Big Media is Distrusted. So What?

Given the clickbaity title, I’ll remind you that when it comes to political journalism — especially since Donald Trump’s election — I’m more pessimistic than The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway, who spends much of her time giving the media grief.

She has plenty of advice for how journalists could do their job better and often advocates that they should listen more to people who voted differently than their newsrooms.  OTOH, I have seen the establishment media try putting people on “the conservative beat” enough times to have given up much hope that works.  Until Big Media hires enough people with non-Left viewpoints as both reporters and editors to constantly challenge newsroom groupthink, the basic problems will persist.

So why the clickbaity title?  Mostly to distinguish between two types of media analysis or criticism.

Let’s call the first, more common type academic or institutional.  These pieces examine whether a story is accurate or well-supported, whether columnists are contradicting themselves, whether journalism — or America — would function better if the media adopted certain practices, and so on.

Another type of media analysis is more practical or political.  Presuming — as conservatives (and most voters) have concluded — that Big Media has been biased against Trump (as it generally is against Republicans year after year), what does that mean as a matter of politics?

The “So what?” question has different answers, depending on the analysis applied.

It’s one thing to point out — as I have to at least one establishment journalist —  that according to Gallup, only 32% of Americans have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media, which should concern journalists in the academic or institutional sense.   Gallup even records numbers as low as 20-21% for those who have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in TV news and newspapers.

These are generally conservatives’ go-to stats on trust in Big Media, but the result depends on the pollster and the questions asked.  The American Press Institute reported that 58% have some confidence in the press as an institution.  Pew reported that 76% of adults have at least some trust in national news organizations, with an even higher number for local news.  People presuming the public has simply tuned out the media as untrustworthy should consider Gallup arguably is presenting the worst-case scenario for the media.

Moreover, the worst-case numbers from Gallup also show that trust in TV and newspapers has been in the low-to-mid-20s for almost a decade.  The steeper decline in trust among GOPers in this cycle does not much affect what has been a long-running trend of declining trust in the media.

Numbers like these matter primarily in the institutional sense.  They matter less directly in a political sense, insofar as you might use them to rate the job approval of some other collective body, like Congress.  From that perspective, there may be an analogy to the “I hate Congress, but like my Member of Congress” dynamic.

Indeed, liberals tend to trust establishment and more overtly liberal news sources, while generally distrusting conservative sources.  And vice versa.  People of “mixed” ideology tend to trust the liberal/establishment sources, though (unlike liberals) they also tend to trust Fox News.  And everyone tends to trust the Wall Street Journal (though one might argue its news coverage historically skews more to the left than its editorials might suggest).

When judging political fights between Pres. Obama and the GOP Congress, Big Media often liked to cite polls showing that people favored Obama, while not addressing the fact that Obama: (a) was elected nationally, while legislators are not; (b) Obama needed to be popular nationally, while legislators need only appeal to their constituents; and (c) the machinery of government and the media frames the President, not Congress, as the focus of political stories daily.

Similarly, when assessing the media as a political actor, it may be useful to remember that the media does not have the same demands as a president or a legislator, ratings are not the same as popularity, and criticism of the media is usually not as high-profile to the average viewer as media criticism of politicians.

In this political moment, however, Pres. Trump currently is in a very high-profile, heated battle with the media.  So how’s he doing?

In early February, Quinnipiac found that 57% of voters were at least somewhat concerned that Trump will try to limit the freedom of the press, while 42% are not so concerned.

A more recent Fox News poll found, on a 45-42% split (within the margin of error), more voters trust the Trump administration to “tell the public the truth” than the White House press corps.  The same poll found 55% percent say it’s better for the country if the media covers the president aggressively, while 38% say it would be better if reporters gave the president the benefit of the doubt.

The Fox poll also found that 71% think Trump should be more careful when he speaks, while only 28% like that he speaks his mind.

Keep in mind that the internal numbers on these questions generally have the partisan and ideological splits that you might expect.  I will say that the Fox numbers are better for Trump among independents than the toplines suggest, favoring Trump over the media by a 2-1 margin and split on whether the media should be aggressive.

OTOH, the internals also reflect the split between college-educated whites and whites without a degree that we saw in the election cycle and may be relevant to GOP officeholders who won with a different electoral map than Trump.

If you think the media coverage of Trump has been as bad as I do — and as unlikely to change in its fundamental bias, even if the media calms down somewhat — Trump basically matching the media for trustworthiness, the Trump numbers resting where you would expect for a base of GOP support (not much beyond that), and the lopsided majority who think Trump should speak more carefully should be concerning to Trump supporters.

The Trump White House seems to want Big Media to stand in as the opposition party (or make that status overt, if you will).  Fair enough.  But if Big Media even comes close to cleaning up its act, it may offer more formidable opposition than Hillary Clinton.

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Are You Not Entertained?

There is a line of ridicule that Ace of Spades has been pursuing for years on Twitter.  Harsh, but not entirely unfair:

The media does love their shows.  Progressives love their shows.

But they’re not the only ones.  At least, I’m guessing that the audience for Tucker Carlson figuratively defenestrating low-level lefty competition isn’t wildly progressive.

I also don’t think many progressives voted for the former host of The Apprentice to be President of the United States.

