UPDATE: Dr. Monnat has left a comment pointing out that I made a major error in reading her methods (I assumed she used non-standardized rates but in the methods she specifies that she did). So I have removed one criticism of her paper and modified another about regression. This doesn’t change the thrust of my argument (though if Dr. Monnat is patient enough to engage with more of my criticisms, maybe it will!)

Since late 2016 a theory has been circulating that Donald Trump’s election victory can be related to the opioid epidemic in rust belt America. Under this theory, parts of mid-West America with high levels of unemployment and economic dislocation that are experiencing high levels of opioid addiction switched votes from Democrat to Republican and elected Trump. This is part of a broader idea that America is suffering an epidemic of “deaths of despair” – deaths due to opioids, suicide and alcohol abuse – that are part of a newfound social problem primarily afflicting working class white people, and the recent rapid growth in the rate of these “deaths of despair” drove a rebellion against the Democrats, and towards Trump.

This theory is bullshit, for a lot of reasons, and in this post I want to talk about why. To be clear, it’s not just a bit wrong: it’s wrong in all of its particulars. The data doesn’t support the idea of a growing death rate amongst white working class people; the data does not support a link between “deaths of despair” and Trump voting; there is no such thing as a “death of despair”; and there is no viable explanation for why an epidemic of “deaths of despair” should drive votes for Trump. The theory is attractive to a certain kind of theorist because it enables them to pretend that the Trump phenomenon doesn’t represent a deep problem of racism in American society, but it doesn’t work. Let’s look at why.

The myth of rising white mortality

First let’s consider the central framework of this story, which is the idea that mortality rates have been rising rapidly among middle-aged whites in America over the past 20 years, popularized by two economists (Case and Deaton) in a paper in PNAS. This paper is deeply flawed because it does not adjust for age, which has been increasing rapidly among white Americans but not non-white Americans (due to differential birth and migration patterns in earlier eras). Case and Deaton studied mortality in 45-54 year old Americans, differentiating by race, but failed to adjust for age. This is important for surprising reasons, which perhaps only epidemiologists understand, and we’re only figuring this out recently and slowly: ageing is happening so fast in high-income countries that even when we look at relatively narrow age categories we need to take into account the possibility that the older parts of the age category have a lot more people than the younger parts, and this means that even the small differences in mortality between say 53 year olds and 45 year olds can make a difference to mortality rates in the age category as a whole. If this seems shocking, consider the case of Japan, where ageing is so advanced that even five year age categories (the finest band of age that most statistical organizations will present publicly) are vulnerable to differences in the population. In Japan, the difference in the size of the 84 year old population to the 80 year old population is so great that we may need to adjust for age even when looking at narrow age categories like 80-84 years. This problem is a new challenge for epidemiologists – we used to assume that if you reduce an analysis to a 10 or 15 year age category you don’t need to standardize, because the population within such a band is relatively stable, but this is no longer true.

In the case of the Case and Deaton study the effect of ageing in non-hispanic white populations is so great that failure to adjust for it completely biases their results. Andrew Gelman describes the problem  on his blog and presents age-adjusted data and data for individual years of age, showing fairly convincingly that the entire driver of the “problem” identified by Case and Deaton is age, not ill health. After adjustment it does appear that some categories of white women are seeing an increasing mortality rate, but this is a) likely due to the recent growth of smoking in this population and b) not a likely explanation for Trump’s success, since he was more popular with men than women.

White people are dying more in America because they’re getting older, not because they have a problem. I happen to think that getting older is a problem, but it’s not a problem that Trump or anyone else can fix.

The myth of “deaths of despair” and Trump voting

Case and Deaton followed up their paper on white mortality with further research on “deaths of despair” – deaths due to opioid abuse, suicide and alcohol use that are supposedly due to “despair”. This paper is a better, more exhaustive analysis of the problem but it is vulnerable to a lot of basic epidemiological errors, and the overall theory is ignorant of basic principles in drug and alcohol theory and suicide research. This new research does not properly adjust for age in narrow age groups, and it does not take into account socioeconomic influences on mortality due to these conditions. But on this topic Case and Deaton are not the main offenders – they did not posit a link between “deaths of despair” and Trump voting, which was added by a researcher called Shannon Monnat at Pennsylvania State University in late 2016. In her paper, Monnat argues for a direct link between rates of “deaths of despair” and voting for Trump at the county level, suggesting that voting for Trump was somehow a response to the specific pressures affecting white Americans. There are huge flaws in this paper, which I list here, approximately in their order of importance.

