Justice Kennedy is a Mortal. And That’s Okay.

I presume that by the time you read this, others will have responded to Michael B. Dougherty’s “Anthony Kennedy Can’t Be Allowed to Die,” which argues that America actually needs a swingy Supreme Court because “if the Court soon consolidates to the left or the right, partisans on the losing end of that bargain will swiftly lose faith in democracy itself.”

At the outset, I’ll note that I consider Dougherty to be a smart and honest pundit; I’ve linked to his work on several occasions over the past year and my dealings with him have always been good.  Moreover, he advertised his posting on Kennedy as “potentially odd or embarrassing thoughts,” so he was aware his piece was going to provoke people.  For the reasons that follow, I think it’s provocative without lapsing into a “hot take.”

Accordingly, I won’t dwell on the obvious responses he’s likely to get, starting with the basic idea that an official appointed to essentially lifetime tenure is the guardian of American democracy, particularly someone whom Dougherty himself criticizes for once claiming that it was his duty to “impose order on a disordered reality.”  Or the fact that by largely saving the poorly reasoned, poorly written and anti-democratic Roe v. Wade in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and authoring the poorly written and poorly reasoned majority opinion in Obergefell (regardless of whether one supports the outcomes in either case), Kennedy is the Justice currently least qualified to safeguard the republic, let alone democracy.

If there is anyone in public office who helped contribute to political moment in which Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, defends Pres. Trump’s alleged affair with an adult video actress because social conservatives are getting outcomes they like, it’s Anthony Kennedy.  “But Gorsuch!” is largely the child of Kennedy, the Justice who for many represents the very bad turn America took when the Democrats succeeded in smearing the jurist first nominated for the seat, Robert Bork.

I’ll let others hash over those details to make a more basic point.

During the 2016 campaign, Jonah Goldberg used to respond to the apocalyptic arguments of Trump supporters by observing that if America was one election away from destruction, it was already too late.  The same principle applies here, though Dougherty lacks the hysteria of Michael Anton (indeed, MBD recognizes the Court has overstepped its role in our constitutional system).

If the health of the republic rests on the shoulders of Anthony Kennedy, we are already where Dougherty fears we will be (and probably have been since classical liberals bought the argument that progressivism was saving capitalism from communist revolutionaries).  And no one would be happier about being anointed indispensable than Kennedy.

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Will the GOP Thank Big Media Over the Shutdown?

Okay, that’s a bit of a troll question, but I ask it as a prelude to other questions about the right’s loathe/hate relationship with establishment media.

I wasn’t going to write about the recently (perhaps temporarily) concluded government shutdown, insofar as shutdowns historically have little effect on the midterm elections.  In the past, the GOP had rebounded from longer shutdowns doing worse damage to public opinion of the party.

But I became a little intrigued with the exploding genre of punditry offering explanations for the GOP’s quick win, after losing so many past shutdown fights.  FTR, I think Ben Domenech and Politico both offer large pieces of that puzzle.

But if you want my forged-in-the-fires-of Mount-Doom take, Big Media also lent the GOP a hand, which is not something which the latter could have expected.

The first-impression framing of top tier outlets like the New York Times, the Associated Press, and Bloomberg all put the blame for the shutdown on Senate Democrats.  The early reporting from CBS, NBC and ABC was more neutral than Republicans might have guessed, as were early stories from Reuters and the Washington Post (though comparing the WaPo story to its URL is fairly amusing).  There was a lot of coverage anticipating that the GOP would get most of the blame for the shutdown, but CNN’s headline was fairly anodyne (the story itself failed to highlight the immigration angle) and its poll indicating a majority of Americans favored keeping the government open turned out to be the more important insight.

Over the course of the weekend, you could see the network morning shows starting to carry water for the Dems.  But by then, the “mixed polling” already had vulnerable 2018 Dems looking for the exits.  The point is that the all-important first impression from the biggest and most influential establishment outlets was not in the tank for the Democrats.

In part, this could be the Democrats’ fault.  They were pushing the mixed messages that: (a) the shutdown was the fault of Trump and the GOP; and (b) it was worth shutting down the government to obtain an immediate deal regarding the immigration status of so-called “Dreamers.”  The Dems were advertising their role, which allowed the GOP branding of a “SchumerShutdown” to gain traction.

That said, the establishment media’s coverage could have been far worse.  Anyone who has been around politics awhile can point to the pattern by which Big Media covers failures as either the GOP’s fault or America’s fault.  In the face of the evidence that the Dems were largely to blame here, we nevertheless could have been treated to flood-the-zone propaganda asserting the shutdown was proof of how “the system is broken.”  That didn’t get a chance to develop, yet I suspect the GOP will not write a thank-you note to the Bigs for approximately doing their jobs (a feat even more extraordinary when one considers what the past year of often unhinged political coverage has looked like).

