Leaving Paris: Full of Sound and Fury, But Signifying

Pres. Trump’s announcement that he will withdraw the United States from participation in the Paris climate accord is just about the perfect issue for 2017.

Why?  Because the hot air from all the hot takes will certainly heat the political climate, when in point of fact no one really cares.

As Oren Cass notes, the accord is largely a sham:

“The Accord was doomed before negotiators ever assembled for photographs in December 2015. They were not there to commit each country to meaningful greenhouse-gas reductions; rather, everyone submitted their voluntary pledges in advance, and all were accepted without scrutiny. Pledges did not have to mention emissions levels, nor were there penalties for falling short. The conference itself was, in essence, a stapling exercise.

***

So should the U.S. have stayed or gone? To quote another of President Obama’s secretaries of state: ‘What difference, at this point, does it make?’ For the climate, not much of one. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s assessment of the agreement found that even full compliance would only have reduced global temperatures in 2100 by only 0.2 degrees Celsius.”

Of course, if you were one of those developing countries queuing up for $100 billion dollars in return for not really slowing your carbon emissions, I suppose you might be bummed out.  But when I say no one really cares, I’m focused on Americans.

At home, you can find polls showing Americans backed the accord, though I’d wager they couldn’t tell you much about it.  You can also consistently find data showing climate change ranks near the bottom of voters’ concerns.

To be sure, it ranks at the top for Democratic Party fatcats like Tom Steyer, which means national Dems will pay it lip service, and the chattering classes will crank up the hysteria.  But everyone has noticed the chatterers do not in reality treat it like the looming apocalypse they claim it to be.  (Well, Jonathan Chait hasn’t noticed, but he’s pretty slow.  He’s right that Senate Dems didn’t pass a cap-and-trade bill in 2009-10 because it was bad politics…but so was Obamacare, and Dems moved the Earth to get that to happen.)

And that’s also avoiding the reality that the most public faces on the issue — people like Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio — are revealed to be ginormous hypocrites regarding their own carbon footprints.  The average person sees green activists attacking childbearing, air conditioning, automobiles, barbecue, eating meat, etc. while frolicking in their private jets en route to international conferences and conclude that this debate isn’t very serious.  Indeed, so much of the above is such a well-rehearsed debate that I almost feel guilty burning the carbon necessary to write it.

However, revisiting this kabuki theater is key to why this issue is so 2017.  The volume of hyperbolic outrage from the so-called elites is almost entirely disconnected from the actual stakes, which are virtually nil.  It is thus perfect theater for Trump, with almost no political cost.

Why “almost” no political cost?  As noted above, my point here is about domestic politics.  There are people concerned about it as a demonstration of America’s “lack of leadership” on the world stage (although following along with everyone else on an essentially ineffectual project is an odd benchmark for this).

I don’t entirely dismiss that concern, mostly because it comes on the heels of Trump’s clumsy speech at the dedication of a monument to NATO’s Article 5 pledge of mutual defense that managed to omit an endorsement of Article 5 itself.  But the administration tacitly admitted this screw-up by rushing out an op-ed from National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn as damage control.

With that caveat aside, the withdrawal from the accord is an issue of sound and fury signifying nothing — but an excellent way for the tribes to signify.  What could be more Trumpy than that?

[Note: After writing this yesterday, I’ve spotted variations on this theme from Jason Willick (“Placebo Politics”) and Keith Hennessey (“QTIIPS”).]

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But What About the Media?

We’ve been hearing that question a lot, haven’t we?  But why?

On the one hand, there has been the establishment media’s coverage of Trump, which has been largely negative (though not quite as negative as the Shorenstein Center’s topline numbers, which exclude “neutral” stories).  OTOH, there is Fox News Channel’s coverage of Trump, which is significantly more positive — albeit still marginally negative overall — according to Shorenstein.

And on the third hand, there is Fox’s Tucker Carlson, who chooses to believe or condemn Shorenstein’s studies based on what helps him defend Pres. Trump on a given evening.  “But What About the Media?” has become Fox’s counter-narrative to the establishment media’s steady diet of negative coverage of Trump.

In the area defined by that Bermuda Triangle, you will find people of varying politics doing what I would call media criticism in the political sense, rather than the academic sense.  That is, there are entities (e.g., the Media Research Center or Media Matters for America) and individuals who are primarily in the business of media criticism for political purposes.  This, in a certain sense, is fine: partisans and ideologues posing as journalists may deserve partisans and ideologues posing as media critics.

My point today isn’t to adjudicate any of the competing claims about the coverage.  Rather, given that the factions involved all seem to have an agenda to one degree or another, I thought we’d look at the impact.

