The Autumning Empire

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Archive for the month “December, 2016”

Donald Trump: America’s Master Baiter and Switcher in Chief

Previously on The Autumning Empire

…we argued that asking why Hillary Clinton lost the election was an an all but pointless exercise. Clinton poses no threat to our Autumning Democracy/Republic/Empire, and unless, on December 19th,  the Electoral College pulls off a miracle by actually performing the constitutional safeguard envisioned by our founders, she will not be our next president.


Let’s instead look at the man who will take the oath of office. On January 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump will place his hand on a Bible and swear to uphold a constitution that he’s surely never read. Even some of America’s most reactionary imperialists are frightened of Trump. And while it is sort of fun watching George Will grab for the smelling salts, those of us who work for social justice have, for at least four years, a whole lot of work to do.

Albert Einstein once said that if he had an hour to figure out a problem, he’d spend fifty-five minutes trying to understand it, then use the remaining five to solve it. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t alive in Europe during the 1930s, which means that I’ve never faced a problem like Donald Trump. So let’s take less than fifty-five minutes to figure out why and how this man won in 2016, and see what it teaches us about moving forward.

Trump Understands Media

Let’s put aside our liberal handwringing about “the mainstream media” and remark upon one aspect of The Apprentice star’s evil genius. It began long, long ago, years before Donald Trump even ran for president. Legend tells of a mighty Trump Tower where, in the dark and sinister hours of the night, long after Melania had gone to bed, a young(er) Donald Trump would secretly sign onto his Twitter account. Alone and free from inhibition, he horcruxed himself into America’s master baiter and switcher, seducing his dark followers with promises he’d never, ever keep. Pleasuring himself with the forbidden fantasies of fake birth certificates, Mexican rapists, Muslim infiltrators, and a media that just wouldn’t give a guy fair shake, Donald Trump learned how to make a tweet work the message of Sting’s message in a bottle. And soon, a hundred million bottles washed up on the shore. It seemed like Donald wasn’t alone in being alone.


Trump is the first successful presidential candidate to use Twitter as a primary media platform, but this obviously isn’t the extent of his astonishing media savvy. His infamous domination of cable news, his ability to create a story out of nothing, out of less than nothing, is the anti-Christ’s answer to turning water into wine. As of this writing, The Atlantic Daily Media Tracker clocks Trump at over a million news mentions; Clinton never cracked 650,000. The lesson for liberals and progressives? Don’t play it safe in 2018 or 2020. A candidate isn’t simply a job applicant and policy crafter. He or she is the symbol of and rallying point for America’s unmet needs. And it’s tough to rally around a candidate who can’t successfully manage Twitter or the 24-hour news cycle.

Trump is a Communicator

And make no mistake: he’s really, really good at it. And here’s what hurts: what I hate about Trump’s speaking style is the very thing that makes him so goddamn successful.

Back in January, 2016 Evan Puschak created a linguistic analysis of Donald Trump’s answer to Jimmy Kimmel’s question “Isn’t it un-American and wrong to discriminate against people based on their religion?” Here are the highlights of Puschak’s findings:

  • When it comes to vocabulary and sentence structure, Trump speaks like a fourth-grader. Goddamnit, I knew I was smarter than Trump! But here’s the thing: I know brilliant people, lots of brilliant people, who can’t write worth a damn. Why? Because they don’t know how to take complicated ideas and make them understandable. And Donald Trump can, in part by lying his ass off. But simple word choices – even when used honestly – can be powerful tools for persuasion, which brings us to…
  • Monosyllabic words comprise 78% of Trump’s answer. 17% of the words are two syllables long. Another sign of Trump’s stupidity? Before you rush to judgement, pause a moment and check out this little piece of oratory from a fellow by the name of Winston Churchill:

