Publisher's Note — November 3, 2018, 12:02 am

All Bets Are Off

“I recommend neither the assertions of journalists and pollsters nor big headlines about terror attacks, murders, or caravans of desperate people as a basis for predicting the outcome of the midterm elections.”

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on November 3, 2018. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

When Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, I swore that I would never again make electoral predictions. No, I don’t belong to that group of elite journalists and pollsters who were wrong about the probability that Hillary Clinton would win the election. On the contrary, I predicted out loud—in an MSNBC broadcast on September 21, 2015—that she would be defeated.

But the Republican I thought would beat Mrs. Clinton was Jeb Bush, whom I considered his party’s presumptive candidate. A battle between two dynasties conformed to my theory of a system dominated by an impervious oligarchy. There was no possibility, I thought, that Trump could breach the walls of the Bush family stronghold or that Bernie Sanders could prevail against the Clintons’ crony-capitalist influence. When all was said and done, the Republican machine turned out to be less powerful than the Democratic machine, which spit out Sanders like a fishbone.

But the Trump-Clinton race was an eye-opener. Because I had firsthand familiarity with the anti-Clinton anger of blue-collar workers and small businessmen in the Midwest after eighteen years of reporting on the subject, I realized there was a chance that Trump, with his anti-China and anti-NAFTA rhetoric, might beat Clinton, closely linked as she was to the “free-trade” agreements pushed by her husband and President Obama. Trump’s incredible breakthrough—the triumph of a vulgar crook—followed its own logic for millions of people frustrated by politicians who never stopped advocating “the new economy” and “the jobs of the future.” For them, cities and towns devastated by industrial relocation were the current reality, and so Trump was able to draw them into his fairy tale of instantaneous wealth.

Nevertheless, I believed in the idea of the respectable, well-to-do Republican who would serve as a safeguard against Trump. I grew up with such people in the northern suburbs of Chicago. The Republicans of my childhood, conservative Protestants, showed their pride not only in their professional and business success but also in their integrity, their civic engagement, and their moral conduct. They were people who would have refused someone like Trump admission to their private clubs. Such a loud buffoon—and, to top it all, on his third marriage, this one to a foreigner with a dubious past—is not the ideal member to present to one’s wife in the club salon or in the bar after a round of golf with potential clients. Trump purchases and creates “prestigious” clubs—for example, Mar-a-Lago—precisely in order to avenge himself on the sort of well-heeled Republican who treated him as a rude and corrupt self-promoter.

On the evening of November 9, 2016, when I went to the studios of France Inter and participated in panels for France Télévisions, I was convinced that the “decent people” of the Republican Party would vote in great numbers for Hillary Clinton, out of simple disgust for Donald Trump. After all, the background of the young Hillary Rodham, the daughter of a small-business owner, qualified her as one of their own: the Rodham family, from one of Chicago’s northwestern suburbs, had followed the standard of the right-wing purist Barry Goldwater for the entire length of his disastrous 1964 campaign against the Democratic incumbent, Lyndon Johnson. One could believe that Mrs. Clinton, though she spoke “liberal” and “feminist” words, was a candidate with the soul of a conservative. A candidate who, moreover, had always favored her husband’s center-right politics.

Damn, was I wrong! According to polls cited by the New York Times, only 7 percent of self-proclaimed Republicans voted for Clinton. When North Carolina went to Trump, I began to realize that Republicans weren’t going to save the nation, that the suburban kids of my childhood, now adults, had betrayed me.

In any event, I recommend neither the assertions of journalists and pollsters nor big headlines about terror attacks, murders, or caravans of desperate people as a basis for predicting the outcome of the midterm elections. You’d do better to see Fahrenheit 11/9, Michael Moore’s most recent film. There you will observe politicians at their most cynical and assess how far they’re willing to go to dupe the electorate. Except that, in Moore’s movie—which is for the most part anti-Trump—the most surprising swindle is pulled off by Barack Obama, after he had declared a state of emergency in Flint, Michigan in 2016. There’s a sort of masquerade, in which the president demonstrates his alleged solidarity with the victims by taking a sip of filtered tap water. But in the close-up, it’s clear that Obama doesn’t swallow that sip. Flint’s impoverished residents were terribly disappointed by Obama’s stunt, as well as by the lack of federal aid, which seriously lowered Democratic turnout in a key city in a swing state.

