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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William Jefferson Trump

It turned out I wasn’t the only one critical on Friday of the reflexive anti-anti-Trump response to Pres. Trump’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey.  Charlie SykesChris Stirewalt and Amanda Carpenter struck a similar theme, and more (including Jonah Goldberg) did throughout the weekend.

I’m glad that sort of conservative criticism is getting wider circulation, if only because the Left is going to convince itself that opinion doesn’t exist.  But I remind myself that it likely won’t matter.

Almost three months ago, I wrote about the Trump-era GOP playing out 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.  *** Bill rallied the party faithful by expertly playing the victim of what Hillary Clinton would infamously dub as a vast right-wing conspiracy.”

And here we are.  You can argue that a continuing oppo campaign against Trump from former Obama officials and perhaps the “deep state” represent an escalation, but every Presidency faces an opposition that is somewhat organized (in the form of a political party) or naturally gravitating toward certain lines of attack (as from an ideological opponent).

Moreover, like Bill Clinton, Trump has a flair for throwing suspicion on himself even when an underlying scandal is ultimately revealed to be slim or tangential.

So far, as during the Clinton era, the impact on Trump’s presidency has been minimal.  Public opinion is largely echoing the preexisting partisan opinions about Trump.

Conservatives who were long critical of Comey will convince themselves Trump always agreed with them, even though Trump’s public comments, actions and tweets suggest he initially approved of Comey but tired of hearing about the Russia investigations.

Or they will pretend that if Comey was in their opinion incompetent, it doesn’t matter that Trump’s apparent actual motive was sketchy at best.  Many of the same people will recognize it’s wrong for the Supreme Court to elevate politics above the law in opinions that make the pretext evident, but miss that the President should avoid a political motive when it comes to the FBI, whose director has a 10-year term for a reason.

After all, if the evidence leads us to conclude Trump fired Comey to express his displeasure with the Russia investigations and media coverage thereof, it would be hard for even longer-term Comey critics to downplay the reaction to the firing as partisan and hypocritical.

Thus, it is not shocking that the story of Comey’s firing has received little traction so far.  Of course, political junkies like anyone reading this should consider that perhaps the story will sink in with casual viewers more over time, or take on greater weight if other shoes drop regarding the Russia investigations (I still don’t expect any Shaq-size shoes to drop here).

OTOH, the Comey story may not move the needle much, if at all.  It could be that the hysteria with which the Democrats and their media react to every Trump story has created an environment in which the casual viewer does not see the Comey story as standing out from a dozen others.

Furthermore, note that Clinton’s reflexive defenders, including those who blamed the VRWC (largely conservative media) for Bill’s woes generally didn’t ruin their careers over it, even after the Lewinsky scandal.  Similarly, those who entertained all the darkest speculation about every Clinton scandal didn’t ruin their careers over the number of those scandals that turned out to be weak beer in the final analysis.

Why?  Again, it has something to do with both tribalism and institutions.  If a party or movement circles the wagons (or goes on an attack) and objectively winds up looking foolish in hindsight, there is a sort of collective guilt that goes unspoken publicly.  This may be part of why trust in institutions is so low now, but the coastal elites aren’t going to surrender or destroy careers to keep institutions cleaner.  This may also be why the tribes do not reward heresy, especially if the heresy turns out to be correct.

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Trump Fired Comey? I Blame the Media, Obviously.

This is pretty much where I’m at.  Although I think Shapiro is specifically addressing Pres. Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, some version of this should be more broadly applicable.

Much of the anti-anti-Trump crowd, however, can only get halfway there.  Or, if they find any fault with the White House, they’re not saying.

I’ve already explained why I’m trying to avoid falling into the anti-anti-Trump camp; no need to rehash it here.  Instead, I’ll focus on how Shapiro’s tweet sparked am additional clarifying moment for me.

In recent weeks, I have been writing about culture as an amalgamation of institutions.  I have also been suggesting conservatives should be revisiting our predeliction for preserving institutions, at least in cases where the Left has already succeeded in effectively crippling or subverting them through infiltration or external political pressure.

I have been slowly and incrementally working through such questions against the backdrop of a century of progressive successes in marching through our culture’s non-governmental institutions, including the media.

Consequently, Shapiro’s tweet jumped out at me for a point that can be made about institutions.

As previously noted, I have largely written off the establishment media as being amenable to reform anytime in the foreseeable future.  The establishment media is largely a broken institution.  It can be said that their hysterical reaction to Trump represents an escalation, but the same could have been said of any incoming GOP administration (particularly that of George W. Bush who — like Trump — managed an Electoral College victory without winning the popular vote).

It is not as though the Right — and conservative media in particular — has not escalated in the ferocity of its attitude towards Democrats and their administrations.  They hit us, so we hit them back.  Bada-bap, bada-boop, bada-beep.

Maybe our government is also a broken institution (though I would not rate it as broken as our media).  That perception, ironically, is part of How We Got Trump.

But unlike the establishment media, our government is a public institution and one defined by its monopoly on the legitimate use of force.  Citizens therefore can and should demand better of our government, even if the media’s private status makes it more durable than any given administration.

