Football and the NFL

A Beautiful Game

The game of (American) football may be one of the most inscrutable popular pastimes ever devised. Unlike other games, such as baseball or cricket, which test athletes’ finesse and timing, or like basketball or (association) football, which are mainly contests of stamina, American football is subject to chaos like few other sports. In some ways, it’s the purest real-world realization of the concept behind J.K. Rowling’s wizard’s chess.

For football teams playing at a high level, each play is a match of wits between the offensive and defensive coordinators. Both rely on schemes designed to create and take advantage of mismatches, and for both — this is important — the scheme has to be developed around the available talent. (This is of course true in any sport, but even more so in a sport as complex as football, where, say, a single blown coverage assignment results in a sack.)

This is not to say the sport is easy on its players. In fact, part of its draw is its strange combination of finesse and brutality, of beautifully executed plays like deep throws contrasted with setbacks like sacks. It is, in essence, life in 60 minutes on a field.

And a huge part of that is the need to cooperate in football. In most goal sports — like basketball or association football or hockey — giving the ball (or puck) to the most athletically gifted talent on your team is usually a good way to win games. The Lakers were the most dominant team of the early 2000s because they had Kobe Bryant. (Traitor.) The Bulls were the mid-90s’ most dominant team because they had Michael Jordan. Wherever Wilt the Stilt went, his team was dominant. And so on.

Quarterbacks — football teams’ offensive leaders — are, by contrast, not necessarily the most athletically dominant person on the field. In fact, player roles are so varied that it’s hard to say who, exactly, the most athletically dominant person on the field is. Players like Brian Dawkins or Warren Sapp, who set themselves apart by their athletic dominance even for their positions, are at least as rare to come by as their counterparts in other professional sports. Instead, quarterbacks exert leadership by being intellectually dominant — the most skilled person on the field.

The best quarterbacks have to absorb, analyze, evaluate, and act on a tremendous amount of information, all in a jaw-droppingly short time. They have to communicate the play they’re supposed to be running from their coaches to their teammates. They have to read the opposing defense and adjust as they see fit. Sometimes, they’ll even change the play at the line of scrimmage — Peyton Manning excelled at this kind of cerebral quarterbacking. And they have to do all of this in the half-minute or so allotted between plays.

Stereotypes aside, it’s not at all surprising that football is becoming an increasingly international sport. For all that soccer styles itself the beautiful game, there is something truly beautiful in the way a football game is play — something truly beautiful in the way, any given game day, an athletically inferior team can dominate an athletically superior one, through smart coaching and smart play.

Outside the US (and Canada)

The NFL is largely saturated in its core markets. Theoretically, any 2-million-man metropolis can support an NFL team, and most of them have one. The only place the NFL can go, therefore, to expand its product and its brand is out of the US.

Canada has the CFL. There was a time, a while ago, when the CFL ran an American division that largely concentrated on those media markets the NFL ignores — cities like Memphis, Salt Lake, and Las Vegas. So, if not Canada, where else?

The answer has, increasingly, been London. It seems like two minor NFL teams play in London any given week. Wembley is regularly sold out for these affairs. (They’ve also been looking at Mexico City.)

The problem with this, however, is that — it’s London. There’s a 6-hour time difference between there and anything on the East Coast, a significant logistical hurdle. Mexico City represents a natural place for the NFL to begin franchising because games between “Aztecs” and NFC/AFC West teams on a regular schedule are feasible. The solution to this quandary is almost certainly a British league of some kind.

A “BFL”

British athletics have long operated under promotion and relegation — good teams rise to the top while bad ones sink down. It’s an effective system for managing parity (for the most part) while allowing managers to dream title dreams.

This is, in all likelihood, unworkable for a British American football league, however. There are few cities that can profitably support such a team to begin with; a deeper problem is that the support infrastructure (layers and layers of progressively more minor leagues) isn’t remotely as extensive for American football.

In fact, there are just three conurbations with more than two million people in the British Isles: London, Manchester, and Birmingham. If we’re generous and ask about urban areas with more than one million, there are just three more: Dublin (actually just shy of 2m), Leeds — yes, Leeds — and Glasgow. That’s six cities.

Let’s take a look at the other end. An eight-team league would have optimal scheduling: the league is split into two 4-team divisions, playing division rivals twice, the other division once, and an alternating slate with one of the NFL divisions (4) teams for a 12-game schedule. The division winners would then play each other for the championship.

So we can put two teams in London — of opposite divisions, of course — and then one each in Manchester, Birmingham, Dublin, Leeds, Glasgow, and … somewhere else. (Liverpool? Belfast?)

There is a subtle beauty in this system. First of all, eight teams is probably the smallest you can field to maintain a competitive league (at least, in American football). Second, you guarantee that each team plays an NFL team twice at home each season. This serves two roles — two games that are guaranteed sellouts for every BFL team every season (c’mon, a mediocre AFC South divisional game sold Wembley out this year), and secondly, a degree of legitimacy for the expansion teams (because they are given the opportunity to win against NFL teams). It’s an excellent setup for converting known intermittent popularity into permanent new fanbases.

It’s also an expandable system. Is the BFL entrenched and profitable? Perfect, let’s launch the same program in France — Italy — the Iberian peninsula — greater Germany — and so on. Something similar can be applied in Latin America and the Far East. Over time, the Super Bowl simply becomes the oldest of a set of regional championships and a dedicated world championship is needed.

But the thing is — whatever your opinions about the game — as a business, the NFL needs to expand its markets, sustainably. And that means figuring out how to develop secondary leagues abroad. It’s already a continental-scale league as things stand.

Switch Thoughts

Last week, Nintendo announced their next-generation console: the Switch.

Nintendo is in an intriguing position in the console wars — technically, the Wii U was the first console of the current generation, which makes the Switch the last console of its generation. By having two consoles out in a single generation, Nintendo now has a clear innovation edge on its competitors. The Switch will have to compete with the PS4 and Xbox One for, most likely, its entire run.

Like the Wii, though, the Switch is something different. Sony and Microsoft consoles are little-changed from the strategy that won them success in the late 1990s and early 2000s: being little more than stripped-down gaming towers. But the Switch is a bipartite system with a console component and a mobile component. This alone makes its competitors look dated, if not outright obsolete.