To the contrary, they’re likely going to let the shutdown win feed their perception of a general rebound in the fortunes of Trump and the party generally.  They won’t tell themselves they won by being the party that favored keeping Big Government open.  They will tell themselves the shutdown loss demoralized the Dems (forgetting the dynamic among the GOP in 2013-14).

They should be linking the GOP’s wins to fear of impeachment if the Dems win the House this year, just as they were when their polling was just a handful of points worse, reminding the GOP base that the good trends can all stop in a single election.  They should not count on Big Media allowing the GOP to make a good first impression in all the conflicts to come.

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Is It Too Late to Stick Aziz Ansari In the Title?

After all, this does have something to do with the B-list comedian’s widely publicized bad date.  And it does have something to do with the discussion — even among feminists — suggesting that the story (or “revenge porn“) tests the limits of the moral panic (mostly justified) arising from Weinsteingate.  But it also has a much broader application.

The debate over the Ansari story, in the abstract, pits two groups against each other.  On one hand, hardcore feminists who want the focus to rest on the way systemic patriarchy results in what they consider to be an assault; they want to extend the MeToo discussion beyond the employment context and to assume a similar power imbalance exists on a date.  OTOH, there is the group (larger, I think) that not only finds a date distinguishable from sexual harassment on the job, but also worries that conflating the two ultimately denies women what the hip folks now call “agency.”

At this more abstract level, the debate looks quite a bit like many of the past.  The further left one is on the political spectrum, the more one is likely to focus on the systemic “root causes” of a problem.  The further right one is on the political spectrum, the more one is likely to focus on issues of “agency” or what conservatives used to like to call “personal responsibility.”

At least, these are the stereotypes.  When we get involved in discussing a particular problem, it turns out the stereotypes are just that.

For example, one sad thing we have learned in the Trump era is that there are plenty on the right who are more sympathetic to the effect of structural and collective factors on the plight of the white underclass than they traditionally have been when discussing the plight of the black underclass, which they see primarily as an issue of personal responsibility.

Conversely, if you suggest to leftys that their domination of institutions like academia and the media marginalize conservatives such that you wind up with counter-institutions like Fox News, or that their reflexive assumption and accusations that everyone on the right has the racial attitudes suggested above are part of How You Got Trump, they will usually respond in a manner suggesting that righties need to take responsibility for themselves.

Both are of course partially correct, even as both suffer from situational and tribal analyses of various societal problems.

One nice thing is that responsibility is a renewable resource.  There’s nothing wrong with accepting your share while pointing the finger.  But the potential downside is landing in the spot where “if everyone is responsible, no one is.”

Finding that balance is the difficult part.  It seems like it would be helpful to start by recognizing how often those balances needs to be struck, rather than leaping to whatever frame is convenient to our ideologies or partisan loyalties of the moment.

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Joe Arpaio’s Senate Campaign Folly: Liner Notes

I have a new column at The Federalist today, discussing former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s apparent campaign for the U.S. Senate.  I previously wrote a column about President Trump’s pardon of Arpaio for criminal contempt of court related to a racial profiling case, focusing on the case that led to his downfall, and the points at which politics may have been involved.

Today’s column focuses more broadly on Arpaio’s record to explain why he would be an awful GOP candidate in a general election.  As I was writing in part for people who may have cheered his efforts to clamp down on illegal immigration, I focus on the relative ineffectiveness of his high-profile sweeps, as well as the ways in which his decision to focus on illegal immigration coincided with soaring violent crime rates and various other breakdowns in the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office during the time when his sweeps were legally authorized.

Also, given his pose as the victim of a political prosecution, I note why politics (regardless of whether they were involved in the Obama administration’s de-authorization of his activities) were not involved in the contempt prosecution.  Moreover, I note that Arpaio has a serious case of projection, as he has a track record of abusing his authority to persecute his political enemies.

Right now, the polling seems to suggest his possible entry into the U.S. Senate race may benefit the more establishment candidate, Rep. Martha McSally, over the anti-establishment former state Sen. Kelli Ward.  But after the GOP’s recent embarrassing loss of the Alabama seat at the hands of Roy Moore following a similar three-way contest, primary voters ought to be shunning Arpaio rather than making him competitive.  Unfortunately, as was the case in Alabama, neither of Arpaio’s rivals has a strong motive to be the one who goes directly after Arpaio.  Indeed, a similar collective action problem is part of How We Got Trump.

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President Trump: Mission Accomplished

Although opinions on the right vary regarding Pres. Trump, there seems to be an overwhelming consensus among those not reflexively opposed to him that his opponents seem to have lost their damn minds.  This consensus seems only to have strengthened in the face of the abject disappointment of the left — and much of the media — that Trump was not diagnosed with early onset dementia during his recent physical.

It strikes me as odd, however, that those writing from this consensus perspective seem to be critical of — or sorrowful about — the hysteria coming from Trump’s opponents.

