Does Trump More Accurately Reflect the GOP Coalition Than Elites Do?

Friday’s posting received a fair amount of discussion on Twitter over the weekend, due to Jay Cost, John Podhoretz and Rich Lowry (thanks, gents).  Although I was chiefly concerned with whether conservatives should stick with the GOP, an interesting side point — or assertion — was made by Avik Roy:

I tend to agree with this in some ways, but not in others. And much depends on how the terms are defined.

On Friday, I agreed with the general proposition that conservatism can be a tough sell for many Americans.  And to quote myself: “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.”  I’d even add that part of Trump’s appeal to voters during the primaries was in his seeming rejection of George W. Bush’s more interventionist foreign policy (whatever Trump may be doing now).

OTOH, referring again to “The Five Types of Trump Voters,” as I did on Friday, I would note that attitudes toward Hillary Clinton were one of the four big issues distinguishing Trump voters from non-Trump voters.  Among the two largest segments of “Trumpier” voters — American Preservationists (20%) and Anti-Elites (19%) — nearly half had positive views of Clinton in 2012.  That view — held by approximately one-fifth of Trump voters — was probably not a general view of the GOP coalition.

Similarly, top Democratic Party strategists now believe Obama-Trump voters effectively accounted for more than two-thirds of the reason Clinton lost.

It is probably fair to say that Obama voters and those favorable to Hillary in 2012 are not all that representative of the GOP coalition.  I suppose you could argue for including such people in a GOP coalition, but they were not there before.

Eakins also noted that during the most active stretch of the 2016 GOP primaries, Trump won only 36% of the vote.  He had the lowest percentage of internal party support for a GOP nominee (below losing nominees like Mitt Romney and John McCain) in decades.  That weakness didn’t stop Trump from winning the Electoral College, but it is not a sign that someone represents the GOP coalition particularly well.

Moreover, as I have noted on several occasions, down-ballot GOP candidates generally outpolled Trump, frequently with a different “map” than Trump, appealing less to working-class whites and more to college-educated whites.  As I’ve also noted, John Judis — a progenitor of the Emerging Democratic Majority theory — charted the GOP’s overall improvement with white voters, but particularly college-educated white voters, back in 2015.

While it’s true that that the Democratic Party has been conceding working-class white voters since 1992 (at least), if people want to say Trump did disproportionately well with this group, it is difficult to simultaneously argue that the excess non-college educated whites were part of the existing GOP coalition.

Of course, all of the above may be true and it may still be possible to argue that Trump is nonetheless more representative of the GOP coalition than GOP elites.  But this argument depends on how you define the Republican elites.

Trump might be more representative of the GOP coalition than the elite conservative commentariat (though National Review, for example, has been hawkish on immigration for years).  He may be more representative than the party’s donor class (though he often seems comfortable with or acquiescent to their priorities).  And Trump is moving to assert influence and control over the party apparat in key states.

But it is difficult to say that he is more representative than the Congressional party which (as noted above) generally got more votes than he did.  Granted, the Congressional party has the flexibility to offer Charlie Dent and Mark Meadows to different constituencies, whereas a President must appeal across districts and states.  But a pattern so consistent, including demographically, tends to suggest approval of those elites at a higher level than Trump.

Even then, it might be argued that his agenda is more popular than that of Congressional party (which is ostensibly influenced by the commentariat and the donors).  The problem with this is that Trump’s success generally tends to show how little voters care about the details of policy in the first instance.

This, in turn, makes the entire issue of who is more representative of the GOP coalition a questionable exercise.  Trump delegates much to a relatively conventional cabinet that often seems to be on a different page, and his failure to nominate people at the sub-cabinet level tends to cede influence to the permanent bureaucracy.  The quality of the White House staff is such that Congress must take the lead (such as it does) on major legislation.  In this environment, does it matter how much more representative Trump may be?

The answer may be “yes,” if you’re thinking about the future, as I was.  But then you’re back in Friday’s discussion of whether anyone, including Trump, can maintain the coalition he assembled.  Even if you assume Trump got elected by being more representative of the GOP than the elites were, maintaining a particular broad coalition is difficult for any President, let alone any potential successor.

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The GOP Crack-Up That Won’t Happen. Probably.

Let’s try to end the week on a glass half-full note, shall we?

