serious airing.’

From the Independent last Friday: Harvard law professor says ’30’ Republican electors ready to block Donald Trump win. If it gets close to the 37 needed ‘there will be a very interesting dynamic’, says Larry Lessig

As many as 30 Republican members of the Electoral College are willing to break their pledge and vote against Donald Trump in order to block him from becoming the US President, according to a Harvard University law professor.

Larry Lessig, who was himself briefly a candidate for the 2016 Democratic nomination, has been offering legal support to electors on their right to “vote their conscience” – that is, to reject the mandate given to them by the winner of the popular vote in their specific state.

Most states bind their electors to the popular vote by state law, but Mr Lessig said there was precedent to say these are federal officials, granted powers by the federal constitution, who should “be able to exercise their independent and nonpartisan judgement about who to vote for.”.

 

 

The argument for denying Trump an Electoral College victory was built on what seemed to be two mutually exclusive lines of reasoning.

  1. The Electoral College is an abomination, an anti-democratic relic of the Founding Father’s protection of slavery that ought to give way to the popular vote, the authentic voice of the people.
  2. The Electoral College is a stroke of genius by the Founding Fathers who foresaw the possibility of a bad actor being elected who was so dangerously out-of-bounds that he needed to be stopped by wiser heads.

 

 

 

How cool and righteous to be a Hamilton Elector.

But, the idolization of Hamilton, I think, has a lot less to do with a careful reading of Federalists 68 and a lot more to do with the hit Broadway musical  – the haute cultural cuisine of a cognoscenti that despairs of the bread and circus Trump Show being fed the rabble.

Hamilton is not only a hugely successful production, it is also a cultural touchstone, a signifier of the Obama era.

As described by Rebecca Mead in the New Yorker in February 2015, Hamilton was actually born in a White House performance by its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda in May 2009, when the Obama administration was young.

That evening in May, Miranda and the other performers—among them Esperanza Spalding, the jazz bassist and vocalist, and James Earl Jones—were introduced to the President. Miranda asked him to sign a copy of “Dreams from My Father” that he’d bought at the airport. Onstage, Miranda announced that he was working on a concept album about Hamilton—“someone I think embodies hip-hop,” he said, to general laughter. He did not mention that he had written only one song. After Miranda explained that Hamilton represented “the word’s ability to make a difference,” he launched into complex lyrics that condensed the first twenty years of Hamilton’s life into four minutes. Slight of build, with dark cropped hair and thick stubble, Miranda paced the stage with coiled energy, rapping of “the ten-dollar Founding Father without a father / Got a lot farther by working a lot harder / By being a lot smarter / By being a self-starter.” His performance ignited a rising murmur of delight among the audience, and the Obamas were rapt: Miranda later heard that the President’s first reaction was to remark that Timothy Geithner had to see this.

Ah yes, Timothy Geithner and Alexander Hamilton – two peas in the anti-populist pod.

From Mead:

It does not seem accidental that “Hamilton” was created during the tenure of the first African-American President. The musical presents the birth of the nation in an unfamiliar but necessary light: not solely as the work of élite white men but as the foundational story of all Americans. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington are all played by African-Americans. Miranda also gives prominent roles to women, including Hamilton’s wife, Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo), and sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler (Renée Elise Goldsberry). When they are joined by a third sister, their zigzagging harmonies sound rather like those of Destiny’s Child. Miranda portrays the Founding Fathers not as exalted statesmen but as orphaned sons, reckless revolutionaries, and sometimes petty rivals, living at a moment of extreme volatility, opportunity, and risk. The achievements and the dangers of America’s current moment—under the Presidency of a fatherless son of an immigrant, born in the country’s island margins—are never far from view.

The election of Trump was an affront to Hamilton, and it was, of course,  the cast of Hamilton who lectured Vice President-Elect Mike Pence when he came to see the show, a scene that Pence, who loved Hamilton, accepted with great equanimity.

But for Trump, it was just another opportunity to wring some juicy conflict into a tweet and  dominate the news.

