“Fake News” Checking and Fake “News Checking”

You may have read that Google plans to include “Fact Checks” of its news search results, much as Facebook has taken to doing with its news feeds.  And like Facebook, Google is farming out the job to so-called “fact-checkers” including Politifact, Snopes and the Washington Post.

The left-leaning biases of these organizations is well documented, but let’s briefly review them.  Politifact is essentially forced run lengthier explanations to justify the site’s disparate treatment of Left and Right, and treated Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton quite differently, despite consistent polling showing most voters found them both dishonest and untrustworthy.

Most recently, Politifact retracted a 2014 article that found Obama Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s claim that “we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out” of Syria to be “Mostly True.”  Politifact handed out that rating despite the fact that there were discrepancies in the accounting and some stockpile sites lacked even an agreement for inspection.   It turns out that the assurances of Democrat politicians and global bureaucrats are assertions, not facts.

Snopes hires as fact-checkers alumni from various left-wing news sites like Raw Story.  And they are not very transparent when asked about their practices.  So it’s not surprising that the Snopes coverage of Hillary Clinton’s email scandal contained only a few fact checks, almost all of which reviewed claims other people made about it, rather than Clinton’s numerous and obvious false statements about it.  Even The Guardian managed to fact-check Hillary.

As for the Washington Post, consider that the WaPo discontinued fact-checking during the first two years of the Obama administration, when Democrats also held large majorities in Congress.  Fact-checking resumed at roughly the same time a GOP Congress regained control in 2011.  The Washington Post sees itself as speaking truth to power…unless it’s untrammeled Democrat power.

Indeed, the Washington Post recently exercised no editorial control when Dana Milbank published a column based on claims about judicial filibusters less accurate than claims which previously had been awarded two and three Pinocchios by the WaPo fact-checker.  This approach is fact-checking for thee, not me.

None of this is surprising because so-called “fact-checking” is not so much about establishing facts but imposing a particular Truth.  And it is not about being restrained by their own Truth as it is about imposing it upon the Other.

While I do not agree with BuzzFeed’s EIC Ben Smith on everything, he is certainly correct to note (as Charlie Sykes has) that left-leaning Big Media is desperate to try to retain the “gatekeeping” power they enjoyed in the pre-internet age.  They, with the help of complaining left-wingers, have managed to cajole some of the biggest players in the internet media cartel into helping them.

I suspect that trying to impose authority rather than earning it will merely perpetuate the cycle of distrust that has already brought the media to new lows.

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Do Trump Statements Come With an Expiration Date?

Many of you may be familiar with Jim Geraghty‘s Rule from 2008: “All statements from Barack Obama come with an expiration date. All of them.”

But what about statements from Donald Trump, in light of his seeming about-face on attacking Syria?

I ask because Philip Klein (a smart guy, particularly on healthcare policy) has an… interesting explanation of how to square Trump’s attack on Syria with his campaign rhetoric: “Though he didn’t try to convey any sort of coherent grand strategy, his own disjointed heterodox statements actually made people feel that on a gut level, he was basically where they were.”

Well, I’m old enough to have heard that theory before:  “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”  That was Barack Obama, in the prologue to The Audacity of Hope.

And this is why the whole concept of “taking Trump seriously, but not literally” was such a transparent dodge by his supporters and apologists.  It was apparent to anyone who pays attention to any area of policy that candidate Trump had almost no knowledge of or facility with policy and was unable to even adequately describe his own policies on his own website.  It’s one of the reasons that most people thought he lacked the knowledge or temperament to be President during the campaign.

Now he’s President Trump and his team has asked his intelligence briefers to cut down on the number of words in the daily briefing book and use more graphics and pictures.  And it was pictures of child victims of the Assad regime that ostensibly prompted Trump to shift his position.

For now, it’s working.  Having fired Michael Flynn and removed Stephen Bannon from the NSC, Trump does seem to have mostly followed through on his promise to hire the best people when it comes to natsec, e.g., James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and Nikki Haley.