And it wasn’t progressives who cheered Pres. Trump’s most recent press conference, or his campaign-style rally in Florida.  Someone else was cheering.  He really gave it to the media didn’t he?  And the media played their role as foil, just as though it was one of those WWE shows at which Trump was such an excellent performer.

Of course, the media had it coming, didn’t they?  They enabled an anti-democratic revolt by the Deep State that at least contributed to the firing of Trump’s national security adviser.  That’s an entirely legit complaint, even if we may not know whether it might be an exceptional case, even if righties didn’t say much about FBI leaking political intrigues surrounding the investigations of Hillary Clinton, and even if Trump has himself expressed contempt for political norms and the law on occasion.

But what about Trump’s presser on Sept. 16, 2016?  That was the event where Trump finally admitted Pres. Obama was born in the United States.  As you may recall, part of Trump’s entrée to Republican politics was an appeal to Birtherism — and it was the first time of several he would accuse his political foes of literally not being American.

But that was okay, wasn’t it?  Democrats had called Republicans un-American before.  Of course, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio aren’t Democrats, but it was okay to suggest they aren’t citizens because…why was that again?  Does it matter?  No one took that literally or seriously, amiright?   It was just Trump being outrageous.  It was very entertaining.

Anyway, after he won the nomination, the Trump campaign decided he needed to ditch the Birtherism.  Trump never likes to retreat from a position, so this was kind of a big deal.

What did Trump do?  He started the event, held at his DC hotel, with a parade of war veterans declaring they were not the “deplorables” Hillary Clinton had recently attacked.  Trump then appeared onstage to blame Clinton for starting Birtherism (which isn’t really true, though Mark Penn proposed a similar tactic in 2008) and very briefly declare Obama was born in the U.S.  Then, instead of taking questions, he tried to take the press pool on a promotional tour of his hotel.

Some might have called that breathtakingly cynical, even for Trump.

Many on the right, however, called it awesome.  They ate it up.  Wow, did you see how he trolled the media?  Granted, he did it to distract from his attempt to clean up his grubby political roots…but he trolled the media!

Of course, the media had it coming, didn’t they?  The MSM is biased.  They’re the opposition.  Trump has all the right enemies.  And gets away with being outrageous.  So entertaining.

By the way, did you hear that Milo Yiannopoulos is a featured speaker at CPAC this year?  Sure, he makes anti-Semitic remarks and is a fellow traveler of the alt-right.  And sure, his remarks about relationships between adults and young boys at a bare minimum should make your skin crawl.

But you know, Milo’s just being a provocateur, saying outrageous things to promote himself.  He has all the right enemies, doesn’t he?

Plus, CPAC isn’t representative of the right as a whole; it’s just someplace Donald Trump donated a ton of money before he got invited onto their stage.  Trump is going to be there again this year, as is Trump’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who was the last guy to offer Milo a platform. (I recommended Bannon go to CPAC, but since he’s double-billed with WH Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, it’s virtually certain he’s not taking my advice.)

I’m guessing Trump, Bannon, and Milo will get a lot of media coverage at CPAC, because it’s bound to be a show.  The media does love their shows.  Progressives love their shows.

On this point, Ace can be pretty harsh. But not entirely unfair.

Update: CPAC disinvites Milo…

…because of the man-boy love comments.  Apparently, the anti-Semitic/alt-right sewage is still kosher with the so-called American Conservative Union.

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Further Down Mike Flynn’s Rabbit Hole

Believe me, I do not intend to get in the habit of writing on a Friday night for a Saturday posting.  However, given the traffic and feedback I got about “Another Flynn Conspiracy Theory,” it’s worth going a bit further down this rabbit hole in a timely manner.

As the kids say on Twitter: Are you ready for some game theory?

Yesterday’s posting was a piece of media criticism examining the evidence — or lack thereof — in a story asserting that fmr national security adviser Mike Flynn was ousted as the result of a campaign waged by fmr Obama adviser Ben Rhodes and a small task force of Obama alumni for the purpose of stopping Flynn from revealing secret aspects of Obama’s Iran deal.

That story is generally lacking in evidence and when acting as a media critic, I judge what’s on the page or screen.  And when commenting on the general reaction to the piece on the right, my general presumption is that readers also should judge what’s on the page or screen.

Nevertheless, I repeatedly stressed that Adam Kredo is a thorough reporter and that if he could have produced more evidence to support this conspiracy theory, he would have done so.  I also refused to dismiss the possibility that the attacks on Flynn were more organized than the groupthink of progressives inside and outside the bureaucracy attacking a weak link in the Trump administration.

The reason I did both things is because — when not wearing a media critic hat — I considered the possibility that Kredo knows or has reason to believe more than what he wrote in his story.

I have no evidence to support that speculation.  Zero, zip, nil, nada.  I have never had any kind of contact with Kredo.  I have had no contact with anyone at the Washington Free Beacon about this story.  That’s why my speculation wasn’t in yesterday’s posting.

But I did have that thought, which influenced the writing.

I had the same sort of speculation after reading Friday’s piece by Mark Hemingway at The Weekly Standard.  I have had contact with Hemingway, though I don’t know whether he knows this.  But I have had no contact with him or anyone affiliated with him about the story.