The core of the system is a thin tablet. Augmenting that are four key peripherals: (1) the dock, which functions as a hybrid charging port/TV data transmitter (probably with 720p-1080p upscaling), (2) left and (3) right “Joy-Con” controllers, and (4) a Joy-Con grip. (A fifth peripheral is a Pro Controller that looks visually identical to the ergonomic Xbox controller layout.)

After the primary tablet unit, the Joy-Cons are the Switch’s second most arresting feature. They can be slotted into the dummy grip for console play, or into either side of the Switch itself to play like a classic mobile gaming system. They can also be used independently, like the Wii’s motion-based control layout, or even be split into two controllers for local multiplayer. This gives the basic system unparalleled versatility, natively supporting every gameplay style any Nintendo game has ever used.

Except for one. The Switch doesn’t seem to currently support DS-like gameplay.

The Switch’s Potential

My goal here, however, is to suggest a potential design philosophy behind the Switch. Obviously, the semi-mobile platform makes traditional console gaming obsolete. It implies that the next video game generation will see the merger of the Xbox and Surface, and between the Playstation and Xperia, as the most effective way to compete with the Switch and its derivatives. That is: the Switch is leading the way in a tablet-console merger.

Here we must ask what the Switch will run on. Initiating the merger is one thing; following through, quite another. Nintendo must be well aware the kind of mergers the Switch will precipitate — PC and Xbox games will merge, and Sony’s Xperia tablet line will by necessity run Playstation games. A video game system that looks like a tablet is different from a tablet system that plays video games, and Nintendo’s competitors will be able to offer the latter. What about Nintendo?

A huge part of this will hinge on the OS. While Android is the dominant smartphone OS, the tablet game is a 3-way race between it, iOS, and Windows. And Nintendo has little brand recognition as a generalized tech company the way Apple does. That is: a custom OS essentially locks the Switch (and its successors) into a video game system that looks like a tablet, but an Android-based OS makes it a tablet that plays video games — a critical competitive edge once the innovation’s worn off.

The reason is: running Android unlocks a lot of doors with relatively limited downside. With it, the Switch automatically comes with full access to Google Play and its wealth of apps. Without it, Nintendo must either develop substitutes in-house or admit that, at the end of the way, the Switch is fundamentally a toy. With it, your Switch becomes the only tablet you ever need carry with you. Without it, it’s sharing space with your favorite Windows/iPad/Droid tablet.

Yes, running Droid raises the specter of easily-ported games. But this can be overcome with a custom peripheral that the games themselves are loaded on to — is this the reason behind the cartridge’s return? But consider this: Porting games is essentially a rewriting job. For the last three generations or so, Nintendo has lagged in the porting game because of its often-inferior specs, a deal-breaker in a market where porting a game is expensive.

Running the Switch on Android makes porting games cheap. Not in this generation, but the next, when the Playstation and Xperia are likely to merge. A third-party title written for the Switch can have its core be built around a generalized Android release, with extra features for the Switch’s unique capabilities. Switch games become, in this environment, Android games with extra features. And, if Playstation games soon follow, this leaves the Xbox at a tremendous disadvantage: while it may be cheap to port releases for Nintendo and Sony (remember, they’re the same core for the same OS in the same languages, just with slightly different specs, storage media, and peripherals in mind), it’ll be tremendously expensive to do so for Xbox (same core on different OSes in different languages for similar specs, storage media, and peripherals).

Needing to spend less on tedious porting overhead, Japanese developers — those most inclined to eschew the Xbox — have a competitive advantage in this environment, while American ones — who usually have to co-develop for Sony and Microsoft to begin with — have a competitive disadvantage. There is a very real risk embedded in the Switch that Microsoft becomes the 2000s Nintendo of the 2020s — dependent on its first- and second-party IP, as few new third-party houses are willing to expend the resources on developing for both it and its Japanese competitors.

A Path Forward for Nintendo

If the Switch is a true tablet, what does that imply for the DS? Nintendo has some twenty-five years of portable device experience embedded in its Game Boy/DS product line, long the most dominant in the market. And recall that the Switch does not seem designed to support DS-style gameplay (where the Wii U was an experiment to bring it to the console).

There are a lot of companies that run phones and tablets. Apple may be the most famous, with its iPhones and iPads, but nearly every major Android smartphone maker also makes tablets. Windows tablets don’t have nearly the market reach Microsoft wanted precisely because most tablet makers develop their tablets from their phones’ core architecture — not from their towers’. (And how many makers even make towers anymore, anyway?)

Recall here that, while the Switch may be a mobile platform, it isn’t as mobile as the pocket-sized Game Boy/DS line. And if tablets are often matched with smartphones … hmm …

Phones and tablets usually have similar architecture bases. So an Android Switch isn’t just a well-positioned gaming tablet — it’s also the same basic architecture that you would need for a smaller platform. The 3DS is an aging system. Could we see a “Nintendo Phone” in the cards?

It really makes sense, if you think about it. A Nintendo Phone gives them presence in the smartphone/tablet market that computer-derivative devices are converging on. It forces Sony to essentially integrate similar functionality into its smart-devices. And it deals Microsoft another setback — the Windows Phone’s failure still stings — as it’s unable to fully migrate to the new video-game-enabled devices that Nintendo is producing.

Moreover, the Nintendo Phone gives full capability for single-screen touchscreen games. And it works as a second-screen peripheral for the Switch. With its own miniaturized Joy-Cons, the Nintendo Phone and Switch can work in concert to produce DS-like gameplay

Two devices able to produce three (console/portable, touchscreen, DS) game types — as well as being go-to devices for your daily life. No doubt, Nintendo sees how Apple has achieved near-total vendor lock-in. How better to market your devices to similar effect when your killer apps are essentially built into your brand?

Negative Charisma

Perhaps one of the downside of republican governments is that their politics are dependent on charismatic politicians. Rule in republics is by the consent of the ruled (rather than by e.g. force, as in a dictatorship, or heredity, as in a monarchy), and every republican system — both historic and modern — has a periodic reaffirmation of that consent. This is an excessively technical and theoretical way of talking about elections.