Trump’s also getting good press for striking Syria, even from quarters who were afraid to publicly criticize Obama’s feckless foreign policy while he was in power.

Moreover, Trump voters are so deafened by the tribal drums that many don’t even notice his inconsistency.

But while Klein notes that the potential for problems if things escalate in Syria is still hypothetical, it’s not exactly unlikely either.  And even if Syria does not grow as a challenge for the U.S., there will inevitably be others.

When the going gets rougher, it’s entirely possible that Trump’s voters, not to mention the media, will focus more on the incoherent leadership at the top.

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This is TrumpTV

Remember when people were concerned that after Donald Trump lost the election, he would start up a “news” channel?  Good times.  Instead, Trump won and we have a surplus of Trump TV.

You might think I’m referring to the Fox News Channel.  Granted, the ostensibly straight news side of Fox doesn’t totally shill for the President (my family’s biggest Trump fan now prefers the even more Trump-friendly Fox Business Network).  But when FNC’s biggest star was again being accused of being a little too fresh with the womenfolk, not unlike Trump, his old milkshake buddy volunteered his support.

But I was also thinking of Jonathan Mahler’s NYT Magazine piece, “CNN Had a Problem. Donald Trump Solved It.

The problem? “[A]n existential threat was looming. In a world where cable cutters were consuming their news in bite-size portions on their phones and streaming free video over the internet, how much longer would anyone be willing to pay for expensive cable packages? Real breaking-news events happened only every so often, and people lost interest in them quickly; more quickly than ever, in fact, now that there was so much else to distract them.”

The solution?  Donald J. Trump, Bringer of Ratings.  And after the election, “[w]hat [CNN Worldwide president Jeff] Zucker is creating now is a new kind of must-see TV — produced almost entirely in CNN’s studios — an unending loop of dramatic moments, conflicts and confrontations.”  Sound like anyone we know?

As Mahler notes, while at NBC, Zucker “helped usher in the age of reality TV, first with the gross-out show ‘Fear Factor’ and then with ‘The Apprentice’,” which of course starred Trump.

Zucker has brought that sensibility to CNN: “As Zucker sees it, his pro-Trump panelists are not just spokespeople for a worldview; they are ‘characters in a drama,’ members of CNN’s extended ensemble cast.  ‘Everybody says, “Oh, I can’t believe you have Jeffrey Lord or Kayleigh McEnany,” but you know what?’ Zucker told me with some satisfaction.  ‘They know who Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany are.'”

Indeed, a recurring theme in Mahler’s longread is that “[i]t’s a symbiotic relationship that could only thrive in the world of television, where the borders between news and entertainment, and even fantasy and reality, have grown increasingly murky.”

For example, Mahler further notes that “Zucker is a big sports fan and from the early days of the campaign had spoken at editorial meetings about wanting to incorporate elements of ESPN’s programming into CNN’s election coverage.  ‘The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way,’ he told me.  Toward that end, the network built ‘pregame’ sets outside debate halls with excited crowds in the background and created a temporary rooftop studio for the final weeks of the campaign with sweeping views of the White House and the Washington Monument.”

I have written at length about the ESPNization of political media and was inspired to do so by one of those pregame sets.  It’s a decline decades in the making, driven by economics as well as technology.  But the escalation is very much TrumpTV.

The relationship between Trump and Zucker may have soured for the moment, but you can easily imagine the make-up call in which one of them says, right out of the TV/movie cliche book: “You know, we’re not so different, you and I…”

While CNN may have been one of the worst offenders during the primaries, also recall CBS CEO Les Moonves from this period: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”  And post-election, BuzzFeed’s EIC Ben Smith has said “(Trump) has singlehandedly…postponed the collapse of a fair share of legacy media in an interesting way,” though this ignores that sites like his have reaped the clicks as well.