  • It includes suicide: Obviously a county with high suicide mortality is in a horrible situation, which should be dealt with, but there is a big problem with using suicide as a predictor of Trump voting. This problem is guns. Uniquely among rich countries, the US has a very high prevalence of gun ownership and guns account for a much larger proportion of suicides in America than elsewhere – more than half, according to reputable studies. And unfortunately for rural Americans, the single biggest determinant of whether you commit suicide by gun is owning a gun – and gun ownership rates are much higher in counties that vote Republican. In America suicide is a proxy for gun ownership, not “despair”, and because gun-related suicide depends heavily on rates of gun ownership, inclusion of this mortality rate in the study heavily biases the total mortality rate being used towards a measure of gun ownership rather than despair.
  • It uses voting changes rather than voting odds: Like most studies of voting rates, Monnat compared the percentage voting for Trump with the percentage voting for Romney in 2012. This is a big flaw, because percentages do not vary evenly across their range. In Monnat’s study a county that increased its Republican voting proportion from 1% to 2% is treated exactly the same as a county that went from 50% to 51%. In one of these counties the vote doubled and Trump didn’t get elected; in the other it increased by 2% but Trump got elected. It’s important to account for this non linearity in analysis, but Monnat did not. Which leads to another problem …
  • It did not measure Trump’s success directly: In a first past the post electoral system, who wins is more important than by how much. Monnat used an ordinary least squares model of proportions voting Trump rather than a binomial model of Trump winning or losing, which means that meaningless small gains in “blue” states[1] had the same importance as small gains in “red” states that flipped them “blue”. This might not be important except that we know Trump lost the popular vote (which differences in proportions measure) but won the electoral college (which more closely resembles binary measures of win/lose). Not analyzing binary outcomes in a binomial model suggests you don’t understand the relationship between statistics and the political system you live in, i.e. your analysis is wrong.
  • It did not incorporate turnout: A 52% win for Trump can reflect two things – a change in attitude by 2% of the voters, or a non-proportionate increase in the number of people who chose to turn out and vote. If you analyze proportions (or differences in proportions) you don’t account for this problem. In addition, you don’t adjust for the overall size of the electorate. If you analyze proportions, an electorate where 52 people voted Trump and 48 people voted Clinton is given the same weight as an electorate where 5200 people voted Clinton and 4800 people voted Trump. If you use a proper binomial model, however, the latter electorate gets more weight and is implicitly treated as more meaningful in the assessment of results. A reminder of what is fast becoming a faustusnotes rule: the cool kids do not use ordinary least squares regression to analyze probabilities, we always use logistic regression.
  • It did not present the regression results: Although Monnat reports regression results in a footnote, the main results in the text are all unadjusted, even though in at least some states the impact of economic factors appears to eliminate the relationship with mortality rates. Given that people who own guns are much much more likely to vote Republican, and the main predictor variable here incorporated suicide, adjustment for gun ownership might have eliminated the effect of “deaths of despair” entirely. But it wasn’t done as far as I can tell, and wasn’t shown.
  • It did not adjust for trends: Monnat openly states in the beginning of the paper that “deaths of despair” have been rising over time but when she conducts the analysis she uses the average rate for the period 2006-2014. This means that she does not consider the possibility that mortality has been dropping in some counties and rising in others. A mortality rate of 100 per 100,000 could reflect a decline over the period 2006-2014 from 150 to 50 (a huge decrease) or an increase from 25 to 175. We don’t know, but it seems likely that if “deaths of despair” is an issue, it will have had more influence on electoral decisions in 2016 in counties where the rate has risen over that time than where it has declined. There are lots of policy reasons why the death rate might have increased or decreased, but whether these reflect issues relevant to Republican or Democrat policy is impossible to know without seeing the distribution of trends – which Monnat did not analyze[2].

So in summary the study that found this “relationship” between “deaths of despair” and voting Trump was deeply flawed. There is no such relationship in the data[3].

There is no such thing as a “death of despair”

This study has got a fair bit of attention on the internet, as have the prior Case and Deaton studies. For example here we see a Medium report on the “Oxy electorate” that repeats all these sour talking points, and in this blog post some dude who fancies himself a spokesperson for ordinary America talks up the same issue. The latter blog post has some comments by people taking oxycontin for pain relief, who make some important points that the “deaths of despair” crew have overlooked. To quote one commenter[4]:

I too am a long time chronic pain sufferer and until I was put on opiate medications my quality of life was ZERO. I’ve heard horror stories of people actually being suicidal because they can no longer deal with the constant pain. It took me two years before I realized I could no longer work as an account manager with a major telecom company. I was making decent money but leaving work everyday in pain. I finally started going to a pain management doctor who diagnosed me with degenerative disc disease. I had to go on medical leave and now am on SSDI. My doctor prescribed me opiates in the fall of 2006 and I’ve been on them ever since. I have to say, I totally AGREE with you. I don’t know how I would be able to manage without these medications. At least I’m able to clean my house now and now without being in horrible pain. I don’t know what I would do if suddenly I was told I could no longer be prescribed opiates.
Who is someone that will champion those of us who legitametly need these medications? Do we write to our senators?? I sure hope Trump takes into consideration our cases before kicking us all to the curb!

This person (and others) make the valid point that they are taking pain medication for a reason, and that they were in despair before they got hooked on opioids, not after. Unfortunately for these commenters, we now have fairly good evidence that opioids are not the best treatment for chronic pain and that they are very, very dangerous, but regardless of whether this treatment is exactly the best one for these patients they make the valid point that it is the treatment they got and it works for them. To use an Americanism, you can take the opioids from their cold dead hands. In stark contrast to other countries, a very large proportion of America’s opioid deaths are due to prescription drugs, not heroin, reflecting an epidemic of overdose due to legally accessible painkillers. It’s my suspicion that these painkillers were prescribed to people like the above commenter because they could not afford the treatment for the underlying cause of their pain, because America’s healthcare system sucks, and these people then became addicted to a very dangerous substance – but in the absence of proper health insurance these people cannot get the specialist opioid management they deserve. America’s opioid epidemic is a consequence of poor health system access, not “despair”, and if Americans had the same health system as, say, Frenchies or Britons they would not be taking these drugs for more than 6 months, because the underlying cause of their condition would have been treated – and for that small minority of pain patients with chronic pain, in any other rich country they would have regular affordable access to a specialist who could calibrate their dose and manage their risks.