Politicians depend on charisma to get elected and re-elected. An uncharismatic politician will never be able to convert oratory into votes. And charisma is not a learned skill: there is a distinct difference between naturally charismatic people and people who have learned to mimic naturally charismatic people. However, at the same time, all charismatic people — by simple dint of standing out in the crowd — will win both adorers and adversaries. In republics, having enough adorers to cancel out adversaries and then some is what gets you elected.

In 2007, the Huffington Post published an opinion piece suggesting that Hillary Clinton has “negative charisma”, in the sense that she has the opposite of charisma. He is right: Hillary is not exactly charismatic. She runs tough elections but is consistently highly rated once in office. For her, elections are — for all intents and purposes — a tedious chore to get through before returning to the real business of government, i.e. governing. She has largely succeeded so far by more skillfully mimicking naturally charismatic people than nearly anybody else in existence. But she is not naturally charismatic.

This is not, however, the sense I have in mind when I suggest “negative charisma”. If the positive effect of charisma is an innate ability to win friends and influence people, then the negative effect of charisma is an innate ability to win enemies and influence people. That is, a negatively charismatic person is someone whose natural charisma acts to their detriment rather than to their benefit. A negatively charismatic person is inherently, deeply self-sabotaging.

Donald Trump Is Negatively Charismatic

While the Constitution outlines the bare minimum to be qualified for the Presidency — according to Article II, a President must be a natural-born U.S. citizen, at least thirty-five years old, and an American resident for at least the past fourteen years — in practice we also expect our Presidents to have significant political experience, the ability to fund a campaign, and the charisma needed to win. Governors and Senators most frequently win major-party nominations for this reason. They fulfill both the implicit and explicit skillset needed for winning the Presidency, having successfully run for — and held — statewide office.

Obviously the septuagenarian New York-born Trump, who has held primary residency in Trump Tower’s penthouse suite for about as long as I’ve been alive, fulfills the Constitution’s explicit requirements. He does not fulfill the usual implicit requirements. He has never held public office — nor did he ever seek to prior to announcing his candidacy. CEO of an ostensibly real-estate company and media personality, he has never demonstrated the ability to hold public office of any sort, much less the most public public office in the US. Most “candidates” like him go away quickly, and if he was — indeed — running as a publicity stunt for his brand (as most in the media seem to think), he had no reason to expect the course of his candidacy to run any differently.

Something different happened. By tapping a regressive-populist core and running against a monumentally divided field, Trump was already galloping towards the nomination by the time Ted Cruz was able to mount a counterattack. It wasn’t enough. And so the Republican establishment, the whole infrastructure built around the declining Reagan coalition, had to grit its teeth and nominate someone who had — remember, with zero experience — developed an Appalachian coalition with extensions into the Old South’s unreconstructed whites and North’s undereducated ex-workforce. Of these, only one voting block was even R when Reagan was President.

This is evidence of powerful natural charisma. But for the negatively charismatic, the self-sabotage kicks in long before the ultimate goal is reached. And it’s inextricably linked to their personality. See, charisma requires treating other people as people to work. Outside of other white males, Trump can’t do that. He has repeatedly demonstrated failure to connect to people emotionally — a recent New York Times opinion piece suggests he has “narcissistic alexithymia” (not an easy-to-spell word!), an “inability to understand or describe the emotions in the self”. And so Trump treats people who do not look like him like, well, objects.

Consider the way he keeps referring to African-Americans as “the blacks”. Not just “blacks”. The blacks. Consider what he is saying, at a deep level. The English definite article is a subtle demonstrative — it points out. It selects an object, or class of objects. Not “some blacks”. “The blacks.” In doing so, Trump is quite literally distancing himself from black people. He is saying, implicitly, that he does not, at a fundamental level, consider black people, well, people — English actually has (at least) two noun classes, and the class that refers to other people behaves quite differently than the one that refers to (inanimate?) objects like, say, rocks. Trump refers to African-Americans more like rocks than people, and in so doing, casts a noun-class distinction that we never realized was there into stark distinction.

At least he refers to women as people! It’s too bad his interest in them begins and ends with their appearance and genitalia. In Trump’s own little world, we can see a clear class progression, with white males at the top of the hierarchy, white females are naturally inferior but useful for *cough* certain tasks *cough*, and nonwhites — who might as well not even be human. This is fertile ground for rapidly building a populist coalition, one that may well only hold together as long as he’s leading them, but it flies in the face of the reality that is American demographics.

This is how charisma turns toxic. Real estate development was — and, in many ways, still is — a bit of an old boys’ club. Even a personality-driven show like The Apprentice can — and quite obviously did — mask elements of media personalities that would harm ratings. There is a reason why Trump is the world’s oldest adolescent. His dad was rich enough and he was just good enough a businessman to indulge in puerile power fantasies long past their natural sell-by date. His ephebophilia actually means his women, such as they are, are the ones with “sell-by dates”. Trump has never, in his life, ever needed to learn how to interact with other people as people and not mere tools.

Hillary is uncharismatic because she doesn’t intuitively know how to interact with other people as people. She knows this is important and works hard to overcome this weakness. But Trump has negative charisma because he does intuitively know how to interact with other people as people — what he does not see, or understand, is why it’s important. And it’s biting him in the ass.

EDIT 10/25: Note: I wrote this post just before Trump’s sex-assault allegations went public.

Lessons from Philadelphia Media

Philadelphia is shockingly barren of hard-hitting investigative journalism. The dominant newspaper, the Inquirer (locally the “Inky”) prefers to sit back, generally focusing its limited investigative resources on police issues. This is useful in its own way — because local media have a long history of holding the Philadelphia Police Department to the fire, police brutality issues here seem not to be as severe as those in e.g. Baltimore or St. Louis — but at the same time it has cast deep shadows for political corruption. Meanwhile, attempts at creating an alternative to the Inky (often with an investigative focus on political corruption) have not met with sustained success.

