Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Hillary's Strategic Dilemma

In the lead up to the 1806 Battle of Jena pitting Napoleon Bonaparte against Prussia, the Prussian high command appeared supremely confident. This was somewhat strange, given that less than a year earlier, Napoleon had orchestrated a masterpiece at the Battle of Austerlitz, defeating the much larger combined Austrian and Russian armies, thereby cementing his reputation as one of the greatest commanders of his time.

Yet the proud Prussians, renowned for their own military prowess, were largely unimpressed. They believed that Napoleon’s success could largely be attributed to the relative ineptness of his enemies and an uncanny streak of good fortune, like the dense fog at Austerlitz. If he were to face the superior Prussian military machine, his good luck would run out, the Prussians reasoned.  

The Prussians’ overconfidence proved fatally misguided, and once again at Jena, Napoleon scored a decisive victory.

The Prussian defeat was rooted in their failure to recognize that Napoleon had revolutionized modern warfare, relying on speed, deception, and momentum to outmaneuver opposing armies, whose orthodox column formations were too sluggish and inflexible to counter Napoleon’s nimble corps. That was the source of his battlefield success, not the ineptness of his enemies.  

The Prussians were, as the saying goes, fighting the last war. Napoleon had changed the rules of warfare, just as Alexander the Great, Hannibal and Genghis Khan had done centuries earlier and just as the successors to the Prussian military, Germany’s Wehrmacht, would do over a hundred years later in unleashing the Blitzkrieg on their bewildered enemies.

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign parallels Napoleon's unconventional warfare in at least one key respect: he’s completely unpredictable and doesn’t play by the established rules of the game that have guided political campaigns for decades.

Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign (at least so far) parallels the mindset of the 1806 Prussian military: she’s over relying on her formidable political machine to defeat a political novice, who she believes had benefited from the weakness of his GOP primary opponents, as well as the small sample size of the electorate, i.e. GOP primary voters, that paved the way for Trump’s nomination.  

On numerous occasions, Hillary and her team have signaled the view that in a general election against the full force of the Clinton and the Democratic Party political machine, Trump’s unconventional tactics will prove futile.

Yet throughout history, far shrewder strategic thinkers than Hillary and her brain trust have failed to heed the eternal aphorism to never underestimate your enemy. A corollary to that aphorism is that you should never underestimate an opponent who defies conventional rules of warfare to the point of appearing reckless.

A prerequisite to most successful political campaigns is a clear message; a rationale for why voters should vote for you and against your opponent. Right now Hillary is struggling to crystallize the right message. She is testing various themes and slogans to see what will work against Trump. This week, she unveiled a new slogan, “stronger together,” emphasizing unity in contrast to what she hopes the electorate will perceive as Trump’s divisiveness.

At a time when voters are hungry for change, disgusted with the status quo, resentful of the “establishments” in both parties, this message strikes me as anachronistic and impotent. One might say its reminiscent of the stagnant Prussian column formations at Jena utterly unsuitable for Napoleon’s brand of war.

The idea that we’re “stronger together” is a safe message most voters probably agree with, at least in theory. But in a political environment in which clich├ęd campaign rhetoric rings hollow and bold pronouncements trump small-ball policy prescriptions, “stronger together” is a dangerously safe bet, and perhaps suggests that Hillary is content to fight the last war, despite clear warning signs that the political landscape has been fundamentally transformed, and tactics that worked in past campaigns may be obsolete.

But the far bigger and more complex challenge for Hillary is not how she defines herself; it's how she defines Trump. This is a challenge that all of Trump’s sixteen primary opponents failed to meet.

Does she portray Trump as a bully? As too dangerous? Too incompetent? Too ignorant?

On last week’s Meet the Press, Clinton used that platform as a springboard to bounce off anti-Trump messaging, accusing Trump of being an ignoramus, unqualified, dangerous, demeaning to women, harmful to America’s world standing, ego-driven, and so forth.

The problem with hurling insults at Trump is that as any political operative will tell you, a litany of messages is a terrible substitute for one clear message.   

And that is the crux of Hillary’s strategic dilemma: as of right now, she doesn’t know how to attack Trump.