…we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…

 “We”. “Shall.” “Fight.” “Beaches.” “Grounds.” “Fields.” “Streets.” “Hills.” “Never.” Here then are the building blocks of Sir Winston’s famous rally against the evils of fascism. The only word here that exceeds two syllables in this passage is “surrender.” I don’t suggest that Trump is a statesman on par with Churchill – or that he’s even a statesman at all. But Trump is a salesman, and salesmen know how to talk. George Orwell would be horrified (and familiar) with the likes of Donald Trump. But 1984’s author would also be forced to concede that our president elect slavishly obeys Orwell’s 2nd rule of writing: “Never use a long word when a short one will do.” *

  • Trump uses simple sentences. “We have a tremendous problem.” “There’s a hatred out there.” (Notice how those statements are a lot truer now than they were one year ago?) Sure, Trump’s improvisational-non-sequiturial-incoherent ramblings produce their share of run-ons. Some are sentences that might charitably be called “complex.” But you don’t have to go too deep into the Trump rhetorical haystack to find simplicity’s sharp and dangerous needle.
  • Trump understands the power of repetition. When answering Kimmel, Trump uses the word “problem” six times in one minute. This may not have the same pleasing effect as Churchill’s anaphorical, “We shall fight,” but it certainly does the job. Trump counters Kimmel’s assertion that targeting Muslims is un-American and wrong by reminding us that there is a problem – one that demands an effective, albeit unsavory, solution.
  • Trump knows how to end a sentence. Quoting directly from Puschak, he does this…

…with strong, punchy words. A lot of times he’ll rearrange the beginning of a sentence awkwardly so he can end strong. For example: here it would probably more natural to say, “You know, you can’t solve a problem until you find out what the root cause is.” But he brings the “is” forward so he can end on “root cause.” (You know, you can’t solve a problem until you find out what’s the root cause.”)

Pretty fancy linguistic strategizing for a guy with a mouth like a fourth-grader.

Now these rhetorical tricks that Trump uses are not the only ones available to aspiring political candidates. But look at a list of American presidential contests since 1980. With the possible exception of 2000 (when Al Gore not only won the popular vote, but had a legitimate claim to an Electoral College victory as well) the winner had better communication skills:

Year                            Winner                                  Loser                        

1980                           Ronald Reagan                      Jimmy Carter

1984                           Ronald Reagan                      Walter Mondale

1988                           George H.W. Bush                Michael Dukakis

1992                           Bill Clinton                             George H.W. Bush

1996                           Bill Clinton                             Bob Dole

2000                           George W. Bush                    Al Gore

2004                           George W. Bush                     John Kerry

2008                           Barack Obama                       John McCain

2012                           Barack Obama                       Mitt Romney

2016                           Donald Trump                       Hillary Clinton

It’s worth noting that there is one area of communication where Hillary Clinton consistently out-performed Trump: the debates. She totally kicked Trump’s ass. And the polls showed that Clinton’s popularity enjoyed some degree of bounce after every single face-off. But there were only three. Had Trump and Clinton been forced to debate every day for the last month of the election, its outcome might have been different.

It’s The Economy, Stupid

For me, the most chilling moment of the 2016 election – other than Donald Trump winning – happened on March 8. That’s the day Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton with an upset in the Michigan primary. FiveThirtyEight had been showing Clinton leading by about 21 points, but she didn’t prevail. I was a Sanders supporter myself, but I found his upset deeply ominous. Why? Because it meant that:

  1. It was possible for the polls to be very, very wrong.
  2. Clinton was in trouble in the Rust Belt.

Eight months later – to the very day – Clinton lost again in Michigan, only this time to Donald Trump. She also lost Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, states where she’d been the projected winner, and Ohio, which was no surprise but certainly didn’t help.