Perhaps the longest-lasting, the alternative weekly City Paper, sold to the much less interesting, but more profitable, alt-weekly rag Philly Weekly a few years back and was excised from existence. City Paper had been — by far — the best source for local political news, and its writing pool easily boasted the best journalists in the city. After it went under, attempts at online platforms intensified. Patrick Kerkstra led the charge at Philadelphia magazine, developing a suite of daily blogs that mimicked newspaper sections — the front page, sports, real estate — and poaching the city’s best reporting talent (mostly from the recently-defunct City Paper) to run them. Meanwhile, PlanPhilly‘s erstwhile editor, Matt Golas, got local PBS affiliate WHYY to pick it up, and began reorganizing both it and WHYY’s Northwest Philly-focused outlet, Newsworks, into a journalism platform to rival the Inky’s.

Despite City Paper‘s untimely departure, the future of Philly investigative journalism — at least online — looked fairly bright in mid-2015.

Then — just as his efforts at WHYY were bearing fruit — Golas was forced out in late 2015. Kerkstra would follow a year later, as Philly mag’s showrunners decided to go in a different direction, favoring advertiser-pleasing copy over high-readership stories. That fallout has only just begun. And Philadelphia is left bereft of a high-quality investigative-journalism outlet — again.

Despite generations of reporters trying to change it, Philadelphia’s status quo has never favored investigative journalism. The “corrupt and content” city’s dominant paper, for more than a century, was the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (often shortened to just the “Bulletin”). As its name implies, it never seems to have had much interest in investigative journalism, favoring instead a role as the dominant party machine’s mouthpiece. The Inky was merely a distant #2.

This all changed in the 1970s, when Knight Papers bought the Inky and heavily invested in it, modernizing its facilities and bringing in some of the country’s best investigative journalists. This new, more muckraking Inky quickly began to win Pulitzers — and readers. By the early 1980s, it had forced the staid Bulletin out of business entirely, and became the Philadelphia region’s paper of record. Knight Papers had believed in investigative news, and as the Inky’s editorial board was one of the last they had overhauled before selling to Ridder, it was one of the last that the new combined company would start tinkering with. Thus, the Inky carried on the Knight legacy through the 1980s — a period when it was arguably one of the country’s best papers.

By the early 1990s, however, the replacement of Knight editors with Knight Ridder ones had begun in earnest, and the paper’s quality had begun to suffer. Much like the Bulletin before it, the Inky stopped prioritizing muckraking. Investigative reporters moved on, into the alt-weekly scene or to friendlier paper-of-record locales. Readership and profitability began to suffer — unlike the Bulletin, the Inky did not have an enduring paper-of-record legacy, having only been the city’s dominant for a decade. Spearheaded by powers-that-be at the very top, the Inky turned away from the brand they had successfully built over the previous twenty years, and contented corruption returned to the very top of the local media.

So, by the early 2000s, the paper was treading water when the bottom fell out of its revenue stream. Most people attribute the rise of the Internet to the fall of American newspapers. This is only half-true: it was the rise of Craigslist, in particular, that led to the collapse of the newspaper revenue model — which depended on classified advertising. Easily half, if not more, of that revenue was lost — irrevocably — in every market Craigslist established a beachhead in — and it established a beachhead in every market. Quickly. The Inky’s parent, Knight Ridder, began losing money, shedding staff, and was forced to pivot its revenue model towards retail advertising (the circulars and other junk in the middle, as well as on-page ads) even as competition diversified.

Knight Ridder merged with McClatchy in 2006, and the new owners spun off most of their portfolio of either (a) weaker newspapers or (b) newspapers that did not fit the direction their corporate parent wished to take. The Inky was one of those. Coming under ownership of Philadelphia Media Holdings, its quality continued to worsen, sapping subscribers and readership revenue, in a penny-wise-pound-foolish attempt to trim its way to profitability. Finally, Comcast’s Gerry Lenfest stepped in and assumed control of the bankrupt paper, worried, perhaps, that it would go the way of the Times-Picayune and cease to be a daily affair.

It would be nice if the Inky became a bastion of investigative reporting again, but in all probability it won’t. Newspapers are not the only dominant media voices that tend to avoid investigation in the Philadelphia region. Action News, the dominant local news program, also follows Bulletin-esque editorial guidelines. Ironically enough, the best source for investigative local news is Fox 29, a position that so flagrantly opposes their national showrunners’ that almost every Fox 29-Fox News interaction rapidly becomes painfully awkward to watch.

But there is a strange lesson to be had here. Doubtless, Gilded Age politicians and robber barons disliked muckrakers’ nosing around. The idea of a corrupt and content city with enabling media must have been intoxicating to these people. As the TV replaced papers as the source of most peoples’ news, the trend towards showrunners replicating the ideas implicit in the Bulletin’s editorial guidelines — “the newspaper is the guest in the reader’s house; tell the news, nothing more, nothing less” — began to intensify in the more legitimate circuits. (It gave way to propaganda on Fox News; even liberally-focused MSNBC has yet to go so far down that route.) Corruption rages in the shade, and without muckraking, shadows grow deep.

So how do we monetize muckraking?

Decline and Fall

This past election season has felt truly surreal. Political commentators both left and right understood as early as late 2012 that the Democrats would be vulnerable in 2016, and a good Republican candidate, one who could maintain the party’s core demographics while simultaneously siphoning some black and Latino votes, had a nonzero shot at tipping the scales, someone bland and vaguely Hispanic like Marco Rubio — especially if the Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton.

The Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton.

So what did the Republicans do? They nominated a candidate who most observers agree is the single worst candidate ever fielded by a major party in the United States of America. While, for a moment in July, Donald Trump seemed terrifyingly electable, it lasted about three days into the DNC. And then he went after Gold Star father Khizr Khan.

Ever since then, his campaign has been in a state of utter collapse. Trump, quite literally a textbook narcissist, has seen to it that he utterly dominates the news cycle. This is quite unfortunate for Republicans because this dominance is rooted in petty attacks, like that against Mr. Khan, with a heaping spoonful of scandal, like murky Russian ties, and controversy, like assaying Trump’s true net worth in the increasingly noticeable absence of his tax returns — all of this leading to pundits calling him a fascist while the Republicans’ moderate class run from him. In droves.

Against all odds, Hillary Clinton, a candidate that against a normal candidate should receive 50% ±1% of the popular vote, has opened up a commanding 8-point lead on Trump. Purely by staying away from the media. Against a campaigner as self-evidently incompetent as Trump, Clinton has an excellent chance — currently 26.8%* according to FiveThirtyEight — of winning by a landslide, a victory type that Americans haven’t seen since the 1980s and many pundits did not even think possible in the modern, hyperpartisan political climate.