The surface politics of these outlets may oppose Trump, but now more than ever they share his ideology of enriching and empowering themselves by inflaming controversies and increasingly adopting his tabloid standards.  It’s all about the audience share.  In this regard, they all are — like Sean Hannity — Great Americans.

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“Oh, He’ll Change After We Get Married.”

To be fair, men make the same error and both sexes make it in relationships before marriage.  But only some have made this mistake regarding the Presidency.

You see it from the lefty L.A. Times Editorial Board in the kick-off to their remarkably pompous series on “Our Dishonest President.

The Board thunders: “The Times called him unprepared and unsuited for the job he was seeking, and said his election would be a catastrophe’ … Still, nothing prepared us for the magnitude of this train wreck. Like millions of other Americans, we clung to a slim hope that the new president would turn out to be all noise and bluster, or that the people around him in the White House would act as a check on his worst instincts, or that he would be sobered and transformed by the awesome responsibilities of office.”

Why?  Why on Earth did you think that?  You’re likely wrong that the people around him aren’t acting as a check on his worst instincts.  But you observed the life and campaign of 70-year-old Donald J. Trump and know that any hope he would suddenly transform was pure wishcraft.

The same malady persists among some righties, like author Brad Thor:

During the campaign, Thor argued for Trump by comparing him to a drug being offered out of a crappy clinic in Mexico, one that’s the subject of lawsuits over its side effects.

How does that scenario typically work out?  I’m thinking “side effects.”

Had the passengers wrested control of Flight 93 from the terrorists, what were the odds that amateurs would have made a smooth-as-silk landing?

If people had argued that conservatives should vote for Hillary Clinton because she might pivot to her original Goldwater Girl persona as President, or at least not pocket the silverware, the laughter would have been deafening.

Ross Douthat admits that his proposal — that Trump create a think tank inside the White House “to brief the president regularly on how Trumpist premises should shape any given legislative deal” — is an implausible idea.  (Douthat fails to notice that Trumpism has little constituency in Congress.)

Although I suspect some staff turnover is inevitable (as it seemingly is with every Presidency), Douthat recognizes the root of the implausibility of his idea is in Trump’s character — his inability to evaluate arguments, accept advice, or even convincingly project the notion that the administration is about more than his glorification and narcissism.

I can blame Trump for that, and often do.  But I also don’t care to excuse those — Left or Right — who now want to pretend that we should expect much better than this.  The parties could have and should have done better.  Primary voters could have and should have done better.  In that respect, I can’t blame Trump any more than I blame the scorpion or the tiger.

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Tucker Carlson’s Dangerous Game

Having written about Sean Hannity on Monday, I am loath to return so quickly to the well of Fox News Channel, but Tucker Carlson is playing a dangerous game.  I refer to this:

You can view a longer version of the clip, which makes clear that the “monitoring” to which he refers is really the alleged “unmasking” of individuals connected to the Donald Trump transition and campaign in intelligence reports, allegedly by former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice. (Why Fox would take Carlson slightly out of context on Twitter is anyone’s guess.)

However, the materials Carlson refers to were, as far as anyone knows, “incidental collection,” i.e., instances in which a foreign person or agent properly targeted for surveillance speaks to a U.S. person.  Indeed, when House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes initially made the unmasking claim public, he stated that “on numerous occasions, the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.”

Conflating the collection of surveillance intelligence (including incidental collection) with the subsequent analysis or dissemination of that material, as Carlson does here, misleads people into thinking the intelligence was collected improperly.

This is not hypothetical.  I have had people interpret and defend Carlson’s remarks as suggesting that Obama had intelligence agencies target foreign persons or agents in order to monitor the conversations of Trump and his team.

There is a term — or euphemism — for this charge: “reverse-targeting.”  It’s illegal.  There is currently no evidence that reverse-targeting occurred in this case.  Indeed, Nunes was specifically asked whether this material could be the result of reverse-targeting and he replied that didn’t know.

