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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Stop Treating Donald Trump Like a Child

Picking up where I left off, the usually incisive Ross Douthat’s musings about using the 25th Amendment to remove Pres. Trump from office — arguing that a “child cannot be president” — are entirely unpersuasive to me, and not just (as Charles C.W. Cooke notes) because of the “psychic shock” that action would inflict upon us, especially Trump voters.

As DecisionDeskHQ’s Drew McCoy suggested on Twitter, it also would be highly un-conservative to warp our institutions in this manner (regular readers know I’m very focused on institutions these days).

Noah C. Rothman and Liam Donovan are far closer to the mark in explaining why Trump (at this juncture anyway) is likely here to stay and thoughts of him leaving are wishful thinking.

Contra Douthat, Trump is not a child.  The real question is why Trump’s supporters seem to agree with Douthat.

I am seeing plenty of Trump supporters (and anti-anti-Trumpists) wanting to claim that Douthat’s column is evidence that the the Swamp is attempting a coup against Trump.  Or that people still cannot accept the election results.  They generally avoid discussing the events of the past week, which, in brief, are as follows:

First: Trump fired the FBI Director largely out of anger at the investigation into possible ties between his campaign associates and Russia.  There are people who want to downplay that this is what happened, but it’s the conclusion supported by the weight of the evidence, primarily from Trump himself.  He lauded James Comey before the election and kept him as Director.

More recently, Trump launched a gaggle of tweets about the Russia investigation being a witch hunt.  Then he fired Comey.  Then he publicly stated that he had intended to fire Comey regardless of any DoJ recommendation, before again complaining about the Russia investigation.

Trump’s own comments exploded the efforts of his administration to ground Comey’s dismissal in his handling of the Hillary Clinton probe (which again, Trump had earlier praised).  The overall circumstances suggest incompetence at best and corruption at worst.

Even if you agreed with the administration’s pretext, the case for potential corruption could not be dismissed, as the Trump’s desire to stop hearing about the Russia investigation sends a clear message to not only Comey’s potential successors, but also to those at the FBI tasked with the investigation.

This is a big part of why the DoJ is now trying to get in front of events by naming fmr. FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel for the Russia investigation.

Second: One day after firing Comey, Trump, acting off-the-cuff, provided classified intelligence to Russia’s Foreign Minister and its Ambassador (who is also a spy).  The administration attempted to bolster its credibility by making National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster the face of its response to the report.  McMaster has a reputation for honor and probity, but his initial on-camera statement was very carefully worded.

Sure enough, on Day Two, McMaster either admitted or chose not to deny the basic facts reported by the establishment media, contesting only the opinions of those quoted sources who opined that Trump’s apparently unthinking disclosure harmed national security.

On this score, some of the intell Trump provided to Russian officials is so secret that American news organizations are still being asked not to report it.  And the White House doesn’t seem keen to provide a transcript of Trump’s comments to Congress for an independent judgment.

Rather, we are being told to have blind faith in McMaster, who went from “the story, as reported, is false” and “it didn’t happen,” to “the premise of the story is false” in the course of a day.

As someone who worked alongside McMaster in Iraq said, “He’s walking a very fine line around the truth, parsing his words very carefully when he makes statements defending what the president said.”  It’s genuinely sad that things have taken this Clintonesque turn.

McMaster may be correct that Trump’s disclosure was “appropriate” (a term of no fixed natsec meaning, btw) and he may have reasons to have spoken as he did.  But serious questions about this incident remain unanswered.

Third:  There are now reports that Trump asked Comey to lay off the investigation of fmr. NSA Mike Flynn, with the conversation documented in a memo drafted by Comey and shared among a small circle of people at the FBI and DoJ.  As no one in the media seems to have seen the memo (it having been read by a Comey associate), we start with the segment of the Right that is going to question the existence of the memo, before moving on to its veracity.

Many people who thought Comey should have been fired in part because he’s a showboating political operator also seem to think the Hillary Clinton investigation proved he was bad at being a showboating political operator.  In reality, he’s probably far better at this sort of intrigue than anyone working in the Trump White House, orchestrating his political and PR strategy from his seclusion.

Comey would not be leaking this story if the memo did not exist and almost certainly if it had not been shared as described.  Comey also already has both houses of Congress seeking his testimony and all of his memoranda.

Even if one is inclined to forgive Trump for being so dumb as to think DC is just as sleazy as NYC in terms of how investigations get terminated, it’s likely going to look bad.  And that’s before you get to the rest of the memoranda, which are more likely to incriminate Trump than exonerate him (if only because Comey drafted them).

Will the Meuller appointment short-circuit Comey’s revenge?  Trump can only hope so, but here’s his public response to the smartest thing anyone in his administration has done all week:

If anything like any of these three stories had broken in a given week, the reaction on the Right would have been positively volcanic  — if said stories had involved Pres. Obama.  Somehow, the folks who spent eight years justifiably asking “How would the media report this if Obama was a Republican?” cannot bring themselves to ask “How would talk radio and Fox News cover this if Trump was a Democrat?”