After all, wasn’t this supposed to be one of Trump’s biggest selling points?  Through the 2016 campaign and beyond, Trump’s supporters would chortle: “He drives the liberals crazy!  He drives the media crazy (but I repeat myself)!”  Indeed, Trump’s ability to derange his opponents was considered a feature even by righties otherwise unenthused by the man.  They would say, “Sure, I don’t like that Trump says or does this or that… but he drives the libs nuts!  Look at him troll the press!”

The liberals and the establishment media continue to behave as though they are as crazy as they imagine Trump to be.  Trump and his core supporters should be hanging a yuge “Mission Accomplished” banner.  Instead, they complain about people suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome.

Former Trump adviser-tuned-unperson Steve Bannon called the media the “opposition party.”  As National Review’s Rich Lowry observed: “The media has become for the right what the Soviet Union was during the Cold War—a common, unifying adversary of overwhelming importance.”  The establishment media is playing the role the Trump White House and much of the right say they want.  And yet Trump and his supporters seem unhappy about it.

Indeed, they seem to swing between outrage and mockery in the face of the left’s nutty claims that any Trump policy achievement represents mass genocide, or perhaps the End Times (as if the left believed in the End Times).  But wasn’t Trump also sold on visions of the apocalypse, the metaphorical Flight 93?  The left and the media are buying into the Trumpist framing of our politics.  And yet Trump supporters seem unhappy about this development.

Relatedly, starting in December (and likely continuing through the State of the Union address), Trump supporters have been complaining that others have ignored the policy achievements of the Trump administration.  As if Trump supporters had cared much about policy.  To be sure, there are some issues core Trump supporters care about — The Wall, tariffs, a more non-interventionist foreign policy — but they seem to care about those more than Trump, given the general lack of movement on them.

Nor should this be a surprise.  Trump did not campaign as a policy expert, to put it mildly.  He campaigned as the Greatest Show on Earth, now that Ringling Bros. caved to political correctness, ditched the elephants and went out of business, those losers.  Trump’s campaign was as much or more about Trump than anything else, no shock to anyone who has observed his decades on the pop culture scene.

Accordingly, most of the media coverage of the Trump administration is framed around his leadership and character, not his policy agenda.  I wouldn’t go so far as to claim Trump supporters sold him on the basis that Trump tends to make everything about him, but it is certainly what they voted for.  Trump’s narcissism and low character is what drives the left and the media nuts, above and beyond their traditional biases against a Republican politician.

Trump supporters might respond that his opponents still have a responsibility to behave rationally.  But neither Trump nor his politics have much grounding in the notion of personal responsibility.  Trump is the guy who provides his base with scapegoats for their misfortunes.  Trump is the guy who is uninterested in reforming entitlements (even if House Speaker Paul Ryan is).  Trump is the guy who plays group identity politics and is supported for fighting the way the left does.

In all of these respects, Trump has delivered on what he advertised.  It’s a shame that so many of his supporters seem so unhappy about it.

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Why Are We Talking About the Post-Trump Era After Less Than a Year?

Let’s talk a little bit more about that David Brooks column, “The Decline of Anti-Trumpism,” which I basically agreed with, but found a lot less impressive than many people I respect.

The column begins by observing that White House visitors “find that [Pres.] Trump is not the raving madman they expected from his tweetstorms or the media coverage.”  Okay.

Second, people who work there either find Trump to be “a deranged child,” or “merely a distraction they can work around.”  This is the (bad) impression you get from much of the media coverage and the opinion of those who are there regularly, not visitors.

Third is the bit about the administration improving and “imagine if Trump didn’t tweet.”  This was my point of disagreement in my prior posting.  On a policy basis, they found their footing months ago, but those imagining a different Trump are almost as unrealistic as those anti-Trumpers who can’t credit any policy results.

I listed a number of examples of the problem of Trump’s performance, but we got another one almost immediately after the Brooks column ran.  The White House decided to throw cold water on Wolff’s gossipy book by televising Trump’s “negotiation” with Congressional leaders on immigration (i.e., a law to address the status of so-called “Dreamers”).  The damage-control motive isn’t a matter of speculation; the RNC telegraphed it publicly, because Trump and those in his orbit can’t help “monologing” their plans.

At the meeting, Trump’s comments managed to establish that he really didn’t have a grip on what his (or the GOP’s) position was.  Trump had to be reminded of that position by one of the GOP attendees.  And yesterday, Vice-Pres. Pence and other surrogates hit the media to reassure people that the administration wasn’t caving to the Democrats.   It continues to be the case that Trump’s personal involvement in governance tends to be a hindrance to accomplishment more often than not.  Contra Brooks, this isn’t 3-D chess from the White House.