Kevin D. Williamson has a piece up at National Review sparked by Bill Kristol’s ostensible proposal to start a new conservative political party.  In fairness, as Williamson does not link to Kristol, note that he’s apparently referring to a Kristol tweet mocking Trump Chief of Staff Reince Preibus for extreme sycophancy, followed by a Twitter poll — and we should remember that Mr. K’s troll game is strong.  So the debate here is perhaps not entirely serious, but good fodder nonetheless.

Williamson argues that globalization poses a problem for a conservative party and more broadly that Americans do not want what conservatives are selling.  Sadly, Williamson is likely correct in many respects.

The good news is that a new conservative party is unnecessary.  The snarky version of this is that a mostly ineffectual conservative faction in the GOP is largely interchangeable with an ineffectual conservative third party, except that it would free up the GOP to be even less conservative and likely shift national politics leftward on balance.

The less snarky version involves looking at what Emily Eakins of the Voter Study Group calls “The Five Types of  Trump Voters.”  As the title suggests, Eakins found that there really is no monolithic bloc of Trump voters, but five clusters: American Preservationists (20%), Staunch Conservatives (31%), Anti-Elites (19%), Free Marketeers (25%), and the Disengaged (5%).

I won’t go through this analysis in detail, though I do (if only for entertainment purposes) want to quote part of the description of American Preservationists, who tend to be the popular stereotype of Trump voters:

“These Trump voters lean economically progressive, believe the economic and political systems are rigged, have nativist immigration views, and a nativist and ethnocultural conception of American identity.

“Although American Preservationists are less loyal Republicans than other Trump voter groups, and nearly half had positive views of Clinton in 2012, American Preservationists comprise the core Trump constituency that propelled him to victory in the early Republican primaries.

“American Preservationists have low levels of formal education and the lowest incomes of the Trump groups—and non-Trump voters as well. Despite being the most likely group to say that religion is “very important” to them, they are the least likely to attend church regularly. They are the most likely group to be on Medicaid, to report a permanent disability that prevents them from working, and to regularly smoke cigarettes. Despite watching the most TV, they are the least politically informed of the Trump groups.”

As noted above, this demographic is only one-fifth of Trump voters.  Eakins found that overall, “Trump voters hold very different views on a wide variety of issues including immigration, race, American identity, moral traditionalism, trade, and economics.”  Moreover, “[f]our issues distinguish Trump voters from non-Trump voters: attitudes toward Hillary Clinton, evaluations of the economy, views about illegal immigration, and views about and Muslim immigration.”

This study, interesting in itself, also suggests why a new conservative party is unnecessary, even if the clusters Kristol likely favors only constitute 56% of Trump’s voters.

As Jay Cost noted shortly after the election:

Cost went on to note that even FDR’s coalition of urban ethnics, Western populists, and Southern segregationists did not hold up for as commonly thought.

Sean Trende elaborated on similar ideas in The Lost Majority.  In the introduction to that book, Trende faulted pundits who looked at presidential coalitions and failed to recognize they were tenuous and dependent on unique historical circumstances, not durable majorities conjured up through the force of personalities.

With this backdrop, we can better assess the future of the GOP versus some offshoot conservative third party.

Is Pres. Trump’s coalition is likely to be long-lasting?  The diversity found in even the four major clusters would tend to argue against it.  That large segments of the coalition are comprised of people who were favorable to Hillary Clinton in 2012, but became disenchanted with her suggests the potential for poaching by good Democratic politicians.

Indeed, given the rockiness of the past few months, it is far from obvious that Trump — who succeeded largely by instinct and improvisation — possesses the sort of political skills that may be required to maintain his own coalition.  This is not necessarily a yuge knock on Trump; Cost and Trende would tell you it’s a very difficult task even for the best of politicians.

Furthermore, as Eakins notes: “The 17 candidates who competed for the Republican primary nomination remind us that when Republican primary voters had other options, many chose someone other than Trump. In the early primaries held during February and March, Trump garnered only about a third (36 percent) while a majority (64 percent) of Republican primary voters cast their ballots for Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, or one of the other candidates.”

Thus, for those who despair of the current state of the GOP, the solution is not to start a third party.  The solution is to recognize that heterodox Presidents generally do not change the basic ideological bent of their parties in the medium-term.