trump-rallyWhy? As her husband’s campaign so eloquently put it back in 1992: “It’s The Economy, Stupid.” Hillary Clinton had more experience than Donald Trump, better economic policies than Donald Trump, and was better for working families than Donald Trump. But Trump won. How? With a simple, memorable economic promise to “Make America Great Again.” Trump’s ear was well attuned to the cries of those who’d been left behind by the Obama recovery – cries that were politely ignored by liberals, some of whom spent eight years blaming every decision Obama did or didn’t make on his predecessor, George W. Bush. That’s not to say that Clinton didn’t try. But pitching incrementalism to voters clamoring for change is a little bit like giving a Band-Aid to a man who needs a tourniquet. It’s better than nothing, but…

Tragically, Trump’s populist rhetoric was only that: rhetoric.  His cabinet choices make it abundantly clear that his campaign was mere bait. It’s followed by a cruel switch to an oligarchic plutocracy, a New Gilded Age.

Yet Donald Trump is vulnerable. But he won’t defeat himself. It’s not enough to decry Trump’s soon-to-be-manifest economic outrages. Those of us who hate the fakery must embrace the real thing: an honest, economically empowering, non-xenophobic form of populism. Let’s start with the basics: single payer health care, free college tuition, and a $15 an hour minimum wage. This populism needs to rally behind inspiring, media savvy public leaders who are ready to slay this dragon. Then, and only then, will Donald Trump be fully exposed for what he is:  a cynical, venal robber baron, America’s master baiter and switcher in chief.


David Berkson

December 16, 2016

You can contact David Berkson at or @DavidBerkson on Twitter. You can also “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook.


* On the other hand, Trump is a serial violator of Orwell’s sixth and final dictum: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”





The Narrative of Blame: When Democrats Betray Democracy

I don’t read The Huffington Post to have my opinions challenged. I read The Huffington Post to have my opinions confirmed. Or at least massaged with a recap of the latest SNL sketch or last night’s rant from Samantha Bee. So imagine how I felt when I started reading a piece from HuffPost that began with a warning. It read:

I know this is going to piss a lot of people off, but so be it.

U-oh. That certainly did sound like trouble, now, didn’t it? Here was hard hitting journalism that refused to pull its punches. The Huffington Post wouldn’t be massaging any of my left-of-center prejudices. Not this time. Thus, I’d been duly warned. Yet I decided to ignore that warning. And that’s where my troubles began.

Well, that’s not entirely true. My troubles actually began with the piece’s title: Things I Blame For Hillary Clinton’s Loss, Ranked.


With the 2016 presidential election more than a month behind us, it is incredible that anyone’s still looking for someone to blame for Hillary Clinton’s upset defeat. Right minded liberals and progressives might instead want to fortify the castle against that fire-breathing dragon, Donald Trump. The title of the HuffPost article tries to answer the wrong question: “Who’s responsible for Hillary Clinton’s loss?” when liberals and lefties should be asking: “Why and how did Donald Trump win?”

But if we start to answer that question, well…then we might start really pissing people off. We might look back on the last year and a half and get a little introspective. We might reflect upon our own classist condescension towards all those stupid Donald Trump supporters, and wonder how we got it all wrong. We might even get a little bit pissed at ourselves.

Naah. I sure didn’t do anything wrong. Why not just point the finger at somebody else? It is time, my friends, for the Narrative of Blame.

Now, to be fair to Max Weiss, the author of the Hillary Clinton Huffington Post piss-off piece, his list of villains isn’t entirely unreasonable. In casting blame for Clinton’s loss, Weiss mentions voter suppression, without a doubt the most alarming and pernicious threat to what’s left of our tottering democracy. Weiss also blames misogyny, writing:

 …they see (Clinton) as shrill and scolding and corrupt ― not sufficiently warm, not the kind of person they want to grab a beer with.

But the article is riddled with inconsistency and laziness. For one thing, Weiss blames the election results on Clinton’s campaign, while going out of his way to let Clinton herself off the hook. This bizarrely – though perhaps unintentionally – suggests that someone other than HRC was in charge of her own presidential bid. Perhaps Hillary’s detractors aren’t the only sexists in the room.