In the past, Edward Snowden has claimed that many DNI analysts at NSA engaged in reverse-targeting.  OTOH, Edward Snowden is a Russian stooge hiding from justice and thus unlikely to say much that does not advance the interests of his handlers.

In addition, Sen. Rand Paul, while doubting that Trump was targeted for surveillance, suggested that he might have been the subject of a “backdoor search,” which is not reverse-targeting, but a different form of improper usage of properly collected surveillance of foreign persons or agents.

At that time, Paul claimed that Pres. Obama had been the subject of such improper searches 1,227 times, which turns out to be a misleading reference to the number of times Obama was mentioned by others (in unmasked but obviously identifiable form) in communications.

Paul has also accused Susan Rice of having conducted the “backdoor searches” without any evidence to back his claim.  And when he got called on it, he tap-danced.

These days, cases of reverse-targeting are rare, generally inadvertent, and reported pursuant to current law.  (Such was not always necessarily the case.)  These reports also address the implementation of “minimization” (masking) procedures.

This lack of evidence of improper surveillance of Trump & Co., incidentally, is why people arguing that Obama spied on Trump resort to listing the Obama’s other bad acts involving surveillance.

In general, evidence of prior bad acts is not good evidence that the person or group involved committed a particular current bad act.  I could explain why this is generally true in law, but let’s skip right to an example politics and the court of public opinion.

I have previously noted that partisan Democrats once pursued nutty investigations of whether George H. W. Bush flew in an SR-71 Blackbird jet to Paris to interfere with the Iranian hostage negotiations, and whether he was involved in drug-running with the Contras in Nicaragua.  Those allegations are made no less nutty by the fact that there was an actual Iran-Contra scandal when George H. W. Bush was Vice-President.  And they are no less nutty because he used to run the CIA.

In the current climate, my favorite part of the “bad acts” argument is the Right’s strange new concern that the CIA allegedly spied on Democratic Senate Intelligence Committee staffers who were investigating the CIA’s handling of the torture issue during the Bush Administration.  The GOP — and most conservatives — were uninterested in this story at the time because they thought Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s investigation was a political witch hunt.  But now the Obama administration is to be blamed for defending the CIA’s attempt to fend it off on their own system.  OK.

So why is any of this a big deal?  After all, isn’t this whole subject murky and confusing?  There are at least two answers to this question.

First, at the crass political level, conflating issues of surveillance with issues of analysis or usage merely gives Democrats and the establishment media license to do the same in order to distract from the accusation that Rice engaged in improper unmasking, which is potentially quite serious (for what it’s worth, which isn’t much, Rice denies the accusation, though her general lack of credibility is not proof of culpability).

As David French notes, we really don’t know enough yet to be forming solid opinions on whether Rice acted improperly.  My quibble with French’s piece is that he uses Russia as an example and the materials at issue here ostensibly did not involve Russia. (John Schindler provides a hypothetical intelligence report that’s much simpler and likely more pertinent to the current controversy.)

Second, on a more serious level, note the point raised early on by Andrew McCarthy in considering the mere possibility of reverse-targeting.  He observed that the pre-9/11 “wall” between law enforcement and intelligence investigators made it difficult to share information and thus effectively investigate or prevent terror attacks.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board —a bipartisan panel in the executive branch that reviews the executive branch’s surveillance actions and also monitors civil liberty concerns — has found the sort of post-9/11 electronic surveillance at issue here “makes a substantial contribution to the government’s efforts to learn about the membership, goals, and activities of international terrorist organizations, and to prevent acts of terrorism from coming to fruition.”

To be sure, we should be concerned about the potential for abuse of these surveillance programs.  But we should be very careful that any reforms we make address actual abuses of civil liberties, not imagined ones, before deciding to risk losing the value these programs provide.

Carlson, and Paul for that matter, thus potentially do the public a great disservice by conflating surveillance with analysis/unmasking (and dissemination and leaking) to advance their partisan or ideological agendas.  A misinformed public may be persuaded to demand reforms of the law that not only do not address the potential problem seen so far in this controversy, but also cures that may be worse than the disease.