According to the latest Harvard-Harris poll, “[n]early two-thirds of Americans say the mainstream press is full of fake news, a sentiment that is held by a majority of voters across the ideological spectrum.”  According to the latest AP/API poll, only a third of people judged the news sources they visit most often to be very accurate.

Yet the continuing drama regarding Trump and his associates has further boosted the ratings for MSNBC and CNN, while Fox’s ratings have remained flat.  This isn’t necessarily surprising.  I would hypothesize that Fox may have drawn in some viewers looking for Trump-friendly coverage, while losing a roughly equal amount of viewers turned off because they find Fox either too Trump-friendly (think Carlson, Sean Hannity, etc.) or not friendly enough (think the straight news coverage).

Meanwhile, Trump’s approval rating plunged to roughly 1415 percent underwater, though the decline seems to have been arrested in recent days.  This is most likely due to Trump’s foreign trip, which was probably a more effective counter-narrative in the media than complaining about media bias.  Notably, the trip also largely kept Trump away from direct contact with the media, both traditional and social.

Nevertheless, over the broader period of the past few weeks or months, Trump’s “strong support” has declined more than his “somewhat support” has risen, while his “strong disapproval” number has risen most of all.

For all of the turbulence in the political environment of the moment, all of the above suggests to me that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  But don’t think that’s trivial.

After all, Pres. Trump was supposed to fundamentally change this dynamic.  Candidate Trump was touted as a master of manipulating the media.  His unfiltered voice was supposed turn Twitter into the 21st century’s version of FDR’s use of radio, sailing over the media White House counselor Stephen Bannon deemed to be the opposition party.  Indeed, this was ostensibly a big part of candidate Trump’s appeal.

This isn’t the first time I’ve suggested that Trump is not a master of the media.  He then went on to win the general election, but he is no longer the supposed “binary choice” against Hillary Clinton, who continues to demonstrate how she lost.

Absent the boogeywoman, Trump looks decidedly like the GOP generally tends to look when embattled by the media: embattled.  And mostly losing, despite attacks on the media from his supporters he wasn’t supposed to need.

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Why Does Dennis Prager Love the Resistance?

That headline might be considered to be in bad faith.  Then again, Dennis Prager‘s disingenuous National Review column regarding those conservatives who still occasionally criticize Pres. Trump practically begs for it.

It gives me no pleasure to write that, btw; after all, those Prager U videos are pretty good.  But here we are.

While Prager claims that he’s attempting to understand former NeverTrump types and change their minds, he largely slurs them as egotistical elitists who cannot admit their mistakes.  Why he seeks to enlist them to aid a man who ran against the failures of egotistical elitists — and why he thinks insults would be persuasive– are questions best left to him to answer.

The irony of Prager publishing a column at NR complaining about Trump skeptics having unrealistic standards is also rich.  It is true that the sort of conservatives that follow in the tradition of NR have higher standards than Prager apparently does.  NR did not endorse Ike in 1956 or Nixon in 1960.  NR later suspended its support for Nixon in 1971.  William F. Buckley even kept NR from endorsing Reagan in 1980 over concerns about his age.

I know most of that because Jonah Goldberg (almost certainly one of Prager’s unnamed targets) wrote about it.  Prager apparently missed it, which I suppose isn’t shocking given that he decided to imagine what his target audience thinks, rather than read up on it.

Goldberg’s response to Prager identifies a number of flaws in the column in his usual cordial and gentlemanly fashion, touching only lightly on Prager’s implicit charges of bad faith.  Dan McLaughlin touches more directly on them.

McLaughlin also addresses point-by-point Trump’s supposed achievements that Prager believes should bring the skeptics to his defense.  This largely saves me the trouble, though I have previously argued that the excellent nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court is as much or more due to the pressure exerted by Trump skeptics than any interest of Trump’s or the pliant sycophancy of Trump’s biggest fans.

I tend to agree (with less hyperbole than Prager) with praising Trump’s cabinet.  But I have noted the uncertainty and dangers created when Trump himself often seems to differ with his cabinet, in apparent ignorance that he differs with them.

Having easily fit Trump’s supposed accomplishments — many of which in fact are not accomplished — into a single paragraph, Prager virtually ignores the liabilities side of the ledger.

