On Not Being Funny At the Al Smith Dinner

October 23, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

I have a modest proposal for the next Al Smith dinner: the writers for each presidential candidate get together beforehand and trade jokes.

Neither Trump nor Hillary is what you would call a master of stand-up.* But it wasn’t just the delivery and timing that brought boos from the audience. It was the nastiness of the jokes. Here’s Trump

I am told Hillary went to confession before tonight’s event, but the priest was having a hard time and he asked her about her sins and she said she could not remember 39 times. Hillary is so corrupt, she got kicked off the Watergate commission.

How corrupt do you have to be to get kicked off the Watergate commission? Pretty corrupt.

The audience booed.

And here’s Hillary:

Donald wanted me drug-tested before last night's debate. And look, I’ve got to tell you, I am so flattered that Donald thinks I used some sort of performance enhancer. Now, actually, I did. It’s called preparation.

She also used this line, which got booed.

You notice there is no teleprompter here tonight, which is probably smart, because maybe you saw Donald dismantle his own. Maybe it is harder when you are translating from the original Russian.

People, this is not a roast. The awkward silences and audible boos are telling you that nasty jokes are off the menu. Gentle pokes, maybe. But what’s called for – and what previous presidential candidates have provided – is self-deprecation.

These jokes are nasty. And Clinton’s “prepartion” line is the opposite of self-deprecation. It proclaims her own virtue and Trump’s indolence.

Trump’s most successful joke – the only one to get applause – was the one that poked fun at himself. Well almost.

You know, the president told me to stop whining, but I really have to say, the media is even more biased this year than ever before. You want the proof? Michelle Obama gives a speech, and everyone loves it. It’s fantastic. They think she is absolutely great. My wife, Melania, gives the exact same speech and people get on her case. And I don’t get — and I don’t get it. I don’t know why.

OK, it was aimed not at himself but at his wife, but that’s close enough.

Clinton started with a couple of jokes that were about herself, though the first one was really about Trump’s characterization of her.

This is such a special event that I took a break from my rigorous nap schedule to be here.

And as you have already heard, it is a treat for all of you, too, because usually I charge a lot for speeches like this.

If Trump had used these lines (“Hillary took a break from her rigorous schedule of naps”), they would have been a disaster. A disaster.

So I suggest that the writers from each side trade the jokes that are more appropriate for a roast and convert them into self-deprecatory humor. Trump’s writers turn over their e-mail joke.

Trump: I was not really sure if Hillary was going to be here tonight, because, I guess, you did not send her an invitation by email, or maybe you did and she just found out about it through the wonder of WikiLeaks.


Clinton: I nearly didn’t make it here tonight. The invitation must have been in my e-mail. If it hadn’t been for WikiLeaks, I’d still be in Cleveland.

Of take this Clinton joke

People look at the Statue of Liberty and see a proud symbol of our history as a nation of immigrants, a beacon of hope for people around the world. Donald looks at the Statue of Liberty and sees a 4. Maybe a 5 if she loses the torch and tablet and changes her hair.

Now imagine a Trump version.

People look at the Statue of Liberty and see a proud symbol of our history, a beacon of hope for people around the world. So true.
But let’s be honest folks. If you’re like me you look at the Statue, and you also see a 4. [pause] Maybe a 5 if she loses the torch and tablet and changes her hair.

It would kill.

Of course, it’s an open question whether Trump would accept a deal that required him to swap retaliation for self-effacing humor.  Hillary, on the other hand, would go for it. . . depending on how the focus groups reacted.
* Videos of their performances are here  (Trump) and here (Clinton).

One Question Where Trump Turned Conservatives More Liberal

October 21, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Most people agree that when this election is over, Trump will have changed American politics. Bigly,* perhaps. But one of the more ironic changes may be that he caused the most conservative sectors of the electorate to relax their views on the connection between a politician’s private life and his** fitness for public office.

Call it “motivated morality.” That sounds much better than hypocrisy. It’s like “motivated perception” – unconsciously adjusting your perceptions so that the facts fit with your ideology . But with motivated morality, you change your moral judgments. 
For religious conservatives, Donald Trump presents quite a challenge. It’s the sex,  One of the things that conservatives are conservative about is sex, and Trump’s sexual language and behavior clearly fall on the side of sin. What to do? Conservatives might try for motivated cognition and refuse to believe the women who were the recipients of Trumps kissing, groping, and voyeurism. That’s difficult when Trump himself is on the record claiming to have done all these things, and making those claims using decidedly unChristian language.

