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The Real Division in American Life Isn’t About Trump

Over at USA Today, Glenn Reynolds argues that America’s credentialed class—currently rending garments over every utterance of Donald Trump—underestimated just how bad things were before the Donald took office:

To the privileged and well-educated Americans living in their “bicoastal bastions,” things seemed to be going quite well, even as the rest of the country fell farther and farther behind.  But, writes Eberstadt: “It turns out that the year 2000 marks a grim historical milestone of sorts for our nation. For whatever reasons, the Great American Escalator, which had lifted successive generations of Americans to ever higher standards of living and levels of social well-being, broke down around then — and broke down very badly.” […]

In fact, while America was losing wars abroad and jobs at home, elites seemed focused on things that were, well, faintly ridiculous. As Richard Fernandez tweeted: “The elites lost their mojo by becoming absurd. It happened on the road between cultural appropriation and transgender bathrooms.” It was fatal: “People believe from instinct. The Roman gods became ridiculous when the Roman emperors did. PC is the equivalent of Caligula’s horse.”

The basic division in American politics today is not over the merits of President Trump. Many of those who voted for him believed that he lacked the moral grounding and gravitas that great Presidents must ultimately draw on. The division is between those who think that, before Trump, things were going just fine and the American elite was doing an excellent job and those who blame the rise of Trump on the failures and blindness of the so-called “meritocratic elite” who, they would argue, have been running the country into the ground.

In foreign policy, the United States has had two failed presidencies in a row. Our grand strategy of domesticating China into the world order by offering it an unprecedented opportunity to grow rich through low-wage manufacturing exports has hurt American workers without democratizing or reconciling China. Presidents Bush and Obama thought that the democratization of the Middle East would and could solve the terrorism problem—and so did their degreed and esteemed advisers and the commentariat.

Domestically, our leadership elite has watched passively as infrastructure decays, state and local pension systems accumulate unsustainable debt loads, the national debt inexorably climbs, and the social capital of the nation erodes.

There was no sign from the Clinton campaign that anybody understood that the nation’s path was unsustainable. The Clinton campaign was about “more of the same.”

The Trump voters were right that the nation needs change and that the “best and the brightest” are failing the nation the way they did during the Vietnam War; the Clinton voters were right that on the whole the Trump team lacks the skills and the temperament to run the country. Glenn Reynolds is right that this isn’t just another example of partisan gridlock. It is a danger to the stability of the United States political system.

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  • lukelea

    Good piece. Especially putting Clinton’s failure vis-a-vis China on a par with Bush’s failure in the Middle East.

    • Gary Hemminger

      Good comment. You are clearly a reasonable person that thinks with your head.

    • LarryD

      At least he’s picking competent military personnel to advise him on security issues.

  • Disappeared4x

    The bi-partisan elites live in echo chambers of their own design, clinging to their mountains of words spun out of post-industrial post-modern nano-tech spider webs. The REAL heart of America’s problem is the false caricature believed by “…the Clinton voters were right that on the whole the Trump team lacks the skills and the temperament to run the country. ”

    Must be same voters who believe transgender bathroom access is ‘the great civil rights issue of our era’, paraphrasing former AG Lynch.

    • Tom

      The team he’s collecting might have it. I’m not sure if he does.

      • Disappeared4x

        The “skills” to get stuff done must seem foreign to those who believe in having “conversations”, always demanding apologies while hypocritically flinging deplorable labels at dissent. Helps to see “temperament” differently after reading Caro’s trilogy on LBJ, let alone observing the stifling trend to favor style over substance.

        Perhaps destroying the plague of Political Correctness by tweeting it back at the SJWhypocrites will take more time.

        • Tom

          Think very carefully about what happened to the USA under LBJ.

          • Disappeared4x

            LBJ, the prequel to Obama’s 2nd term? Apologies for not being brave enough to post that POTUS Trump’s “temperament” is just fine. First time I can listen to a POTUS, and relax, and smile. The false caricature of him is the problem.

            Never got past my impression of then-Senator Clinton in 2008 (copied from google):
            Mar 19, 2008 – During Petraeus’ confirmation hearing, Mrs. Clinton spent more than eight minutes ranting at him and never asked a single question.