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Gorsuch Will Live. Norm Will Die.

For months, there’s been plenty of talk about candidate and Pres. Trump destroying various political and cultural norms.  Fair enough.  Most of this talk, however, comes from Democrats (or the Left broadly), who are in the process of upending a political norm themselves.

The nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to serve as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court was favorably voted out of the Senate Judiciary Cmte yesterday on a party-line vote.  It seems likely that the Democrats will filibuster his nomination when it reaches the Senate floor, which in turn will likely cause Senate Republicans to change the rules to eliminate the filibuster for SCOTUS nominations and to confirm Gorsuch by majority vote.

The GOP will be entirely justified in changing the rule.  Gorsuch is eminently qualified for the position.  No credible complaint has been lodged against his ethics.  His record is overwhelmingly in the majority of the panels on which he has served for the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.  His opinions are generally well-founded and lively in language.

In contrast, the Democrats’ opposition has been an incoherent mess.  Much of it has been an improper, results-oriented attack on his decisions, continuing the losing claim of Hillary Clinton’s campaign that courts should decide cases based on identity politics.

OTOH, when they aren’t painting him as an extremist, they’re conceding he’s really pretty mainstream, but cannot be confirmed after the way the GOP refused to hold hearings on Pres. Obama’s election-year SCOTUS nomination of Merrick Garland (an approach previously endorsed by Dems like Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer).

Further, Dems are supposedly alarmed that Gorsuch might reconsider precedents like Chevron v. NRDC, or even Roe v. Wade, which Democrats have taken to calling a “super-precedent” (a term as imaginary as a unicorn).  But they are also alarmed that he would be unwilling to reconsider precedents they don’t like, such as Citizens United v. FEC.  Again, a completely political, results-oriented approach that itself departs from the historic norm for judicial nominations.

Ending the filibuster for SCOTUS picks is the next step after Senate Democrats ended the filibuster for judicial nominations to lower courts.  Republicans had blocked a number of Pres. Obama’s judicial nominees, but it must be noted that this was in part a response to the Democrats’ filibuster of prior GOP nominees like Miguel Estrada, a highly-qualified  jurist blocked more than once for no other reason than Dems’ fear he eventually would be appointed to the SCOTUS.

The GOP was also responding to the attempted filibuster of Samuel Alito’s SCOTUS confirmation.  While unsuccessful, the Alito filibuster was supported by Senate Democratic leadership and by then-Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden and John Kerry, to name a few.

Indeed, it could be said the Democrats have been attacking the norms for judicial nominations since at least the Reagan-era nomination of Robert Bork, an episode so egregious that the man’s name became a verb signifying a political smear.  Even after the Borking, Republicans attempted to adhere to the traditional norm of supporting well-qualified SCOTUS nominees despite philosophical disagreements, as can be seen by the near-unanimous vote for Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  The GOP got nothing for their consistency.

In this sense, the GOP tried to maintain the norm of confirming well-qualified jurists; the Dems are trying to destroy the remnant of that norm after decades of effort.

And in a way, none of this should surprise anyone much, as Democrats are by nature not particularly fond of norms  — at least not those they are establishing and imposing.  Progressivism is at its heart a philosophy that is not fond of Constitutional norms, as Woodrow Wilson made plain before and during his Presidency.  And in general, they are not disposed to ask why a fence exists before removing it.

Of course, some societal norms are worth junking.  Jim Crow is one obvious example, though progressive Democrats will crow much more about their role in ending it than their prior interest in eugenics (some of which still turns up in the unguarded thoughts of abortion advocates).  Fewer are interested in examining less obvious examples.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that in politics, people’s concern about norms is usually as situational as their position on any other question.  It would be far better if those purporting to be concerned about norms were willing to have an adult conversation about why certain fences might exist, regardless of which partisan tribe holds a temporary majority.  But that norm appears to have been knocked down long ago.