The opioid death problem in America is a problem of access to healthcare, which should have been fixed by Obamacare. Which brings us to the last issue …

There is no theory linking opioid addiction to voting Trump

What exactly is the theory by which people hooked on oxycontin are more likely to vote Trump? On its face there are only two realistic explanations for this theory: 1) the areas where oxycontin is a huge problem are facing social devastation with no solution in sight, so vote for change (even Trump!) in hopes of a solution; or 2) people who use drugs are arseholes and losers. Putting aside the obvious ecological fallacy in Monnat’s study (it could be that everyone in the area who votes for Trump is a non-opiate user, and they voted Trump in hopes of getting the druggies killed Duterte-style, but the data doesn’t tell us who voted Trump, just what proportion of each area did), there are big problems with these two explanations even at the individual level. Let’s deal with each in turn.

If areas facing social devastation due to oxycontin are more likely to vote Trump, why didn’t they also vote Romney? Some of these areas were stronger Obama voters in 2012, according to Monnat’s data, but opioid use has been skyrocketing in these areas since 2006 (remember Monnat used averages from 2006-2014). The mortality data covers two election cycles where they voted Obama even though opioid deaths were rising, and suddenly they voted Trump? Why now? Why Trump and not Romney, or McCain? It’s as if there is something else about Trump …

Of course it’s possible that oxycontin users are racist arseholes – I have certainly seen this in my time working in clinics providing healthcare to injecting drug users – but even if we accept such a bleak view of drug users (and it’s not true!) the problem with this theory is that even as opioid use increases, it remains a tiny proportion of the total population of these areas. The opioid users directly cannot swing the election – it has to be their neighbours, friends and family. Now it’s possible that a high prevalence of opioid use and suicide drives people seeing this phenomenon to vote Trump but this is a strange outcome – in general people vote for Democrats/Labour in times of social catastrophe, which is why they voted Obama to start with – because he promised to fix the financial crisis and health care. There has to be some other explanation for why non-opioid using people switched vote in droves to Trump but not Romney. I wonder what it could be?

American liberals’ desperate desire to believe their country is not deeply racist

The problem is, of course, that Trump had a single distinguishing feature that no one before him in the GOP had – he was uniquely, floridly racist. Since the election this has become abundantly clear, but for Donnat writing in late 2016 I guess it still seemed vaguely plausibly deniable. But the reality is that his single distinction from all other GOP candidates was his florid racism. Lots of people in America want to believe that the country they live in – the country that just 150 years ago went to war over slavery, and just 50 years ago had explicit laws to drive black people out of the economic life of the nation – is not racist. I have even recently seen news reports that America is “losing its leadership in the movement for racial equality.” No, dudes, you never showed any leadership on that front. America is a deeply racist nation. It’s racist in a way that other countries can’t even begin to understand. The reason Trump won is that he energized a racist base, and the reason his approval remains greater than 30% despite the shitshow he is presiding over is that a large number of Americans are out-and-out fascists, for whom trolling “liberals” and crushing non-whites is a good thing. That’s why rural, gun-owning Americans voted for Trump, and if the data were analyzed properly that fact would be very clear. Lots of people in America want to believe second- or third-order causes like the rustbelt or opioids, but the reality is staring them in the face: it’s racism. Don’t blame people with chronic pain, blame people with chronic racism. And fix it, before the entire world has to pay for the vainglorious passions of a narrow swathe of white America.


fn1: I refuse to take the American use of “blue” and “red” seriously – they get scare quotes until they decide that Republicans are blue and Democrats are red. Sorry, but you guys need to sort your shit out. Get proper political colours and get rid of American Football, then you’ll be taken seriously on the world stage. Also learn to spell color with a “u”.

fn2: I’m joshing you here. Everyone knows that Republicans don’t give a flying fuck if an electorate is dying of opioid overdoses at a skyrocketing rate, and everyone knows that the idea that Republicans would offer people dying of “deaths of despair” any policy solutions to their problem except “be born rich” is a hilarious joke. The only possible policy intervention that could have helped counties seeing an increasing opioid death rate was Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, and we know republicans rejected that in states they controlled because they’re evil.

fn3: Well, there might be, but no one has shown it with a robust method.

fn4: I’m such a cynic about everything American that I really hope this commenter isn’t a drug company plant…

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How it was

How it was

Edgar Evans is an eighth generation kindred character in the new Vampire The Masquerade short campaign my group has started. The campaign is intended to involve not just the vampire characters, but also their elders (6th generation legends) and also one ghoul in the service of the ancilla. Edgar Evans is a rich man with a business empire, and he also has a small domain, and it is in this domain that his ghoul, Tia Nero, can be found. This post is the description of his domain and an introduction to Tia Nero, but in order to understand this domain, it is necessary to understand the politics of supernaturals in the second decade of the new millenium, as the humans they had long ignored, scorned or fed upon begin to build a world that is closing in on the supernaturals, and crushing them.