Hemingway writes that “in recent days there have been rumblings that Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor and architect of the infamous Iran Deal echo chamber; Obama National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor; and other Obama foreign policy officials have been active organizing and leaking against Trump.”  Hemingway links Kredo’s story, but notes its anonymous sourcing and Rhodes calling the theory bizarre.

Nevertheless, Hemingway argues that the consistent appearance of the silly suggestion that Flynn may have violated the Logan Act as a “tell” that there was some sort of campaign being waged against Flynn.  He concludes that “it’s worth trying to get a handle on how active and organized the Obama opposition to Trump is,” a sentiment with which I entirely agree.

I am not quite as sold on the idea that the Logan Act nonsense is a “tell.”  It could be.  OTOH, Dems accused then-candidate Trump of violating the Logan Act for suggesting that Russia should find the 30,000 emails deleted from the private server Hillary Clinton used to mishandle classified information.

The Left also accused Sen. Tom Cotton and 46 other Senate Republicans of violating the Logan Act for publishing a letter to Iran’s leaders that undercut Pres. Obama’s efforts to negotiate the Iran deal (at least this example relates to the Iran deal).  Before that, MoveOn had a petition drive suggesting then-Speaker of the House John Boehner violated the Logan Act by inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress.

Plus, I’m old enough to remember when it was GOPers and conservatives who tended to bring up the Logan Act.  In 2007, Republicans claimed then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi violated the Logan Act (even if it shouldn’t have been prosecuted) by meeting with Syrian Pres. Assad.  Fmr. Pres. Jimmy Carter has been accused of violating the Logan Act over the years for his meddling in foreign policy well after his presidency ended.

In 1984, Newt Gingrich accused ten House Democrats, including then-Majority Leader Jim Wright, of violating the Logan Act for offering political advice to Daniel Ortega, leader of the Communist junta that ruled Nicaragua.  James Kirchick brought up the Logan Act not only with respect to Carter, but also regarding Sen. Ted Kennedy’s attempt to get the Soviets to meddle in the 1983 election.

Pres. Ronald Reagan suggested then-Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson had violated the Act during a mission to Cuba (while saying he would not seek a prosecution).

I guess what I’m suggesting is that the Logan Act is just one of those political talking points that people will invoke, given enough aggravation.  So maybe it’s not a “tell” in this case.  But maybe it is.

In either event, Hemingway’s mention of “rumblings” will ring true to anyone who has worked in DC or knows those who have.  Leaking and gossiping are fairly rampant in the Beltway.

And Hemingway mentions Vietor, who is not featured in Kredo’s story, which suggests those rumblings are not just the product of Kredo’s story.  Again, it’s not evidence.  But I’m not doing evidence right now.

People reading Hemingway might speculate that the rumblings extend beyond the Friends of Flynn that Kredo quoted.  Or that Hemingway knows — or has reason to believe he knows — more than he feels comfortable reporting.

But that leaves us with the question Hemingway raises, i.e., how do people get a handle on whether the Flynn/Rhodes/Iran theory is true?

I have a suggestion that will almost certainly be rejected.  If the theory is that Obama alumni orchestrated press leaks against Mike Flynn (or is campaigning against anyone else in the Trump admin), don’t ask anonymous Trump allies.  Instead, ask journalists.

Granted, most of the leak recipients are probably progressives who aren’t going to say a thing.  But the premise of the speculation that writers like Kredo and Hemingway know more than they can report is that anti-Flynn pitches were made to them or others like them.

Of course, it’s further possible that conservative journalists wouldn’t want to burn their lefty sources for both ethical and practical reasons, even by anonymously ratting out those sources to a fellow conservative journalist.  But keep in mind that those who would squeal loudest about this tactic are people who have no problem at all with government officials illegally leaking classified information for political gain.

If these politically-motivated leaks are the threat to the Republic many — including many conservative writers — seem to believe they are, people may want to wrestle with the ethical questions as I do.  The wrestling should not stop there either.

After all, once you take seriously the possibility that conservative journalists know (or have good reason to believe they know) more than they are reporting, you cannot dismiss the possibility that the Big Media journalists and the sources feeding them anti-Flynn material know (or have good reason to believe they know) more than they are reporting.

This leads us back to the unresolved questions surrounding Flynn’s firing.  Given the general tough-on-Iran line up of the Trump administration, are we willing to believe that Obama alumni went after Flynn on this big a scale out of pure personal pique?  If Pres. Trump dismisses the anti-Flynn leak stories as “fake news,” then why did he ask for Flynn to resign?  Why was Flynn cashiered for misleading VP Mike Pence if the FBI concluded Flynn was truthful in claiming it was unintentional?  And so on.

This is the problem: When you start going down a rabbit hole, you generally don’t know how deep it will go.

Update: If you’re into speculation about this topic, per my warning about what the Deep State or Big Media might know that we don’t, read HotAir’s Allahpundit on FBI Director Comey’s long and mysterious meeting with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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Another Flynn Conspiracy Theory

It’s a little hard to believe that people are still writing and talking about the ouster of fmr national security advisor Mike Flynn at the end of the week.  But since people are, let’s take a look at a story that seemed to excite the right and the Trump-friendly.