Still, that’s just bad and careless writing, no shock to those of us familiar with the work of The Huffington Post. So where’s the piss-off? Where are the audacious and offensive claims that necessitate such a dire trigger warning? For that, I direct you to Weiss’s arch-villains, the scourges of left-of-center liberalism and spoilers of 2016:

Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein.

As I told you, Weiss pulls no punches. So as I reprint his argument, let me also reprint his warning:

I know this is going to piss a lot of people off, but so be it.

 Here’s what Weiss has to say:



I think Sanders, who fortified the recurring narrative that Hillary was a corrupt neoliberal and part of a rigged system, did more damage than anyone else. He turned millions of young people against Hillary — and countless independents, no doubt, too.

 Yes, he ultimately campaigned for Hillary, but did so half-heartedly, through pursed lips and slumped body language, bashing Trump but rarely praising Hillary. One could almost see the thought bubble over his head: “This should’ve been me.”


DC: Green Party Presidential Nominee Jill Stein Makes Announcement On 2016 Race

That publicity-seeking, bourgeois woman gave disenchanted Bernie or Busters a place for their protest vote, and continued the absurd narrative that Hillary was just as bad as Trump.

 And then, just for good measure:

You’re on my list too, Susan Sarandon.


 Let’s put aside how Clinton’s bid for the White House was derailed by Sarandon, an actress whose most recent high-profile film was a cameo in Zoolander 2. Instead, let’s look at Weiss’s principle scapegoats: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s major rival in the 2016 Democratic primary, and Dr. Jill Stein, who ran as the Green Party candidate.

If you voted for Clinton or Sanders or (psst! Don’t tell anyone, but I’m voting for) Stein, you’re probably familiar with the Narrative of Blame, which goes something like this: Hillary Clinton had a great shot at becoming our 45th president. She came to her historic bid for the job with impressive and even unprecedented qualifications. The Republican field was full of crazy, ignorant, sexist, racist, xenophobic demagogues – with the exception of Jeb Bush, the David Brooks of electoral politics. No election was more important than this one. So Clinton had to become president. Not only that: she deserved it.

But like a brood of miscreant brats at Thanksgiving dinner, the Left just wouldn’t stay at the kids’ table and shut up and behave. Led by that cantankerous democratic socialist Bernie Sanders  (not even a Democrat!), these misinformed millennials and radicals couldn’t see the big picture. Let’s look back at Weiss’s condescending language:

(Sanders) turned millions of young people against Hillary — and countless independents, no doubt, too.


“Turned against” her, huh? How dare Sanders ruin Clinton’s spotless track record with the Left? If only those young people had thought for themselves. Or, better yet, thought like Max Weiss.

Continuing the Narrative of Blame: Clinton ultimately prevailed in the primaries, and Sanders begrudgingly offered up his support. But he was so half-assed. He didn’t really want her to win. And Democratic (not to be confused with democratic) victory was so important, because Clinton wasn’t squaring off against anyone. Her opponent was Donald Fucking Trump: a cynical robber baron whose exploits beggar a Warren Harding wet dream. And then Jill Stein, that “publicity-seeking, bourgeois woman,” (strike 2, Mr. Weiss: you might want to check out your own misogyny, buddy) had to come along and ruin it all by giving those bratty young Lefties someone who they actually wanted to vote for. Hillary Clinton could have won. Hillary Clinton should have won. But thanks to vote-stealing party poopers like Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, and their self-absorbed, misguided followers, Hillary Clinton didn’t win. She lost.

Sound familiar? Like most compelling and persuasive narratives, the Narrative of Blame has its elements of truth. It’s also deeply problematic. Worse, it’s downright dangerous, a tragic case of Democrats betraying  their own democracy. Let’s take a look at the Narrative of Blame’s major problems:

  1. A presidential race is just that: a race. It’s a competition, not a coronation. Hillary Clinton was indeed the most qualified candidate, but that doesn’t mean that she automatically deserved to win. (Back in 2008, didn’t John McCain have more experience than Barack Obama?) So who’s responsible for Hillary’s loss? Certainly not Hillary herself. So it’s Bernie Sanders’s fault. And it’s Jill Stein’s fault. Add Donald Trump to that list and the argument makes perfect sense: had Hillary Clinton run for president completely unopposed, she probably would have won the election.