Brooks was correct to note that anti-Trumpers are descending into blowhardism in the way the right already has with figures like Sean Hannity or Dinesh D’Souza.  My prior posting focused on this problem, noting it has a longer pedigree and broader scope than Brooks thinks.  Indeed, neither Brooks nor I delved into the antics of federal bureaucrats and judges trying to “resist” Trump that are potentially more damaging in the long run.

Brooks, however, did address some aspects of the medium- to long-term:

This isn’t just a struggle over a president. It’s a struggle over what rules we’re going to play by after Trump. Are we all going to descend permanently into the Trump standard of acceptable behavior?

Or, are we going to restore the distinction between excellence and mediocrity, truth and a lie? Are we going to insist on the difference between a genuine expert and an ill-informed blowhard? Are we going to restore the distinction between those institutions like the Congressional Budget Office that operate by professional standards and speak with legitimate authority, and the propaganda mills that don’t?

There’s a hierarchy of excellence in every sphere. There’s a huge difference between William F. Buckley and Sean Hannity, between the reporters at this newspaper and a rumor-spreader. Part of this struggle is to maintain those distinctions, not to contribute to their evisceration.”

(Let’s set aside his faith in the CBO, which may have a smart staff but which is asked to have expert opinions on things it can’t possibly know with any degree of accuracy.)

There’s an argument to be made that America is capable of returning to higher standards after Trump.  We did after Nixon.  We did after Clinton.  The question here ought to be whether we are going to try to strengthen our institutions to promote those higher standards and resist future attempts to lower them.  I’m less optimistic on that score.

Take the Brooks comparison of Buckley and Hannity.  The problem is not that we have no intellects in the general tradition of Buckley.  The problem, as noted here and many other places, is that in the internet age, there is no ability perform the gatekeeping function Buckley and National Review once served.  Indeed, it’s much easier to argue that the Hannityesque TV and radio types have more gatekeeping power than the magazines and think tanks; 2016 amply demonstrated that the entertainers will pander for audience share, not educate or gatekeep.

Against that backdrop there are more short- to medium-term concerns.  The anti-Trump forces have descended into blowhardism (or escalated the political stakes in the terms of my prior post).  There is a substantial chance, perhaps greater than 50/50, that the GOP will lose control fo the House in the midterm elections.  The anti-Trump blowhards will largely (and fallaciously) conclude that their blowhardism was the key to victory and make demands upon the Democratic Party, which in turn will have to decide how it wants to respond to that pressure.

We could see a version of what the GOP went through following the 2010 election successes of the Tea Party.  Would the Democrats’ leadership embrace virulent anti-Trumpism (which would create its own problems), or try to deflect it (as the GOP did the Tea Party folks, to bad consequences, eventually)?  Such decisions might reshape the political landscape long before we face the issue of restoring political norms after Trump.

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This Is a Land of Wolffs Now

I totally stole that allusion from Allahpundit, as it sums up my opinion of Michael Wolff’s supposed Trump tattler, Fire and Fury, and the reaction to it.

Obligatory: I agree with Ben Domenech‘s critique of the book.  Coincidentally, so does the NYT’s Jonathan Martin on virtually every point.

But here’s the thing: Other presidents have had book-length gossip columns written about them.  They mattered very little because they weren’t about gossip column presidents.

Indeed, Pres. Trump spent decade after decade obsessively courting coverage from the tabloid media.  Now, having succeeded in receiving a large, concentrated dose, he of course threatened to sue, thereby ensuring the book will be a mega-hit and displaying the sort of political judgment and temperament Wolff apparently describes in the book.

Of course, the criticism from the right has extended not merely to the book itself, but to those establishment journalists who are treating it as “fake, but accurate.”  I agree with the critics.  I also note that most of those critics have spent serious time arguing that we must not take Trump — arguably the most powerful man in the world — literally either.

We are ultimately discussing a question of standards, or double-standards.  I wrote about this last May, in comparing Trump to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight:

[W]hat if Trump was the Batman?  What if Trump is the escalation?  What if the Left, despite all of its long-term successes, sees the Democratic Party at its lowest ebb in a century, with the Electoral College delivering the crown jewel into the hands of no less than Donald J. Trump?

In reality, the history before the start of a particular episode is much more complex.  Trump is not the first escalation.  Progressives, for better and worse, aren’t into norms.  But it often seems as though Trump’s fans and defenders do not want to acknowledge that he was in fact an escalation.

Indeed, Trump’s supporters often want to have their cake and eat it too.  They back(ed) a man whose political point of entry was Birtherism, who condoned or encouraged violence at his rallies, and accused a rival’s father was involved in the JFK assassination, to name but a few items on his resume.

Moreover, his biggest fans did hail him as a wrecking ball to be swung against the corrupt elites of the coastal corridors.  And one of the primary sources of his appeal was his unfiltered rhetoric; his fans and his votes [sic] particularly valued that “he FIGHTS!”