That story is a piece Adam Kredo wrote for the Washington Free Beacon entitled “Former Obama Officials, Loyalists Waged Secret Campaign to Oust Flynn.”  I tend to think Kredo is a solid reporter, so I also tend to think that most people who read it actually misread it or were misled by the headline.  What Kredo actually reported was that allies of Flynn have a conspiracy theory to explain his professional demise.

Yes, really.  Allow me to walk you through it.

Kredo’s lede is that Flynn’s fate was the “culmination of a secret, months-long campaign by former Obama administration confidantes to handicap President Donald Trump’s national security apparatus and preserve the nuclear deal with Iran.”

It seems fairly clear that there was a wide-ranging effort against Flynn.  It wasn’t really all that secret, given that most of it was conducted in the media.  Anonymous?  Yes.  Sometimes illegal?  Yes.  Secret?  Not so much.  More like “brazen.”

It is also pretty clear that former Obama administration personnel were involved in this effort.  The anti-Flynn stories in Big Media often relied on sources characterized as “former officials.”  No sane person thinks these were officials from some administration other than the Obama administration.

Was the point to preserve Obama’s Iran deal?  Stick a pin in that; we’ll come back to it.

Graf two asserts that the campaign is “said to include former Obama administration adviser Ben Rhodes” and a “small task force of Obama loyalists,” according to “multiple sources.”

Who are these sources?  Fortunately, Kredo’s sourcing is far more specific than the sourcing in many of the anti-Flynn stories, so we know a fair amount about them.

These “[s]ources who spoke to the Free Beacon requested anonymity in order to speak freely about the situation and avoid interfering with the White House’s official narrative about Flynn.”  Given that fmr Obama officials likely don’t give a tinker’s damn about Trump’s narrative, the reader already may infer that perhaps the sources here are going to be pro-Flynn.

Indeed, Kredo specifically describes his sources as: (1) a “veteran national security adviser with close ties to the White House team”; (2) a “veteran foreign policy insider who is close to Flynn and the White House”; (3) a “senior White House official,” “who is a member of the White House’s National Security Council”; and (4) a “source who serves as a congressional adviser and was involved in the 2015 fight over the Iran deal.”

Given these helpful (better-than-Big-Media) characterizations, it is fair to infer that none of these sources has a direct connection to Ben Rhodes or any members of the purported task force charged with Flynn’s political assassination.  It is also fair to infer that they provided no evidence of said Rhodes/Iran-centric plot, because if they did, Kredo — again, a solid reporter — would have included that bombshell info in his article.

But evidence is never cited by these sources.  One says, “This pattern reminds me of the lead up to the Iran deal, and probably features the same cast of characters.” (Emphasis added.)  Another says, “It’s actually Ben Rhodes, NIAC, and the Iranian mullahs who are celebrating today. They know that the number one target is Iran … So they got rid of Flynn before any of the [secret] agreements even surfaced.”  A third says the leaks were “not the result of a series of random events.”  The fourth claimed that “in December the Obama NSC started going to work with their favorite reporters, selectively leaking damaging and incomplete information about Flynn. After Trump was inaugurated some of those people stayed in and some began working from the outside, and they cooperated to keep undermining Trump.”

All of the above may or may not be true.  None of it is evidence that Ben Rhodes led a small task force devoted to deposing Flynn.  And I really don’t like having to point out that Rhodes is being accused without evidence.

Lacking substantiation from his well-placed sources, Kredo reminds us that “Obama loyalists plotted in the months before Trump’s inauguration to establish a set of roadblocks before Trump’s national security team, which includes several prominent opponents of diplomacy with Iran.”  By this he means that Senate Dems worked to delay confirmation of Trump’s nominees, including Mike Pompeo as CIA Director.

There is no indication that Ben Rhodes or a shadowy cabal had anything to do with this, any more than with the delay Dems sought regarding most all of Trump’s nominees.

Kredo also reminds us that “until its final days in office, the Obama administration hosted several pro-Iran voices who were critical in helping to mislead the American public about the terms of the nuclear agreement.”  There is no indication that these meetings — the most recent of which was in April 2016 — discussed waging a campaign against Mike Flynn.

Kredo further reminds us that “top members of the Obama administration’s national security team have launched a communications infrastructure after they left the White House, and have told reporters they are using that infrastructure to undermine Trump’s foreign policy.”  By this, Kredo means that various Obama alumni are criticizing Trump on Twitter and have started a podcast.  Really, read the linked stories; that’s what they report.

Again, Kredo is a thorough journalist.  If he had better evidence of a Rhodes/Iran-centric plot, we wouldn’t be reading about tweets and a podcast.  In fairness, I haven’t been following the tweets or the podcast, so if they randomly included phrases like “John has a long mustache” or “The chair is against the wall,” I’d be willing to consider that…nah, I’d think they were trolling people.

Moreover, if the conspiracy theory propounded by the Friends of Flynn were correct, the bigger story would be that Trump, his chief counselor Stephen Bannon, SecDef Jim Mattis, SecState Rex Tillerson, CIA Dir. Pompeo, DNI-designate Dan Coats, UN Amb. Nikki Haley and the rest of the administration are thisclose to reversing their positions and caving in to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  That’s the unstated premise of the theory that Flynn had to be removed to preserve the Iran deal.