            I still remember that hearing, because Petraeus was visibly shrinking in his chair under the verbal harangue of a posturing politician.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Your point about Trump’s temperament is spot on target.The man is crude, oafish even, but his behavior as an executive strikes me as entirely reasonable. Certainly he inspires more confidence than the infantile narcissism that was Obama’s trademark.

            Regarding HRC, I have met the woman on several occasions, and I assure you, she is every bit as unpleasant (possibly more unpleasant) than the incident that you describe.

          • Disappeared4x

            He is a genuinely happy man.
            Excels at visual communication. Just made Sen. McCain happy, with McMaster as NSA.
            HRC? C-Span. Watched it again, after reading NY, 2008.
            and, what Jackson_Libertarian wrote above.

          • Andrew Allison

            It boggles the mind (mine, anyway) that there’s not broader recognition of what an utterly despicable human being she is.

          • f1b0nacc1

            It doesn’t even surprise me. The media long ago bought into her narrative, and the Clintons are well known for their viciousness when it comes to revenge, so I am not surprised to see most of them (the media) avoiding any real discussion of her failings.

            Finally, there is Democratic tribalism to contend with. I am sure that if Hitler ran as a Democrat, we could count upon FG to be telling us about this non-drinking, non-smoking, vegetarian who was a talented painter (an entire apartment…two coats! in one afternoon) in his spare time.

          • Andrew Allison

            Off topic, but I’ve seen two articles this week stating, in effect, that NATO’s mission ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and that it’s obsolete. Thee may be hope.

          • f1b0nacc1

            It cannot come quickly enough for me.

            I lived in DC for about 15 years, and there is a wonderful monument to the way government works there that tens of thousands of people drive past every day. Very near the Pentagon there are a cluster of old barracks buildings, which were ‘temporary structures’ built while the Pentagon was being constructed. They were (as of 2005, at least) still there, still being used by the DOD. My point is that once a bureaucracy starts doing ANYTHING, they rarely give it up, even when its purpose (and utility) is long past.

          • Andrew Allison

            Exactly. And NATO is a poster child for this.

          • Jim__L

            Honestly, I admire them for using the old barracks buildings still. If our universities showed that kind of thrift, education expenses would not be running away like they are.

          • Tom

            Oh yes, I agree that Clinton lacks the temperament as well. That was never a question except among people who’d spent too long in DC.

      • ——————————

        “I’m not sure if he does.”

        He doesn’t need to…he just needs the vision….

  • RedWell

    This is a broadly useful insight, but talking about “the leadership elite” is not. It does not specify which beliefs, which interests and which networks are the issue. It just claims that “they” are the problem, not “us.” Surely a country of 318 million people, unless it is an oligarchy, has something less than a coherent cabal at the top.

    In addition, what exactly is the problem? Economic growth is fine; foreign policy is middling, but come on, it’s not like the 1930s or the Vietnam era; infrastructure is a problem that needs to be addressed by someone with a vision, but it’s not calamitous.

    Most likely, growing wealth inequality and, more to the point, wealth and wage stagnation for the bottom 2/3. It’s true, no one has a clear answer for those.

    So, what are the solutions? Enough with the apologetics for our populist revolt. What are the solutions? Seems to me that half the problem is that while VM and others criticize the “blue model,” they just fall back on the same old left/right squabbling points.

    • Eurydice

      Well, I think it’s a problem that we’ve spent a trillion dollars on various wars in the Middle East and have nothing positive to show for it. And I can’t see how economic growth can be “fine” if it isn’t fine for the bottom 2/3’s – that’s 66% of the country that isn’t fine.

      • RedWell

        Yeah, that’s what I said: growth is happening (it is “fine” if we leave out how it is distributed), but it is not benefiting the majority.