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Is Sean Hannity Bad For America?

Consider this a companion piece to Friday’s post about conservative news reporters.

The best part of Sean Hannity’s encounter with Ted Koppel may be that Hannity clearly did not think Koppel would actually say he was bad for America, which is why he spent days whining about it.  I don’t think the assessment moves the public dialog further, especially given that Koppel misdiagnoses Hannity as someone who “attracts people who are determined that ideology is more important than facts.”

As Noah C. Rothman observed last week, ideology really cannot be considered the driving force in the age of Trump.  Rothman identifies partisanship and the market pressure for news outlets to chase controversy as the culprits.  This is far closer to the mark, but this could be fleshed out more.

To be sure, the ESPNization of politics and political media reinforces both partisanship and sensationalism, though this can also be seen as a negative feedback loop.  Having written about that topic already, I’ll stick to the other half of Koppel’s critique.

Hannity’s defense is that people can tell the difference between a news show and an opinion show.  As just mentioned, the lines between the two have increasingly blurred over the past few decades.  But implicit in the defense is that an opinion show is held to a different standard than a news show, and not merely different, but a lesser standard when it comes to being based in fact.

Indeed, Hannity frequently defends himself by claiming that he is “not a journalist.”  In reality, he is an opinion journalist or an advocacy journalist and one trusted with rather large media platforms.

As such (or like anyone ostensibly debating a position), credibility matters, or should matter.  This can mean conceding a weak point in one’s argument, or pre-emptively addressing an opponent’s strong one.

But most of all, credibility ought to require some level of fidelity to facts.  If you read a columnist and notice (s)he frequently plays fast and loose with the facts, or omits crucial ones, eventually you will conclude the person is not credible and thus not persuasive.

Thus, when someone like Hannity flip-flops on immigration reform because the RNC favored it in 2013, but Donald Trump was the hot item in 2015, it should matter.  Indeed, Hannity knows it matters, which is why he squeals like a stuck pig and lashes out when people mention it.

Or when Hannity goes from fulminating that Pres. Obama should be doing more to imprison Russian stooge Julian Assange to vouching for Assange’s credibility himself, when the only thing that changed was Hannity’s perception that WikiLeaks was hurting the Democrats,  it should matter.

When, in the desire to later claim that WikiLeaks did not hurt the Democrats in 2016, Hannity embraces a conspiracy theory to blame the CIA for WikiLeaks, it should matter.

Hannity’s ideology is big ratings and as such is not fueled by partisanship so much as constrained by it — though not as much as he would be constrained by political principles or a fidelity to the facts.

And I don’t begrudge the man making a fortune from it, though I suppose I am not laissez-faire enough to think there shouldn’t also be truth in advertising.  So to the extent he built that fortune as a True Conservative, he wasn’t being honest with his audience.  And to the extent that his partisan position is more important to him than facts or principles in the pursuit of ratings, he isn’t being honest with his audience.

Accordingly, where Koppel is probably correct is in his assertion that Hannity attracts the people who don’t care any more than he does.  The people who care tune him out.

One last thing:  Since I’m riding the high horse on this subject today, I note that an astute reader of Friday’s post contacted me over the weekend to remind me that the reporters who recently left the IJR aren’t conservatives.  I let my desire for a quasi-happy ending cause me to make the common error of lumping those who work for a particular outlet in with the outlet’s editorial outlook, and welcome the correction.

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What’s Going Wrong in Conservative Media

I start with the near-obligatory reminder that I am on the record arguing that until establishment media hires enough people with non-Left viewpoints as both reporters and editors to constantly challenge newsroom groupthink, its fundamental biases will persist.

I tend to doubt Big Media will ever do this, but some recent stories about conservative media will hand them some easy rationalizations.