A brief history of supernatural failure

For aeons the main supernaturals ignored human development. Sure, the vampires fed on them and the Fae remained intertwined with them, but these relationships were not symbiotic or cooperative – humans lived in fear of the unknown, crouched in the dark and looked to superstition to rescue them from their night terrors. Over all the millennia of this unpleasant coexistence the supernaturals achieved nothing, made no mark on the world except, perhaps, to score fear in the human soul.

But then human science overcame human superstition, and those fear-scars became just a cultural memory. It wasn’t just that there were too many humans for the supernaturals to scare directly – it wasn’t just the thronging mass of these stinking, short-lived, frail and useless cattle. Science overcame fear, and then slowly science overwhelmed the natural world. For millenia humans and supernaturals had lived side by side, and nothing really changed – and then in one century humans changed the whole world. The supernaturals looked on in horror as humans harnessed the power of the sun to destroy cities, and tried to come to terms with the ability of humans to vanish darkness and fear with cold logic and simple technology. They dismissed all that – sure humans could build big things, but they were still just frail and weak cattle. What’s to fear?

But then the anthropocene began, and the supernaturals felt fear of their cattle for the first time. Every summer the werewolves would find new settlements, would get into fights over lost land, would find their wild reaches slowly stripped back and reduced, and though they might fight an individual farmer successfully, soon enough the hordes would arrive and they would need to fall back to a new redoubt. The mages discovered that it was harder to do their dingier works. It wasn’t just the new laws about child exploitation, or the sudden desire of humans to catalogue every one of their pathetic number, so they could never be lost. It wasn’t even the new laws on ownership and cruelty that made it so much harder to conduct animal sacrifices, or the sudden loss of empty urban space that mages would use for their less savoury experiments. The mages really noticed when they found they could no longer obtain the magical reagents they needed, because the mere existence of millions of Chinese using traditional Chinese medicine drained their reagents dry. There were so many of these pestilential creatures, consuming, consuming, always taking and taking and needing more … The vampires noticed that the dark and secret places of the old cities had disappeared, been replaced with warehouse apartments and subways and underground parking zones and all the paraphernalia of a civilization that increasingly was ignoring them – until it started making bad movies and games about them. In the space of a century they went from an object of fear to a kitsch joke, laughed at by the new science.

Nobody asked the mummies what they thought. Who would dare?

But the supernaturals that noticed it most were the Fae. Intimately connected to the patterns and cycles of nature, their supernatural home’s fate intertwined with the physical world, they noticed very quickly as the planet started to warm. As the summers lengthened and the ice began to retreat, the balance of power of the courts of Winter and Summer changed, and Summer began to rise. They watched the behavior of humans and they realized – disgusted at the potency of human science – that humans identified the changes a scant 50 years after they did. And worse still, humans identified the cause – humans were the cause. The Fae began to panic.

Most vampires did not care about the Fae, although a few had their connections; even after the Fae’s warnings began to spread, most vampires cared little for the threat of global warming. They were creatures of the night, and CO2 was not going to change the earth’s orbit. Some reacted against it with the same kind of visceral wariness that many humans show towards nuclear power, simply because of its association with nuclear weapons: Vampires have always feared the sun, and anything which enhances its effects fills many of them with a kind of unwary, superstitious dread. Others saw in global warming an opportunity – after floods and storms people go missing, and the chaos engendered by these catastrophes opens up an easy hunting ground for their kind, free of the increasing risk of reprisals that had made the Masquerade so important in modern life. For them, global warming was a chance to enjoy chaos.

But some thinkers amongst the Fae and the Vampire recognized the real philosophical threat. In a scant 100 years humans had gone from cowering, sniveling prey to a vast hive mind that could change the climate of the entire planet. They had become a horde, swarming over the planet in such numbers and building their greedy edifices in such abundance that they had not only destroyed the earth’s natural beauty, they had changed the weather, and now they were harnessing the sun and the power of the sun. The balance had been disturbed, and it was clear that its restoration would require extreme measures. A movement arose in kindred society, a movement popular among the Brujah and some of the darker sects and alliances – a demand for a cull, a real cull, before this horde overwhelmed all the dark spaces of the earth with their lust for things and their increasingly loving relationship with the sun. What if they found a cure for vampirism, some asked? What if they discovered the kindred’s society, and decided to purge it, or discovered a vaccine against the creation of new vampires? Many laughed at such fears, but the chuckling died down when the thinkers observed that humanity had eliminated smallpox in a mere 30 years, that there were societies where almost no child died, that in modern society it was impossible for a child to go missing without thousands of people descending on the scene of the calamity. They always found their murderers, and the time it took them to find a solution to a problem was growing shorter and shorter. From the discovery of smallpox to its vaccine took thousands of years. From the discovery of HIV to its treatment took 20. How long would it take them to purge the world of vampires if they found them? And as they swarmed over the earth, defiling it and investigating it and laying bare its dwindling cache of secrets, how could they not find the kindred?

It wasn’t exactly a panic, but a kind of paralysis set in amongst the supernaturals. They watched as the dark places, the wild places, the sacred places were first torn away from them, then paved over or turned into tourist spots, young couples taking selfies by the dozen in places that a hundred years ago they would have been terrified to walk within a day’s march of. What could they do about this? In their slow and sinister way the vampires schemed, and assumed that they would always be able to hide amongst the flesh folk, always be able to make some new scheme.

