Donald Trump and the O.J. Simpson playbook

Trump&OJ

Capping true stories with lies, a Trump mainstay, was central to the O.J. Simpson defense.

Donald Trump is coming to our Denver Lowry neighborhood today, to a rally at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum. Denver. A buddy of mine joked that we should maybe build a wall around the neighborhood. I said maybe we could get Stapleton (a neighborhood to the north) to pay for it.

I briefly considered signing up for tickets just to watch the show, the repressed reporter in me curious as to the scene and the people Trump attracts. But the novelist and shorts story writer George Saunders already did this, and his impressions and thoughts on the topic are gold-standard. My favorite line:

Above all, Trump supporters are “not politically correct,” which, as far as I can tell, means that they have a particular aversion to that psychological moment when, having thought something, you decide that it is not a good thought, and might pointlessly hurt someone’s feelings, and therefore decline to say it.

While Saunders does great reporting and is as insightful in this long-read nonfiction piece as he is in his short stories, neither he nor anyone else I’ve read seems to have pinpointed why some 50 million people are likely to actually vote for Donald Trump for president of the United States in November. So I’ll give it a shot here, with help benefactors to two killers — one fictional, one real-life — and the NRA.

Lee Child, the author of the Jack Reacher novels, puts us on the right track. In a recent, short piece having nothing to do with Donald Trump, he questioned whether the positives of our being such suckers for a good yarn outweighed the negatives (“Some would name us not Homo sapiens but Pan narrans: the storytelling ape,” Child writes):

Would Voyager be leaving the solar system if we hadn’t long ago formalized and mythologized our inchoate desire to wander?

But the bad things would not be happening, either. Every bad thing depends on the same two components as every good thing: people prepared to lie, and other people prepared to believe them. The habit of credulity, bred into us, albeit inspiring and empowering and emboldening, has led to some very bad outcomes throughout what we know of our history. From small things, like a father believing a son, to much larger things, like a billion miserable and terrified dead.

Which brings me to two terrified dead and the incredible story surrounding them, chronicled in the ESPN series, “O.J.: Made in America.” This five-part documentary is full of great stuff, but the recounting of the O.J. Simpson murder trial itself was most relevant to our political moment.

Here you have both components leading to Child’s “bad things.” There were people being prepared to lie — the Simpson defense team, which managed to cast doubt on overwhelming evidence (from wife-beating motive all the way to convincing blood-based DNA evidence) and help the man who once rushed for 2,003 yards in a single, 14-game NFL season beat a double-murder rap.

And you had people prepared to believe them — not just the jury, but also the African American public, some 70 percent of whom were convinced Simpson was innocent (roughly the same percentage of whites believed he was guilty; time has narrowed this gap, but it still remains). The defense team famously appealed to the black-majority jury’s experience with the LAPD’s historically ill treatment of African Americans, which we now know (see Black Lives Matter) is not confined to greater Los Angeles.

Johnnie Cochran, F. Lee Bailey, Kim Kardashian’s dad and the rest of the defense team were people prepared to lie — not in the specifics, as the police did mishandle evidence, Mark Furman did perjure himself and so on. But in spinning a yarn of O.J. Simpson as a victim of a civil-rights-abusing police conspiracy, they lied to the jury and, thanks to gavel-to-gavel CNN coverage, vast numbers of people prepared to believe them due to prior LAPD misdeeds and Simpson’s public image as charismatic sports hero.

The essence of the defense team’s success was taking a true story — a long history of police abuses against black people in Los Angeles — and mixing it with a fiction, which was that convicting O.J. Simpson would perpetuate these abuses. This was Cochran’s main message in a closing argument in which he infamously compared the L.A. police detective who had happened to come across Simpson’s blood-soaked glove to Adolph Hitler, the most murderous storyteller of them all. Cochran capped a truth with the lie that O.J. Simpson’s exoneration would somehow be a solution.

Which brings us to Trump. Trump no double murderer, but all signs point to his actual occupation of the Oval Office as a potential catastrophe for American democracy and U.S. foreign relations. His inadequacies in a U.S. presidential context are epic, and probably best delineated by the man who actually wrote “The Art of the Deal,” which turns out to be a work of fiction.

To return to Child’s framework, Trump is prepared to lie — about the true nature of the threats to the United States and our already formidable capabilities to counter them, about Ted Cruz’s father being complicit in the Kennedy assassination, about the viability of his insane policies (the Mexican-financed wall, the barring-of-Muslims, the dismantling of a 70-year-old NATO framework whose benefits to the United States vastly outweigh the costs), about his own background as a charitable giver (poor), about his own finances (tax returns).

And people are prepared to believe him. As the Simpson defense team did with the Los Angeles police force’s history of abuses of power and African American bodies, Trump does with the hollowing out of U.S. manufacturing and inexorable demographic change. Huge numbers of people are hurting and have few prospects to advance on low-paying service jobs for which they sometimes compete with immigrants willing to do our dirty work, the rich are getting richer, and the body politic has ignored them in favor of those wealthy enough to hire lobbyists and threaten attack ads. Enter Trump, who builds upon this truth the lie that he’s somehow the solution. Millions of people are buying it.