Attack him on degrading women, and he instantly neutralizes the attack by invoking her husband’s seedy past. Attack him on not having any political experience, and it only reinforces the electorate’s contempt for the political class. Attack him on ethics, and it reminds voters of your own numerous ethical lapses.

She can attack him on ignorance, extremism, egomania, etc., but all those attacks failed in the GOP primary. Yes, the general election battlefield is bigger than the primary battlefield, but many of the public’s underlying attitudes about politicians and the “establishment” that sunk Trump’s Republican opponents may still be in play in the general election.

One message that won’t work for Hillary is touting her experience and track record of “getting things done.” The American electorate has never particularly valued experience as much as some pundits lead us to believe, often preferring candidates who exude charisma or promise fundamental change. And in an environment where being a politician is more of a liability than an asset, saying the kinds of things that “experienced” politicians with “track records” usually say isn’t likely to resonate with huge swaths of voters who simply don’t trust politicians to get anything done. But more importantly, as her high untrustworthiness and unfavorability ratings demonstrate, Clinton is probably the least credible messenger for a message that’s not particularly credible in the first place.  

There’re sixteen Republicans, including celebrated senators and governors, who can attest to the futility of employing a conventional approach against Trump. If Hillary thinks these Republicans are Austria’s General Mack at Austerlitz, and she’s Prussia, her fate might already be sealed. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

How to Defeat Donald Trump's Unconventional War

Trump has a 17 point lead in South Carolina despite sounding like Michael Moore in the last debate. If these numbers hold (which against my better judgment, I continue to stubbornly believe will not) and he decisively wins South Carolina, he becomes the clear favorite to win the nomination. That’s because he has a 20 point lead in Nevada and the anti-Trump bloc remains tragically divided.

Until now, his rivals have fought a gentlemanly war against Trump, replete with polite “he’s not a conservative” and “he doesn’t even know what the Nuclear Triad is” lines of attack.

In a conventional presidential race, a candidate who is exposed for not knowing what the nuclear triad is, is instantly eliminated from contention. In fact, I don’t recall the last time a presidential candidate survived such an egregious blunder. Ted Kennedy’s campaign was famously sunk in 1980 because he couldn’t articulate why he wanted to be president. In 1988, Michael Dukakis was panned for showing a lack of emotion when asked to consider a gruesome hypothetical scenario challenging his opposition to the death penalty. These were standard political blunders, not holy shit these guys are woefully uninformed about basic issues.

Trump is able to survive previously thought to be unsurvivable blunders because he is not running a conventional campaign.      
Trump is Genghis Kahn. Maybe not as brilliant of a tactician, but bold, fearless, ruthless, and above all, disdainful of convention. You cannot defeat a Genghis Kahn or an Alexander the Great or a Caesar utilizing knightly virtues. You have to counter their ruthlessness with ruthlessness. It doesn’t mean you compromise your values, either. It means you recognize what (political) warfare is.  

Are Republicans willing to allow a pseudo-conservative populist to win the nomination because they’re rigidly committed to fighting a conventional, “knightly” war?   

During the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans in futile desperation executed in cold blood dozens of US troops in Malmedy, Belgium. They did it because their dwindling supplies and insurmountable logistical disadvantages prohibited them from taking POWs.

The massacre served as a rallying cry for US troops, who from that moment on dispensed with conventional rules of warfare and basically, to put it delicately, went ape shit on the Nazis. Most reputable ethicists agree that the ensuing “war crimes” against the Germans were morally justified given what had just transpired and the nature of the enemy they faced.   

Fighting a fanatical enemy using conventional means spells disaster.

Time is running out for the GOP.

The Republicans’ predicament is akin to the Seinfeld episode when Jerry refuses to thank an acquaintance for giving him hockey tickets the day after the game because he’s fed up with gratuitous thanking. Offended, the acquaintance doesn’t offer him tickets to the next game. Kramer implores Jerry to call and thank him. Unable to penetrate Jerry’s obstinacy, the exasperated Kramer calls Jerry a “stubborn, stupid, silly man” and storms out.