For the Fae, though, the philosophical debate quickly became a real battle for power, as it always does amongst the Fae. After the Court of Winter’s amateurish attempt to start a nuclear war in Cuba a fragile political truce was born – no more direct interference in human affairs, by any of the Courts, and everyone expected them all to honour it. But nobody counted on the Changeling, whose numbers grew as the human population swelled. Changeling were like sleeper cells for their courts, a kind of Super PAC of faerie power, who could act on behalf of their Courts without breaching the fragile agreement the Courts had made after the Winter Court’s foolish attempt to produce a nuclear winter. They manoeuvred their changelings like pieces on a chess board, infiltrating human business and politics to try and get their way. By the early 1990s everyone in the supernatural world knew the score: Winter and Spring were with the Democrats, and Summer and Autumn with the Republicans, because all of Fae meddling had shaken out along one deadly axis – global warming. By the early 1990s nothing else mattered, because every Court knew that Summer and Autumn would be forever ascendant if humanity failed to tackle the causes. All of the Fae realms had realized their fate was now tied to that of humanity, and they bent all their will to changing it.

Naturally they sowed the ranks of business and politics with changelings. One such changeling emerged in the 1980s in business, and began to grow in power and influence. He was aging but still robust, an orange-faced caricature of a rapacious businessman, making his money in dodgy real estate and casino deals, tied to the mob and bribing politicans wherever he needed to, playing fast and loose with every standard of business and human decency – a classic progeny of the Summer Court. This man was a crass, larger-than-life bully boy, a carnival barker with tiny hands and huge insecurities, the kind of narcissist who makes it big in Fae life, and by the end of the 1980s he had begun to reap the rewards of that narcissism in mortal life, with ghost-written books and tasteless TV shows. And in the early 1990s he began to make hints about turning his popularity to political advantage – he began to talk about moving into politics.

This was too much for one Vampire, Johnny Falco[1]. Johnny Falco had an irrational hatred of the Fae and their machinations[2], and the thought of a Summer Court Changeling taking control of American politics filled him with disgust – especially this repulsive, orange-faced ignoramus with his trashy tastes and his terrible architecture and his shallow opinions on everything. This was exactly the kind of person who really irritated Johnny Falco, and who made his grandsire despair of the cattle. So one day in 1996 while at one of his casinos in Atlantic City this businessman was murdered, horribly, with a trenching shovel and a gold-plated scale model of one of his own towers. No one saw the person who did it, no one understood how the perpetrator could have gotten into the businessman’s inner sanctum, or how he had managed to remove his face and leave it on a Ronald McDonald statue a stone’s throw away from the tower, in full view of a whole cluster of cctv cameras, but there it was the next day, leering bloodily at a small group of terrified Japanese tourists.

The mystery was never solved, and the businessman’s empire fell into ruin – and nowhere more so than his Atlantic City casino properties.

The Domain

Johnny Falco didn’t just kill the businessman – he also killed his property. The Atlantic City casino properties were bleeding money, but after the murder the authorities discovered an elaborate system of shell companies that covered up for … nothing. They couldn’t find where the money came from or who was responsible for the properties, as if the dead businessman had been a mere figurehead. The casinos sat empty as investigations continued, but even years later no trace of the original investors could be found, or their money. Occasionally a city authority or some rival business would set up a scheme to buy the properties but always at the last moment someone would get cold feet, or the key figure in the investment program would disappear or die, or suddenly their business would be bankrupted overnight by some strange market play. The business world gave up on them and they fell into disrepair, crumbling in the centre of Atlantic City’s glitzy gambling zone. But buildings like that don’t just decay – they poison. Their rot spread out from them like a cancer, infecting the businesses around them and slowly paralyzing the entire zone. Investors saw easier pickings in native reservations and the effervescent Vegas economy, and slowly they pulled their money out. By the turn of the century the collapse of the casinos had spread outward to infect a large part of the Atlantic City seafront, which became a low-rent junkyard of pawn shops, bounty hunters, gunshops and cheap liquor stores. A section of the city 10 blocks long became a wilderness of malfunctioning neon and broken lives, a self-governing conclave of the poor and the destitute.

It was here, in 1996, remarkably coincidentally with the death of the businessman, that Edgar Evans decided to set up a surf shop – right across the road from that Ronald McDonald statue. His Polaris foundation bought up an old gaming parlour and turned it into a massive surf emporium, drawing expressions of disgust and disappointment from investors across the eastern seaboard. People had had high hopes for Evans, a reformed extreme sportsman with robust business sense, but this deal made no sense at all. Sure, the entire Jersey coastline was a haven for surfers and they all had to pass through Atlantic City at some point but did he seriously think they would slum it at his surf emporium amongst the broken glass and broken dreams of this banged-out strip?

They underestimated Evans. He didn’t just sell surfboards, but rented combi vans, set up a vegan organic restaurant called 20,000 Cows, established a live venue and a cheap hostel over the surf shop. Life returned to this tiny part of the seafront, and somehow surfers from all around the world came to enjoy his hospitality. The Atlantic City surf festival was founded, and his business thrived. He expanded to the warehouse next door, turning it into a branch office of the Polaris Foundation and using it to store equipment for the Foundation’s Atlantic Coast Research Project. Once a year the Sea Shepherd ship, Polaris Quest, docked nearby and held an open day.