There is no evidence that Mike Flynn was the indispensible man to the fate of the Iran deal. The theory is, however, of a piece with other bizarre theories that never seem to be more than one or two degrees of separation from Flynn.

Occam’s Razor supplies a more plausible theory.  Mike Flynn was known by anyone paying attention to politics and government, inside and outside the intelligence community, as a loose cannon.  So much so that Trump could not risk hiring him for a job requiring Senate confirmation.  He was the easiest target, someone who would either self-destruct or hang himself if given a length of rope.

It did not take a left-wing conspiracy for the wolves to attack the weak member of the herd.  It took simple observation and pack behavior.

Of course, I don’t dismiss the possibility that the attacks on Flynn were more organized.  Paranoids have enemies too.  But if Kredo didn’t find the evidence, the conspiracy currently remains as unproven as the theory that people associated with the Trump campaign colluded with Russian agents.

That is what makes the response to Kredo’s story I observed on social media interesting.  By and large, people who had spent weeks coming to the conclusion that dark theories fueled by anonymous partisans are to be distrusted or dismissed mostly embraced a story sourced to anonymous partisans spinning a conspiracy theory for which they had no supporting evidence.

Confirmation bias: It’s a helluva drug.

Update: Here’s my speculation filled follow-up to this posting.

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Can This Marriage Be Saved?

Amid tumult at the White House, the Washington Examiner’s April Ponnuru notes: “If this is the honeymoon, prospects for the marriage between President Trump and congressional Republicans are bleak.  We’re not even a month in and many Republicans are looking nervously for the nearest exit.”  For that matter, it wasn’t much of a honeymoon from the outset.

The reality is probably less dramatic.  Oddly, the best recent historical precedents for the Trump/GOP relationship Administration may come from the Democrats.

One possibility for the GOP can be called The Bill Clinton scenario.  Bill ran for President as a heterodox, more centrist figure in his party.  He won despite the way he treated women.  Nicknamed “Slick Willie” as far back as 1980, his relationship with the truth was as casual as his relationship with the opposite sex.  He lied about things large and small; parsing his lawyerly evasions became a cottage industry for his critics.

Bill Clinton, his Administration, and his associates became mired in a swamp of scandals of varying import.  He was impeached (though not convicted) and disbarred from practicing law in Arkansas and in front of the Supreme Court over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Despite the scandals, triangulations and losing control of Congress to the GOP for the first time in 40 years (indeed, perhaps in part because of the latter), Democrats ultimately stood by their man like Tammy Wynette.

Democrats debated whether Clinton’s success was due to his more centrist positions on welfare and crime or his support for the party’s legacy achievements.  It was probably some of both.  Equally important or more so, the Information Revolution unleashed an economic boom.  Plus, Bill rallied the party faithful by expertly playing the victim of what Hillary Clinton would infamously dub as a vast right-wing conspiracy.

Bill Clinton, aside from changing the norms for a President in ways that paved the way for Trump, also provides a model by which Trump might succeed in keeping most Republicans and conservatives sufficiently onboard with his presidency.  If Trump can balance traditional GOP policy priorities with some key Trumpian proposals — and continue to drive all the right enemies crazy — he can probably maintain a successful political operation, even if he runs into scandals.

Of course, for the Clinton scenario to work, the economic and foreign policy fundamentals will have to also go well for Trump – or appear to, at a minimum.

A worse-case scenario might be called the Jimmy Carter scenario.  Here was an earlier heterodox figure in the modern Democratic Party.  Far more centrist than the Dems’ 1972 nominee, Sen. George McGovern, he also won in part because he lacked the sort of moral flaws so evident in Richard Nixon.

Yet the Carter Administration failed in part because he did not work or play well with a Congress of his own party.  The obvious collapse of old school Keynesian economics and Carter’s foreign policy humiliations were almost certainly bigger factors, but the lack of support for Carter in Congress and the Democratic Party more broadly – culminating in Sen. Ted Kennedy’s 1980 primary challenge – was highly damaging to his prospects for reelection.

Wherever Trump and the GOP wind up on this spectrum, note that Clinton and Carter are still considered heterodox.  The Democratic Party and progressivism more generally have continued their leftward trajectory despite them.  Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election in part because she went from being perceived as one of the more left-wing influences in her husband’s administration to a retrograde figure by large segment of her party today.

The heterodox Trump administration — or some of it — seems interested in trying to remake the GOP into a more nationalist or populist party.  But trying to change your spouse after the wedding ceremony seems….tricky, at best.  Of course, that also might be instructive to anyone in the GOP still hoping that Trump is going to make that long-rumored pivot someday.

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Deep Concern About the Deep State

Blogging my ambivalence about the ouster of Mike Flynn as Pres. Trump’s national security adviser, I noted that one of the benefits of this little side blog is that I don’t have to have an immediate and firm conclusion about such things.

Accordingly, I read with great interest the pieces by Eli Lake and Damon Linker making the case that we should be deeply worried about the “Deep State” politically assassinating a public official in this manner.  These pieces were shared widely on social media by conservatives.  They make a forceful case, albeit one lacking in context.

At the outset, I should note my comments are not addressed to Lake or Linker, but to those in their audiences who seized on their arguments to declare that the leaks are the only “real” issue here.