As Goldberg has noted,  Trump’s penchant for drama and his Clintonesque habit of throwing suspicion on himself (make no mistake, much of it is generated by Trump) is proving to be a big league obstacle to GOP achievements.  It’s not getting any better:

“For the Republicans running the government, Capitol Hill has become a workplace with extremely poor morale. The moderates fear for their careers, while the conservative true believers see little to hope for. When the liberal magazine Mother Jones credited Representative Justin Amash of Michigan with being the first Republican to raise the possibility of impeachment, the office of Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida called to request a correction: Curbelo had gone there first.

But for the most part, his party has not openly turned on Trump. What would be the point? Behind closed doors, a longtime House Republican staffer told me, a few lawmakers still wholeheartedly defend the president; among the rest, there are differing degrees of fatalism. One group thinks it is possible to fight through the crisis, while another is resigned to ‘a long slow death,’ as this staffer put it, potentially culminating in a Democratic-controlled House beginning impeachment proceedings in 2019. ‘This is like Reservoir Dogs,” the staffer said. “Everyone ends up dead on the floor.’ “

Prager may also want to check in with Jay Cost, who provided a timely example of how Trump’s daily foolhardiness and ignorance present self-created obstacles to getting things done with respect to international issues.  Cost wonders whether the result won’t be a return to power by an even more extreme cadre of left-wingers.  He’s not alone.

Moreover, if Prager wants everyone to fall in behind Trump’s leadership as foot soldiers in what he believes to be a “civil war,” Prager ought to have to address what people see as his leadership abilities within his own White House:

“[F]or connected conservatives in DC, the media isn’t the only source of information about this administration. I’d venture to say that most of them have by now heard at least one or two amazing stories attesting to the emerging conventional wisdom: that the president either can’t, or refuses to, follow any kind of policy discussion for more than a few minutes; that the president will not be told no, or corrected about anything, forcing his staff to take their concerns to the media if they want to get his attention; that the infighting within the West Wing is unprecedentedly vicious, and that those sort of failures always stem from the top; and that his own hand-picked staffers ‘have no respect for him, indeed they seem to palpitate with contempt for him.’ They hear these things from conservatives, including people who were Trump supporters or at least, Trump-neutral. They know these folks. They know, to their sorrow, that these people are telling the truth.”

Prager’s “civil war” metaphor may be the most odious aspect of his piece, this recycling of the “Flight 93 election” mindset from the 2016 hit parade.  He again raises the specter of a Hillary Clinton presidency, largely glossing over the tiny fact that she was not elected.

(Again, if Prager was truly interested in figuring out why some conservatives didn’t buy those histrionics during the campaign, reading Goldberg would have given him at least a half-dozen answers.  For someone trying to understand others, he really seems to have put in zero effort.)

Raising the Flight 93 argument after the election, after the inauguration, after more than 100 days of the Trump administration, is even more ridiculous than it was during the campaign.

After all, most of Trump’s defenders now rail on and on and on and on and on about the hysterical intransigence of the Democrats, the so-called Resistance, the biased establishment media, and the treacherous, leaking bureaucrats of the “deep state.”  That’s the “civil war.”  They’re mostly right, but they’re also lacking in self-awareness.

You can certainly make the case that the Resistance (broadly defined to include all of the above) represents a political escalation.  But isn’t this escalation fueled by precisely the sort of apocalyptic delirium that is at the heart of the Flight 93 mindset?

How can the people who insist that the United States of America is so feeble, so lacking in resilience that it could be irreparably broken by a careerist grifter like Hillary Clinton (using a metaphor that cast her as al Qaeda) pretend to have the moral authority to deny the Left the same level of frenzied derangement over a Trump administration?

If Hillary had won narrowly as Trump did, and America was truly doomed as a result, are Trump’s supporters saying they would have rejected attempts to de-legitimize her election?  Can Trump’s supporters claim they would not have marched in the streets, rationalized the inevitable bit of street violence, filibustered her Supreme Court nominee, demonized and dragged out her other nominations, or engaged in a campaign of coordinated leaking to undermine her if they could?  After all, the fate of the country for all time was at stake, wasn’t it?

Does anyone doubt Trump would have been on board for some or all of the above?  Bueller?

If Prager had not started from a position of condescension toward people he did not make any effort to understand, he might have reflected on how this core pro-Trump claim was always intellectually lazy and has aged badly.  He might have realized why the Flight 93 mindset is appalling, rather than appealing, to those he ostensibly sought to convince.  And he might have realized how much Trump supporters think like the Resistance.

Did that go too far?  I’m sorry; I heard bad faith and nihilism were “in” this season.

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Wonder Woman, Berkeley, and the Next Civil Rights Movement

According to the Daily Mail, Stephen Miller, a writer for the conservative site Heat Street, provoked “fury” and “outrage” online by announcing he would be attending a “no boys allowed” screening of Wonder Woman at the Alamo Drafthouse movie theater in Brooklyn, New York.