 

 

As for Hamilton, the man and not the musical, here is some of what he had to say in Federalist 68:

The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue. And this will be thought no inconsiderable recommendation of the Constitution, by those who are able to estimate the share which the executive in every government must necessarily have in its good or ill administration. Though we cannot acquiesce in the political heresy of the poet who says: “For forms of government let fools contest That which is best administered is best,” yet we may safely pronounce, that the true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration

 

The protest outside the Capitol on Monday was hale and hearty with a goodly variety of excellent signs.

 

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I was even reminded of how an errant apostrophe can diabolically turn the meaning of a three-word phrase into its opposite.

As it played out, history was made Monday, but not in the way that the Hamilton Electors had hoped.

 

 

From NPR:

Trump secured 304 electoral votes — two fewer than he earned in November, according to the Associated Press, which tracked results from Capitol to Capitol. That was despite a pitched effort by some on the left who wrote letters to Trump electors trying to persuade them to switch their votes or not vote at all and keep Trump short of the 270 needed.

Not only did it not happen, but more electors tried to defect from Hillary Clinton Monday than from Trump, by a count of eight to two. Three Democratic electors in Maine, Minnesota, and Colorado tried to vote for candidates other than Clinton. The electors’ votes, however, were disallowed because of state rules binding them to the statewide popular vote winner.

Four more electors in Washington state defected from Clinton. Three voted for Colin Powell and one for Faith Spotted Eagle, a Native American who gained some notoriety for her protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

And in Hawaii, an elector successfully cast a ballot for Bernie Sanders instead of Clinton.

 

It was, for Trumpers, a happy ending.

But, in true Trump spriti, not everyone on the winning side was wiling to leave well enough alone.

 

 

 

 

From the Statesman”Ken Herman:

 

I’m unclear on which part of the process Abbott found circusy. I was in the Texas House chamber for Monday’s Electoral College proceedings and saw no circus. It dragged on for three hours, but that’s OK. Outside the Capitol, the anti-Trump protests got a little passionate. Nothing wrong with that. No circus there.

Perhaps Abbott sees circus in the efforts of groups to encourage Electoral College members to go rogue. Did some of that go over the top this year? Maybe. But I’d call it more free speech than circus.

Abbott turned his general thoughts about the Electoral College into a personal attack on one elector at 9:46 a.m. Tuesday when he went Trumpian and tweeted this at Suprun: “YOU’RE FIRED!!!”

First of all, governors can’t fire electors. Second of all, Suprun’s job was over by the time Abbott “fired” him. Third of all, doesn’t Abbott have some important governing or Christmas shopping he should be doing instead of spite tweeting?

 

Maybe it was the fact that his predecessor, former Gov. Rick Perry – unlike the likes of Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz – had secured a spot in the Trump Cabinet after a couple of twirls on Dancing with the Stars,  but Abbott – who is calling for a Convention of the States to rewrite the Constitution – could not seem to resist the impulse to confirm that this really is The Trump Show.

As for binding Texas electors, perhaps a better solution would be for the political parties to do a more serious job of vetting their electors – and making it a position worthy of Hamilton’s faith in them – instead of a political bauble.

Also, if electors can never exercise their free will and best judgment, there is no reason to have them. But, just suppose that Donald Trump on Sunday had declared, “Yes, I am Putin’s pawn and will do his bidding,” it might be nice to have electors who could spare the nation the time, expense and mental anguish of having to wait until he was inaugurated to be impeached.

In the meantime, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who was there for the vote by the Texas electors, struck a different posture, declining to comment on Suprun, or on efforts to legally bind the electors, and saying that the demonstrators outside were evidence of what’s great about America, and God bless them.

As for the Electoral College, Cornyn said, “The winners always seem to like it, and the losers always seem to like it not so much.”

And then there was Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, a potential Trump Supreme Court pick, but the unTrump in his healing and happy use of Twitter, who accompanied his children to the ceremony, in which they played a role.]

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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