And above it all loomed the businessman’s abandoned, crumbling tower, his name still emblazoned across its penthouse level in tarnished gold, bragging about the long-dead icon’s fame. The building was occupied now, by squatters and homeless and crack gangs, but they seemed to have a kind of respect for the area, because they never caused any trouble for Evans or his business. Dark rumours spread about his means of enforcing his will on these local homeless, but no evidence ever came to light. He opened a boxing gym for local street kids, ploughed money into a drugs program, funded local rejuvenation projects – he was in every way a perfect local citizen. But still people wondered – how did he have such a hold over these locals.

How had he made this his domain?

The Ghoul

Of course the press came sniffing around, looking for answers, for clues to Evans’s business vitality. They always ended up meeting the same person: Tia Nero. Tia Nero was the corn-haired, blue-eyed, mesh-and-leather skater girl who managed the surf emporium. Short, slight and cheerful, always dressed in a mixture of black punk and skater style, she was the antithesis of the good business person, but she had a way – she had a certain charisma, a certain personality, that made people listen to her and trust her. She was sassy, she had a reputation on the skate scene for extreme bravery, and she was a sharp manager. She would talk to the press, show them around, introduce them to colourful characters, show them photos of her skating days, take them to enjoy the phenomenal food and atmosphere of 20,000 Cows[4], and by the time they left they were writing glowing reviews of this new social project.

In reality Tia Nero is a revenant, the illegitimate child of one of Polaris’s ghouls, sent to serve Edgar Evans in the new world. She is everything her public persona suggests, but she is also a steely agent of the night, ruthlessly enforcing a set of strict rules on the residents of the neighbouring tower and ensuring that they are always available for Evans to feed upon or call upon. She also administers this most public branch of his business empire, helping him to retain his connection to a community of surfers who still view him entirely positively, and supporting the activist credibility he needs to maintain connections with the environmental movements that he is manipulating for his own and Polaris’s ends. Evans is mostly in New York city now, and when he needs an agent he knows he can trust to operate on his behalf in the daytime, with initiative and sense, he calls on Tia. He knows she will do what he wants, and over long years of working together he has never met anyone he trusts more. There is only one aspect of their relationship that creates any friction between them.

She can surf in the sunlight.


fn1: Actually another player’s PC

fn2: He got the worst end of their behavior in our World of Darkness campaign and the player hates hates hates them

fn3: Tia Nero is a loose anti-person to Tia Blanco, a vegan surfer I have on my instagram feed

fn4: 20 years ago I had a phenomenal afternoon experience in a vegan restaurant called 20,000 cows in Byron Bay, now dead (though its Lismore branch lives on). Nothing special happened, just a wonderful atmosphere, great food and a feeling of wholeness and comfort that I have never forgotten. Here it is resurrected in Atlantic City, in the shadow of a … certain business person’s … untimely bankruptcy

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Never stood a chance ...

Never stood a chance …

Today, rather predictably, Donald Trump won the Super Tuesday primary race by a large margin. He has now amassed a sizable delegate lead and is looking unstoppable, especially while two ambitious losers divide their voters in an attempt to stay relevant to a brokered convention. It’s certainly fascinating watching the rise of a proto-fascist in real time, though I have serious doubts he has any chance of winning the general election and in the long run may be good for American politics, since he in many ways looks like a kind of freeform performance art suicide attempt by the Republican party. My sense of amusement at his escapades will change to one of real fear if he gets the White House, but I can’t see that happening. In the meantime, while we watch his Icarus-like ascendancy, it’s interesting to ponder the reasons why he has suddenly burst onto the scene, simultaneously energizing the Republican base and terrifying its elite. So far I have seen three possible explanations for Trump’s rise, which I’d like to talk about a bit here; all three offer apparently plausible explanations but seem somehow to be vaguely wrong. I don’t have a special explanation for his rise, which I think is mostly just luck and racism, but I think there are specific reasons why it’s happening now, and in particular I think the Republican party has uniquely inoculated itself against rational thought and good sense, and so it’s become very easy to take it over with Trump’s version of charisma, racism and populism. First I’d like to talk about the three explanations I have seen for his rise, and then I’d like to explain why I think that, whatever the reasons, the Republican party is at this juncture uniquely incapable of handling him.

