Among the odder stories of the 2016 election cycle so far has been Louis CK’s recent email blast urging fans not to vote for Donald Trump.

720x405-GettyImages-117439777Did you know Louis CK has a new show, by the way? He’s self released it–it’s called Horace and Pete, and you can only get it through his website. Someone around the Mbird blogger crew will get to it eventually, especially since our previous profiles of Louis CK’s material have been cautiously approving. And! he co-leads the show with Steve Buscemi, which sounds incredible.

So if you’re on Louis CK’s email list, you’d have received an update that episode 6 of Horace and Pete is available and an earnest post-script plea not to vote for Donald Trump. Yes, Louis invokes the Hitler boogeyman, and compares the U.S. to 1930’s Germany, which may or may not be accurate. It’s also true that he might have leveraged the publicity to draw traffic to Horace and Pete, though the tone of his plea was sincere enough to cast doubt on that hermeneutic of suspicion. You can read the whole letter over at Variety, if you’d like.

For our purposes, I’m less concerned about the content of the email as I am with its very existence: Why does Louis CK think any of his email subscribers are Trump voters to begin with? Perhaps I’m off on this, and I will stand for correction if I need to, but I just can’t see that many Trump voters signing up for Louis CK’s email newsletter. The demographic of the FX audience doesn’t seem like fertile ground for Making America Great Again. A stereotype it may be, but if Trump voters are watching stand-up comedy, it’s probably going to be the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, and there’s no problem with that difference in taste. What we’re learning through the polls is that Trump voters, profiled, tend to be white, not wealthy, generally not college educated, struggling financially, and feeling politically disenfranchised. I can’t imagine that Louis CK’s target audience overlaps with the voter base he’s trying to influence.


Contrast this with this week’s thoughtfully sympathetic portrait of a Trump volunteer in Ohio by Stephanie McCrummen in the Washington Post. The piece chronicles the complexity of a man who’d experienced the devolution of the Midwest to the rust belt, watching Akron’s population drop from a half-million to less than 200,000 in his lifetime. As good writing does, the piece lends complexity to the caricature, and leaves readers with a better understanding of the Trump phenomenon. With the role of the media continuing to be a theme in this election, there’s real power in a news outlet publishing deeper and more meaningful profiles of maligned parties. It softens rhetoric, it creates bonds, and it reduces our attempts to other one another.

These are two examples of what Robert Farrar Capon called straight-line and indirect power. We’ve profiled that distinction on the site before, but not explicitly during an election season. Sometimes they’re called left-hand power or right hand power, but the political overtones of “left” and “right” make that language worth avoiding for now. Here’s Capon:

Direct, straight-line, intervening power does, of course, have many uses. With it, you can lift the spaghetti from the plate to your mouth, wipe the sauce off your slacks, carry them to the dry cleaners, and perhaps even make enough money to ransom them back. Indeed, straight-line power (“use the force you need to get the result you want”) is responsible for almost everything that happens in the world. And the beauty of it is, it works. From removing the dust with a cloth to removing your enemy with a .45, it achieves its ends in sensible, effective, easily understood ways…

And here’s Capon on the other type of power:

It is, to introduce a phrase from Luther, left-handed power… Left-handed power is precisely paradoxical power: power that looks for all the world like weakness, intervention that seems indistinguishable from nonintervention.” (pg. 18-19)

Capon’s distinction is between “the use of straight-line force to accomplish a goal” and the sort of indirect power that accomplishes goals without force. The key difference between the two is that straight-line power cannot avoid causing rifts in relationships, while indirect power can preserve, grow, save, or heal relationships. Using celebrity power to leverage voter decisions is an example of that straight-line power while telling stories and creating understanding is an example of indirect power.

Which is to say this: much discussion has been made of the cancelled Trump rally in Chicago from Friday March 11. The rally was cancelled due to the specter of violence which has, sadly, been a hallmark of this political season. And yet the net result of the following March 15 primaries was a significant boost for Trump. That boost in the primaries, many are suggesting, likely had some correlation to the cancellation of the rally. As we’ve mentioned already, the Trump section of the electorate is already feeling disenfranchised, and having protesters reinforce that feeling was bound to backfire. If you want to see an example of the political limits of straight-line power, look no further.


It’s a testimony to the weakness of straight-line power in our own lives too. No need to reinvent the wheel here, Capon does it tremendous job of it for us. But I wonder what politics would look like with more indirect power, with less force and fewer broken relationships. I’m not sure I can put that together in my head. Many have argued that the nonviolence of Dr. King or Ghandi are indirect forces for our consideration, effective alternatives to straight-line power. Sadly, both of them were assassinated.

Perhaps we could see Paul’s invoking of his Roman citizenship as a model for indirect power, transferring the responsibility for his own safety away to the Roman legions while increasing his protection from mobs. Jesus’s pulling tax money out of a fish’s mouth is, to me, the ultimate political use of indirect power, an absurd rebuke of those whose hope is in a political system instead of The Messiah. And yet, Paul and Jesus are still executed by the political class, an example of why this line of thought can’t be ended with the suggestion to “use more indirect power.” Or at least, should we choose to use more indirect power, we can prepare ourselves beforehand to end up like pennies on a railroad track.

Instead, to return to Scott’s thoughts from a few weeks back: “when something pushes on someone, the someone pushes back.” Whether it’s that rally and the primaries or the Law of God, we can, at least, be ready to watch the trespass increase as the straight-line power plays continue. 

Post Script: Louis CK on the pains of saving someone you love…