Judge Andrew Napolitano returned to Fox News Channel and affirmed his belief that Pres. Obama asked British intelligence to conduct surveillance on Pres. Trump.  He was previously suspended for making this claim and the supposed “news” side of Fox tried to distance itself from the apparently baseless claim.  But he not only repeated it on a straight news show in his return visit, but also appeared on another supposedly straight news show that evening (lest you think he got suspended again).

Geraldo Rivera accused the House Freedom Caucus of “treason” for opposing the failed House GOP healthcare bill.  Rivera is considered a Fox News correspondent, not a contributor.

Breitbart News has been denied permanent press credentials on Capitol Hill until it clarifies its links to a conservative nonprofit group as well to a major Trump donor whose family is an investor in the site.  And Breitbart’s brand of journalism has corporate advertisers trying to flee association with the site.

Not even GOP loyalists like radio talker Hugh Hewitt trust Breitbart as a news source.  Yet Breitbart dominates conservative social media, perhaps because the number of high-profile conservatives who regularly speak out about Breitbart’s excesses is pretty small.

Regnery Publishing is interested in publishing the book by Milo Yiannopoulos that was dropped by Simon & Schuster after comments surfaced in which Milo condoned sexual relationships between young teenagers and adults.  Apparently his anti-Semitic remarks need more publicity, because Regnery seems to be overlooking those also.

The Independent Journal Review has seen staff departures over the publication of a conspiracy theory and the site’s general editorial direction.  Reportedly, other staffers are also looking to leave.

Of all these stories, the IJR report is the most heartening, as it demonstrates that there are conservative journalists who do not want to be associated with the standards adopted by some conservative media outlets, and overlooked by many conservative media critics.

If conservatives want the establishment media to take conservative journalists seriously, they need to take conservative journalism seriously enough to hold it to the standards they want the establishment to observe.

Update: There’s a minor correction to this post (i.e., it does not affect the thesis) at the end of this companion post.

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The “Airplane!” Presidency

Forget the “Flight 93 Election.”  Heck, forget the “Flight 93 Presidency.”  Right now, this is the “Airplane!” Presidency.

One small problem: Pres. Trump is no Ted Stryker.  And House Speaker Paul Ryan is no Otto.

This is why Rich Lowry proclaims “The Crisis of Trumpism.”  Lowry’s thesis: “No officeholder in Washington seems to understand President Donald Trump’s populism or have a cogent theory of how to effect it in practice, including the president himself.” Conservative social media is loving this column.

As I’m just as capable of being wrong as the next pundit, allow me to blow my horn here like Zombie Clarence Clemons riding out the solo of “Born To Run”:  I have been writing for weeks and weeks that the conflict between a heterodox GOP President and an orthodox GOP Congress was going to be a root issue for this administration and the party.

Lowry’s diagnosis and analysis, however, seem premised on some of his priors.  He seems to presume that it is the obligation of Congress to get with Trump’s inchoate program because Trump won pitching a populist message to the white working class.

There at least two problems with this premise.  First, as a practical matter, most GOP Representatives and Senators outpolled Trump, and typically with a different coalition more dependent on college-educated whites and less so on the white working class.  Second, there is the risk noted by Ben Shapiro that simply signing onto Trumpism would over time corrupt the conservatism Lowry ostensibly seeks to preserve.

[And yes, I presume Lowry might respond that a little Trumpism isn’t necessarily a bad thing, much as he has argued with respect to nationalism.  We might even find some points of common ground about it.  But this is a blog post, not a column or a book, so I move on.]

The political reality overarching and overshadowing Trump’s victory is the long-run trend of partisan polarization.  This is much more a reality at the level of officeholders than voters, but it means that, with respect to Congress, Trump is even more of a square peg jammed into a round hole than prior heterodox presidents like Carter and Clinton.

Lowry suggests: “If things continue to go badly, it’s easy to see Trump turning to the New York Democrats in his White House.”  Okay, but how about Democrats in Congress?