Candidate Trump campaigned as a consistent critic of the intelligence community.  So much so, in fact, that political junkies openly joked about the likely blowback to Trump.  “The last POTUS to wage war against the IC was Nixon and we all know how that turned out.”  Ha ha ha.  The jokes were based on people knowing the Deep State will retaliate when attacked.

In this political moment, this observation — obvious to anyone interested months ago — is now taken by some as legitimizing politically motivated leaks.  This is, to put it mildly, hogwash.  When Pres. Trump notes the uptick in the homicide rate in major American cities, he’s not endorsing murder.  Political leaking isn’t necessarily right; it is foreseeable.

Indeed, we need not harken back to the bell-bottomed days of yore for an example.  On the eve of the 2016 election, there was a rather large flurry of politically-motivated leaks, primarily from Trump-friendly FBI agents upset that FBI director Comey declined to recommend espionage charges against Hillary Clinton, and that Justice Dept. officials allegedly stiff-armed their probe of the Clinton Foundation.  Fox News went so far as to report — and retract — a story that an indictment was likely to result from the FBI’s investigation.

The Right’s response to these leaks was not to express deep concern about the Deep State.  The reaction ranged between crickets and barely restrained glee.  Republicans generally were far more interested in whether the leaks were correct than whether they were proper.

I could suggest that this reaction on the Right helped legitimize political leaking far more than noting such leaks happen.  I could suggest that righties who have taken to dismissing any anti-Trump news based on anonymous sources largely seem to have been fine with news based on anonymous sources who were anti-Clinton.  I could note that righties didn’t torch Fox for that rather big piece of “fake news.”

OTOH, at the same time, I had an argument with a liberal journalist.  I contended that the progressives’ deep concern with the FBI leaks was largely a function of whose ox was being gored.  Those who know me should be able to look up that exchange without much difficulty.  This is not a new position for me.

I am concerned with political leaks, especially where national security concerns are involved.  I wrestle with where the lines should be drawn, in part because of the risk that my political priors will unduly influence my opinion on an issue that ideally should be beyond ideology or partisanship.

But given that such leaks are easily foreseeable, my question is why a candidate who didn’t pass up chances to bash the IC seems to have had no plan to reform the IC.  Was hiring Mike Flynn the plan?  If so, I can’t help but notice the Deep State got him ushered out of the White House in record time.  Literally.

If this sounds like blaming the victim to you, please note that Trump sits behind the Resolute desk.  He is not powerless.  Those truly and deeply concerned about the Deep State should demand action and reform instead of using their often newfound concerns to excuse the most powerful man in the world whining about how unfairly Mike Flynn was treated.

Or, to put it in the argumentum ad masculinum often favored by Trump’s biggest supporters, they should put on their big boy pants.

UpdateAccording to the NYT, Pres. Trump “plans to assign a New York billionaire to lead a broad review of American intelligence agencies, according to administration officials, an effort that members of the intelligence community fear could curtail their independence and reduce the flow of information that contradicts the president’s worldview.”  Trump picks a Friend of Stephen Bannon who has virtually zero natsec experience instead of his DNI-designate, Dan Coats.  I wonder how many people who had concerns about the Deep State yesterday will applaud this bold new stroke? (Yes, that’s partially sarcasm.)

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Stephen Bannon Should Visit CPAC

White House counselor Stephen Bannon has appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference before.  Now that the intelligence community (with an assist from the media and likely Obama alumni) has easily dispatched Mike Flynn, the man who was supposed to tame the deep state, Bannon should make a return visit, if he can avoid going to Paramus.

With Flynn’s quick departure, many are saying Bannon is next on the target list of foes outside the administration and rivals within it.  Writers like John Fund and Steve Berman are already concerned about another character assassination in progress.

Some of their critiques are more valid than others.  Bannon has landed a top political job with little in the way of a track record; it’s natural that he would be the subject of media investigations.  Some of the resulting non-stories seem sillier than “Mitt Romney hazed a kid several decades ago,” but I don’t fault the exercise per se.

In contrast, the fact that Bannon referred to obscure Italian philosopher Julius Evola during a 2014 conference held by the Human Dignity Institute is highly interesting, even if the NYT (and some on the alt-right) might be misreading Bannon’s comments regarding Evola as supportive of fascism.  It’s true that Bannon is an eclectic reader, but given the entirety of his comments regarding nationalism at the conference, his reference to and apparent study of Evola — a leading proponent of Traditionalism — was hardly accidental.

Bannon notes that one of Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin’s advisers is a devotee of Traditionalism and opines that this is one of the bases of Putin’s support.  He then notes that Traditionalists “don’t believe in this kind of pan-European Union or they don’t believe in the centralized government in the United States.  They’d rather see more of a states-based entity that the founders originally set up where freedoms were controlled at the local level.”

[Here — although this is just my take — as far as Americans go, Bannon seems to be referring to a particular class of paleoconservatives, though one could argue that the lines between them and the alt-right or neoreactionaries are fairly blurry.]

Bannon quickly added that he’s “not justifying Vladimir Putin and the kleptocracy that he represents,” but concluded that “where you’re facing a potential new caliphate that is very aggressive that is really a situation — I’m not saying we can put it on a back burner — but I think we have to deal with first things first.”