For the gamblers among you, hedge your bets before Tuesday. Ordinary people know better than to put all their money on one number.

Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note October 9, 2018, 11:53 am

Trading on Resentment

“The ‘free trade’ policies championed by US leaders from Reagan to Obama, most definitely including the Clintons, have produced many victims.”

Publisher's Note August 21, 2018, 1:53 pm

The Illusion Train

“French ‘solidarity’ was looking decidedly less solid than it had the previous day.”

Publisher's Note July 11, 2018, 11:08 am

The Enemy Within

“Obama [and nostalgia for him] is still running the risk of suffocating reform and encouraging the reelection of Donald Trump.”

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Combustion Engines·

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
Rebirth of a Nation·

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Donald Trump’s presidency signals a profound but inchoate realignment of American politics. On the one hand, his administration may represent the consolidation of minority control by a Republican-dominated Senate under the leadership of a president who came to office after losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots. Such an imbalance of power could lead to a second civil war—indeed, the nation’s first and only great fraternal conflagration was sparked off in part for precisely this reason. On the other hand, Trump’s reign may be merely an interregnum, in which the old white power structure of the Republican Party is dying and a new oppositional coalition struggles to be born.

Illustration by Taylor Callery (detail)
Blood Money·

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Over the past three years, the city of South Tucson, Arizona, a largely Latino enclave nestled inside metropolitan Tucson, came close to abolishing its fire and police departments. It did sell off the library and cut back fire-truck crews from four to three people—whereupon two thirds of the fire department quit—and slashed the police force to just sixteen employees. “We’re a small city, just one square mile, surrounded by a larger city,” the finance director, Lourdes Aguirre, explained to me. “We have small-town dollars and big-city problems.”

Illustration by John Ritter (detail)
The Tragedy of Ted Cruz·

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When I saw Ted Cruz speak, in early August, it was at Underwood’s Cafeteria in Brownwood. He was on a weeklong swing through rural central Texas, hitting small towns and military bases that ensured him friendly, if not always entirely enthusiastic, crowds. In Brownwood, some in the audience of two hundred were still nibbling on peach cobbler as Cruz began with an anecdote about his win in a charity basketball game against ABC’s late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. They rewarded him with smug chuckles when he pointed out that “Hollywood celebrities” would be hurting over the defeat “for the next fifty years.” His pitch for votes was still an off-the-rack Tea Party platform, complete with warnings about the menace of creeping progressivism, delivered at a slightly mechanical pace but with lots of punch. The woman next to me remarked, “This is the fire in the gut! Like he had the first time!” referring to Cruz’s successful long-shot run in the 2011 Texas Republican Senate primary. And it’s true—the speech was exactly like one Cruz would have delivered in 2011, right down to one specific detail: he never mentioned Donald Trump by name.

Cruz recited almost verbatim the same things Trump lists as the administration’s accomplishments: the new tax legislation, reduced African-American unemployment, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. But, in a mirror image of those in the #Resistance who refuse to ennoble Trump with the title “president,” Cruz only called him that.

Photograph of Ted Cruz © Ben Helton (detail)
Wrong Object·

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e is a nondescript man.

I’d never used that adjective about a client. Not until this one. My seventeenth. He’d requested an evening time and came Tuesdays at six-thirty. For months he didn’t tell me what he did.

The first session I said what I often said to begin: How can I help you?

I still think of what I do as a helping profession. And I liked the way the phrase echoed down my years; in my first job I’d been a salesgirl at a department store counter.

I want to work on my marriage, he said. I’m the problem.

His complaint was familiar. But I preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer.

It’s me, he said. My wife is a thoroughly good person.

Yawn, I thought, but said, Tell me more.

I don’t feel what I should for her.

What do you feel?

Photograph © Joseph S. Giacalone (detail)

Average life span, in years, of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon:


Researchers in California succeeded in teaching genetically engineered E. coli bacteria to communicate using a new chemical “language”; the research aims at turning cells into tiny robots.

Theresa May’s Brexit proposal was rejected; Trump suggested raking to prevent forest fires; Jair Bolsonaro insulted Cuban doctors working in Brazil

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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