But if you think this is the Republicans’ bottom — hah! They haven’t even found their bottom yet!

The Green Screen

American politics have been cyclic, coinciding remarkably well with the Kondratieff cycle. The main political parties — the Democrats and Republicans — tend to assemble into coalitions during the primary and midterm phases, while the general election decides which coalition governs and which one opposes. These, in turn, tend to be focused around driving narratives — ideologies that animate coalitions for generations at a time.

The largest governing majorities — supermajorities in any sense of the word — were the Republican governing coalition of the Progressive Era and the Democratic New Deal governing coalition that followed. The post-Teddy Roosevelt Republicans were themselves a policy iteration on a Republican coalition that had largely stayed in power since 1865, mainly due to the era’s North-South politics, while New Deal coalition continued to follow Progressive politics until the Civil Rights Act and Southern Strategy fractured it.

It is also noteworthy that major governing coalitions become focused around uniquely charismatic Presidents. One could therefore say that American politics are divided into the Jefferson period, which defined Jefferson’s Democrat-Republicans and their opponents (initially Federalists and then Whigs); the post-Lincoln period, defined by the loose ends Lincoln had left; the first and second Roosevelt periods, when the progressives were the governing coalitions’ leaders; and the Reagan period, which actually started when Nixon won the Presidency and may or may not have ended in the mid-2000s.

But charisma is a two-edged sword, and Trump is certainly charismatic. Like Teddy Roosevelt, Trump is giving voice to a marginal faction; unlike Roosevelt, who was essentially kicked upstairs into the vice-presidency, thereby allowing him to be in the right place at the right time to implement his agenda, Trump is trying to win the Presidency rather than inherit it.

Trump is far better at inheriting things than winning them.

Because the core of his support is the populist right (aka alt-right aka Neo-Nazis aka proto-fascists), and because — unlike any of his interchangeable dozen-or-so opponents, he actually got his base fired up — Trump is hugely popular among a group approximately the same relative size as UKIP’s (ex-?)base in Britain. But because he espouses this particular ideology to the exclusion of all others, for a whole host of reasons, he was electable (in the sense Nixon was electable in ’68) in the primaries, but is wholesale unelectable — because he does espouse an ideology that is so profoundly foreign — to the left.

Trump needed a good handler to become remotely electable in the general, but his narcissism demands sycophants. Manafort couldn’t handle him, and at this point his primary advisors are mediamen Steve Bannon (formerly of the execrable Breitbart News) and … Roger Ailes. The rest of his inner circle reads like a who’s-who of Republican washouts, and the party’s big-name operatives aren’t interested in his campaign.

Whither Now?

When Bannon replaced Manafort, the Washington Post asked whether it was because (1) Trump was a fool, or (2) he was making a post-election play. Greg Sargent, the writer, thinks the answer is (1) — and perhaps to Trump and Bannon, it is — but Roger Ailes, now formerly of Fox News due to a harassment scandal, remember — is much savvier and much more opportunistic.

I would not be remotely surprised if Ailes was just the first one (or at least the first one in a position to act on it) to read the tea leaves: If Trump is only successful in attracting the regressive-populist alt-right, and literally toxic to anybody else, then simply by sticking to his message he can attract a following of (monetizable) zealous converts. The seed direct-mailing list is there, and Trump generates a not-insignificant amount of publicity — indeed, his own self-promotion is what is killing him this election — putting many of the ingredients in place. Lure in some known Trumpian TV and radio personalities, like Pat Buchanan and Sean Hannity, and — voilà!

But at this point the pattern starts to become clear. This “Trump News Network”, run by Bannon and Ailes, legitimizes the alt-right, in the process continuing to drive away social conservatives, libertarians, and the tattered last remnants of Northeasterner Republicans. The alt-right are American nationalists, but that in itself has the problem that nationalism is tied to ethnicity while American nationhood … isn’t. It is precisely because most Americans** agree, at some level, that openness to diversity is a fundamental defining feature of being American — an idea which no nationalist anywhere would ever be caught dead espousing — that Trump’s politics and agenda are so fundamentally foreign to Democrats and non-Trumpian Republicans alike.

A permanent Trump coalition effectively precludes the Republicans from retaking the White House in 2020, possibly ever. And Trump himself would continue to help the internal strife along. One side or the other*** will decide they’ve had enough and form their own third party, and that will be the end of the postwar Republican Party, the party of the Reagan governing coalition.

A New Start

It can’t happen soon enough! The Reagan coalition is dying. Literally. It has failed miserably at attracting young voters, or at producing black or Latino votes in an increasingly diverse American society, and its core voter is essentially an Angry White Pensioner. The 2012 Republican autopsy said as much. And Trump’s rise — and that of the alt-right in general — go backwards rather than forwards, firing up the core at the expense of alienating literally everyone else. Clearly, the Republicans — or their successors — will need a new base and a new charismatic politician to build a platform around.

It will take a while. Ike was a charismatic politician, but he didn’t do anything to rebuild the base; rather, after the 1932 election, the modern Republican governing majority did not get its charismatic leader for 48 years — 12 elections!

But the Republicans, once they’re severed from the toxic Trumpist wing, might be able to actually start attracting new voters. As a friend of mine puts it, the Reagan coalition is failing because it was made up of voters “on the wrong side of the animating question of postwar American history”, and the sooner it realizes this, the better. Because as long as they’re in denial (and the Trumpists are clearly in denial, to the tune of  a functionally nonexistent minority vote) …

… would be able to admit that yes, their last generation of governance was based around a coalition on the losing side of what is now a half-century-old issue, and that the so-called Party of Ideas needs some damned new ideas damned fast if they hope to remain relevant at all.

But they can’t do that until they finally succeed in cutting out the cancer at their core, which itself won’t happen until their activist base stops misidentifying what their party’s cancer actually is (hint: look in the mirror). Fortunately for all involved, Donald Trump has made it both obvious and damned easy. Republican leadership needs to take this chance, and recognize that it’s okay to lose the next three cycles or so if the party (or what remains of it) comes out stronger in the end.