Instead, they have changed their judgment about the link between groping and governing. Previously, they had espoused “moral clarity” – a single principle applied unbendingly to all situations. Good is good, evil is evil. If a man is immoral in his private life, he will be immoral or worse as a public official.

Now they favor “situational morality” the situation in this case being the prospect of a Clinton victory. So rather than condemn Trump absolutely, they say that although he is out of line,  they will vote for him and encourage others to do likewise in order to keep Hillary out of the White House. For example, in a USA Today op-ed (here), Diann Catlin, a “Bible-thumping etiquette teacher” says

I like God’s ways .. . . I also know that he wants discerning believers to take part in government. . . .God has always used imperfect people for his glory.

God uses people like Trump and like me who are sinners but whose specific issues, such as the life of the unborn child, align with his word.

She includes the “we’re all sinners” trope that’s so popular now among the Trump’s Christian supporters (funny how they never mention that when the topic is Bill Clinton’s infidelities or Hillary’s e-mails).  More important is the implication that even a sinner can make good governmental decisions. That’s an idea that US conservatives used to dismiss as European amorality. In government, they would insist, “character” is everything.

It’s not just professional conservatives (op-ed writers and Jerry Falwell types) who have crossed over to the view that sex and politics are separate spheres and that a person can be sinful in one and yet virtuous in the other. Ordinary conservatives and Evangelicals have also (to use the word of the hour) pivoted. 

Five years ago, the Public Religion Research Institute at Brookings asked people whether someone who had committed immoral acts in their private life could still be effective in their political or professional life. Nationwide, 44% said Yes. PRRI asked the same question this year. The Yes vote had risen to 61%. But the move to compartmentalize sin was most pronounced among those who were most conservative.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)
(In the original of this post, I presented the data in bar graphs. These line graphs 
are much better for showing who changed and how much.)

The unchurched didn’t change much in five years. But White Catholics and mainline Protestants both became more tolerant of private immorality. And among the most religiously conservative, the White evangelical Protestants, that percent more than doubled. They went from being the least accepting to being the most accepting.

As with religion, so with political views.

People of all political stripes became more accepting, but when it came to judging a privately immoral person in public life, Republicans, like White evangelicals, went from least tolerant to most tolerant.

What could have made happened?

There’s no absolute proof that it was the Donald that made the difference. But those White evangelicals support him over Hillary by better than four to one. Those who identify as Republicans favor Trump by an even greater margin. There may be some other explanation, but for now, I’ll settle for the idea that in order to vote for Trump, they had to keep their judgment of him as a politician separate from their judgment of his sexual behavior – a separation they would not have made five years ago.***

* A post at Language Log (here) confirms that what Trump is saying is “big-league.” It attributes the confusion to “the ‘velar pinch associated with the final /g/ of big league.”

** Yes, “his.” Their ideas about the importance of a woman’s private sexual life may not have evolved in a similar way.
*** The change may turn out to be only temporary.  The next time a liberal candidate is revealed to have strayed in his private life, religious and political conservatives will revert to their former views.
The PRRI report is here.

Legitimacy in the Headlines

October 19, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

How is Donald Trump doing in his campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the presidency? He has been at it a while. His “birther” campaign – begun in 2008 and still alive – was aimed specifically at the legitimacy of the Obama presidency. Most recently, he has been questioning the legitimacy of the upcoming presidential election and by implications all presidential elections.

If he is successful, if the US will soon face a crisis of legitimacy, that’s a serious problem. Legitimacy requires the consent of the governed. We agree that the government has the right to levy taxes, punish criminals, enforce contracts, regulate all sorts of activities. . .  The list is potentially endless.

Legitimacy is to the government what authority is to the police officer – the agreement of those being policed that the officer has the right to enforce the law. So when the cop says, “Move to the other side of the street,” we move. Without that agreement, without the authority of the badge, the cop has only the power of the gun. Similarly, a government that does not have legitimacy must rule by sheer power. Such governments, even if they are democratically elected, use the power of the state to lock up their political opponents, to harass or imprison journalists, and generally to ensure compliance.

Trump is obviously not alone in his views about legitimacy.  When I see the posters and websites claiming that Obama is a “tyrant” – one who rules by power rather than by legitimate authority; when I see the Trump supporters chanting “Lock Her Up,” I wonder whether it’s all just good political fun and hyperbole or whether the legitimacy of the US government is really at risk.

This morning, I saw this headline at the Washington Post website (here).