In these comments, Bannon didn’t endorse fascism or Putin, though he did reveal something about his global priorities circa 2014.  Bannon didn’t really endorse Traditionalism, either, though it would be fascinating to probe further into whether it influences his thinking and if so, how it differs from Evola’s conception or Putin’s deployment.

These questions scratch the surface of topics on which Bannon’s reading might illuminate his thinking.  He’s also recommending David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest as a warning against hubris.  The book is highly critical of the elites who served (or disserved) JFK and DC’s compliant press corps.  It’s easy to see how those themes fit into a Trumpian world view.

It’s less clear how Halberstam’s elevation of experience over theory plays out in Trumpworld.  The administration has nominated its share of military officers, for example — but Bannon himself seems more a theorist than practitioner.  And the insular groupthink condemned in the book perhaps should have been considered before hastily rolling out a major executive order on immigration with little input from people with relevant experience.

So why should Bannon visit CPAC?  Because Bannon has thought a great deal about the direction in which Trump may lead America and the underpinnings of that thinking are poorly understood by the media and the public.  Indeed, close to half of the country has never heard of Bannon or has no opinion about him.

CPAC would be an ideal venue for Bannon to sit down for an expansive Q&A on his philosophies of politics and governance — a live event that protects him from the selective editing of a suspect media.  Bannon’s 2014 comments suggest he can be a confident advocate for his views.  Remaining opaque will only make his critics more suspicious.

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The Flynn-ale?

Sure, that’s a terrible title.  But I wasn’t going to be the millionth “Flynn-ished” or the billionth “Out Like Flynn.”

So Pres. Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned late Monday night, following reports that he had misled VPOTUS Mike Pence and other officials about his contacts with Russia, specifically whether he had discussed the issue of newly-imposed sanctions with the Russian ambassador.

I won’t pretend to know all of the ins and outs of this story.  The one thing that is clear is that Flynn told Pence something that was not true bout a fairly significant topic.  Some may want to argue whether the phone calls, as reported, were really a big deal.  But Flynn’s resignation suggests that top White House officials were not buying that Flynn could not recall whether sanctions were discussed, and the possible explanations for that apparent disbelief are not good.

Aside from that, there are many “maybes” on the table.

Maybe not all of the reporting on Flynn should have been dismissed by some as “fake news,” even if some of it was.

Maybe the leaks were not entirely a vendetta pursued by former Obama officials and people in the intelligence community, even if some of them were.  Maybe there were reasons Flynn ended up with a bad reputation in the intelligence community, even if some of it was politics.

Maybe I should be more concerned about the number of officials apparently illegally leaking dirt on Flynn, even if I’m already pretty concerned about the politicization of the intelligence community.  Maybe I should be more concerned that there was something about Flynn that caused him to receive this rather unusual treatment.

Maybe not all of the leaks from administration officials and staffers were motivated by palace intrigue and internecine turf battles, even if some of them were.  Maybe the stories about his administrative style in the Trump White House were similar to those that resulted in his firing from the Obama administration for reasons other than a frame job.

Maybe there was a reason why Flynn ended up with enemies inside the White House as well as outside it that wasn’t all about bad motives.

Maybe some people should have watched Flynn’s performance at the GOP convention and wondered whether he was a good choice for national security adviser.  Maybe being a paid analyst for RT shouldn’t be considered a resume-sweetener for the job.

Maybe a man who seemed soft on Russia and tough on Iran would only have been destined to be a bigger headache for the administration later.

Maybe there was a reason Flynn’s son — who was in business with Flynn — got booted from the transition.  Maybe there was a reason one of Flynn’s top aides was denied a security clearance.

Maybe Trump, who values loyalty, thought he owed Flynn a job based on his early support of Trump’s campaign.  Maybe there were reasons why other candidates didn’t seem to pursue Flynn’s endorsement.

Maybe there were reasons Flynn was named to a position that did not require Senate confirmation.  Maybe he’s not the only member of the administration like that.  Maybe that will end up being more important than the side issues regarding the administration’s antagonists, even if those side issues are valid.

Maybe the best part of this little side blog is that I don’t have to have a fierce, concrete opinion this very minute on most of these “maybes.”  I’m inclined to score Flynn’s crossing Pence  — and Trump’s hiring of Flynn — as unforced errors, because the public record suggested Flynn would be a problem and a target well before he phoned the Russian ambassador.  But maybe I’m wrong.  Certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

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Nationalism in These United States

Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru‘s cover essay on nationalism in the latest National Review drew responses from Jonah Goldberg, Ben Shapiro, and Yuval Levin (and a reply from Lowry) that largely survey the waterfront of the issue.  Nevertheless, I have several thoughts around the edges of the debate.

First, as I noted when starting this blog, this sort of debate is the sort of thing that National Review uniquely does well.  It’s one of the reasons NR is an invaluable resource for political discussion.

Second, while I generally side with the cover story’s critics, its important to remember that the debate here is not the binary sort that has largely taken over the internet.  Rather, it’s a discussion over the type and amount of nationalism that can be healthy — or at least not destructive.