  2. The Narrative of Blame assumes that anyone voting for Sanders or Stein would have cast a vote for Clinton if only her left-leaning opponents hadn’t shown up and ruined everything. But the facts simply don’t bear out that argument. Omri Ben-Shahar of Forbes Magazine writes: “…Hillary Clinton was less attractive to the traditional Democratic base of urban, minorities, and educated voters.” In other words, voter turnout for Clinton was low. Significant numbers of traditional Democrats found staying at home preferable to voting for Hillary. Add good a old fashioned dose of voter suppression to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for a Trump victory.

  3. The Narrative of Blame alternately assumes that anyone voting for Sanders or Stein should have cast a vote for Clinton because she had the best chance of beating Donald Trump. Well, it’s true. Clinton did have the best chance. But for some people that reason wasn’t enough. Feel free to dismiss the folks who saw HRC’s history of free trade, right to work, anti-union, pro-Wall Street, super predator, tough on crime history as the ultimate deal breaker. But if you want to defeat Donald Trump in four years? You’re gonna need those folks. Hate them all you want, but the brutal outcome of this last election prove that you’re going to need them, and in very large numbers. What’s your plan for winning them over? With dismissive, ageist prods to shut up and get with the program? That strategy didn’t work out so well this time, did it?

  4. The Narrative of Blame grabs at cheap fallacies like the ad hominem attack. It’s not enough to take issue with Sanders’s and Stein’s actions or policies. Let’s go after their corrupt motives, which we know about because…well, we just do. Was Sanders’s support for Clinton “half-hearted”? Yes, I’m sure it was. You might purse your lips if a bunch of leaked emails proved that the DNC had actively worked against your campaign. Is Jill Stein a narcissist? My god, who the hell cares? Do you know a politician who isn’t self-absorbed? You want character references? Fine, I’ll give you one: when Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic nomination, Jill Stein offered to step aside as the Green Party candidate and let him run in her place. Sanders declined, instead honoring his pledge to support the nominee for the Democratic Party. If you want to start sliming someone’s character, why not join the Republican party and start shrieking about Clinton’s emails? At least you’ll finally have the satisfaction of being on the winning side.

  5. The Narrative of Blame is undemocratic. It favors the Democratic Party over the democratic country. To decry the Electoral College while urging progressive candidates not to run, or badgering people to vote for a candidate whom they find unacceptable? That’s not just un-democratic: it’s deeply hypocritical. If your only interest is getting a Democrat into the Oval Office, that is certainly your prerogative. But at least be honest and admit that you – like your Republican enemies – are choosing partisanship over democracy.

This, then, is the final fallacy of the Narrative of Blame. It fails to recognize the greatest tragedy of 2016: our democratic institutions failed us – or more accurately, we failed our democratic institutions. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but the Electoral College – an institution created in part to protect us from opportunistic demagogues – will make sure that Donald Trump is our next president.


Moreover, millions of people who wanted to vote – and tried to vote – were unable to cast their ballots due to voter suppression. And after all that, the Democratic Party’s most partisan supporters continue to marginalize progressive voices and candidates who work for social justice outside of our broken two-party system. Malcolm X once said that he preferred the white conservative over the white liberal because at least the white conservative showed his teeth. If more democracy threatens you, you’re perfectly free to tear down the reputations and rights of those who dare to use their voices and votes to encroach upon your all-important agenda. But have a little integrity and start showing us all your teeth.

So yes, Mr. Weiss. Your article did piss me off.

But not for the reasons you thought.

So be it.

David Berkson

December 9, 2016

You can contact David Berkson at or @DavidBerkson on Twitter. You can also “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook.


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