Trump too shall pass.  Find the promising politicians who might assemble the next coalition.  Conservatives will need to focus on an agenda that is principled, but targeted to that next, better coalition.  That’s almost certainly easier blogged than done, but given the number of GOPers who outpolled Trump in their states or districts in 2016, it should be doable.

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The Alexandria Shooting and the Rules of Political #WAR

Per the New York Times: “A lone gunman who was reportedly distraught over President Trump’s election opened fire on Republican members of the congressional baseball team at a practice field in this Washington suburb [Alexandria, VA] on Wednesday, using a rifle to shower the field with bullets that struck four people, including Steve Scalise, the majority whip of the House of Representatives.”

And to underscore that this shooting differs from the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, this from Politico:

In the hours after Wednesday morning’s shooting, one big difference emerged between Giffords’s assailant [Jared] Loughner and James Hodgkinson, who critically injured House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La) and four others before being shot by police. Whereas Loughner’s history of failed military service, run-ins with the law, and mental health records indicated a paranoid, mentally ill man without clear political intentions, the history of yesterday’s shooter indicated a man who had set out deliberately to harm Republican lawmakers.”

Nevertheless, these shooting incidents spur a lot of discussion that has become routine, so let’s fast-forward through some of it.

The first iteration is usually rights-talk, because contemporary America loves rights-talk. I support the First and Second Amendments to the Constitution, but they would remain the supreme law of the land even if I did not.

So let’s move directly on to the issue of responsibilities, the question of what we should make of the fact that inflammatory political speech may occasionally trigger someone to violence.  And both Left and Right should find food for thought from this shooting.

The Left has a problem.  When they let prominent pundits like Paul Krugman, Andrew Sullivan and Markos Moulitsas falsely blame Sarah Palin for the Giffords shooting (with the NYT Ed Board walking right up to the line at the time, and right over the line last night), for the rather cliched and innocuous act of putting bullseyes on a map of targeted Congressional Districts, they let their ghoulish desire for a momentary political advantage trap them in a situation like this one.

Indeed, since the Giffords shooting, the Left has gotten worse on the relationship of speech to political violence.  Increasingly, Leftists majoring in Totalitarian Studies at progressive universities and colleges like Oberlin, Duke and Middlebury are parroting Toni Morrison’s adage that “oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence.”

This is profoundly illiberal.  I have previously quoted Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:

It is not merely that an assault on an ideology is different from a threat made to a person; it is that it is the opposite of a threat made to a person.  The whole end of liberal civilization is to substitute the criticism of ideas for assaults on people.”

Gopnik was referring to the Islamist reaction to and attacks on Charlie Hebdo, but the point is equally applicable here.

The Right also has a problem.  To be sure, it is difficult to not experience at least a frisson of schadenfreude at the Leftists being forced to reckon with their disgraceful behavior in the aftermath of the Giffords shooting.  It will be tempting to wallow in that schadenfreude.

This is a temptation which should be resisted.  The Alinskyite tactic of making one’s opponents live up to their own standards is far more defensible when holding people to high standards.  Reinforcing the Leftist idea that people may be blamed for the violence of others lowers standards and fuels the vicious cycle of escalation of the current political moment.  It is possible to attack hypocrisy without becoming part of it ourselves.

The Alexandria shooting also reveals something important about the #WAR faction of the Right.

It is one thing to refer to the “culture war” in America, as this is fairly standard political hyperbole.  It is another to speak of a culture war, a “civil war,” a “cold civil war,” or a “Flight 93 election” to describe an existential event, as the #WAR folks do.

To claim that any such “war” is existential is to implicitly suggest that political violence must follow.  If conservatives are being assaulted on college campuses, if the House Majority Whip is shot, are these not violent acts of actual war?  And if the fate of America rests in the balance, is violence not to be expected or tolerated in return? (see, e.g., those so-called conservatives who defended then-candidate, now-GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte’s assault of a journalist.)

The answer, incidentally, is “no.”  Confront most of the keyboard commandos and radio radicals about their “war” rhetoric and they will almost immediately concede that they don’t mean, you know, “war war.”  The argumentum ad masculinum quickly goes limp in the face of true violence.  The West Coast Straussians aren’t getting gang tats and cruising the mean streets of Berkeley in an Escalade, looking to mow down the antifa.

The #WAR faction, despite their chest-puffing, is committed to doing little more than the supposed elite girly-pundits attending their Beltway cocktail parties and covert Stonecutters meetings.  The #WARmongers aren’t getting ready to shoot their AR-15s, they’re getting ready to shoot off their mouths, just like virtually everyone else.  Except everyone else isn’t a phony blowhard about it.