Explanation 1: The schadenfreude explanation

The schadenfreude explanation is very appealing because it involves popcorn and gloating. Basically under this explanation, the Republican party has spent the last 8 years appealing to racism and building up a political logic of obstructionism and anger. As a result, there is an opening for a leader who is uniquely racist and finally willing to say openly what the Republican party has been increasingly clearly dog-whistling in the past 8 years. Usually this schadenfreude explanation starts with the (obvious) unhinging of Republicans after Obama was elected, but it sometimes starts with Bush. It can also be observed in a different, mealy-mouthed form from Republican exiles like David Brooks, who blames it on “anti-politics” and tries to pretend it’s not the GOP’s fault, in the grand tradition of both-sides-do-it. But is the GOP more racist now than in the past? I’m not convinced they are. They ran an actual KKK member for governor one year in the 1960s, and are also the party of Willie Horton and – of course – the southern strategy. Is it possible that the party of Richard Nixon would have had a black secretary of defense, or fielded two hispanics, a woman and a black man in the primary election? Sure they’ve lost it over the election of a black president, but they have also simultaneously fielded a black presidential hopeful of their own, and were generally positive about Colin Powell and Clarence Thomas. Also, although Trump has said some fairly crazy things about how he will unleash American power on the world, what America is doing now – and what it did under Bush – is hardly the low point of its moral history. After 9/11 the elders in the Bush administration sternly warned the American people that they might have to tolerate American agents committing violence overseas, a laughable warning when one considers what Democratic and Republican administrations were willing to condone and order in the 1970s and 1980s in latin America. A willingness to waterboard people might seem horrifying to the average observer now, or in 2004, but in 1974 it was standard policy for both parties. Trump’s bombastic claims certainly set the US government back perhaps 10 years morally, but they hardly represent a return to full-scale 1970s violence. He hasn’t, for example, proposed restarting Cointelpro. So far his main outrage – the one single thing he has proposed that really seems to be beyond recent American moral boundaries – is the deportation of 12 million latinos, many of whom would be children and citizens. But against a backdrop of slavery, native American genocide, Japanese internment and Wounded Knee, this is hardly a new moral low for America. The problem, of course, is it’s hard to tell if he’s serious about this. But aside from this one piece of unhinged rhetoric, what he’s proposing isn’t out of step with past American policy and most of what he has said so far is consistent with historical Republican positions. So I’m not convinced that recent Republican Obama Derangement Syndrome and obstructionism is a sufficient explanation for his development.

Explanation 2: Tribalism

At Crooked Timber blog John Quiggin (with whom I have often disagreed on issues of agnotology) attempts to explain Trump’s rise in terms of a fragmentation of American politics into three groups: Tribalists, neo-liberals, and leftists. In this formalism Trump represents an uprising against neoliberalism, in which society falls into tribal or left-wing components. The tribalists try to protect their rights through racial exclusion while the leftists try to reclaim their rights through some kind of class action, and Trump represents the inchoate expression of rage of the tribalists. I think there are a lot of problems with this explanation, which I have expressed over there. Firstly tribalism=right wing in his formalism, and tribalism seems to be happening only within parties, e.g. blacks vote for Clinton and don’t even break for Sanders, let alone Trump, so it doesn’t seem like the tribalism trumps parties – it just seems like a weak attempt to rebrand right wing politics as tribal politics. Also what is neoliberalism? Is neoliberalism in America the same as elsewhere, and is Obama a neoliberal? If so, given that Obama and Clinton have presided over record jobs growth, expanded the welfare system for the first time in 50 years, and brought about a new settlement with long-term enemies, it seems that America has benefited enormously from their neoliberalism. But if Obama represents a break from the past pattern of Clintonesque politics, perhaps he isn’t neoliberal? And can you express the glacial pace of presidential politics in America in terms of neoliberal politics? There has been one previous Democrat president during the 20 year period in which neoliberalism is generally seen as having arisen, so how can we really say anything about the relationship between neoliberal politics and presidents? And can we say Bush was a neoliberal, with his various political settlements and massive expansion of corporate welfare? Unless neoliberal=corporate welfare, we can’t. And if neoliberal=corporate welfare, I’m fairly confident Trump will turn out to be the ultimate neoliberal. His rich friends are no doubt going to make a killing. I don’t find the term “neoliberal” useful as an analytical category, though it can be a convenient shorthand for modern capitalist practice at times, and I’m not convinced by a theory in which right wing people are tribalists but left wing people are principled opponents of inequality and neoliberalism. So I don’t accept this theory.

Explanation 3: Authoritarianism

This is the Vox take on Trump. Under this theory, America has seen a rise in the number of voters who have authoritarian ideals, they have clustered into the Republican party through its increasingly strident policy positions over the past few years, and in times of economic uncertainty they are vulnerable to racist and oppressive cues. This is an interesting, powerful and well-researched theory, and I’m thinking to read the Stenner book referenced to see what I think of it, but I’m not fully convinced by this theory. In particular, the timing is an issue. The GOP has always been authoritarian, so why is it happening now? When you look back at things like McCarthyism, it doesn’t seem like the modern GOP is especially authoritarian. Of course it’s hard to say, because there’s no objective standard of authoritarianism, but what’s lacking from this theory is an explanation of why this happened now rather during, for example, the era of McCarthyism, or the Cold War. Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that Trump’s ban on all Muslims entering the country is no worse – and probably better – than previous acts, such as the China Exclusion Act, which was maintained even for the first year during which China was America’s ally against Japan (and resulted in significant Chinese military figures being barred entry to the USA during this war). Even his plan to deport latinos is hardly going to be unique if enacted – it will surely involve internment camps, which have been used before against American citizens. Obviously maintaining segregation required a highly authoritarian government, so it hardly seems like Trump’s ascendancy is unexpected against the flow of mainstream politics.

So what is the answer?

Solution: The GOP has finally sealed itself off from reality.