Here’s Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, as quoted by Bloomberg: “On health care?  ‘Drop repeal.  Drop it today.  And drop it for good,’ said Schumer.  On taxes?  No big breaks for the wealthy, and drop plans for a partisan plan.  On infrastructure?  ‘We haven’t heard a peep out of the White House’ about it, Schumer said Tuesday.  On the budget?  No cuts, parity between defense and non-defense spending and no poison-pill riders, he said.”

As Schumer indicates, Beltway Dems and their progressive activist base are in Resist mode.  The kinds of deals Trump would have to offer to get more than a handful of Dems on board would alienate the party that still controls Congress.

Lowry suggesting the failed Governorship of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a model for Trump advances his case no further.  In California, Democrats have ruled the legislature for decades.  In DC — and Trump Country — they do not.

Indeed, the rotting of the GOP and the conservative movement that made Trump possible is united mostly by tribal partisanship and anti-Left sentiment.  Accordingly, moving as far left as Trump would have to do to co-opt the Dems easily could spell his doom. In “Flight 93” terms, it would be making the terrorists his co-pilot.

But that’s not important right now.  This is the “Airplane!” Presidency.  We all picked the wrong year to stop sniffing glue.

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Donald Trump and the Sleaze Factor

Most of yesterday’s buzz was about the miasma of Trump investigations.  There was a flap over whether the Justice Department sought to prevent former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates from testifying in the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election.

Recall that to date, there appears to be no public evidence that Trump associates’ contacts with possible Russian agents involved wrongdoing (though there are some odd transactions in the past of Trump’s one-time campaign manager, Paul Manafort).

There is also a flap over the committee’s chairman, Devin Nunes, refusing to disclose to the committee who gave him intelligence reports that indicated Pres. Trump and his associates may have been ensnared in incidental intelligence collection outside the probe into the Russia-related issues.

Recall that to date, there appears to be no public evidence to substantiate Nunes’s claim this intelligence was improperly circulated without redacting the names of Trump and his associates in cases where the names were of no intelligence value.

In recent days, I have noted the tendency to treat similarly unsupported claims as Very Big Deals by anti-Trumpers and anti-anti-Trumpers, according to their confirmation biases.  I have also noted that there is a certain sort of partisan fever that drives people to give way too much credit to even nutty conspiracy theories.

Today, I simply want to add that the odds are that none of it may matter much.

Consider that Ronald Reagan got dubbed “the Teflon President” by Rep. Patricia Schroeder on the basis of her list of 225 Reagan administration personnel or nominees who were the subject of allegations of ethical infractions.  It led Dems to claim the Reagan administration had a “sleaze factor.”  The Associated Press drily noted: “The figure has been disputed.  Most were never charged with any wrongdoing, although some nominees didn’t get jobs after the alleged transgressions came to light.”

That didn’t stop the more sober Washington Post from claiming a list of 110 senior administration officials have been accused of unethical or illegal conduct from 1981-86.  Even so, some of the biggest accusations, such as those against Labor Secretary Ray Donovan, fizzled.  The major convictions would mostly come during the Iran-Contra scandal in Reagan’s second term (and some of those would be reversed due to grants of immunity issued in the Congressional investigation).

None of the earlier Reagan-era scandals and pseudo-scandals (which were in large part a function of the then-new standards of the Ethics in Government Act) mattered in the grand scheme because they didn’t touch the President personally and — tbh — people simply don’t care as much about scandals when the economy is doing well (see also: Clinton, Bill).

Based on what we know to date, I would expect the same basic rules to apply here.  Both stories so far look like pseudo-scandals not involving either Pres. Trump or Obama directly.  And if the economy picks up as the GOP hopes, few outside the partisan fever swamps will care much.

As such, the anti-Trumpers are likely just spinning their wheels until some investigation with credibility delivers some evidence bearing on whether Trump associates behaved badly.  And the anti-anti-Trumpers are in the same boat regarding Nunes’s claims.  The latter, however, also carry a whiff of the people who are constantly complaining that the establishment media isn’t covering their pet story enough. Sad!

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