* This number is derived by taking the average of the three forecast models’ chances for a Clinton landslide. Amazingly, the polls-only model, not the nowcast, shows Clinton furtherest in the lead.

** I.e. Americans who aren’t Trump supporters.

*** Most likely, either (a) because the Republicans get their shit together and find a candidate who can ensure the Trumpian nominee (probably Donald J. Trump) doesn’t get nominated in 2020, leading to The Donald making his own run and fragmenting the remnants of the Republican base, or (b) because the other Republicans finally have enough and defect en masse … possibly to the Libertarians?

On the new Mormon temple

On the new Mormon temple
philadelphia-pa-temple-exterior-day2016
Mormon temple, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Like the Catholic cathedral, it lies in Logan Square’s monumental precinct.

Sacred architecture has always been designed to instruct. Stained glass was developed as way to convert windows into mosaics that told stories from the Bible to what was then a mostly-illiterate audience. The Romanesque and Gothic modes were both meant to glorify God; the Romanesque, following the basilica template, implied God as lawgiver (at least before an understanding of the template was lost), while the Gothic mode emphasized the connection of God to light. The difference between the lighting of a Romanesque and a Gothic sanctuary would have been striking to a pre-electric-era audience.

Similarly, modes of churchbuilding developed by Protestant dissidents used simplicity to instruct. A room whose only ornament is a cross will inherently be focused on it, and church then becomes instruction in the full scope of symbolic representation. Quaker meetings take this to its logical extreme, ditching even the cross in their pursuit of an internal understanding of God. The appearance of this mode was deliberate — a theological response to the Catholic and early Protestant use of ornate and complex architecture as a mirror of God’s glory.

Baptistry
Baptistry, Mormon temple, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The lessons of what any sect finds most important can be found in the way they construct their most sacred spaces. How do they use ornamentation, if any? Which stories do they choose to represent? Do they emphasize the concrete or the ethereal? The days are long gone (at least in the West) where god was simply an idol behind an altar.

This brings us to Mormon temples. After some seven years, the Philadelphia temple is complete, and is structurally unlike any other sacred space in the city. For, where the focal point of every sacred space constructed in the Abrahamic traditions for the past 1500 years or more is focused around the rite of assembly — the sanctuary, the most sacred part of a church, is always a place of assembly — the Mormon temple, their most sacred space, eschews this altogether. A blithe reading of a temple’s site plans would suggest it has everything except for the sanctuary in it.

Ordinance Room - A
“Garden” instruction room, Mormon temple, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

This is why going on a tour of the temple is so important. (It’s also why the Mormons could stand to continue to run periodic tours of their temples even after dedication.) Mormon temples have no true focal point — instead, the way to read the temple is to walk the temple in the manner in which it is meant to be walked. The progression of the rooms reveals what they find truly important. To walk the temple is to be instructed.

The first thing you notice when you enter the temple is how unbelievably sumptuous the reception area is. The temple is replete with oil paintings (including an enormous naturalistic mural) and mirrors in lavish gold frames; the floors are in rich maple wood and marble and Chinese carpets; all throughout the interior is the most lavish plasterwork seen in this city in half a century. The Mormons clearly believe in complex, lavish style as a mirror unto God.

Celestial Room - 1C
Celestial room, Mormon temple, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This room lies directly underneath the Angel Moroni on the main steeple, and if it weren’t so damn ornate, Quakers could probably happily hold meeting here as well.

On the ground floor is the baptismal font they use to baptize dead ancestors into the faith, one of their more controversial practices. (This, they go to great lengths to stress, is a ‘gift’ that the dead can either accept or reject.) The next floor up is dedicated to changing and preparation rooms — Mormons only wear white once they pass this point.

On the third floor are the instruction rooms, perhaps the most masterful allusion to The Pilgrim’s Progress ever conceived. These are a pair of rooms, beginning with one dominated by a large mural of the land around the temple when untouched by human hands, and then leading into a second, somewhat more theatric room marked by the heavy use of gold trim. In front of both is what they call the “celestial room”, perhaps the closest thing to a traditional sanctuary a temple has — a room meant for reflection, and designed to symbolize heaven.

Sealing Room
Sealing rooms aren’t just where Mormons conduct marriages; they are physically the highest rooms in the temple and, by implication, the room reserved for the most sacred rite in it.

On the fourth floor are what they call “sealing rooms.” This is the highest most people will go in the temple, and these are the rooms where the Mormon marriage right is performed. Plush altars are found in these rooms — Mormons marry over the altar. For all intents and purposes, the sealing room is the temple’s climax.

In so doing, Mormons are telling us what they find most important. The temple symbolizes the process of growing up: baptism is, among other things, a representation of birth and rebirth; the instruction rooms (which culminate with the celestial room) the process of learning about the world about oneself and the role of God in that world; and the sealing rooms, placed at the very top, represent the rite that ends the growing-up phase and begins the one of rearing others, the single most important action in the Mormon world — marriage. (They believe that the rite is quite literally eternal, by the way — the closest parallel I am aware of is how Parvati is always incarnated as Vishnu’s wife whenever he descends to Earth in Hindu lore.)

solomon_temple
Mormon temples are ultimately patterned after King Solomon’s

Let us be clear here, too. Mormons believe that their temple (which is somewhat akin to a cathedral, in that there is only one for a large area) is a reflection of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. While it may be, it is but a reflection, and that, weakly so. Solomon’s Temple is an evolution on the Tabernacle, a structure whose design and materials are specified to an architectural plan’s level of detail in the Bible, and the structure was optimized to the worship rites of Hebrews 3000 years ago. But the functions of the Jewish Temple and a Mormon temple are wildly different — the former was mainly a place of sacrifice and exultation unto the Lord; the latter, one of indoctrination and of marriage. The reflection holds because, for both, the most sacred rites were performed at the temple — and that’s about it.

Strip away the theology and the controversies, and it is an uplifting message. It may or may not be the message that appeals to you — it doesn’t really appeal to me (no matter how cute that one usher was) — but it is worth reflecting that it is a message, and it is a message cleverly told and taught in the very way the temple is designed.