Inasmuch as the wi-fi warriors have now been caught with their Big Boy Pants down, perhaps people of good will — Left and Right — can focus on discrediting the idea that words and ideas are political violence, or justify it.

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The Right Catches Impeachment Fever

I don’t mean to single out Byron York, whose thoughts on impeachment are increasingly common in conservative media; he presents them well.  There is growing interest in the narrative that the Democrats are absolutely bent on impeaching Pres. Trump and will do so should they regain control of the House of Representatives in 2018.  But York adds the crucial caveat at the end of his analysis:

“In the end, though, it all depends on the facts of the Trump-Russia case. If there are piles of new and damning evidence that emerge between now and November 2018, that will certainly encourage some Democrats to run on impeachment. But if Trump-Russia is still a story in which a reasonable person could determine that the president did nothing to warrant removal, then Democrats face a danger in appearing over-eager to bring down Trump. One could even imagine Republicans using the issue against Democrats, charging that the only plan they have if elected in 2018 is to impeach the president, as opposed to, say, trying to improve the voters’ lives.”

Well yes, if piles of incriminating evidence mount, some (or more) Democrats would raise impeachment as an issue.  But the more significant part here is about the Republicans, though it is so far conservative media primarily stoking the idea that the GOP can run a midterm campaign based around the idea that Democrats will impeach Trump if they win.

This notion has been fueled by polls like the one from Politico/Morning Consult showing 43% of registered voters want Congress to begin impeachment proceedings.  And that seems like a high number, but Dem pollster Peter Hart notes it’s difficult to tell how much those results are simply reflecting disapproval of Trump (43% is right around Trump’s “strong disapproval” number).

The fact is that extremist views are frequently inflated in public polling for this reason, including Birthers, Truthers, and those who thought George W. Bush and Barack Obama were the Antichrist.

Moreover, the Democratic party apparat, unlike its base, realizes that they cannot retake the House by focusing on impeachment (again, absent a change in the facts of the case).  They know that voters care much more about the economy, healthcare and other issues.  In Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, the hot-on-impeachment candidate, Tom Perriello, lost rather soundly.  In the special election for Georgia’s 6th CD, Jon Ossoff is not hot-on-impeachment.  At the moment, Dems know they aren’t going to win swing districts campaigning on impeachment.

However, fanning the idea that Democrats are all about impeachment may be appealing to the media, as audience size is driven by conflict and appeals to the niche market of political junkies who get a rush from thinking of politics as war.  The more you are marinated in political media, the more likely you are to think the Trump-Russia probe is all anyone is thinking about, when only 12% rate it as a top issue.

Nevertheless, impeachment fever is also appealing to the claque of conservatives for whom the opposition is a constant excuse for avoiding discussion of the merits of the Trump administration and the Republican Congress to date.  And it’s an idea that may become more appealing to a Republican Party looking for boogeymen to rally their base in the event that they fail to deliver on the major legislation they promised in 2016 (and prior cycles).

The result would be to tie both the GOP and a swath of the conservative media even more tightly to Trump and his (mis)fortunes.  I would call that a tragedy, had Trump’s successes not already revealed just how little the party was tethered to an overarching philosophy.  With so little commitment to ideas, it would not be surprising to see them rally to the most powerful man in the room, even at great risk to their own fortunes.

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Trump’s Tweets Are Not the Problem

Within the past week, a raft of conservative heavy-hitters have weighed in on the problems raised by Pres. Trump’s tweets.  Karl Rove focused on Trump’s tweets about his executive order temporarily halting travel from six Muslim-majority nations.  Charles Krauthammer attacked not only those tweets, but also his tweets mocking the Mayor of London following a terror attack, and exacerbating tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia (and other Sunni Muslim nations).  Both Stephen Hayes and Matthew Continetti wrote about the tweet that supposedly provoked fmr FBI Director Comey into revealing he had allegedly damaging memos of his conversations with Trump related to the Russia investigation.

The problem of course, is not the tweets; it’s the tweeter.

Indeed, Rove also wrote about Trump’s messaging failure in withdrawing from the Paris accords, which was not expressed in tweets.  Trump’s feud with the Mayor of London is a year-old grudge match that did not originate on Twitter.