  • Proud Skeptic

    I find Trump fascinating on many levels. Can’t stand the tweets. The “enemy of the people” tweet was completely unacceptable…worse than when Obama referred to people like me as “the enemy” in 2010.
    On the other hand, he is doing exactly what he was hired to do. This is the first presidency where I had in my head a “to do” list at the beginning. Previously, I simply had general hopes for a successful presidency and a desire that things get pushed to the right…if only a little. But this time, I have a list…and Trump has already knocked more things off the list that I would have expected in six months.
    I have found that I have developed an attitude of rigid compartmentalization. There is the accomplishments compartment. There is the Constitutional compartment…will he try to do as his predecessor did and run roughshod over the Constitution to suit his own purposes? And there is the personal compartment. Here is where he hasn’t scored any points with me. Maybe being obnoxious is the only way at this point…after all, does anyone think that after beating Hillary by the Electoral College either the Democratic Party or the press were ever going to give him one tiny bit of credit or leeway? Nope.
    So…I will soothe my cringes with celebration over approved pipelines, a Defense Secretary who already went and told NATO to pony up, a serious immigration policy based on law, and many, many other things. In the meantime…there will be no wiggle room whatsoever on playing fast and loose with our Constitution. I’ve had eight years to learn to recognize what that looks like. I didn’t accept it from Obama and won’t accept it from Trump. May God give me the courage of my convictions.

    • Gary Hemminger

      Very good and reasonable statement Proud Skeptic. I agree with you 100%. I don’t like Trump one bit. He is really wierd. But more of the same with Clinton and the left wing progressive loonies just wasn’t in the cards. I didn’t vote for either, but I am happy the progressives lost. I am a Democrat who is watching my party dissolve. If they put Ellison in as DNC chair, that will be the last straw for me.

      The progressives went way too far. And the media is absolutely no check or balance on their behavior. The media dug themselves into their hole and their behavior has allowed Trump to play his games. Anyone that didn’t see that their applauding Obama and ridiculing everything the Republicans did was going to boomerang back on them is very short sighted. The media is now useless. Basically 99% of the stuff I hear from or through the media I discount almost completely.

      Here are a list ridiculous things that progressives and elites have done to act like the last days of a dying culture…

      1. Open borders and sanctuary cities are their answer to immigration (building walls and deporting all illegal aliens isn’t the answer either)
      2. You get to pick your own gender (give me a break)
      3. Social justice replaces growth as the guiding principal of our economy
      4. Fossil fuels are evil, as are Americans
      5. Identity politics drives everything (they really didn’t see that white people would eventually become another victimized identity group?)
      6. Global warming is our biggest security threat

      I could on and on, but the fact is that current progressives are on a suicide mission. Their elite media, entertainment, sports, finance, and political masters have sent their party into the wilderness. They will never come out because they are in denial.

      • Proud Skeptic

        Thanks. I figure a lot of people are going through the same thing I am.

        I DID vote for Trump but only because I live in RI and my vote wasn’t going to count, anyway. My rationale was to close Hillary’s winning margin by one vote.

        I haven’t written Trump off by any means. I mean…WHAT a cabinet! Tillerson, Mattis…How about Gorsuch? Any man who can identify talent like this should not be written off.

        And, you can’t argue with results…even if so far it is on executive orders.

        In the meantime, there is alcohol.

        • Disappeared4x

          There is always a dose of sanity from Victor Davis Hanson, in case you run out of alcohol, or cranberries:

          “Seven Days in February” by Victor Davis Hanson February 20, 2017 7:31 PM

          “…Trump’s efforts to return politics to the center — enforce existing laws, complete previously approved projects, rein in government regulations and growth, recalibrate U.S. alliances to reflect current realities, unapologetically side with friends and punish enemies — were viewed as revolutionary rather than as a return to conventionality, in part because they threatened status quo careers and commerce. Trumpism is more or less akin to the Gingrich-Clinton compromises of the early 1990s or to what Reagan often did rather than what he sometimes said.
          But what was then bipartisan and centrist today appears revolutionary and nihilistic. …”

          Dr. Hanson is an historian who really cuts through the insanity.

          • Proud Skeptic

            Hanson is one of my favorites. Thanks.

          • Disappeared4x

            Dr. Hanson’s superb “The End of Identity Politics” essay from Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas blog is reposted today at The Federalist, which means, let the commenting begin:

    • QET

      I agree with your gist but pressing political differences cannot nor should not be buried beneath a host of minced words claiming to be “civil discourse,” not when those who wail that phrase the loudest are the very ones who violate it at every turn. The rhetoric must fit the times. What Trump said about the media organizations he called out is simply the truth. Glenn Reynolds has for a long time quipped of these media organs: “just think of them as Democratic operatives with bylines and it all makes sense.” This statement and Trump’s are essentially the same, only one is more clever than the other.