But who is the provocateur here?  The theater that on the face of it appears to be violating New York’s civil rights law by at at a minimum advertising a sex-segregated screening?  Or the guy who bought a movie ticket, as appears to be his legal right?

Even so, there are conservatives who find Miller’s announcement to be distasteful, a “stunt.”  Sadly, I think this in large part because so much of the Right has internalized the Left’s framing of civil rights.  In that frame, civil rights laws — whatever the text may be — really only exist to protect certain victim classes from the oppression of straight, white, Christian males.

Of course, if anyone on the Right overtly made that case, he or she would be publicly torched for being so patronizing.  When the Left does it, it’s virtuous.

But the ambivalence many conservatives have about the Miller story also relates to more deeply ingrained resistance to flamboyant or confrontational political tactics, even in the service of a proper political vision, even in the service of something as bedrock to conservatives and libertarians as preserving the rule of law.

After all, it’s just a sex-segregated movie screening.  Then again, it’s just race-segregation being sought at a growing number of colleges and universities.  And it’s just these institutions that are becoming hotbeds of anti-Semitism.  And it’s just institutions of higher learning where free inquiry and expression is increasingly suppressed, occasionally with violence (with few repercussions).

The illiberalism incubated on college campuses and now spreading into the broader society has been coming for a long time, since the early 1980s at a minimum.

How many of these “justs” are we going to endure before people do more to face the unjust?

For the most part, the Right has been content to write and complain.  To be sure, there are organizations, notably the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, that seek to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities, both through litigation and support of proposed legislation at the state and federal level.  Yet the retrograde and totalitarian tide has rolled on.

It therefore seems as though America needs a new — or renewed — civil rights movement.  Litigation, legislation and punditry may be necessary parts of that movement, but people should be noticing by now that organized activism — even nonviolent forms of confrontation — also may be required.

An organized movement would be able to train activists to behave in a disciplined, nonviolent manner and to make a principled case against discrimination and for freedom of expression (and other civil rights).

An organized movement would also seek to persuade groups like the College Republicans and YAF to invite people like Ben Shapiro or Stephen Miller to speak as the face of a new movement, instead of letting the current vacuum be filled by inflammatory self-promoters like Ann Coulter, Tomi Lauren and Milo Yiannopoulos.

An organized movement would forego silly ideas like a general boycott of Disney — an overbroad notion doomed to fail.  It might embrace targeted boycotts or protests of particular bad actors at moments when they have clearly overstepped.

An organized movement would be able to seek participation and support from those liberals who still believe in the classically liberal conception of civil rights.  Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Fareed Zakaria, Van Jones and John McWhorter are a few of those who have recently spoken against left-wing intolerance, particularly on campuses.  Are they willing to do more than talk?  Shouldn’t someone be willing to find out?

Conversely, would folks on the Right be willing to collaborate with a liberal like Richard Dreyfus on nonpartisan projects to revive the teaching of civics in America?  I would like to think that this sort of bridge could be built, and with other like-minded liberals and centrists who recognize the threats posed by extremists on both sides of the spectrum.

Perhaps things had to get this bad.  Perhaps the New New Left had to reach a certain point of gutting institutions and trampling norms before conservatives would even consider the sort of activist tactics that would typically be the bailiwick of the Left.  Perhaps things will have to get worse before conservatives and others will commit to an activism meant to supplant violence and identitarian politics.

But I suspect that in the medium term, that would be the best-case scenario.

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The Second-Best Part of the Trump Budget

In yesterday’s puckish post, I suggested that the Trump administration’s “LOL, nothing matters” approach to budgeting was strangely more honest about not only the general incompetence of the administration, but also the historically farcical practice of presidential budgeting.

Today, I want to be marginally more serious about yesterday’s secondary point, which was that the reaction to the Trump budget suggests many conservatives are resigned to Trump’s non-conservative priorities, especially his rejection of entitlement reform.

It seems to me that conservatives could use Trump’s budget, and the overwrought reaction from progressives, as a teachable moment.  Conservatives could point out that Trump’s LOL budget is a Dickensian Ghost of Budgets Yet to Come.

We live in a world where North Korea is test-firing missiles that can reach Japan (and the regime seemingly killed a suspected coup plotter with nerve gas in a foreign airport), Iran continues covertly developing a nuclear program, Russia continues to destabilize places from Syria to the Ukraine, and religious fanatics commit mass murder against teenage girls in Manchester.  The need for spending on national security isn’t going anywhere.