The GOP is Jerry: refusing to break convention despite overwhelming evidence that failure to do so means not getting those coveted hockey tickets. Or something like that.

If Trump wins South Carolina, the GOP will have to either fundamentally alter its strategy or face the tragic fate virtually all conventional armies overrun by revolutionary commanders face: embarrassing and total defeat.                                    

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Meet the Insufferable Chuck Todd

My column in the American Thinker on Meet the Press host's Chuck Todd's inexcusable journalistic malpractice.  

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

No, Democratic Presidents aren't Great Job Creators

My article in the American Thinker explains the discrepancy in job creation numbers between Clinton, Obama, and Bush, and offers a blueprint for Republicans on how to counter the Democrats' talking point that Bill Clinton and Obama are great job creators.  

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

My Serendipitous Discovery of Marcus Aurelius

A few months ago, I stumbled on the philosophy of 2nd century AD Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. I highly recommend his best known work, Meditations, which crystallizes and expands on the Stoic philosophy. The essence of Stoicism is that virtue (i.e. acting according to principle and doing what is right) is the root of happiness, regardless of what calamities befall you.

A few days into reading Meditations, for no reason other than to provide interesting content to my fiercely loyal minions, I started to post Marcus Aurelius’s  quotes on my book’s Facebook page, A Life of Misery and Triumph.

Last night, I was at the gym reading Meditations in between sets (I cannot get Pandora to work at my new gym--which is one calamity befalling me that I will never get over--so I’m forced to read on my phone’s Kindle app). As I posted another enlightening quote, I realized that the main character’s name in ALOMT is MARCUS and that he founds a pseudo-religion/philosophy grounded in Stoic ethics (and in drinking).

Incredibly, this was the first time I made the connection between the protagonist Marcus and the Roman Emperor Marcus. Also incredible is the fact that I had never heard of Marcus Aurelius until AFTER I had written and published ALOMT, at least not that I remember. Perhaps I had encountered the name at some point and it seeped into my subconscious like when Elaine inadvertently plagiarized a Ziggy cartoon in the New Yorker, eliciting Mr. Peterman’s indignation.  

So in fact, I had been casually and unwittingly posting Marcus Aurelius’s quotes on a page promoting a book whose protagonist Marcus is the philosophical heir to Stoicism. Sort of. He’s primarily a degenerate drunk. But that’s neither here nor there.

And the kicker? Serendipity is a major motif in ALOMT. My stumbling on Marcus Aurelius and randomly posting his quotes on the ALOMT page without discerning the obvious connection is quite serendipitous indeed.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Deconstructing the Trump Voter

There’s arguably no greater mystery in the land of punditry than Donald Trump’s continued dominance in the polls, both nationally and in early primary states.

Political analysts on the right and left are befuddled as to how a man who had a public feud with Rosie O’Donnell replete with sophomoric insult swinging is the Republican frontrunner in an election that most Republicans and many neutral analysts believe is eminently winnable for the GOP. 

It’s inexplicable. Except it isn’t.  

Donald Trump has been on every side of every issue for most of his public life. He has supported single payer healthcare (a far more radical version of ObamaCare) and most incredibly, he has publicly praised Hillary Clinton AND given her money. Hillary Clinton. The presumptive Democrat nominee and the most prominent Republican villain.

Yet, he’s leading in the polls.

Every time we predict his demise, he emerges unscathed or even stronger. Surely his shameful smear of John McCain’s heroism would sink his campaign. Didn’t happen. Well how about his terrible first debate performance? Actually, a plurality (not a majority) of GOP voters said he was the winner. Ok, surely, his attack on respected and well liked Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly would be his Waterloo? Yeah, no. He was still far ahead in the polls.

Poll numbers are beginning to trickle in post second debate. We won’t know for sure if he remains untouchable or if it’s the beginning of the end for Trump—a beginning pretty much everyone thought would commence a long time ago—until next week.    

Trump appears to be impervious to the pitfalls that have traditionally destroyed campaigns.  In fact, campaigns have been sunk by missteps and gaffes far less egregious than Trump’s. In 1980, Ted Kennedy never recovered after he couldn’t articulate why he wants to be president. A messaging blunder to be sure, but infinitely less cringe worthy than Donald Trump retweeting a vile Megyn Kelly insult. Or any of his other antics for that matter.