Scary. But the content of the story tells a story that is completely the opposite. The first sentence of the story quotes the Post’s own editorial, which says that Trump, with his claims of rigged elections, “poses an unprecedented threat to the peaceful transition of power." The second sentence evaluates this threat.

Here’s the key evidence. Surveys of voters in 2012 and 2016 show no increase in fears of a rigged election. In fact, on the whole people in 2016 were more confident that their vote would be fairly counted.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

The graph on the left shows that even among Republicans, the percent who were “very confident” that their vote would be counted was about the same in 2016 as in 2012. (Technically, one point lower, a difference well within the margin of error.)

However, two findings from the research suggest a qualification to the idea that legitimacy has not been threatened. First, only 45% of the voters are “very confident” that their votes will be counted. That’s less than half. The Post does not say what percent were “somewhat confident” (or whatever the other choices were), and surely these would have pushed the confident tally well above 50%.

Second, fears about rigged elections conform to the “elsewhere effect” – the perception that things may be OK where I am, but in the nation at large, things are bad and getting worse. Perceptions of Congressional representatives, race relations, and marriage follow this pattern (see this previous post). The graph on the left shows that 45% were very confident that their own vote would be counted. In the graph on the right, only 28% were very confident that votes nationwide would get a similarly fair treatment.

These numbers do not seem like a strong vote of confidence (or a strong confidence in voting). Perhaps the best we can say is that if there is any change in the last four years, it is in the direction of legitimacy.

The Trump Phenomenon Cracked Open

October 14, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The best social/cultural/political explanation that I have read of the continued support for Trump is at Cracked. Yes, Cracked. By David Wong.

Here’s the opening.

(Click for a larger view.)

It’s long for a blog post – two full screens – but worth reading.

[HT: Melanie Allen]

The Genuine Article

October 12, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Donald Trump has a tell – an unconscious tic that divulges genuine ideas and feelings that are different from the views he consciously wants to convey. His tell is the word “the.”

“I will be phenomenal to the women, I mean I'lI want to help women,” said Donald Trump back in August of 2015, when he was one of many Republicans campaigning for the party’s nomination. John Dickerson on “Face the Nation” had asked him why women should vote for him.

I bring this up not because women voters reject Trump’s own self-assessment, though reject it they do.  Here is Nate Silver’s estimate of what the election would look like if only women voted.

What struck me was Trump’s use of the definite article. “Phenomenal to the women,” rather than just “phenomenal to women.” On the surface, Trump was saying that when it came to women voters, he was on their side. But the definite article subtly the contradicted that assertion. As I blogged at the time (here),

when you add “the” to a demographic group and speak of “the women” or “the Blacks,” you are separating them from the rest of society.. . . turning them into separate, distinct groups that are not part of a unified whole.

Linguist Lynne Murphy (here) heard something similar during the most recent debate, regarding not women but minorities.

One of the littlest words in the English language gives the biggest clue about where Donald Trump’s head is at: his use of the word “the.”

Trump promised, “I’m going to help the African-Americans. I’m going to help the Latinos, Hispanics. I am going to help the inner cities. [Clinton has] done a terrible job for the African-Americans.”

By using the definite article, says Murphy, the speaker builds a wall between himself and the group he is talking about. “The” turns them into the “other.”

“The” makes the group seem like it’s a large, uniform mass, rather than a diverse group of individuals. This is the key to “othering:” treating people from another group as less human than one’s own group.

Nate Silver has not offered maps showing what the election would look like if only Blacks, Hispanics, and inner-cities voted, but I suspect they would resemble that of the women.

Murphy, a “reader” in linguistics at the University of Sussex, notes a similar “the” othering among her fellow UK linguists. This same tell reveals how they feel about those of us on this side of the Atlantic. Are we “Americans,” or are we “the Americans”?

British writers’ views on American English are a good predictor of whether they’ll write “Americans say it that way” or “The Americans say it that way.” Those who feel that American English threatens British English use “the” to hold Americans at arm’s length (possibly while holding their noses).

Hypocrisy – Public Virtue, Private Vice

October 8, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

“What’s the deal with hypocrisy anyway?” asks my inner Seinfeld. The answer comes from La Rochefoucauld four centuries ago: “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.”

I was never sure what this meant. But politicians’ reactions to Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” remarks offer a perfect of example.

Mitch McConnell says that Trump’s comments are “repugnant and unacceptable.” Paul Ryan was “sickened” by what he heard. Reince Priebus gave the official GOP response:  “No woman should ever be described in these terms or talked about in this manner. Ever.”