And the Trump budget aligns with the Democratic dogma that rejects long-term reforms to entitlement programs (when the solutions could be much milder than what may have to be done in an actual fiscal crisis).

So when Democrats howl over Trump’s proposed cuts to domestic spending, conservatives could use the opportunity to note that this sort of budget is what Democrats want for our children and grandchildren.

Dems may respond that they would simply gut the military (and I suspect that’s a decent likelihood when we eventually have a fiscal crisis), but that wouldn’t be a good look for Dems now, and I suspect not in the near-future, either.

They may respond that they can raise taxes on “the rich,”  But Dems decided to keep the Bush tax rates for families making up to $250,000 annually, because they know what the political fallout would have been for letting them expire.

Many Dems live in high cost-of-living areas like Sen. Chuck Schumer’s New York, where a two-union-employee couple might bump up dangerously close to that threshold.  Also, households making $100,000 to $250,000 probably are used to a certain way of life and have disposable income to donate to challengers if the incumbents threaten that lifestyle.

Trump’s unserious budget could be held up as a mirror to show the long-standing unseriousness of the Left on budgetary issues.  Most GOPers in Congress won’t do it, because they largely aren’t serious and are secretly glad Trump is allowing them to ignore entitlements.  But the supposed standard-bearers for traditional conservatism could do it as a first step to re-entering the political discourse.

[And with that, have a happy Memorial Day weekend. Eat well, and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for us and our freedoms.]

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The Best Part of the Trump Budget

Commentary’s Noah C. Rothman finds Democrats’ hyperbolic reaction to Pres. Trump’s budget “a happy return to normalcy,” insofar as the rhetoric is at least as familiar as it is partisan.  Given that the political environment of the past few weeks has often seemed like a fly-by-night carnival ride so rickety you could hear the metal fatigue, I understand the sense of relief.

But the normalcy is arguably the worst thing about the unveiling of the Trump budget.  The best thing about it may be the Trumpiest thing about it.

The normalcy wasn’t just in the Democratic reaction.  The National Review editorial on the budget was also what you would expect: “Trump’s budget is ill-advised in many of its particulars and incompetent in others, but as a statement of priorities, it is very much what one would expect from a conventional Republican president — perhaps too much so.”

The editors note that Trump’s priorities — increasing defense spending and not touching entitlements (indeed, proposing a new one) — result in proposed discretionary spending that Congress will reject as far too low.

For conservative standard-bearers, this reaction (fairly common on the Right, tbh) carries more than a whiff of resignation over Trump’s priorities (esp. wrt entitlements) in the first instance.  I can’t fault the editors’ realism, but there is not much sense of standing athwart history yelling “Stop!”, either.

Trump’s ascendancy was a rude awakening for conservatarians who thought the GOP was a reliable vehicle for our agenda.  It’s been plain for years that Republicans aren’t big on decreasing government spending outside foreign aid and welfare; but Trump made this inconvenient truth impossible to ignore.

The general conservative reaction to the Trump budget, while “normal,” also highlights that traditional conservatives have yet to rethink what — if anything — we might be doing differently to convince the GOP of the necessity for fiscal responsibility.  Worse, I suspect the effort is privately viewed as somewhat futile and may well be somewhat futile.

The best part of the Trump budget, therefore, may not be the normalcy of the reactions it provoked, but the delightfully Trumpy way in which it is being “defended.”

NR’s editors and others noted the Trump budget double-counts more than $2 trillion in estimated tax revenue, which means the budget would not balance in a decade as promised, even if the administration’s rosy economic assumption of 3% GDP growth was achieved.  NR: “If the Trump team is expecting those kinds of returns, they are dreaming; if they have simply double-counted the expected revenue growth, they are incompetent.”

Trump’s Budget Director, Mick Mulvaney, freely admitted the double-counting was intentional.  And he told the House Budget Committee that “Trumpeconomics is whatever achieves 3%.”  Indeed, he added that the budget cannot be balanced without entitlement reform while presenting a budget that claims to do so without it.

The Trump budget, therefore, could be summed up with a phrase popular with the kids: “LOL, nothing matters.”

My problem with this approach is not so much that the administration is not taking its statutory duty to submit a budget seriously; after all, Congress hasn’t taken presidential budgets seriously for decades.

Rather, my problem is that Mulvaney didn’t go far enough.  He should have reminded the House Budget Committee that Congress does not take these budgets seriously, Trump got elected not giving a tinker’s damn about policy, and the Republicans who elected him care about getting their benefits, not fiscal responsibility.