      As for “playing fast and loose with the Constitution,” please give an example as I am unable to discover any so far. As for “personal compartment,” that is a matter of aesthetics and each beholder can make his own judgment, but frankly he seems to me so far to be cut from the same braggadocio cloth as Teddy Roosevelt.

      • Proud Skeptic

        Trump has not yet played fast and loose with the Constitution and my remarks did not indicate that he had. Quite the contrary, in his one opportunity to come up against a Federal judge he specifically obeyed the ruling.
        That said…should he ever change and defy the Constitution, he will have lost my support. Like I said…I saw enough of that under Obama to know what it looks like.

        • equsnarnd

          And yet, in complying with that judge instead of telling him to go pound sand, he has behaved against the Constitution which clearly delineates the power of a President in matters immigration and calls the area off limits to Federal Appellate court review. They have no business ruling on this matter and he should have ignored it and let them take it to the Supreme Court if they must. But the Constitution is clear on whose authority is paramount here and the court has usurped Executive authority. I think it was a huge mistake for him to comply.

          • Proud Skeptic

            On the contrary. The EO was entirely too flawed to defend effectively. It is being written in accordance with the guidance received from the court. Once that happens, if the court chooses to fight it, then they will be on much weaker ground. Trump is doing the right thing here. He gets credit from me for that.

          • CapitalHawk

            Proud Skeptic is generally correct that the EO was doomed to failure. I want the EO to go into effect, but I read the 9th Circuit’s opinion and they were generally correct, especially on the due process claim. Trump jumped the gun – haste makes waste – but we will get an effective EO soon (I hope).

          • Martin Johnson

            Yes, but given the large number of judicial appointments that Trump will get to make, not just Sup Ct but in the Districts and Circuits (and no more filibusters at the lower levels thanks to Reid), maybe the best thing to do is not to get in a pissing contest where everybody gets wet, but to consistently make judicial appointments to rectify the balance that Obama and Clinton, and to an extent the two squishy Bushes, skewed left.

            Plus, he can save about 75% of the original EO by fixing a few things that were probably over-reach in the first place. This is not (yet) the hill to fight and maybe die on.

    • bashg

      Sorry, the media has become the American Peoples enemy, and is very definitely, not rooting for the success of the American People. Rather, they work toward a fantasy of “Global Citizens”, no borders, US Constitutional Rights for the entire World. If you’ve read your New Testament, you will remember Matthew 12:30, “He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters”.

      Admittedly, we are not Jesus, but I think what he was saying caries over, doesn’t it?

      • Proud Skeptic

        You are entitled to your opinion, of course. The press is out of control. Whether Trump should have said what he said is the debatable point. I think he had them in the press conference and didn’t need to take that extra step.

        • equsnarnd

          I think he needed to say it to give it the perspective it deserves. The Press is awash in self-righteousness thinking they are opposing a President, who by their lights, isn’t qualified. But they are opposing the 60+ million people who voted for him, who want him as President, who elected him in a fair election [other than the illegal votes for Clinton]. That needs saying. It’s not just me that you’re mistreating but the people who voted for me. The press does not have the truth as their guide but how much they can damage him as their guide. No matter how much I disliked the Marxist Obama, I would not tolerate lies to bring him down. But this press and many of the people that voted for Clinton seem to be just fine and dandy with any means possible.

          • Proud Skeptic

            I give the President significant leeway in this regard. Let us all hope he doesn’t overplay his hand.

    • Billygoat

      Love the tweet, the press is the enemy.

      • Proud Skeptic

        To each his own.

  • Anthony

    Elites, Populists, or something all together different:

    “Donald Trump’s surprise election win dramatizes how weak the party system in the United States has become….The attack on ‘establishment’ ((Elite) Republicans that helped fuel Trump’s bid presupposed that such a group existed and was strong enough to impose its views…In reality, a true party (elite) establishment hasn’t existed for decades….”

  • Frank Natoli

    the Clinton voters were right that on the whole the Trump team lacks the skills and the temperament to run the country.
    Yes, of course, when the “Trump team” does ANYTHING contrary to running the country into a socialist pit, that would be “lacking the skills and temperament”. Right. What a pathetic bunch of baloney.