I am not privy to the private conversations that take place among the men who are our political leaders. But I would bet a lot of money that Ryan, McConnell, and all the other guys on both sides of the aisle hear this kind of talk regularly. Poor Paul Ryan must be sick a lot. I would also bet that even those who thought that what they heard was sickening or repugnant ever said so at the time or called their colleague out on his sexism. Ever.

For them now to claim that they are shocked, shocked that the nominee of their party used such language and expressed sexist attitudes towards women – that’s hypocrisy.  It is also vice (holding or condoning degrading views of women) paying tribute to virtue (treating women decently and speaking about them decently).

Still, I wonder if La Rochefoucauld would join the Republicans who are now saying that they will not vote for Trump? (As Dylan Matthews points out, these politicians are also saying by implication that they were fine with all of Trump’s other statements and attitudes – the ones about Megyn Kelly, Rosie O’Donnell, John McCain, et al.) Or would La Rochefoucauld say that the public world of politics is distinct from that of private life, and that personal virtue has little to do with the ability to govern?.

American politics seems to be unique in its demand for a perfect congruency of private and public personas. I would guess this demand is a legacy of our Puritan origins. These Puritan ideas still have a place in the public sphere, but their power is slowly waning. The publication of Trump’s privately expressed views about women will probably ensure and augment Hillary’s victory. But, like Bill Clinton’s surviving the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it may be yet another sign that America is loosening the constraints of the Protestant Ethic. In the meantime, we’ll just have to get used to hypocrisy.

Still Standing By

October 1, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

An op-ed in the Times framed the first debate, and by implication the entire presidential election, as “The Minivan vs. the Maserat.” I preferred David Plotz’s take – Bart vs. Lisa.

Like Bart, Trump is often the impish devil, the bad boy. He does things his supporters would like to do were it not for the stultifying forces of political correctness. He doesn’t care about being offensive. He lives to offend. He mocks and insults those who would try to inhibit him. He pranks the smugly superior. And he never apologizes.

This persona plays well to White working-class men. An ABC News poll from Sept. 22 shows that support growing.

If White working-class men were the only voters, Trump would be a shoo-in. Nothing can alienate them. As Trump himself said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.” Well, he wouldn’t lose any of that core demographic.

But what about White working-class women? The ABC News poll shows them favoring Trump 52% - 40%, still pretty strong, but that poll was taken before the first debate. I have not found any post-debate data about those women, but I wonder how they will respond to Trump’s latest – defending his fat-shaming of Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe, then tossing some slut-shaming on top of that.

Will the Wal*Mart women appreciate Trump’s views on a woman carrying few extra pounds? Or will they sympathize with Ms. Machado? Might they see this as Trump’s version of political correctness? In both cases, working-class people are being measured against the standards of some cultural elite, and they resent it. If men resent having their attitudes characterized as “racist,” maybe women will resent having their bodies characterized as “disgusting” (one of Trump’s favorite adjectives).   

I also wonder how they will react to the new anti-Clinton strategy Trump just announced.  “She’s nasty, but I can be nastier than she ever can be.” What is he going to be nasty about?

Will White working-class women appreciate nastiness the way men might? And will they support nastiness directed at a woman because her husband strays? Trump thinks so.

Trump defended his choice to bring up Bill Clinton's sexual infidelities by speculating it would steal away female voters from his opponent. (NY Times)

I have absolutely no poll data on how Trump-supporting women feel about other women whose husbands cheat. But I did find this document – a song that spent three weeks at #1 on the country charts and rose to #19 on the pop charts (behind, among others, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Build Me Up Buttercup”). That was in 1969, but in the song had many subsequent covers. I am referring, of course, to Tammy Wynette’s classic “Stand By Your Man.”

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman
Giving all your love to just one man
You'll have bad times, and he'll have good times,
Doin’ things that you don’t understand.

But if you love him, you’ll forgive him
Even though he’s hard to understand.
And if you love him, oh be proud of him
’Cause after all he’s just a man.

Stand by your man, give him two arms to cling to
And something warm to come to
When nights are cold and lonely.
Stand by your man, and show the world you love him
Keep giving all the love you can.
Stand by your man.

Here is a very recent performance – Kellie Pickler at the Grand Old Opry last year.

Gone is the Tammy Wynette big hair and big mascara of nearly 50 years ago. But the sincerity of the performance and the reaction of the audience suggest that the underlying sentiment still resonates, especially in Trumpland.* Will Trump win votes by reminding women that Hillary stood by her man?

*The song is such an emblematic cultural artifact that I have used it before in this blog here) and here.)