NBC’s Lester Holt did not force Trump to admit he was going to order the Code Red on Comey no matter what.  The Washington Post did not force Trump to disclose secrets to the Russians.  The New York Times did not fabricate the Comey memos (and while some may not believe what’s in them, many will).

People upset that Douthat would compare Trump to a child for all of the above have been pretty bent on doing it themselves for quite some time.  Indeed, it’s been a recurring theme that whenever Trump does something that looks presidential, people gush and coo over Donald’s First Steps.  “Look dear…he’s learning!”

And when Donald screws the pooch on some bit of policy or politics?  That’s the fault of the mean kids, the cool kids, the haters and losers who are just jealous of Donald for being so fabulous.  Ganging up on the President.  No one has ever been treated so unfairly.  Just ask Donald; he’ll tell you.  Life is sooo unfair, Mom.

I respect the choice many made to vote for Trump, even if they want to look away from the consequences.  But if Trump takes no responsibility for his own verbal incontinence, don’t be surprised when the so-called elites view him as a child.  And if his supporters defend him by infantilizing him, or ignoring it when he acts like a child, what’s their real dispute with the so-called elites?

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The Not-So-Deep State

[Note: Another day, another posting written before the bombshell item.  But again, still relevant in its own way.  Also, one of the first things I wrote here was about the problem called “Trump opens his mouth and says stuff.”  Now it might be his best defense.]

Amid the controversy over Pres. Trump apparently divulging sensitive intelligence to Russia (and whether it was “appropriate,” as National Security Adviser McMaster claims, despite unanswered questions), Trump and his defenders naturally want to focus on the leakers.  That’s fine; I am hard pressed to recall a President who did not become furious over leaks or one that was very successful in stopping them or changing the subject to them.

These events however, bring Trump supporters back around to the concern that the “Deep State” will undermine or bring down the legitimately elected government.  As it turns out, one of the leakers in this case reportedly has been a Trump supporter, but the general anxiety over a silent coup is getting aired once again.

One problem is that the Deep State is enabled in part by the Not-So-Deep State, by which I mean Pres. Trump.

Is “not so deep” a harsh characterization?  Well, the calls are coming from inside the White House:

“In private, three administration officials conceded that they could not publicly articulate their most compelling — and honest — defense of the president: that Mr. Trump, a hasty and indifferent reader of printed briefing materials, simply did not possess the interest or knowledge of the granular details of intelligence gathering to leak specific sources and methods of intelligence gathering that would do harm to United States allies.”

I have yet to see any pushback on any of the other stories that National Security Council staff members have been advised that Trump’s briefings should be no more than one page and should include graphics, maps and bullet points.

Trump’s proclivity for the simplified likely means that the quantity and quality of the intell he receives is highly filtered and controlled by the NSC at a minimum.  It is probably not a huge leap to speculate that one result of this incident will be that the flow of intell to the White House will be even more tightly controlled by the CIA and NSA (and FBI in natsec cases, I suppose).

In this way, Trump’s apparent lack of interest opens the door for the Deep State to unduly influence his thinking.

It would be fair to argue that this possibility should be concerning to people.  But this is part of Trump’s method of operation.  He delegates.  He seems to delegate more than perhaps any President I have seen, with the possible exception of Reagan.

After all, one of the widespread pieces of praise Trump has received has been for the selection of his national security and foreign policy team (excepting the quickly-departed Mike Flynn).  And those paying attention cannot have helped but noticed that Trump is not always on the same page as the consensus positions of his cabinet and top advisers.  Indeed, I suspect that more often that not, people are reassured that Trump’s cabinet frequently seems to be running the show.

Of course, Trump’s cabinet members were effectively selected by him, while the bureaucrats of the Deep State presumably are not in most cases.  But when the cabinet proceeds in ways at odds with Trump’s statements as a candidate and as President, the line between the cabinet and their subordinates may be less clear than we like to pretend when we want to comfort ourselves.

Nature abhors a vacuum.  So does government.  A government led by the Not-So-Deep State invites others to exercise that power, and to influence its exercise.

Update: That people like Ross Douthat are now debating the 25th Amendment as a vehicle to remove Trump (whether you take it seriously or not; I don’t) only underscores the risk of a President who is so disconnected from his or her cabinet.

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One Cheer For Anti-Anti-Trumpism

[Note: I wrote the following before the big story dropped about Pres. Trump allegedly revealing highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador.  As the story remains as yet unresolved, it’s probably good to take Sean Connery’s advice.  And what I wrote before the story broke remains relevant now, maybe more so.]

I really didn’t want to spend a third posting on the argument about anti-anti-Trumpism; I have been trying to work though bigger issues here at the blog.  But it turns out there’s at least three more points to cover and it’s better to address them while it’s still a current topic.