Trump’s supporters nominated and elected a #WAR politician.  Did they really not anticipate that the swamp, the elites, would not similarly decide to escalate, would not go to war?  Because one of Nolan’s lessons is that, as small-l liberal institutions sink into decline, escalation is met with escalation.

It also seems as if Trump’s supporters have failed to realize that, by riding a man who gleefully tramples norms and has little appreciation for institutions into the White House, they have largely forfeited any moral authority they may have had to demand that institutions like the bureaucracies and the establishment media play by the rules.

That forfeiture doesn’t mean that the Left’s reaction to Trump is morally just, legal, or even effective.  It just means that the abandonment of norms and institutional restraints by the GOP in embracing Trump will cause people to take the more high-minded attacks on Trump’s enemies less seriously.”

One of the main forms the current escalation takes is the erosion of journalistic standards and the vanishing line between traditional reporting and partisan entertainment.

Am I concerned about that erosion?  Sure.  I wrote about it during the 2016 campaign.  I also noted that Roger Ailes and Fox News Channel pioneered putting talk radio on TV as a simulacrum of the news.  Most on the Right didn’t care about that; most still don’t care about how, for example, Sean Hannity presents himself.  They will defend FNC largely by pointing to Bret Baier, Chris Wallace and the like, pretending that the defense is not a version of “clown nose on, clown nose off.”  They care a great deal more when it’s CNN behaving that way.  Funny, that.

Am I concerned that blurring of politics and entertainment also runs in the other direction?  Do I think it’s ridiculous that anyone would consider a late-night comedian like Jimmy Kimmel to be the political conscience of the nation?  Sure.  I’ve written about it.  And I agree that Kimmel has no clue what he’s talking about, and that he’s mostly about attracting an audience.

Of course, Trump won the GOP nomination by playing the insult comic, conspiracy theorist and general policy ignoramus, buoyed on a wave of excess media coverage.  What was (or is) a Trump rally if not the funhouse mirror of a second-rate comedian getting cheap clapter from his or her adoring fans? “…and Mexico will pay for it!” Good joke.  Everybody laugh.  Roll on snare drum.  Curtains.

If you believe the behavior of the media and Hollywood is How You Got Trump, I don’t know how you dismiss the idea that the behavior of Trump and his supporters are How You Got the Media and Hollywood, other than by descending into the “they started it!” claim made by unruly toddlers in the back seats of cars..

Those who wanted to “burn it down” in 2016 won.  But they’re now upset that it wasn’t a controlled burn.  They all lived with the fantasy that Trump could trample norms and his opponents wouldn’t.  It hasn’t turned out that way.

Wolff’s book arrives at an inconvenient time for Trump and his supporters.  The media, esp. many in the non-Left media, were touting the administration’s policy successes (and exaggerating them to some degree).  Most of those columns ignored or glossed over Trump’s performance as head of state.

You can see a version of this in yesterday’s David Brooks column about Wolff’s book, which urges us to imagine if Trump didn’t tweet.  But he does.  Trump is the guy who screws up his own administration’s Mideast diplomacy on Twitter.  And the guy who helps fuel special counsel investigations of his campaign associates on Twitter.  And the guy who undermines his own cabinet on Twitter.  And the guy who scares the bejeezus out of parents nationwide by claiming on Twitter that his “nuclear button” is bigger than Kim Jong Un’s.

And that’s just on Twitter.  Offsite, he’s the guy who helped derail the GOP healthcare bill by calling it mean, and by having his flunkies threaten Senators who had less to lose than he did.  He’s also the guy who almost blew up the tax reform bill by demanding an 18% corporate rate.  And he’s the guy who chose to cozy up to the alt-right after a racially-charged political melee left a young woman dead in Charlottesville.  And he’s the guy who frequently seems to not be on the same page as the rest of his administration, creating destabilizing uncertainties at home and abroad.

Trump’s supporters would like to pretend his behavior shouldn’t matter, even as his record-low approval ratings help threaten the GOP’s House majority in this year’s midterm elections.  This despite a humming economy and no immediate foreign policy crisis.  But “imagine if Trump didn’t tweet” is just a different flavor of truthiness than Wolff is offering the Left.

This is a land of Wolffs now.

[Note: Other business may interfere with posting in the immediate future.  We’ll see how it goes.]

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Cliven Bundy Mistrial Liner Notes

I have a new column up at The Federalist about the mistrial declared in the prosecution of Nevada cattleman Cliven Bundy, his two sons and others on charges arising from their armed 2014 standoff against federal authorities near Bundy’s ranch.

The idea for this didn’t originate with me, but I became interested after reading up on the case.  After all, the Constitution protects even unsympathetic defendants — and the Bundys are not the most sympathetic of defendants — from prosecutorial misconduct.  And this is a bizarre case insofar as the feds almost seem to have gone out of their way to lend credence to the Bundys’ rather conspiratorial view of politics.