He also should have reminded the House that the GOP Congress does not distinguish between entitlements and discretionary spending so much as it does between spending that is “Too Big to Touch” and “Too Small to Count.”

“Normal” is ultimately not comforting when “normal” is dysfunctional.  While I wish Mulvaney had gone further, there was enough of Col. Jessup admitting he ordered the Code Red to reflect the unfiltered rhetoric voters liked about Trump in the first place.  Mulvaney’s wink-and-a-nod also ought to serve as a reminder that conservatives still need to figure out a plan for regaining a constituency, if they’re still interested in that sort of thing.

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Donald Trump and the Dark Knight, Revisited

During the 2016 campaign, some conservatives had fun comparing then-candidate Donald Trump to Batman villains.  Ben Domenech would slip in a reference suggesting Trump as The Joker from Christoper Nolan’s The Dark Knight.  Sonny Bunch conducted a more general survey.

I was amused, but idly wondered in passing why the comparison was not to Bane or the Joker, but to Nolan’s vision of the Batman.  After all, Nolan’s Dark Knight was a generally angry, attention-seeking, and vengeful billionaire out to drain the swamp of Gotham City by striking fear into the hearts of his enemies.

Having thought less idly about it, I think I have an answer.

Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is in substantial part about the corruption of a modern society and the decline of small-l liberal institutions, particularly government.  One of the themes explored in the films — particularly the end of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight — is that cultural decay breeds escalation.

In The Dark Knight, the Joker is presented as an escalation, but Alfred makes a key point to Bruce Wayne:

“Bruce Wayne: Targeting me won’t get their money back. I knew the mob wouldn’t go down without a fight, but this is different. They crossed the line.

Alfred Pennyworth: You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.”

People jumped on the notion that Trump was the man the GOP didn’t fully understand, though his decades in the public eye might have informed them.  In this reading, the GOP was squeezed into desperation by the leftist overreach of the Obama era.

But what 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 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.

And this is why Trump is not the Batman.  Nolan’s Batman operated outside societal norms on a tactical level, but those tactics were married toward a vision of a restored and reformed small-l liberal society.

Trump, otoh, no longer shows much interest in draining the swamp, and it’s showing up in his approval ratings.  The Coiffed Crusader seems to have a difficult time even controlling his own White House.

Trump’s fans think that his O’Reilly-esque small-c conservatism is that vision of an America Made Great Again, when it looks a lot like white identity politics to others.  If Trump were the Batman, he’d be seriously attacking the corrupt, sclerotic administrative state that fuels white identity politics.  Instead, Trump is a figure who depends upon those politics for his political success, and perhaps now his political viability.  He is a Batman with all of the fury and vengeance, but without the civic spirit.

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Can No One Manage a Scandal Anymore?

Yesterday’s post was ultimately a comment on Pres. Trump’s problems with crisis management as he navigates the sort of cloud that hangs around the investigation(s) into possible ties between a few of his campaign associates and Russia.  Today, I have a few notes about how Trump’s opponents and his supporters are performing in this environment.

Spoiler: Not, great, Bob.

Trump Opponents: For all the talk of a schism within the GOP, Trump’s harshest critics — National Democrats, the vast majority of the establishment media, and the hardcore, conspiracy-theorizing anti-Trumpers — are proceeding in an essentially paranoid schizophrenic manner.

National Democrats, even those who might prefer a more sober approach, are being pushed by hysterical progressive activists into shrill rhetoric and grandstanding.  This will likely have two results, neither of which help Dems much.

First, the maximum partisan approach may energize Leftists, but it will almost certainly energize Trump’s supporters and perhaps even sway some marginal Republicans into sympathizing with Trump.  Second, as The Federalist’s Mary Katharine Ham is fond of saying, when people insist on turning everything up to 11, it becomes a white noise that many simply tune out.

Outside the Left’s coastal and urban strongholds, however, Democrats have made the tactical decision in special elections to focus on issues like middle-class tax cuts(!) and the GOP’s unpopular healthcare bill, rather than making these races referenda on Trump’s alleged scandals.

Insofar as I have been banging on the parallels between Trump (so far) and Bill Clinton, I note this from the Washington Post about the tactic of focusing on Trump’s troubles:

“Republicans made a similar mistake back in 1998, when President Bill Clinton was mired in a sex scandal that led to impeachment by the House. In the closing weeks of the 1998 midterms, Republicans tried to turn the election into a referendum on Clinton’s personal behavior — but voters did not hold Democrats responsible for what was such a personal foible of the president. Republicans ended up losing seats that year.”