The rise of Trump is not an unexpected phenomenon, and the only reason he appears unexpected is that mainstream political thinkers on both sides of the political fence have accepted two myths about America: 1) that it is a unique and ideal place and 2) that the Republican party are not a deeply racist, authoritarian party. Given the general shift in American politics after the Southern Strategy, a fairer way of describing point 2) is: there is a strong racist, imperialist under current in American politics, and when it finds a home in one party all hell will eventually break loose. The particular reason that he is so effective in this electoral cycle is one of simple stupidity. The Republican party has recently enacted a process of exclusion from reality that is unique in its history and that uniquely inoculates it against the kind of basic protective measures that would enable it to inform its voters that Trump is beyond the pale. It is this new intellectual isolation that has made it so easy for Trump to seize the nomination without any coherent policies except anger, hatred and naked power.

The GOP has completely isolated itself from reality in the past 10 years. Birtherism, flat tax madness, balanced budget amendments, gun nuttery, and AGW denialism are signs the party has completely lost touch with reality. Denying AGW now requires complete immunity to reality, requiring conspiracy theories about NASA fudging all its data and inevitably leading to the idea that stunts like snowballs on the senate floor can substitute for serious debate. Trump was famously a birther, of course, but by the time he became a birther the party was so drunk on its own reality that birtherism had reached the senate. It’s still easy to find commenters and diarists at websites like Red State who refer to Obama as “Hussein” in an obvious dog whistle to this ludicrous theory. AGW denialism is the ultimate example of this, with activists at every level – up to and including every single presidential contender – claiming it is a myth cooked up in support of big government (this is an actual Cruz quote). Maintaining this kind of delusion in the face of a world going mad with climatological craziness obviously requires a special commitment to making your own facts. Republicans have shown themselves uniquely able to take a side on a scientific issue purely on the basis of its political convenience, and once you start doing that you really need to build a whole intellectual architecture devoted to denying reality.

Republicans even deny their own policies, as seen with the debate over who was or wasn’t in the Gang of Eight, and Rubio criticizing Trump’s individual mandate plan and the Obamacare individual mandate when his own plan involves an individual mandate. Even their attempts to understand Trump are thick with this isolation – they honestly seem to believe that GOP racism is a fiction of the left wing media rather than a simple, obvious fact. Right now the National Review is running a retrospective on William Buckley, the founder of that magazine, who said this:

The central question that emerges . . . is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not prevail numerically? The sobering answer is Yes – the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists.

Yet recently in the Washington Post, we have Jennifer Rubin writing this:

The media, licking its collective chops, cannot wait for the GOP to become the party of racists, misogynists and authoritarians that liberals have always portrayed Republicans to be

That’s right, in the conservative journal of record (which, incidentally, recently hosted an article advocating shooting all Guantanamo detainees, apparently as a joke) William F Buckley advocates violence against black people because they’re inferior and Jennifer Rubin thinks liberals have a fantasy of Republicans as racists. The current Republican movement is so committed to denying reality that they cannot accept the racism of their own history.

The GOP are swimming against a series of global currents that call into question everything they stand for. AGW, the crisis in the middle east that George Bush created, inequality in the USA, and the need for universal health coverage (UHC) are all issues that they simply don’t have a policy answer to. If you listen to any of the presidential candidates other than Trump on these issues, they’re just talking shit. AGW isn’t happening, ISIS is entirely Obama’s fault, inequality is not an issue and UHC just doesn’t work even though every other country in the OECD has it.  These are crises that for rich donors and GOP activists are easily avoided, but for ordinary Americans are increasingly becoming insurmountable. These ordinary Americans want solutions, and for years Republicans have fed them the same thin gruel of free markets and Jesus. Now that they are really starting to need to provide solutions – or argue against the real solutions the Democrats provide – they find themselves struggling because for years the intellectual foundations of their movement have been oriented around justifying away these problems rather than facing them. Without any real solutions, they fall back on authoritarianism and dirty tricks at every level, – e.g. banning state officials from using the term “climate change,” refusing to even hold nominations for a judge etc. These struggles in turn draw in people for whom this crazed logic, authoritarianism and deliberate ignorance works, and then when the party followers reach a critical mass, the party is itself so inoculated to reason and common sense that it can’t defuse the crisis and indeed can barely even understand what caused it. As a result they deny that the problem is even there. All it takes then is for a single charismatic, short-fingered vulgarian to walk in and say that he has a real solution, while actually bothering to talk to the people about their real concerns. The problem here is not that the modern GOP is uniquely racist or authoritarian – it always has been – but that it faces a new set of challenges that it is uniquely incapable of adapting to. It is also such a vehicle of power for the wealthy and privileged that they don’t even understand their voters have a problem, let alone care to fix it. Trump is talking to those voters about what they really feel, and offering racist snake oil as a solution. There’s no sense in which his racist deportation solution is less realistic than trickle-down economics or getting a third job, and in any case there’s no intellectual framework supporting Republican political theory, so why would his voters not believe it?

The Republican party has built an intellectual infrastructure on sand, and Trump has simply come in and seized it, using the unique Republican ability to think a million crazy things before breakfast to his political advantage. All he had to do to seize the party was talk to voters about their real concerns, and offer a racist solution. It doesn’t have to make sense, because nothing in modern Republican politics does. In order to solve this problem the party leadership need to walk back from the illogical and destructive framework they’ve built up, but doing that is going to be a hugely challenging and ultimately destructive process, a purge that will probably completely change the entire party. It’s too late for them to do that in time to stop Trump, so he’s going to seize the nomination and destroy the party.

What a crying shame.