Indeed, if you view or justify Trump’s election as a rebuke to Beltway politics as usual, there should be less tolerance for his administration misleading us (at best) regarding why Trump, by his own account, fired the FBI Director.  That Trump has the Constitutional authority to dismiss him, or that we might agree with the pretext for the decision, in no way excuses our government from honestly accounting for the decision.

[Regarding the pretext: While most of the dishonesty here came from Trump’s employees, Trump himself now claims Comey did a bad job after praising him before the election and asking him to stay on in January.  Yesterday, Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe testified at a Senate hearing that Comey “enjoyed broad support” within the FBI.  Thomas O’Connor, president of the FBI Agents Association, called that support overwhelming.  A March Harvard-Harris poll showed Comey had bad approval numbers, but only 35 percent had an unfavorable view of him; a large number of voters had no opinion.]

I would find it much easier to focus on attacking the media for their obsession over unproven accusations linking Trump campaign associates with Russia if we did not have a President who had it in mind when he fired Comey.  Many conservatives (myself included) may tend to think that because there is no evidence of Trump’s culpability in this matter, the firing was essentially a fit of pique over the media hysteria.

But assuming such to be the case, it is fairly obvious that the impulse to try to shut down negative media coverage by firing a top law enforcement official was at a minimum counter-productive (and foreseeably so).  At worst, it reflects an intolerance for the sort of political and media hysteria faced by many presidents, and the sort of temperament that leads a President to make larger mistakes later.

If you’re mentally dismissing the above by joking to yourself that this is who we elected, take a moment to consider that’s an admission, not a defense.

Lastly, if you’re the sort who really enjoys loathing the establishment media, note that the Trump administration’s disingenuous handling of this major decision will only be seen by the media as justifying their hysteria.  They won’t be entirely wrong about that, regardless of whether you choose to minimize the administration’s dishonesty.

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The Comeyashi Maru Scenario

I was quite occupied yesterday, so pardon me if someone else already has offered this piping hot take on Pres. Trump’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey.  My quick Googling suggested people were less foolish than this.

At the outset, I note that my actual opinion is in the ballpark of the conventional wisdom.  There was a solid argument that Trump had cause to fire Comey, though he would have been better off doing so in January.  The timing — and the general unbelievability that Trump axed Comey for being unfair to Hillary Clinton — is at the least a PR problem.

I also have read that Comey and his ego personally rubbed many people the wrong way and that he courted controversy a bit too much (“Donald, we are not so different you and I…”), though I don’t have personal knowledge of this.

Despite all of the above, allow me to play Devil’s Advocate for a few paragraphs (while not chewing the scenery through the finale like Al Pacino).

Most of the tale of Comey’s firing flows back to his July 5, 2016 presser not recommending charges against Hillary.  But what were Comey’s options here?  Let’s take a moment to game them out.

Comey ideally would have liked to keep the FBI out of politics, but the Democrats nominated someone under FBI investigation for the Presidency.  That is, to paraphrase then-VP Joe Biden, a BFD.  This isn’t a mayoralty, a governorship, or a seat in Congress or even the Senate.  It’s the White House.

Then, prior to the presser, Pres. Obama’s AG, Loretta Lynch, met with Bill Clinton on an airport tarmac, raising an appearance of a conflict of interest (and from the GOP perspective, far worse).  Indeed, if we’re to believe some of the news reports, Comey wasn’t overflowing with confidence in how the Obama DoJ was handling the Clinton investigation.

So Lynch, wanting a piece of Schrödinger’s cake, gave the appearance of leaving the charging decision to Comey, while really retaining that power for herself.  Lynch has the cake and eats the cake, leaving Comey to eat something else.

In this situation, rather than give the presser he did explaining his decision, the Trump administration now suggests (in full-on troll mode) that Comey simply should have announced the investigation was completed and and provided his recommendation privately to Lynch.

Had he done this, one of two scenarios would have played out.  First, someone in the Obama DoJ likely would have leaked Comey’s recommendation to help Hillary.  The GOP Congress would have been outraged and demanded information, resulting in a sequence of events similar to what actually happened.  Result: a firestorm and a black eye for the FBI.

Alternatively, in the unlikely event the Obama DoJ kept a lid on Comey’s recommendation, Hillary would have remained under a cloud through the campaign.  Trump likely would have won as he did.  At some later point, Comey’s recommendation would have become public.  Democrats’ heads would have exploded in a way that would make David Cronenberg blush.  Result: a firestorm and a black eye for the FBI.

You probably don’t need to be Joshua, with all the processing power of the WOPR, to see the pattern here is not unlike tic-tac-toe or Global Thermonuclear War.  But Comey didn’t have the option of not playing the game.

Thus, James B. Comey, choosing transparency in an unorthodox and arguably improper manner, attempted to change the conditions of the situation.  Unlike Starfleet, a White House driven by the wrath of Trump did not give Comey a commendation for original thinking.

Although it is reasonable to argue that Comey exacerbated his problems related to the 2016 election, those problems were also to some degree thrust upon him by an electorate than nominated Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  Comey may not have met the test in an ideal manner, but let’s not exonerate the electorate and the Obama administration for presenting him with a no-win scenario.

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