I will also remind you that focusing on issues over personalities was also useful to opponents of Silvio Berlusconi, a figure often held up as a proto-Trump example.

Trump Supporters:  Outside the White House, the President’s supporters in Congress, the non-Left media, etc., are making some of the same mistakes national Dems are making.

Supporters’ overwhelming and obsessive focus on the establishment media fuels the polarization of the issue.  And it also runs afoul of the aforementioned Rule of Ham.  It quickly becomes a roaring whine that many will tune out.  If you’re Trump-neutral or even mildly Trump-friendly, ask yourself what the casual viewer thinks of, say, Jeffrey Lord.

The polarization may help Trump marginally in the short-term.  But pumping up the volume will also fuel the sense of dysfunction that may be unhelpful to Trump (esp. if, as seems to be the case, he’s incapable of following yesterday’s advice).

There is also the potential for a reverse psychological effect; the more hysterically supporters insist there is nothing to see here, the less people may come to believe it.  There is a limit to the utility of hog wrasslin’.

Supporters also focus on the leakers.  While this is a legit concern, as I’ve noted in passing before, it is difficult to think of an example where attacking leakers changed the political environment.  This approach also tends to have the same weaknesses as the attacks on the media.

Lastly, some Trump-friendlies (including Sean Hannity) seem bent on blaming former NeverTrumpers for Trump’s plight.  I guess I see the appeal here.  Dolchstoßlegende will hit some people’s hot buttons.  The heretic is always more hated than the infidel.

In this regard, the above-mentioned conspiracy-theorizing anti-Trumpers make a juicy target (or would if people like Hannity were not peddling their own debunked conspiracy theories as an attempted distraction, to the disgust and dismay of some FNC colleagues).  As for the more conventional Trump-skeptical or “calling balls-and-stikes” types, it might be more profitable for supporters to try to win friends and influence people, particularly if Trump continues shooting himself in the foot.

Indeed, I’d also suggest that focusing on the relatively tiny population of elite former NT types is silly, because they by definition almost certainly voted for someone else.  You may as well berate libertarians.  I’d further suggest that it’s counter-productive, insofar as it exaggerates the former NTers’ importance.  The casual viewer only sees “GOP in disarray,” which is not the narrative Trump wants.

Overall, I tend to agree with Stephen Hadley that the Reagan approach of empowering and supporting an investigation (and ultimately embracing its findings), while getting on with governing, as Reagan did during the Iran-Contra scandal, is a more effective approach than the trench warfare approach favored by Nixon and occasionally Bill Clinton.  The latter only creates the perception that there is something to hide, even if there is not.

The lesson that we might take from all of this (including yesterday’s post) is that almost everyone would probably profit by focusing on the issues that matter to American voters, not least American voters.

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What Trump Won’t Learn From His Foreign Trip

Pres. Trump gave a sober speech to the Muslim world in Riyadh that generally received good reviews.  The snap analysis from Jonathan Swan is representative.

Some may chuckle that Trump’s measured rhetoric was not what his biggest fans signed up for, and that those fans will now pretend they were always cool with diplomacy. Some (like me) may joke that they’re old enough to remember when the non-Left made fun of Pres. Obama for needing a TelePrompTer to excel.

More seriously, some may dispute parts of Trump’s implicit critique of the prior two administrations’ foreign policy (which in fairness is pretty consistent for him, despite the change in tone).

And even those who approve generally of Trump’s effort to rebalance U.S. policy in the Middle East back toward the Sunni-dominated nations and away from Iran might take a moment to consider there may be some unintended consequences (and that such consequences historically tend not to benefit us).  But overall, the speech was a serious effort warranting serious responses.

My focus here, however, is on the domestic impact of Trump’s speech (and foreign trip, as a whole, presuming he continues to perform similarly; he’s been described as “exhausted” already).

The obvious context is a White House that is somewhat under siege for things Trump has said — or allegedly said — off-prompter.

If you agree with me that there are a number of parallels between the Clinton era and what we’ve seen so far of the Trump era, you can see how Trump’s foreign trip can help him weather the storm on the homefront.

As I’ve previously noted, a key element in Bill Clinton’s crisis management blueprint was to triple down on doing his job — or at least to create the appearance of doing so.  Bubba proved Americans can be pretty lax regarding scandals if you deliver results — or are at least seen as trying to focus on their concerns over the Beltway’s concerns.  Spending a week focused on foreign policy — and not conducting unscripted interviews with the press — could at least help take the pot off the boil.

The problem is that, even if it works, Trump is unlikely to internalize it as a lesson.