Third, given some of the caveats carefully sprinkled in their piece, Lowry and Ponnuru probably would not have received as much critique if it had been structured to explicitly highlight the differences between their concept of nationalism and Pres. Trump’s version, rather than seemingly tacking them onto the end.  They chose not to go that route.  Given that both men are excellent writers, it is not surprising that the approach they took at the time they did was taken by some as an attempt to mend fences with Trump-friendly readers.

Fourth, while the debate at NR covered the “nationalism vs. patriotism/exceptionalism” aspect thoroughly, Levin’s secondary point about “nationalism vs. localism” still has some meat on the bone.

Lowry and Ponnuru write: “The elements of American nationalism that Trump scants are moderating influences on it.  They push in the direction of decentralization and localism rather than an all-powerful central government.  They appropriately situate loyalty to the nation within a set of concentric circles of concern starting with the family and ending with the globe.”

Yet that graf comes well after they declare “[t]he nation is a community writ large, and it is natural for people to love it — to revere its civic rituals, history, landscape, music, art, literature, heroes, and war dead.”

“The nation is a community writ large” smacks a bit of taking a village to raise a child or government just being the name we give to the things we choose to do together.  Given their later distinction, it would be unfair to attribute those more statist sentiments to them — but the fact that so many forms of nationalism are rooted in sentiment makes it easy for less rigorous claims about nationalism to slip through unexamined.

Moreover, as Lowry and Ponnuru note: “During the campaign, Trump policy director Stephen Miller introduced him at events with speeches that were notably communitarian in emphasis.”  We have not had much communitarianism from Trump since the transition-period Carrier deal.

It strikes me as a little odd that there has been relatively little directly revisiting the debates over right-wing communitarianism of the mid-90s, or of 2013, through the lens of Trumpism.  After all, when you read what Trump’s core supporters said during the campaign, it is obvious their concerns about immigration and trade stem from the impact those issues have on their local communities and traditions.

Lastly, it strikes me as odd that the discussion of nationalism in these United States has proceeded without much mention of federalism.  This nation, in addition to having launched with a statement of principles, is also distinguished by having been a voluntary alliance, confederation and ultimately union of sovereign states.

For a fair amount of this country’s history, its citizens were just as likely to think of themselves as citizens of their state or commonwealth.  A Civil War and the transportation technologies of the industrial revolution ultimately moved our vast country to the point where a “national” nationalism could predominate over more local attachments.

Even now, people notice that California, Texas, Maine, Louisiana, Florida, New Jersey, Ohio, etc. all retain distinct flavors of America.  A renewed commitment to federalism (minus the slavery and Jim Crow, obvsly) would be another important check on the unhealthy aspects of nationalism — and one Congressional Republicans have already devoted thought to achieving.

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Tucker’s Tomato Can Television

‘Member when righties laughed at lefties who went nuts for sharing videos of the format “WATCH [Lefty TV personality] DESTROY/EVISCERATE/SLAY [Righty politician or issue]”?  I ‘member.

And yet I see righties giving the same sort of treatment to similar clips from Fox’s Tucker Carlson Tonight.

The most recent virality involved Carlson taking on USA Today Deputy Editorial Editor David Mastio over an editorial noting that White House counselor Stephen Bannon and the Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi share a belief in a “clash of civilizations between Islam and the West.”  That’s not quite right; Bannon stated in 2014 that “we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism.”  But USAT drew its conclusions (correct or not) based on the totality of Bannon’s comments about Islam, as noted in the editorial.

Carlson led off his segment with Mastio by means of a pop quiz:

Like Mr. Wurtzel, I tend to think “Bannon doesn’t behead journalists” comes across as damning the man with faint praise.

Carlson, however, does behead journalists, figuratively, and he draws quite an audience.  Beyond the social sharing, his ratings are yuge.

This should surprise no one.  Carlson knows the formula.  In the long history of cable news morphing into infotainment, when Jon Stewart famously compared CNN’s Crossfire to pro wrestling, Carlson was one of his direct targets.  (Carlson has claimed he never understood Stewart’s point.)

Of course, Tucker Carlson Tonight isn’t as scripted as the WWE.  But it’s not unlike watching a favored heavyweight boxer work his way toward a title belt by sparring with a series of tomato cans.

On Crossfire, Carlson had to tangle with seasoned pros like James Carville or Paul Begala nightly.  On Fox, virtually none of Carlson’s recent foils have nearly his experience in what passes for debate on television.  And as often as not they are: C-list writers for outlets like the Huffington Post, Elite Daily, and Teen Vogue; generally unknown writers like Mastio or Fortune’s Mathew Ingram; writers with, um, colorful histories like Kurt Eichenwald; and the occasional businessman, college student, or random crank.

Even against inexperienced guests with weak-to-outlandish arguments, Carlson resorted to a straw man argument versus Mastio, and guilt-by association with Teen Vogue’s Lauren Duca.

Carlson’s obviously a smart guy and just as obviously talented on camera.  But he risks re-enacting the moment in Gladiator where Maximus, after swiftly dispatching his vastly inferior opponents, bellows to the audience, “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED!?”  Because they clearly were not.

And even if the crowd remains entertained, you might ask how lefties giggling over the Stewarts, Colberts, Olivers, and Bees worked out for them.  I can tell you from experience that junk food is tasty, but makes you flabby in excess.

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