The reveal of the Comey memos may have fueled the atmosphere for naming a special counsel for the probe into the relationships of various Trump associates and Russia.  And it’s a narrative with nifty drama.  But the root cause was Trump dismissing Comey and then telling Lester Holt on television that the investigation was on his mind when he did it, not any recommendation from the Justice Dept. (And then he told Russia’s foreign minister…in the Oval Office, not on Twitter.)

Comey was as much or more angry about that seeming pretext for his firing cooked up by Trump’s administration — which relied on his handling of the Hillary Clinton investigation and the supposed failings of the FBI under his command — than Trump’s later tweet.  Trump’s interview contradicted the rationale set forth by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who then named the special counsel for reasons that likely had nothing to do with Twitter and everything to do with distancing himself from a heap of hot garbage.

That Rosenstein selected as special counsel an old friend and associate of Comey might be a further reflection of how Rosenstein feels about Trump hanging him out to dry, a sentiment having zero to do with Twitter.

Indeed, Krauthammer observed that the tweeting was just part of Trump governing from his id.  And Rove noted that much of the trouble with Trump’s tweets about they executive order were that they revealed how little Trump understood the situation:

“Increasingly it appears Mr. Trump lacks the focus or self-discipline to do the basic work required of a president. His chronic impulsiveness is apparently unstoppable and clearly self-defeating. Mr. Trump may have mastered the modes of communication, but not the substance, thereby sabotaging his own agenda.”

Of course, it’s not “increasingly”; it’s always been fairly obvious, from the moment Trump stepped off his escalator to announce his candidacy.  And his lack of mastery of the substance has not been about certain topics, but about almost every topic.

The problem is not Twitter.  Consider Hannibal Lecter’s advice from Silence of the Lambs:

“First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?”

In this case, the answer is: “He demands attention.”  So much so that he sought the job which demands the world pay attention to everything he says and does, regardless of whether he knows what he’s talking about or doing.

If Trump didn’t have Twitter, it would be more interviews, more press conferences, and so on.

These smart conservative pundits would prefer he say less.  I suspect they would prefer he stick to a script he didn’t write, so much so that he was effectively not President.  But this would be against Trump’s basic nature.

However, by focusing on tweets, these conservatives publicly point out that Trump is both self-destructive and not up to or interested in the full duties of his job without drawing the sort of partisan fire that would come from observing that the tweets are merely a symptom.  That’s why I called them smart.

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Trump Supporters Are Using the Wrong Clinton Play

As I have both hypothesized and noted the emerging parallels between the Trump administration and the Clinton administration, I could not help but notice the following tweets from National Review’s David French (who has not written them up, as far as I can tell):

To the extent French is referring to the attacks on fmr FBI Director Comey by Pres. Trump and Trump-friendlies, my main quibble would be to question whether the attacks are even winning the short-term battle.

A recent HuffPost/YouGov poll suggests parties are polarized as you would expect and independents, to the degree they have an opinion, tend to favor Comey (or are not favorable to Trump) by large margins.  Moreover, the trend is running against the Comey firing, now by a 17-point margin.

The good polling news for Trump and his friendlies is that Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee (which was fairly widely viewed and given saturation media coverage) didn’t change many minds regarding the Trump administration’s relationship with Russia.

Even more significant is that only 12% of adults picked Trump’s relationship with Russia as one of the two issues they find most important, way behind issues like the economy and healthcare.

Given how little the attacks on Comey seem to have affected the Comey vs. Trump contest, and how foreseeable that was, it baffles me that this is the approach being pursued.  I get that some people have grudges against Comey, but it’s business, not personal…and they’re taking it very personal.

As I’ve previously noted, another page from the Clinton playbook deflects scandals by portraying them as a partisan obstacle to addressing the real issues Americans care about.  This tactic would have the advantage of playing into public opinion instead of against it.

Of course, this tactic would be more effective — and Trump, the GOP, and America might be better off — if Congress could get healthcare or tax reform legislation to Trump’s desk.  But you probably knew that already.

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The Comey Hearing: Why So Serious?

I doubt the substance of testimony from fmr FBI Dir. James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee changed many minds regarding Trump-Russia kerfuffle.  So I want to focus on the Committee, specifically the tone of the hearing.