The American-ness of Mr. Trump

Trump’s post-DNC meltdown has been spectacular. So spectacular, in fact, that in a week he collected about as many major gaffes as gaffe-prone politicians like Joe Biden can make in their entire careers.

It’s also telling, though. Trump gaffes aren’t like Biden gaffes. Biden gaffes are relatively harmless and occasionally funny, and he has been able to turn them into their own sort of political capital in the past. No, Trump gaffes are dark insights into a man whose worldview is fundamentally un-American.

And it is because they are rooted in this mindset that is utterly at odds of American self-conception that the vast majority of people have no choice but to react with abject shock. It is not as if politicians haven’t previously made successful Presidential runs based on little to no political experience (see, for example, Abraham Lincoln or Barack Obama).

But even then, these politicians have collectively made a social contract — bought into our shared values. Trump clearly has not and is unlikely to ever do so, and so outside the relatively small regressive-populist base he appeals to has next to zero wider appeal.

Understanding the American metanation

Most nations are ethnic. Indeed, the typical definition of nationDictionary.com gives it as “a large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a governmentpeculiarly its own” — can be distilled to landed ethnicityThis is fundamental to understanding European issues: Greeks, Italians, Slovenes, Spaniards, Dutch, Germans, French- and Englishmen, and so forth all consider themselves distinct and unique nations. Indeed, the modern Western notion of “nationhood” arose in large part to explain what made these places different.

Americans have historically not subscribed to this notion. We are, we are reminded in school, a nation of immigrants. And the history of American nationhood is one of assimilation as different waves of migration from different places work hard and enter the middle class (often despite fierce resistance). Irish-Americans, Jewish Americans, Italian-Americans, and Slavic Americans have all fully assimilated; Asian-Americans are relatively late in the assimilation process (with Indian-Americans lagging about a generation behind East Asian-Americans); Latin-Americans in the middle; and West Indians and African immigrants in the first stage. And from there, they subdivide into the dozen or so American nations.

This is why we can talk about the peoples of the United States being united by a metanation,* which here I am defining as “a grouping of nations united by a sense of shared ethnicity”. While the idea is relatively new — Google “metanation” and the top hit is this book — one can fairly argue that post-Roman Europe is its own metanation, and Chinese identity can be thought of as essentially metanational rather than national. There is also evidence that the largest-scale long-term trend in the world today is the reorganization of economy and polity from something associated with antropological nations to metanational blocs.

The metanational ties that bind us are deep and developed in two primary phases, both marked by war: a high sense of personal liberty, a pervasive distrust of political authority, commitments to freedoms of speech and religion and a deep desire for equality of opportunity … and a fundamental sense of un-landedness. That is, while individual American nations are be clearly landed — Northerners and Southerners are clearly quite different — there is a deep sense that the American metanation has no such ties.

ft_16-07-11_eu-usdiversity_overallMy friend puts it as: American identity is creedal rather than ethnic in origin. And because it is a fundamentally creedal conception, Americans believe  — deeply — that a diversity of peoples, values, and opinions is a good thing, because out of that diversity grows a richness of experience of the shared creed.

That is why this chart exists: no matter where in Europe one is, immigrants are in some other entrenched nation whose national identity comes first and foremost. Not so in the US: because we are all the descendants of immigrants, the vast majority of us believe in a metanational identity that welcomes new ones.

“Ethnic American”

malone-enten-gopcrackup-22Even so, there is an interesting trend — one that has spontaneously developed in a few places (mostly rural) but is strongly associated with the Appalachian nation — and that is of people who claim an “American” ethnicity. Recall here that the Appalachia is a classic nation, a landed ethicity that first developed** in the heart of the Appalachians and subsequently spread across the Tennessee Valley and into the Ozark and Ouachita mountains.

It’s also important to remember here that Appalachia functions as a buffer between the broader North and South, that there is no American nation less urban and more rural, and finally that — historically — the region was the most persistently underdeveloped part of the country. (That “honor” has shifted south into the Mississippi lowlands.) In short, unlike most other parts of the country, Appalachia received relatively few immigrants, and so, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, began to develop a skepticism that immigration really was a good thing.

Every American nation is marked by deviations from the metanation. It is not at all a coincidence that what fires up Trump’s base and disgusts everybody else is the deviations which mark the Appalachian nation, namely an atavistic stringently role-based culture, from which Appalachians’ increased comfort with authoritarianism derives, and the development of an independent ethnic identity. The mainstream does not see itself as at all “ethnically American” — such a thing feels deeply and fundamentally alien to us.

To call oneself “ethnically American” implies there is a “real America”, i.e. an American nation in the anthropological sense, which in its turn implies that people who aren’t part of that nation are not and cannot ever be “real Americans”.*** But this is utterly contradictory with the creedal sense of identity that binds the rest of the American metanation! People with this worldview, which in the US are largely limited to Appalachians, share sensibilities with European nationalists, not their cousins elsewhere in the United States.

The Rise of Trump

A trend towards political populism and charismatic politicians (or at least politicians that were charismatic in their time) marks Appalachia. And, while the region was part of the Democrats’ Solid South until the civil rights movement brought about the collapse of the Progressive coalition, the Appalachian trend towards populism deeply fragmented the region even as the Southern Strategy recaptured Tidewater and the Deep South for Republicans. Bill Clinton, for example, made a career out of being charismatic during this fractured era — for a time, we could speak of Appalachians as being either progressive populist or regressive populist, depending on whether they hued left or right.

The development of the Big Tent, Mr. Clinton’s most lasting contribution to American politics, was arguably the progressive-populists’ high-water mark. Obama used it as the foundation of his governing coalition, and the Big Tent remains Hillary’s base.

However, even as it developed a strong national presence, the progressive-populist movement rapidly aged and died, replaced by an increasingly-solid regressive-populist Appalachia. Remember the execrable “real America” from above? Throughout this era, that phrase was used time and again — a dog whistle, as it turns out, meant to appeal to self-styled “ethnic American” Appalachians, but a phrase that the rest of us didn’t have the mental equipment to handle — if we are all immigrants’ descendants, then what the hell is a “real America”?