    • Boritz

      Yes, based on how he is doing what he promised and how quickly he is doing it and in his spare time handling the press in a way that had become absolutely necessary while being completely unprecedented the whole lacks skills and temperment argument comes across as so 2016.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “the Clinton voters were right that on the whole the Trump team lacks the skills and the temperament to run the country.”

    No, they weren’t. Trump is the most Successful and Talented executive to take office in my lifetime. He has spent over a decade teaching executive skills on his “The Apprentice” TV show, where mistakes get you fired. Unlike Crooked Hillary, Trump’s temperament has never degenerated into immature screaming, crying, and throwing fits like Hillary’s (most recently on election night). What’s more, he is moving at the speed of Business to make good on his campaign promises. Completely dispelling any of his voters worries that he would be just another backstabbing Establishment Politician. Finally, the team Trump is putting together is filled with skilled and experienced people that have made names for themselves.

    Instability? What’s the left going to do? Trump and the Right own the American political system at all levels (Democrats lost 1,200 seats in 8 years, kicked into the gutter). The US Active Duty Military personnel voted 3 to 1 for Trump (leftists demanding a military coup are maniacally delusional). And if that’s not enough Power! The American Right spent the last 8 years purchasing 125 million new guns, and burning so much gunpowder there’s been an ammo shortage the whole time. A Civil War between the Right and the Left that started at 9:00 am, would be over by High Noon, as the gun control Leftists failed to arrive at a gunfight with any…. guns.

    • LarryD

      We’re going to have to repeal the Civil Service Act (Epic Fail, the CS was supposed to be non-political) and flush out the Deep State. Wholesale abolition of agencies while we’re at it. Even Obama’s administration confessed it’s too complex to manage.

      Bad as the Spoils System was, it was better than this. At least the Bureaucracy got flushed every time the White House changed parties.

  • FriendlyGoat

    The “bicoastal bastions” are fine with Trump. The trading wealth in New York and the tech wealth in California are both to be substantially (substantially) increased. Those falling behind in between these places will be falling further behind over the next few years. Why? Because the economic prescriptions now contemplated are the same ones undertaken in 2001 when the Great American Escalator needed a tune-up and instead got a load of Republican sand dumped into the whole mechanism.

    • Jim__L

      No, the California “bicoastal bastion” isn’t fine with Trump. They’re still up in arms.

      Evidence beats narrative, FG.

      • Makaden

        Or, they could be fine (privately) and not-fine (publicly): cake/eating it. Me suspects the latter.

        • Jim__L

          Having your cake and resenting it too? Yeah, I can see that as the optimal state for some of them.

      • FriendlyGoat

        The ones you like the least are going to be enriched the most.

        • Jim__L

          We’ll see.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Yes, indeed.

  • GS

    Well, the whole 2016 could be summed as “enough obamery”. Two words.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Rather than the drumbeat of this website that Pres. Trump is not qualified to be president by virtue of his temperament one should study the Roman Emperor as Richard Fernandez cites above. However, not the degenerate Caligula falsely depicted in liberal Hollywood movies and tabloid novels.

    Caligula wasn’t a debauched ruler who had incest with his sister, turned his palace into a brothel, forced others to worship him as a god, and was a megalomanias mad man. That image comes from the paid propagandists of the Roman Senate Suetonius, Seneca and Josephus, who were Caligula’s enemies. Why did the Roman Senate and its paid propagandists and sophists hate Caligula? Because he changed the status quo and used ill-temperate speech and double talk.

    Caligula restored free speech, he decentralized Roman government from one man rule and gave back some power to the Roman Senate, he increased pay to the Roman military, he reinstated elections, he allowed the poorer Plebians to attend chariot races (which he participated in), and he mocked the conspicuous luxury of the Patricians. And Caligula built a palace for his horse who was doted upon by servants to ridicule how the Roman Senate had only become concerned with their own luxuries and patronage.