Prior to the hearing, BloombergTV’s Kevin Cirilli was hearing that GOPers wanted to start a fight with Comey, “try to catch him in double-speak and maybe even perjury; question why he didn’t go after Dems.”

That…didn’t happen, for the most part.  Trump can tweet about Comey lying, and his camp followers can enjoy the fantasy of Comey getting imprisoned.  But that’s not how the Committee acted.

Maybe Cirilli’s sources were bad (or outside the Senate), but even if they were, it was a tack the GOP could have taken.  When the stakes are high and Senate GOPers feel wronged, they can bring the sword, as those old enough to recall the Clarence Thomas hearings could tell you.

Instead, the sparring with Comey was pretty light and the GOP went mostly with a sober, bipartisan tone.  Why?  A number of factors come to mind.

First, it’s the Senate.  Having to win statewide races generally makes them less nakedly partisan than a House member with a smaller and likely more partisan constituency.

Second, television.  The Comey hearing was going to get big play, well beyond C-SPAN.  That’s an incentive for Senators to do more of their homework.  That said, it can also be an incentive for grandstanding, which didn’t happen here.

Third, Trump.  He’s down in the polls, so other GOPers (many of whom outpolled him in 2016 anyway) don’t fear him.  And they probably don’t have much trust in him after watching him go on television and cut the legs out from under his own administration on this very subject  — as he did when explaining the Comey firing to Lester Holt.

Fourth, Wednesday’s hearing.  I mentioned this yesterday, but I want to emphasize it today. Most people seem to be evaluating Comey’s testimony in isolation, without considering that Senators are evaluating it in light of the prior testimony of other witnesses.

We got treated to the spectacle of DNI Dan Coats and NSA chief Mike Rogers both declining to testify whether they were ever asked to influence an ongoing investigation.  If Coats were not a former Senator, and Rogers a man wearing the uniform, this probably would not have been tolerated.

Sen. Richard Burr, as Committee chair, protected them a bit from the Dems, but closed out the hearing by admonishing them, “I would ask each of you to take a message back to the administration…At no time should you be in a position where you come to Congress without an answer.”  He emphasized their duty to keep the so-called “Gang of Eight” fully informed.  (BTW, the witnesses apparently were not in the Committee’s closed session that afternoon.)

While it’s possible that Coats and Rogers simply didn’t want to set a precedent by answering that question publicly, the fact that they publicly volunteered that they weren’t “pressured” leaves the distinct possibility on the table that they (Coats in particular) have stories like Comey’s.  And while that apparently surprising possibility of a pattern lurks, why would a GOP Senator go full-tilt boogie against Comey in public? (See the likely distrust and uncertainty viz Trump above.)

Fifth, nonpublic information.  Committee members may know things we don’t.  Almost certainly no smoking guns, probably not any particular bombshells.  But perhaps things that reinforce feelings of uncertainty or distrust, things that make the Coats and Rogers testimony more surprising or more unsettling.

After the hearing, GOP Senators were continuing the low-key demeanor, which helps them downplay the political impact of the hearings.  In private, it may be a more complicated story:

Of course, neither Kristol nor Erickson are big Trump fans, so you can’t discount the possibility that Senators were telling them what they wanted to hear.  But the atmospherics coming from the Committee suggest you can’t rule out quiet desperation either.

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The Real Russia Scandal

Even before fmr FBI Dir. James Comey testifies to the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding Trump-Russia kerfuffle, people have been dissecting his prepared opening statement.  National Review’s Dan McLaughlin and David French both offer fairly even-handed analyses; the former leads with the positive, the latter with the negative.

At this juncture, however, I am less interested in Comey or Trump than I am in the rest of us.

French touches on this point in passing, while discussing Trump’s alleged demand for loyalty from Comey:

“There’s no serious argument that this is appropriate behavior from an American president. Imagine for a moment testimony that President Barack Obama or a hypothetical President Hillary Clinton had a similar conversation with an FBI director. The entire conservative-media world would erupt in outrage, and rightly so. The FBI director is a law-enforcement officer, loyal to the Constitution, not the president’s consigliere.”

And yet this is not the reaction of the entire conservative-media world, is it?  To the contrary, a substantial swath of the conservative-media world is busy excusing Trump or attacking Comey.