That eccentric view of how the law and government works is often associated with the right (although I’ve seen similar “sovereign citizen” nuttiness from people of varying politics).  Thus it may be a little odd that the best two articles I read on their saga were not published by conservative or libertarian outlets, but by The Intercept and Mother Jones.

I linked both of those pieces in the column, but it’s worth flagging them here for anyone interested in all of the bizarre parts of the story I had to exclude due to space limitations.  For example, the FBI having an agent pose as a documentary filmmaker in an effort to dig up evidence against the Bundys.  Or the questions about the death that occurred during a subsequent standoff in Oregon.

In a column of normal length, I had to stick mostly to the story about how the feds used FBI surveillance and snipers at the Bundy ranch and then tried to cover it up.  And it looks like the Bureau of Land Management and prosecutors did so because folks involved with the operation had a much different agenda than their superiors in DC and elsewhere did.  The malefactors seem to have dripped with the sort of condescension that is part of How You Got Trump (even after accounting for the Bundys’ seeming nuttiness).

And yet, those at fault don’t seem to have had the courage of their convictions, either.  They called out snipers against people the government assessed as nonviolent, yet they ultimately were too afraid of another Waco or Ruby Ridge debacle to follow through (thankfully), resulting in a retreat that likely left them embarrassed.  That embarrassment seems to have driven years of more bad decisions on the part of the government.

Today, the judge is to hear oral argument on whether to let another trial go forward.  If I had to bet, I’d bet the judge allows another trial, albeit with some restrictions on what the government may argue.  However it comes out, as I note in the column, the case — and more importantly, the bureaucratic attitudes that informed it — deserve further review by the DoJ.

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The Limit of Politicizing All the Things

For the weekend, something a little lighter.  Maybe even a bit profound.  Or trite. Quite possibly all of those things.

Speaking of all the things, today’s post inspired by this decidedly awful Washington Post column, in which the author read through all 56 boxes of Woody Allen’s personal archives and discovers the filmmaker is obsessed with teenage girls.

In fairness, I suppose if I put the time and expense into accessing Allen’s archives, I would still want to monetize it even if I learned nothing that everyone didn’t know already.  Allen is an awful person who keeps making the same movie highlighting his awfulness.  The fact that a column with little further to say was published is really the WaPo’s fault.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that I already agreed with the writer, the column did inspire me as an almost textbook example of the tedious social justice-centric criticism that has been swiftly displacing serious artistic analysis even at supposedly top tier outlets like the WaPo.  When the reader is not being bored by the flogging of the horse’s corpse, the author is reaching to take actress Ellen Page out of context:

His screenplays are often Freudian, and they generally feature him (or some avatar for him) sticking almost religiously to a formula: A relationship on the brink of failure is thrown into chaos by the introduction of a compelling outsider, almost always a young woman. Sometimes, this produces a gem, such as ‘Match Point.’ Often it does not. Ellen Page, featured in 2012’s ‘To Rome With Love,” called working with Allen ‘the biggest regret of my career.’

Click on that link and it’s fairly obvious that Page said she regrets having worked with Allen because he’s a skeezy pervert, not that she thought the film they made was bad (even if she did or should think so). The quote comes from her newsmaking Facebook post savaging Brett Ratner for harassing her on set; it’s not a movie review.

Did the author and his editors miss this point because they are no longer able to distinguish between artistic and political judgments?  I don’t know — or care, really — because it reminded me of the many, many, many reviews and columns I’ve read over the past couple of years that seem incapable of making the distinction.

And I suspect that if you’re reading this, you’ve likely noticed this phenomenon also.  The tedious practice of judging art solely through a political lens has long been more prevalent among a certain stripe of conservative cultural critic.  It also happened on the left, but it was far less prevalent, likely because: (a) most art and popular culture is dominated by the left and thus tends to reflect their values in the most broad sense; and (b) there was, until recently, more consensus within the left as to what their values were.

The creeping totalitarianism on the left now has metastasized to the point where progressive critics will accuse conservative critics of judging a movie based on its politics even when it pretty obviously is not true.  (Sonny Bunch also makes this point in the most recent Weekly Substandard podcast).

Again, you’ve probably noticed this too.  So am I getting to a point?  Yes, I’m almost there.

In writing about The Godfather, one of my subtexts was that it is a great film in part because it has complex and perhaps conflicting attitudes toward its subjects and themes.  As I explained in the liner notes to the column: “I felt it was important to argue that The Godfather is a great piece of art (or entertainment at a minimum) because it touches upon deep subjects, but through a lens of human experience that necessarily does not adhere to a particular ideology.”

I derive some hope for the arts and for criticism by generalizing this point.  Quality art — and quality criticism, to a degree — is usually easily distinguishable from propaganda.  To appropriate Justice Potter Stewart, we know it when we see it, whether the “it” is art or propaganda.  True art generally resists the totalitarian impulse, and generally disproves the notion that all actions are political and are to be judged primarily on that basis.  Quality art is more than this, and if we believe in the inherent ability of people to instinctively react to that which captures a larger truth about humanity, we can take some comfort that art cannot be completely subjugated to propaganda.