    More importantly, he used what historians Aloys Winterling and Mary Beard call satiric “double talk”. As Mary Beard writes in her “Confronting the Classics”:

    “the politics of Empire were founded on double-speak as much as on military force; no one said exactly what they meant, or meant exactly what they said…successful emperors after Augustus were those who managed to exploit and double speak and turn it to their advantage; the unsuccessful were those who fought against it. Caligula’s predecessor, Tiberius, ‘never grew into’ the role. He took it all at face value, refused to master the game of ‘ambiguous communication, and in the process repeatedly revealed the autocratic reality underneath the carefully constructed democratic veneer of the Augustan system…Ultimately, relations between the emperor and the traditional governing class broke down so badly Tiberius spent his last decade of his reign on the island of Capri, governing Rome from a distance…”.

    The divide in the US is not over Trump’s temperamental speech. Are those who oppose Trump the modern day equivalent of the propagandists against Caligula? Civility of speech and behavior won’t save the republic because that was thrown out the window with the Obama Administration. Civil speech will be restored when the rule of law is restored.

  • It’s not even just about the USA. Post-1945 globalist liberalism with its Atlantic Charters, intricate network of transnational influences, worldwide trade and diplomacy, its soft power, its NGOs, intersecting jurisdictions and regional bodies, is exhausted. The underlying truth about it all the time was: it relied on American military power. But the Americans could not hold it. Their commitment eroded. They swapped conscription for a professional military, in the hope of blunting public dislike of war, but then the professional army and its wars have also been delegitimized. The elites declared politics itself a morality play made of privileged and underprivileged, rather than a chaotic match of conflicting wills that may be mediated by military force. Even a limited professional army that fights pinpointed battles against known perpetrators is now colonialism.The superstructure has killed the infrastructure. The result is not a rational turn to people power and civic commitment. It is instead the farce, the rowdy burlesque, the charivaris, the finger-in-your-eye, backside-in-your-face of Donald Trump, alt-right, Pegida and White identity politics. There is no obligation to democracy anymore. Both left and right are bankrupt. The world is empty.

  • bashg

    I’m really getting tired of this kind of statement: “Many of those who voted for him (Trump) believed that he lacked the moral
    grounding and gravitas that great Presidents must ultimately draw on.”

    Compared to whom, exactly? The great Moral Stalwart Obama? W? Bubba? GHW ? Carter? Even Reagan was considered morally bankrupt, an idiot, by the media for his entire two terms.

    These writers and pundits need a long, quiet time of self-reflection (if they are even capable at this point). They are not our moral or ethical betters.

  • equsnarnd

    Interesting but it gets two things wrong, very wrong. 1. it is not an elite of meritocracy but an elite of pull. It’s who you know not what you can do and the elites referred to are mostly (99%) politicians and academics. Two groups not known for being able to ‘do’ anything. Merit is based on doing in the real world, not on test taking ability. And 2. We don’t know if the Trump team is unable to govern. They, so far, have been undermined by the elites of the last administration. Other than that I pretty much agree.

  • Is it just me, or is the actual division in our country really just; one side believes in the ability of America / Americans… and one side doesn’t?

  • Robert Burke

    Prog Presidents: Johnson-Nixon-Ford-Carter (JNFC) almost ruined the country… until 1776-Tragic-Liberty Reagan gave eight years of respite, but boy did the Prog Elites really, really hate that! Then Prog Presidents Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama (BCBO) did their ruination tango! The real war has been Progressives ruining everything they touch (reverse-Midas-all-the-time.)

    The answer is to defund Prog Ed in K-12, university and grad schools; replacing the anti-brain and anti-republic pedagogy with Western Enlightenment. Now, the Prog Elites want us to cheer as they try to destroy 1776-Tragic-Liberty Trump. They are playing with fire.

    • Phil Harrell

      That’s the Dem’s stranglehold on low income voters, change the curriculum along with vouchers and they’ll lose the black vote.

  • VictorErimita

    The Trump administration is all of a month old. Where is the evidence that it lacks the skills and temperament to govern? Trump has been pretty even tempered and even voiced, on the whole. He is trying to execute the things he was elected to do. The lack of temperament is among Democrats, hysterical and/or paid demonstrators, and especially the media, which lies, exaggerates and deliberately misleads the public about every action and every utterance made by anyone in the administration.

  • Rich Knudsen

    Frankly I think Walter is selling the Trump team short but I have always had issues with historians who NEVER offer solutions to the problems they feel they are qualified to point out to everyone else in the room.

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