Yet Trump is vulnerable to another narrative reality, one nicely put by a vendor the National Rifle Association’s annual conference in May. The writer Evan Osnos describes a conversation with Tim Schmidt, founder of the U.S. Concealed Carry Association:

For several years, Schmidt had a sideline in packaging his sales techniques. He calls the approach “tribal marketing.” It’s based on generating revenue by emphasizing the boundaries of a community. “We all have the need to belong,” he wrote in a presentation entitled “How to Turn One of Mankind’s Deepest Needs Into Cold, Hard cash.” In a section called “How Do You Create Belief & Belonging?,” he explained, “You can’t have a yin without a yang. Must have an enemy.”

Schmidt is telling stories — lies, too, probably, given the data correlating gun ownership with gun deaths. But there’s a deeper truth to this, in that all good stories need villains who need vanquishing. For the Simpson defense team, it was the LAPD. For Trump, it’s the Chinese, the Muslims, the Mexicans and other “others.”

Trump and other populist/nativist demagogues vilify as a matter of course, and Trump is gifted at stoking and steering the ire of his tribe. But what Trump seems not to recognize is that, in so doing, he has shaped himself into an enemy — a yang for many yins — at least in the eyes of those who happen to disagree with his ignorant, pessimistic, dictatorial, black-and-white worldview.

It would be hard to see Jeb Bush or John Kasich as a true enemy, someone whose very persona invites hatred. With the conventions behind us, Trump, who has risen to the Republican nomination on a raft of lies floating along on a true story, may now feel the wrath of the very power of narrative he has so deftly exploited.

Brain Bar Budapest via blog posts

Brain Bar Budapest cover logo

An old friend of mine touched base a couple of months back, wondering if I’d like to do some writing for Brain Bar Budapest. My first question was: for Brain-what?

As freelancers tend to do, I said yes. They were looking for blog posts about the festival’s speakers – quick hits, mostly: some background, an interview, and (ideally) interesting copy.

I didn’t get to go to Brain Bar Budapest in early June, but they put on a great show, looks like. And I got to talk with (or email with), and then write a bit about, some fascinating and diverse people.

Among the posts included: writer and political analyst Virginia Postrel, on the essence and importance of glamour; the transhumanist presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan; Johns Hopkins University scientist Alex Szalay, whose work in big data (and astrophysics) is helping usher in the fourth paradigm of science; Gabriel Hallevy, a legal scholar on the potential dark side of the rise of robots; “Undercover Economist” Tim Harford; propaganda-and-science-fiction scholar Etienne Augé; Harvard machine learning PhD candidate Victoria Krakovna on the existential risk artificial intelligence may pose; Austrian ceramicist and humanity-archivist Martin Kunze; Malaysian-born entrepreneur Cheryl Yeoh; and MinecraftEdu cofounder Santeri Koivisto, among others.

 

 

 

 

$15 an hour is $5 a day (inflation adjusted)

Henry Ford

No less a business giant than Henry Ford was for the $15 movement (inflation adjusted) Photo Courtesy PBS.

While I’m personally all for a $15 minimum wage (economic theory be damned), I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it. But just now, I was chaining away, mentally speaking, and came upon an interesting comparison.

The initial trigger happened this morning. I had dropped off my younger daughter at school and swung by the local Albertson’s for vital purchases (bananas, strawberries, and Ovaltine, which has gone from a red-dominant (angry Ovaltine) to a blue-themed (tranquil Ovaltine) design) and noted on a window adjacent to the automatic doors a help-wanted sign, for cashiers (courtesy staff? some pleasant acronym). $9 an hour.

I have seen this sign before and had shuddered at it.

This evening, I was pondering my own questionable earning status when the sign re-boarded my drifting mind. I make more than $9 an hour, thank God.

And I thought: how does anybody get by on $9 an hour — that’s, what, $72 a day?

And then the idea of $5 a day struck me. I’m from Dearborn, Michigan, so things related to Ford have an odd sway.

$5 a day (I’m not following Associated Press style, here, for the record. Five dollars a day would be how you’d start a sentence in this case) is what Henry Ford, apparently unbidden, decided to pay even his least-skilled worker – the piston-counters, the engine-crankers, the coal-polishers, the tire taste-testers, all of them – five bucks a day, minimum.

Then I thought about the U.S. Department of Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Inflation Calculator and wonderered a) when it was that Henry Ford made that unbidden gesture and b) what $5 was worth, inflation-adjusted, back then.

 

This is unfortunately file art. I don't typically have such sums at my disposal.

This is unfortunately file art. I don’t typically have such sums at my disposal.

For a), a Google search of “Henry Ford $5 Day” yielded 1914; for b), the inflation calculator came back with $5 back then equating to $119.07 today.

Per an eight-hour day, that’s $14.88. Which is damn near $15.

And what I also learned, courtesy of The Henry Ford, (that incomparable, eclectic, museum/village in my hometown (I worked there in high school — a “Cart Guy” in period clothing, selling fruit/candy from a wooden deal like a Mormon might have shoved along his westward march)): Ford workers did nine-hour days back until that very moment, at which Henry also trimmed the workday to eight hours.