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The Politics of Push-Pins and Yarn

One of the posts that gets the most recurring traffic here concerns Sean Connery’s advice on the Trump-Russia probe — or rather Jim Malone’s from The Untouchables: “Don’t wait for it to happen.  Don’t even want it to happen.  Just watch what does happen.”  I added: “Not that anyone will take that advice when there is punditry to be had.”  The second part certainly has proven to be true.

Over last weekend, we were treated to Sen. Lindsey Graham implying that the FBI improperly used the so-called Trump “dossier”(compiled by fmr British intelligence officer Christopher Steele on behalf of the professional dirt-diggers at Fusion GPS) to launch a national security investigation of people associated with the Trump presidential campaign.  Note that Graham chose to imply rather than accuse, perhaps because classified info is involved.

We also got a New York Times story rather pointedly claiming the investigation was not sparked by the dossier, but by warnings from Australia’s top diplomat in Britain that a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, had been talking about Russia having dirt on Hillary Clinton as early as May 2016.  Note (because most discussions of the NYT story don’t) that the investigation reportedly “was also propelled by intelligence from other friendly governments, including the British and Dutch.” (This isn’t the first story about early info from the Brits, not to mention Germany, Estonia, Poland and France.)

For those — on both sides of the aisle — who have chosen to involve themselves in the political parlor game of the Russia probe, this is terrific stuff.  Did Graham launch a preemptive strike on the NYT story?  Was the NYT story a rebuttal to Graham?  (Given the effort apparently sunk into the NYT story, I’d bet it was already in the works as a rebuttal to the general GOP attacks regarding the dossier… but this doesn’t really matter for my purposes here.)

The NYT story also came in for criticism from National Review’s Andrew McCarthy, who notes the story is arguably inconsistent with another NYT story from last April suggesting that a Russia trip taken by Carter Page was the event triggering the national security investigation:

[I]t turns out the Page angle and thus the collusion narrative itself is beset by an Obama-administration scandal: Slowly but surely, it has emerged that the Justice Department and FBI very likely targeted Page because of the Steele dossier, a Clinton-campaign opposition-research screed disguised as intelligence reporting. Increasingly, it appears that the Bureau failed to verify Steele’s allegations before the DOJ used some of them to bolster an application for a spying warrant from the FISA court (i.e., the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court).”

McCarthy is a very good attorney.  Then again, so is Gabriel Malor:

And there’s a problem even with the concept of “the dossier problem,” which was explained less than a month ago by… Andrew McCarthy.  (Note: This should not be read as me picking on McCarthy; quite the contrary.  I’ll be linking to and quoting him here precisely because he’s written more extensively and carefully about the investigation than just about anyone.)

On Dec. 9., in the course of asking why the Trump administration hasn’t declassified the FISA warrant application (still a good question, btw), McCarthy quite correctly noted that the dossier could have been used properly by the FBI to generate leads and evidence that became the ultimate basis for the FISA warrant:

There would be nothing untoward about such a process. It wouldn’t matter that the dossier was political ‘oppo’ research. The FBI gets leads from all sorts of shady sources; what matters is whether the information the Justice Department ultimately gives the court has been investigated adequately by the FBI.

Needless to say, if this is how it happened, the Trump administration would not want the information in the FISA application disclosed. To be sure, the information would not necessarily indicate there was any Trump-campaign collusion in Russian espionage. But it might show that (a) there were unsavory contacts between Trump associates and foreign government operatives; (b) there was enough FBI-verified information in the warrant application (which probably was not limited to the dossier’s allegations) for the FISA court to find probable cause to believe one or more Trump-connected people were acting as agents of a foreign power; and (c) parts of the dossier have been corroborated, which would destroy the Trump political claim that the dossier is a tissue of lies.”

Have things changed so much since Dec. 9 that “the dossier problem” needs a re-evaluation?  Not publicly.  On Dec. 16,  McCarthy was still asking whether the dossier was used to obtain the FISA warrant.

On Dec. 23, however, McCarthy wrote that he had “come to believe Steele’s claims were used to obtain FISA surveillance authority for an investigation of Trump.”  (The FISA warrant was supposedly not targeting Trump, so I presume he’s being colloquial here, even if that statement is arguably more inflammatory.)

His theory is that the FBI and DOJ had great faith in Steele and a political bias against Trump and consequently, “they made grossly inadequate efforts to verify his claims.”