For all of the parallels so far between the Trump administration and the Clinton administration, there is at least one big difference.  Bill Clinton, perhaps from years of experience in office, realized that he needed strong political discipline to compensate for his lack of personal discipline.

Trump, on the other hand, lacks that experience and so far lacks that political insight or discipline.  This can be seen as recently as his response to the appointment of a special counsel to lead the so-called Russia probe.

Like the “I’m going to work hard for the American people” tactic, Clinton understood the value of placing his scandals under official investigation.  The appointment of independent counsels allowed the Clinton White House to stop responding to questions about various scandals on a continuing basis: “I’m sorry, we can’t comment on a matter under investigation.”

Instead of recognizing this benefit, one even discussed on “the shows,” Trump’s response was his usual response.  The world’s alpha male whined and complained about how unfair it was that Pres. Obama and Hillary Clinton had not suffered the indignity of such an investigation (despite the FBI investigation of Hillary keeping her disqualifying qualities on the public’s mind during the 2016 campaign).

Maybe crisis management sinks in with Trump eventually, if it could be sold to him as clever.  But he is not — as many of his critics suggest — an angry toddler.  He’s a 70-year-old man who has become President behaving the way he does.  Everyone keeps hoping for a pivot that hasn’t come in the entire time he has been on the political stage.  But moments like his Riyadh speech may be exactly that — moments, to be weighed against the other, more unfortunate moments.

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Rock & Roll and the Dumb Politics of the New New Left

Given a yesterday without bombshell news for a change, let’s step out of the Trumpian vortex on a Friday to talk about Rock & Roll — or its sociopolitcal implications, anyway.

With an introduction focused on Elvis Presley, George Will wrote a column summing up many of the problems with the ongoing Leftist campaign against “cultural appropriation” a week ago (it only seems like a year ago).  It’s quite good, so RTWT.  But Will misses perhaps the most remarkable thing about this Leftist hobby horse: it’s remarkably dumb politics.

In describing politics, I am fond of paraphrasing Dale Carnegie (thereby showing my age): Politics is about winning friends and influencing people.  I know that sounds crazy to some in the age of #WAR and “But he FIGHTS!”  The reality, however, is that even Donald Trump had to forge a coalition to win the presidency.

To the degree that Rock & Roll represents a cultural appropriation, it was also one part of several intertwined phenomena that helped fuel the civil rights movement, one of the greatest victories for small-l liberalism in our nation’s history.  Young America was coming together on dancefloors in the years between Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The kids — and families — who weren’t on the dance floor nevertheless could see Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and LaVern Baker on The Ed Sullivan Show or American Bandstand.

Moreover, as Will’s column noted in passing, the cultural appropriation in Rock & Roll ran both ways.  Elvis Presley publicly acknowledged his debt to the genius of Fats Domino.  OTOH, Domino’s best-known recording, “Blueberry Hill,” was written by three white dudes (one an Italian immigrant) and was first recorded as a Country tune by singing cowboy Gene Autry.

The Beach Boys borrowed so much from Chuck Berry that they were forced to give him a writing credit on “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” the music and lyrical conceit of which was lifted from Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.”  OTOH, Berry’s seminal “Maybelline” owed a lot to a western swing number, “Ida Red,” that Bob Willis and the Texas Playboys used to play in racially integrated nightclubs.

The civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” was written by folk giant Pete Seeger.  To ask whether African-Americans should have given the song a pass because Seeger was a person of pallor should make the silliness of the cultural appropriation argument self-evident.

I don’t want to paint Rock & Roll as some totally enlightened vanguard of civil rights.  There was certainly racism in the record industry, as there was in so many industries at the time.  American Bandstand put black performers in front of a national audience, but the dancers weren’t really integrated nearly as soon as Dick Clark would claim in later years.

Nevertheless, Rock & Roll was more enlightened than many corners of American life in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  It was a party to which almost anyone could be invited, particularly outsiders.  It made friends and influenced people.

One would think the current generation of cultural commissars would grasp this as a classic example of culture being upstream of politics.  Instead, their obsession with identity politics causes them to lose sight of the bigger picture.

Are you thinking thinking that the civil rights movement is a stale example of this problem?

This particular bunch of delusional college students hail from Canada, but American leftists will arrive there soon enough.  And after they airbrush Lou Reed out of the history of trailblazing artists sympathetic to the LGBTQ crowd, they will move on to David Bowie, who made a legendary career out of many types of appropriation.

Left to their their own devices the Young Totalitarians will turn Rock & Roll from an open-door block party into an exclusive club.  And they won’t notice the club is nearly empty.

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