As counterintuitive as Trump’s rise is, it does have a rationale. An excellent CNN documentary, "Evocateur," about 80's bellicose political TV host Morton Downey Jr. indirectly elucidates the Trump appeal.

As a brilliant businessman and self-promoter (he is unquestionably both, his Atlantic City bankruptcies not withstanding) Trump gets the niche entertainment formula. He understands that the quickest path to celebrity is not to make everyone like you, but to carve out a niche of people who love you. This is the classic branding strategy that Trump excels at.

Trump's niche is bold, unapologetic populism. Never back down, never show hesitation or reflection. Tell it like it is, never apologize, and above everything else, be entertaining or really funny.

It's the Morton Downey Jr. brand, and that brand has a big fan base.

Howard Stern and all the other shock jocks are the disk jockey versions of Morton Downey Jr. Not in terms of political leanings (conservatives and liberals listen to Stern), but in terms of here's the truth as I see it, and here's why anyone who disagrees with me is wrong and stupid.

Stern was the first disk jockey to embody the Morton brand. Trump is the first famous politician to embody the Morton brand.

The other aspect of Trump’s appeal is his “Make America great again” campaign theme. As any political consultant will tell you, a strong campaign theme is key to winning elections. As a branding guru, Trump understand that, and so he’s running with a theme that resonates with a significant bloc of the GOP base that thinks Obama has precipitated America’s decline.

His brashness, political incorrectness, cockiness, and even crassness are all refreshing qualities to voters who have come to resent and even hate the tedious predictability of the political class. Coupled with the inherent attractiveness of his underlying theme, Trump is able to maintain a passionate and loyal base of support that doesn’t care about any of the things that his detractors point to as proof of Trump’s un-presidential demeanor or utter lack of principled  conviction.

And then there’s the three-pronged message that buttresses his goal to “make America great again”: immigration, trade, and bravado. Trump promises to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it, renegotiate current free trade deals, and force his will on friends and enemies alike. In other words, he is going to solve the immigration problem (something that a significant portion of the GOP base cares about deeply), end free trade deals that Trump alleges are hurting the American worker (this was a major theme in both the Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan populist campaigns, and many conservatives don’t buy the mainstream conservative argument that free trade is good), and act like a tough guy winner doing these things the whole time.

These are the traits that make Trump so appealing to a large enough faction of voters to make him the frontrunner in a preposterously crowded field. They don’t care that he is prone to personal insults, or that he’s not a principled conservative. They don’t even care that he donated money to Clinton and the Democrats. None of those weaknesses rank as high in terms of issues his supporters care about as Trump’s anti politically correct bravado, the impression that he’s not beholden to anyone, and his stance on immigration and trade.

Voters almost always choose imperfect candidates with whom they agree on some issues, disagree on others. What ultimately determines who you vote for is issue intensity: how much do you care about issue X compared to issue Y. For Trump voters, immigration is the central issue. So as long as he toes their line on immigration (build a wall, enforce the law) they’ll give him a pass on all his other positions, even if those positions directly violate conservative principles.

Donald Trump will not be the Republican nominee, but his sustained surge is explained by a combination of niche branding, a powerful campaign theme, skilled messaging, and personality.       


Thursday, August 6, 2015

On Jon Stewart

A mistake some conservatives make is trying to convince people that Jon Stewart isn't funny. 

First, if people think he is funny, you're not going to change their sense of humor by writing 800 unfunny words. 

Second, he is funny. 

The problem with Jon Stewart is that he's every bit as biased as the people he excoriates for bias, he oversimplifies complex issues as readily as the people he excoriates for oversimplifying complex issues, and he is every bit as intellectually shallow as the people he excoriates for intellectual shallowness. 

To his credit, Stewart does occasionally mock his political brethren, unlike Colbert who only mocks conservatives. Stewart is not as rabid of a partisan as Colbert is a compliment I would pay Stewart.

That, and he's legitimately funny. And seems like a good guy.