The post-Reagan Republican governing (or opposition when the Big Tent governed) coalition became fundamentally Southern and often focused on Texas.++ But this coalition was assembled in the late 1970s, right as Baby Boomers first came of age, and proved unable to recruit Gen X’ers in the ’90s or early 2000s or Millennials today. Because it was a direct outgrowth of racially tinged politics, the post-Reaganites were also unable to attract minority votes+++ and this lack of growth vectors in the formative period has led to the post-Reaganites steadily losing power as their poor white Southern^ base grew older and became increasingly important voices in the party, even as the Big Tent quite literally gobbled up all of the growth vectors.

Suddenly we see the Tea Party in a new light. It was a Republican watershed — the collapse of the post-Reaganite coalition as an internal rebellion, led by regressive populists and subsequently the charismatic politicians they put into power, scoured the coalition’s more moderate branches (the last remnants of the small-government Northeasterners that once formed the party’s core). There is enormous irony here: The post-Reagan coalition, like the Solid South before them, used the South as a votes engine to power the North’s opposition party into a position of dominance.

And so, as the Reaganites evolved into the post-Reaganites — that is, as the coalition’s center moved from the Northern opposition party to Texas politics — the party began to slowly strip away the Northern elements. The Tea Party was the point when the Republican Party transformed from a coalition itself governed by Northern or North-allied interests into a truly Southern party. Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat is part and parcel of this, as a Southern regional party is effectively toothless at the national level.

But the party has become fundamentally ideologically opposed to what they have to do to be relevant (i.e. redefine its values and principles). This is because the party’s post-Reaganite losses are also of those whose politics it needs most desperately to attract to become relevant once again — that is, libertarians (especially as it becomes increasingly clear that libertarianism vs. progressivism is the dominant Millennial ideological conflict), antimachine urban Northerners, and minorities — and neither their leadership nor their base has any appetite for developing an agenda that can appeal on a national level. Libertarian views conflict with social conservatives’ in culture wars and those same culture wars soured Northerners on the Republicans, and of course the whitewash is peeling and the racism (dressed up, once again, as nationalism) is quite visible.

A party rapidly losing clout while suffering internecine squabbles leading to a vacuum of leadership? For the first time, perhaps ever, in American history, an opportunity has arisen for a fascist politician — a charismatic playing on regressive-populism nationalism — to take the reins. Enter Trump, a man whose supporters (largely confined to Appalachia) revere for being a “brash outsider” and who literally everybody else sees as a dangerous, toxic windbag.

It’s also important to note that the Republicans’ leadership have consistently, and subtly, distanced themselves from Trump. They were even doing it at the RNC, the moment when the party is ostensibly supposed to unify behind a candidate. Major donors, such as the Koch brothers, have refused to fund Trump, instead focusing on downticket races. And then Trump gets involved …

But this is fundamentally the problem of the Republican Party. Trump is the voice of their base. Up to now, they had been able to find somebody bland enough to run nationally. Trump isn’t. Indeed, his immediate post-DNC meltdown shows a candidate disastrously unfit to be President. Americans will go to the polls in November and tell Trump “Fuck No” and he will implode in a Cheeto-colored financial apocalypse and it will be glorious.^^ But, in thirty years of wondering why they weren’t attracting new voters while stripping away every position new voters would be attracted to, the Republicans have also laid bare a path for other Trumps clear through to their base.

Because it is now clear what their base truly wants. It is ugly, it is authoritarian, it is nationalist, it is fascist, it is dark, and it is deeply and fundamentally the antithesis of what being an American means. And people are reacting exactly the way one would think they would to someone who is existentially opposed to what they believe, in their hearts, to be true.


* Some “grammarian” is inevitably going to whine about the concatenation of Greek and Latin roots. To which I respond: you do realize that “palfrey” comes from a Latin concatenation of Greek and Celtic roots, right? No? Go away, then.

** Generally out of Celtic ancestry. While Pentecostalism’s heartland is associated with the Appalachian nation, their ancestors mainly came from Scottish Presbyterian stock. For example, in the formative stage of the Appalachian nation, Presbyterian frontiersmen in Pennsylvania clashed with the established Quakers in the state’s historic core; the former are now part of the Appalachian nation.

*** This is, by the way, the root of Europe’s problems with Muslim immigrants. Les maghrebbiens cannot ever be French; Turkish immigrants cannot ever be German; their sensibilities are fundamentally alien to those of the — landed, recall; not creedal — French and German identities.

Similar lines showed in Brexit, which essentially amounted to Englishmen wanting to assert control over British identity, something the Scots and Northern Irish balked at so strongly that a full Brexit is all but guaranteed to include Scottish independence and lead to a coin flip over Northern Ireland’s fate.

The modern European metanation is still developing; unlike the American metanation, where the individual American nations develop out of different ideas of which metavalues are most important in different places (realized as local value systems), the modern European metanation must be fundamentally syncretic, a task made increasingly difficult by a new blossoming of European nationalism (some of which is known to be funded by Russians looking to destabilize their western neighbor).+

+ Incidentally, Russians don’t see themselves as “European” at all. Instead, they call themselves northern Eurasians, a region whose outline looks suspiciously similar to old USSR’s.

++ Texas is also a nation with its own unique ethnic identity. Texans (or at least the ones writing the tourist literature) understand this, however, and celebrate themselves for their apartness. (“Texas: It’s Like A Whole ‘Nother Country!”) This ability to celebrate one’s differences while still belonging is also a metanationally American trait, by the way; the reason why Appalachians get into trouble is because claiming an “American ethnicity” presumptively claims the right to speak for all of us when in reality they only speak for their own nation, Appalachia, and not the American metanation as a whole.

+++ Except for the Cubans, which largely defected to the Republicans when Mr. Clinton proposed easing relations with Castro’s Cuba (remember, they were and still are refugees from the Castro regime).

^ Something I don’t really draw attention to in this post is that the American metanation is actually a second-order metanation. (So is the modern European metanation.) Americans have long recognized the North-South split — those are first-order metanations. One can perhaps argue that Appalachia — a Southern nation — is so obsessed with claiming an American ethnic identity because it is also the furtherest removed nation from American metanational norm (related to the region spending 150 years — and counting! — as a buffer rather than a core), i.e. that Appalachia is now the least American American nation in terms of adherence to broader metanational norms.

^^ Hopefully.