So no less a capitalist than Henry Ford was all for $15 an hour, too. #fightfor15 indeed.

 

Political voyeurs in New Hampshire, 16 years back

Political Voyeurs in New Hampshire, February 2000

Political Voyeurs in New Hampshire, February 2000

With the New Hampshire primary happening today, I figured it’s time to dust off some of the only presidential political reporting I’ve ever done (I covered George W. Bush’s visit to the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo., also).

It occurred 16 years ago, before I wrote for a living. I was in grad school at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University at the time, and had co-founded a digital student rag we called The Fletcher Ledger. It’s gone now; fletcherledger.com’s lead article, a placeholder, today reads: Hvordan at rydde plads på iPhone – Instant Svar.

It’s mostly a humor piece, but we did catch Steve Forbes, John McCain, Bill Bradley, and George W. Bush. The wrap-up’s kind of eerie. I didn’t have a digital camera at the time — shot film with a Nikon F7, then scanned and shrank them to dial-up-friendly size for posting with Microsoft Front Page 1998. I link here to capture it in its fully formatted glory.

 

My solar panels save their volume in coal every year

Stack of solar panels in a garage

Solar panels tend to generate substantially less electricity when in garages.

Given the success of the global climate talks in Paris, it’s time to post a hyper-local piece on our household’s greatest carbon-mitigation endeavor: our solar panels.

Specifically, I got a wild hair to compare the volume occupied by the stack of solar panels to the volume of the coal that wasn’t incinerated thanks to their non-garage-based efforts over the past five-plus years.

I can do this because, thanks to a wicked hailstorm in June, we needed a new roof, which in turn meant our solar panels had to come off temporarily. They’ve been off since late October now, collecting very little sunlight where I’d typically park in our two-car garage (Denver’s roof inspectors face a crazy backlog, which today’s ten inches of snow is not helping). But this allowed me to actually measure this block of solar panels and, out of curiosity, figure out how much coal they’ve spared.

Solar panels in garage

A garage is not known as an appropriate natural habitat for solar panels.

Our east-southeast-facing, 2.86 kilowatt system (thirteen 220-watt REC Solar modules) generated 20,597 kilowatt hours of electricity from the time it went live on July 21, 2010 through their removal on Oct. 14, 2015.

Local utility Xcel Energy’s 2014 fuel mix in Colorado was as follows:

18.90% wind
1.20% solar
1.70% hydro
0.00% biomass
52.70% coal
25.30% natural gas

Note wind number — big. Solar is way up from just a few years ago, too, but still a rounding error.

Focusing on coal, multiplying the kilowatt hours the panels generated by the percentage of coal in Xcel’s Colorado energy mix, the panels displaced 10,855 kilowatt hours of coal-fired electricity. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that it takes about 1.05 pounds of coal to generate one kilowatt hour of electricity, so that’s 11,374 pounds/5,170 kilograms/2.58 metric tons. (Note that, assuming coal is almost all carbon, burning it would amount to about 3.6 times that weight in carbon dioxide, thanks to the two Os hooking up with each of those liberated Cs).

Five cubic yards, in dirt form

Five cubic yards, in dirt form (courtesy Guins Yard)

Assuming 337 cubic centimeters of bituminous coal per pound (trust me), we get 135.4 cubic feet, or, thankfully, almost precisely 5 cubic yards of coal that wasn’t burned.

The panels themselves, stacked and parked in the garage, consume 1.07 cubic yards.

So: the panels have saved four times their volume in coal over their lifetime. They will, assuming they don’t degrade too much over their 20-year lifespan and that Xcel doesn’t continue to cut back on coal (this assumption, I hope, proves false) obviate their volume in burned coal — a cubic yard — every year they silently produce. That does’t count the roughly 10,000 cubic feet of natural gas they aren’t burning every year.

So good on ya, solar panels. And get on back up to the roof so I don’t have to keep scraping snow and ice from the car in the morning.

A couple of final notes:

  • I’m not sure if the EIA’s coal-to-electricity calculations include transmission and distribution losses or not. Looks like it accounts for about 6 percent of actual power generation in the United States, according to the World Bank.
  • The solar panels are not actually ours: they belong to Sunrun, which we pay $39 a month. This doesn’t count the $2,800 that vanished pretty much immediately after Sunrun’s IPO cratered from the $14-a-share at which we pre-IPO customers were so kindly offered to invest to the $7 range after hitting the NASDAQ (it has since rebounded somewhat). I find this a curious approach to building customer satisfaction, but the service itself has been great, and I still very much recommend them as a solar provider (just maybe not as an investment vehicle, but who knows).
  • Because Sunrun took ownership of the RECs (renewable energy credits) up front and most surely sold them to a utility who most likely used them as an excuse not to install renewable-energy capacity equal to that of our panels’ generation, it’s not clear that we technically saved any coal at all. (Because, the argument goes, had the utility not bought the RECs, it would have had to install its own renewable energy. But that’s a glass-half-empty view, isn’t it?)