One emerging talking point seems to be that the President was a neophyte who simply didn’t understand the impropriety of his actions.  The problem with this theory is that on Feb. 14, Trump allegedly asked everyone else to leave the Oval Office before telling Comey “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting [fmr NSA Michael] Flynn go,” apparently with respect to any probe of Flynn’s false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December 2016.

This is probably why a smirking Chris Christie’s version of this spin is that Trump likely considered his talks with Comey to be “normal New York City conversation.”  It’s a cute way of saying Trump still operates like a sleazy NYC real estate developer does with a sleazy NYC building inspector.  Apparently, it’s okay if president Drain-the-swamp brought the folkways of his home swamp to DC.

Given how not-great that spin is, it will be accompanied by an ample helping of attacks on Comey.  The problem with this approach is that it ignores the bizarre testimony earlier yesterday from DNI Dan Coats and NSA chief Mike Rogers, who both declined –apparently without legal basis — to testify whether they were ever asked to influence an ongoing investigation.  Whatever you think of Comey, it appears Coats and Rogers probably have similar stories to tell, stories they did not seem keen to divulge even in a closed session.

Lastly, there will be a nice side dish of whataboutism, which is not entirely unwarranted.  One of those Last Supper-style panels on CNN spent yesterday afternoon giving dramatic readings of Comey’s statement. This sort of hyperventilation was noticeably absent when Comey testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that fmr Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s airport tarmac meeting with fmr Pres. Bill Clinton in late June 2016 had caused him to worry that the Obama Justice Department “could not credibly complete the [Hillary Clinton email] investigation and decline prosecution without grievous damage to the American people’s confidence in the justice system.”

(Mind you, that story would become more complicated in retrospect, but the media apparently didn’t know that at the time.  If you don’t like the above example, try Pres. Obama declaring that Hillary had not endangered national security during an FBI investigation of that very question.)

Perhaps some of you would like to ask me the Michael Corleone question: “Who’s being naive, Kay?”  Or perhaps you mentally conjured up Capt. Renault, declaring “I am shockedshocked—to find that gambling is going on in here!

It’s true; partisanship has been a helluva drug for as long as there has been partisanship.  But here we are concerned with FBI investigations into the Democratic presidential nominee and the Republican presidential nominees campaign staff and associates.  We are concerned with the independent administration of justice and the integrity of our government.

And we are here in no small part because partisans also thought Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were acceptable choices for President.  Partisans have applied Patrick Moynihan’s concept of “defining deviancy down” to the White House.

If you’re looking for a scandal, start there.

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Dennis Prager and the #WAR Republicans

Radio yakker Dennis Prager, having been shellacked by the responses to his disingenuous column regarding those conservatives who still occasionally criticize Pres. Trump, has drafted a reply.  Breaking the first rule of holes, Prager’s attempted rejoinder is worse than his original column in at least two respects.

First, Prager doubles down on his hysterical “civil war” metaphor.  As I previously noted, his apocalyptic view of today’s politics — shared by the “Flight 93 election” crowd — is simply the mirror image of the anti-Trump resistance that Prager characterizes as fascism.

Prager seems baffled that Jonah Goldberg doesn’t get the civil war analogy, given that Goldberg is the author of Liberal Fascism.  Prager claims to consider this book a “modern classic,” but I wonder whether he’s actually read it.

In Liberal Fascism, Goldberg wrote several passages like this:

“The core value of original Fascism, in the eyes of most observers, was its imposition of war values on society. (This perception — or misperception, depending on how it is articulated — is so fundamental to the popular understanding of fascism that I must return to it several times in this book.) The chief appeal of war to social planners isn’t conquest or death but mobilization. Free societies are disorganized. People do their own thing, more or less, and that can be downright inconvenient if you’re trying to plan the entire economy from a boardroom somewhere. War brings conformity and unity of purpose. The ordinary rules of behavior are mothballed. You can get things done: build roads, hospitals, houses. Domestic populations and institutions were required to ‘do their part.’

“Many Progressives probably would have preferred a different organizing principle, which is why William James spoke of the moral equivalent of war. He wanted all the benefits — Dewey’s ‘social possibilities’ of war — without the costs. Hence, in more recent times, the left has looked to everything from environmentalism and global warming to public health and ‘diversity’ as war equivalents to cajole the public into expert-driven unity. But at the time the Progressives just couldn’t think of anything else that did the trick. ‘Martial virtues,’ James famously wrote, ‘must be the enduring cement’ of American society: ‘intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command must still remain the rock upon which states are built.’ “

In short, demanding the observation of “war values” in the service of political unity, and discouraging certain freedoms (e.g., the freedom to criticize the government) through the mobilization of bias, is a page right out of the playbook of liberal fascists.  Prager’s attempt to claim an anti-fascist position here is vaguely amusing; that he directed this argument to Goldberg of all people is outright comical.