Political bias in an investigation would be concerning.  Nevertheless, as recently as Dec. 6, McCarthy was pretty philosophical about the possibility.  He seems to have been moved on this point by FBI agent Peter Strzok”s “insurance policy” text (though the interpretation of this text has been disputed by sources presumably friendly to Strzok) and by the fact that Fusion researcher Nellie Ohr is married to then-deputy AG Bruce Ohr, who met with Steele about the dossier after the election and reportedly during the campaign.  (These are things worthy of investigation, but it should also be noted that special counsel Mueller removed Strzok from the investigation and Ohr got demoted upon learning of these issues.)

It’s also worth recalling that while the current narrative is about an FBI that treated Hillary Clinton with kid gloves while persecuting Trump, the reality is that there were also plenty of anti-Clinton leaks from the FBI during the campaign.  And many Trump-friendly folks who have nothing good to say about fmr FBI director Comey forget that the Democrats blame him for her loss (I find this highly debatable, but the man who publicly dragged Anthony Weiner and his laptop back into the news shortly before election day wasn’t exactly doing her any favors).  Partisans don’t like it when their presidential candidates are investigated and can be persuaded that bias was a significant factor in their misfortunes.  And perhaps it was, though on the current public record, I am not as convinced as McCarthy seems to be here.

As for the government’s faith in Steele, back on Dec. 9, McCarthy wrote:

Still, as I have previously pointed out, the reports compiled by Steele to generate the dossier run nearly three dozen single-spaced pages and contain scores of factual claims. Trump defenders have not mounted a point-by-point refutation, just a generalized dismissal, on the rationale that some likely misinformation and many unconfirmed claims render the dossier so tainted that it should be deemed totally bogus. That is not an unreasonable position, but neither is it a showstopper. In fact, some close observers contend, with thorough analysis, that some factual assertions in the dossier have been extensively corroborated (see, e.g., Natasha Bertrand, here, and former CIA officer John Sipher, here). Moreover, Steele, who is said to have enjoyed a good reputation among U.S. intelligence agents, maintains that 70 to 90 percent of his reporting is accurate. He believes his sources are reliable and notes that, though not verified, neither has most of the information been negated.”

Did the dossier suddenly get less extensively confirmed over the course of two weeks?  No.  Has a point-by-point refutation been offered?  No.

Moreover, as McCarthy noted on Dec. 23: “We do not have public confirmation that the dossier was, in fact, used by the bureau and the Justice Department to obtain the FISA warrant.”

Indeed, as McCarthy also noted, whether the dossier was used is a question House Intelligence Cmte Chairman Devin Nunes and other Republicans apparently pressed at a sealed meeting on Dec. 19.  We also have a leak from (presumably GOP) investigators claiming that the FBI corroborated few of the dossier’s claims (Reminder: this only matters if the dossier itself was used and unverified claims were presented to the FISA court).

But if NR’s David French is correct that we should withhold judgment on the NYT story about Papadapolous because there’s no way to evaluate anonymous sources and unpublished documents — and I do think this is correct — the same standard should apply to the anonymously sourced stories regarding the role of the dossier in this sordid tale.  As French wrote:

At this point, it’s safe to say the publicly available reports muddle the Mueller investigation so much that the only thing we ‘know’ is all sides have more than enough circumstantial evidence to justify their pre-existing hopes and dreams.”

It’s worth underscoring the “all sides” nature of this phenomenon.  The left has created its share of Russiagate bulletin boards figuratively plastered with photographs, news articles, and calendars, all strung together in webs of push-pins and yarn.  But as turned off as I’ve become by tribalism, I still care more when “my side” engages in the politics of push-pins and yarn.

(Of course, if you love the parlor game, you can assume that McCarthy, Graham, etc. know more than they’re saying — or that they believe they know more than they’re saying.  Or you can assume that someone who could nuke the collusion scandal and expose partisanship at the FBI by declassifying the warrant application would already have done so.)

Not that any of it is likely to matter.  If — as still seems likely — nothing much comes from either the supposed collusion scandal or the supposed “deep state” coup against the Trump administration, no one’s reputation is going to suffer for it, if past wacky scandals (e.g., the October Surprise, the alleged murder of Vince Foster, etc.) are any indicator.  The pols and pundits will skip along unscathed.  It just seems like a terrible waste of time for everyone to speculate about things where we will eventually get answers, particularly when those answers are likely to be unsatisfying to either side.

So why is this speculation going on, aside from the timeless attraction of conspiracy theories?  The partisan attraction for the left is fairly obvious.  As for the right, I have two theories of my own (which are mine).

First, it could be that behind the Rawlsian veil of ignorance, righties are simply adopting the Trumpian response of paranoia and fighting unnecessary battles.

Second, it may have to do with the fact that the Russia investigation was the most discussed story of 2017 on Twitter, the liberal base was out-shouting conservatives in this sphere by a considerable margin, and (like many issues) public opinion about the probe tends to break down along lines mirroring Pres. Trump’s low job approval numbers.  As a conservative, I’m less concerned about that than that the noisiness of the left online tracks increased enthusiasm for Democrats in 2017’s special elections and what that may portend for the midterms.

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