Responding to Charlie Sykes, Dan McLaughlin argues: “We shouldn’t be only anti-anti-Trump, but there is nothing wrong with being anti-anti-Trump, because politics didn’t begin with Trump, it doesn’t consist solely of Trump today, and it won’t end with him, either.”

I generally agree that Trump’s presidency should not preclude criticism of the Left (including the establishment media).  But in claiming that Sykes was painting with a broad brush in critiquing “much of the conservative news media,” McLaughlin overlooks that Sykes named names — arguably the loudest voices in “conservative” media.  Sykes wrote:

“In a lamentably overlooked monologue this month, [Rush] Limbaugh embraced the new reality in which conservative ideas and principles had been displaced by anti-liberalism. For years, Mr. Limbaugh ran what he called the ‘Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies.’  But in the Trump era, he told his audience, he has changed that to the ‘Institute for Advanced Anti-Leftist Studies.’ “

Sykes also singled out Tucker Carlson, who happens to have the flagship program of Fox News Channel’s primetime lineup.  He further identified Sean Hannity — FNC’s cleanup batter and America’s No. 2 “conservative” radio talker — as a self-abasing Trump sycophant.

Should Sykes also have run a statistical study of how often Breitbart News is critical of Trump?  Should he have noted that Bret Stephens almost certainly left the Wall Street Journal for the New York Times in large part due to the WSJ’s Trumpian editorial shift?  Should he have skewered some of the smaller-time talking heads on Fox by name?

I’ll grant you that other outlets present diverse views on Trump and his actions, but the largest “conservative” outlets with the largest audiences lean (or lurch) anti-anti-Trump at a minimum.

I don’t think it was necessary for Sykes to go into all of that on a granular level.  If anything, the response I have received over the past few days (both public and private) suggests to me that anyone who cares about the topic knows exactly to whom Sykes is referring.

Another objection I have seen is that labeling some people on the right as anti-anti-Trump (or NeverTrump for that matter) smacks of an ad hominem attack on some level.

I do not agree with this entirely.  An ad hominem attack is directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining.  Attacking the newfound position of someone like Limbaugh is — on the surface, anyway — close to the opposite of ad hominem.

Beneath the surface, it could be argued that pointing out there are some who seem to be trimming its sails to some degree implies an attack on the character of people within the bloc.  I am not sure that it does, so let’s explore this a bit.

In my world, the true anti-anti-Trumpist would be someone who is often privately not a fan of Trump on a character level or on a policy level (in those cases where he deviates from various forms of traditional conservatism), but publicly spends 80-90% of his or her time complaining about Trump’s opponents, even in those cases of private doubt.

When such people are mostly in the public sphere for the audience and the money, e.g., as I tend to think most of the radio talkers are, it can be argued that there’s no character issue involved.  If you accept politics as tribalism, serving the audience is arguably no more a vice than a criminal defense lawyer working even for the guilty.

OTOH, the more someone is in the arena for more than an audience, more than a smallest-c conservative tribal advantage, the more of a conscience issue emerges.

Conservatives ostensibly believe in personal responsibility; true anti-anti-Trumpism will tend to avoid questions of personal responsibility for the most powerful.  Also, conservatives ostensibly value personal character; if the President already has paid defenders, the ethical question of volunteering to deflect from actions you may believe to be wrong could present itself over time.

Lastly, there is that one cheer for anti-anti-Trumpists mentioned in the title.  It’s entirely possible that some members of this bloc believe the Trump skeptics or the “balls-and-strikes” conservatives to be false on some level, given the recent history of the GOP.

It is possible to look at the degree to which conservatives signed onto George W. Bush’s big-government conservatism (or largely dropped/muted their objections thereto) and wonder if there isn’t a bit of a double standard at work.  Or to look at conservatarians who defended the Obama-era GOP Congress on the ground that they were better than a Democratic Congress and wonder why the same rationale isn’t just as good for defending Trump.

My response to this line of thinking is to admit that I probably did cut the Bush administration too much slack and to agree that the Obama-era GOP Congress probably could have been a more effective opposition (had they been, the sort of problems they have had with the Cruz/Freedom Caucus faction might have been reduced).  But then the question becomes whether (or what) we want to learn from those mistakes.

I would submit that one reason many Trump skeptics and “balls-and-strikes” conservatives become frustrated with Trump is because they hoped — consciously or otherwise –a victory in 2016 would allow them to not only learn from, but also correct, some of those mistakes.  Instead, the Right now has a unified government but is often getting the circus of reality television instead.

Not all of this is Trump’s fault.  The trainwreck of how the GOP House initially addressed the healthcare reform bill is mostly on the House and exposed an essential lack of seriousness concealed for the prior seven years.  And of course the Left does what the Left does.  But Trump is responsible for much of this year’s meshugas as well.

It ought to be alright for all of this to be discussed in public, off the backchannels.  But tribes gotta tribe.  So here we are.

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