Second, I cannot help but note that Prager’s reply opens with him detailing how his original column went viral and was published on “almost every conservative website,” as well as Newsweek.  It was quoted in the New York Times, he adds, and “many major conservative writers” responded to it.

Remember when Trump opened all his rallies with a recitation of his poll numbers?  Pepperidge Farm remembers, and I was reminded of it by Prager’s introduction.  And then Prager segued into his hyperbolic rhetoric, just like at a Trump rally.

Apparently, trying to get people to support Trump causes people to wind up sounding and acting like Trump.  That’s kind of an argument against Prager’s position, isn’t it?

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How Attacking the Media Will Make America Great Again and Take Inches Off Your Waistline

If you believe McClatchy, baiting the media as Pres. Trump does “is now a deliberate strategy to help GOP candidates win elections fueled by public hatred of reporters.”  Why? “The conservative base needed more of an enemy than the Democratic candidate to become engaged.”

I noted last week that Trump’s own support is deteriorating, while strong opposition is growing, which suggests that Trump is: (a) being beaten in his fight against the media; (b) turning people off independent of the media; or (c) some combination of (a) and (b).  No matter how low your opinion of the media is, none of these answers recommends a media-baiting as a strategy.  It might energize the base voters most likely to turn out for the midterm elections…or it could be very stale beyond a narrow segment of that base 17 months from now.

Another risk in the strategy has to do with Trump himself.  Whatever else one might think about the man, Donald Trump comes by his love/hate relationship with the media honestly.  Their condescension and derision has fueled him for decades.

Consequently, when Trump attacks the media, he does so with complete authenticity.  It may be part of his shtick, but it’s part that is no act.  Other Republicans may lack that backstory and that authenticity.  They are just as likely to come off as posers; George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole certainly did when they tried “Annoy The Media” as an appeal.

Worse, signaling this strategy this early suggests the Congressional GOP already doesn’t expect to be running on its achievements.  People will be tempted to blame that on Trump, when the blame deserves to fall broadly on GOP legislators and voters.

One salutary effect Trump has had on politics is to publicly clarify some important points regarding the GOP.  Some traditional, full-spectrum conservatives were long in denial about their influence on the party.  Trump’s rise was a rude but probably necessary awakening for them.

Trump’s election has revealed a GOP House that had little appetite for delivering on their long-promised repeal of Obamacare.  The healthcare bill they passed is a mixed bag and dead on arrival in the GOP Senate.  Indeed, the Senate may tank healthcare reform entirely to move on to tax reform.  That’s an amusing idea, given that tax reform is arguably more difficult, particularly without the expected savings from healthcare reform.

Trump also submitted a budget that ostensibly seeks to slash projected domestic discretionary spending.  It’s a budget widely expected to be ignored by the GOP Congress.  Some unnamed Members of Congress are talking about using reconciliation to reduce mandatory spending; the fact that they remain anonymous isn’t a good start.

As Rich Lowry recently observed, “a weak president (low approval numbers, little clout) is now matched with a weak Congress.”  Lowry is correct that this is the culmination of a long trend of Congress abdicating its constitutional role.

OTOH, Congress was pretty busy in the first year of the Obama administration and likely would have been even if Obama had been a bumbler.  A Dem Congress moved some of Bill Clinton’s priorities despite early low approval numbers.

The failures of the GOP Congress cannot be blamed entirely on Trump’s lack of leadership.  Rather, Trump’s election has exposed the lack of interest in policy among GOP lawmakers, just as his nomination did among GOP primary voters.  Ironically, this also probably includes Trump’s supposed priorities.  Some version of tax reform may pass to please the donor class, but that’s more business than ideology.

I could offer the hot take that the Dems have tended to suffer in midterms by overreaching (see 1994, 2010) and that perhaps a do-nothing GOP Congress that runs against he media is the safer course to preserving their majorities.  But if the voters who wanted some inchoate notion of “change” notice Congress isn’t delivering, they could wind up in trouble.

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