Us and Them and Decline Porn

In “Decline Porn,” Commentary’s Noah C. Rothman argues that “[i]n the nation’s elite political media, an initially well-meaning effort to understand the voters who handed the president the keys to the White House has morphed into something closely resembling exploitation.”

I hadn’t planned on writing about this, as I tend to think there is a large measure of truth in it.  But I found myself asking why I agreed with it.

At the outset, I probably agreed because I had written previously about why such coverage was likely doomed to fail.  The New York Times already had tried what Jonah Goldberg called “gorillas in the mist” coverage of conservatives in 2003-04, only to find themselves blindsided by 2016 (though stereotypical Trump voters are less conservative than many Republicans).  Iowahawk’s hilarious “Heart of Redness” skewers similar coverage from the Washington Post after Pres. Bush’s re-election.

Ironically, it’s the WaPo’s Alexandra Petri who provides the comedic version of Rothman’s argument in 2017, jabbing both the journalists sojourning into the Trumpian hinterlands and the people interviewed by them (whether she meant to jab her colleagues is debatable, but the effect is the same).

It’s not entirely fair, however, to portray the media as having become fascinated with the decline of rural American towns only after the election.  There were similar anthropological pieces before the election, because the media knew the path to any Trump victory would run through the Rust Belt.  This was discussed frequently.

Moreover, related stories, like the opioid epidemic that seems concentrated in Trump-friendly regions, received extensive coverage during the 2016 cycle.  This coverage was mostly sparked by Gov. Chris Christie’s moving speech on the issue — one that inspired candidates as far apart as Sen. Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton to weigh in.

That the media did not start this coverage recently, however, does not mean that it is not on some level exploitative.  Rothman posits that such coverage isn’t particularly useful absent statistical or empirical context, absent debate over how to fix the problems of such people.  Again, my impulse is to largely agree.

OTOH, when I read coverage of the problems of Chicago’s West and South sides so lavishly produced by elite outlets like the New York Times, I find I could offer a similar critique.  The media’s coverage of police shootings tends to be similarly lacking in context or solutions.  The media’s reliance on this arguably exploitative genre is more equal opportunity than it might seem at first blush.

The reason people — and conservatives in particular — may not immediately pick up on this may be that we subconsciously expect the left-leaning establishment media to be more exploitative of the problems of the non-white underclass, given their usual orientation toward Democrat-centric identity politics.

Conversely, there would be a tendency to reflexively impute suspect motives when left-leaning outlets turn to address the problems of the white underclass, particularly given how late they have been to this party (and often hostile to authors like Charles Murray who were earlier to the party).

So while I tend to agree with Rothman, I find myself doing so from the perspective that perhaps he’s drawing back the curtain a bit on some larger issues.

The unstated premise of this mode of coverage (regardless of sympathetic or exploitative intent) is that the mission of the so-called elite media inherently focuses on “national” political coverage.

An essentially progressive media will tend to assume that it has the expertise and skill necessary to provide the breadth of coverage necessary for a nation as vast as the United States.  Yet for all of the progressive fetishization of diversity, so-called elite journalists have a distinct knowledge problem here.  They generally aren’t well-equipped to understand Englewood or Fishtown.

As a result, these scribes generally can do little beyond bear witness, however imperfectly.  This is endemic to most journalism, tbqh.  We just notice it more when the subjects are sensitive and controversial.  And we tend to notice it through whatever personal and political lenses we bring to the viewing.

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Don’t Know Much Tax Policy

Sub-head: The Mortification of Sam Cooke.

As Tax Day approached, the Washington Post and NPR were among those publishing pieces on Americans’ ignorance of tax policy.  The headline of the WaPo piece conveyed the general attitude: “People don’t like paying taxes. That’s because they don’t understand them.”

In fairness, the author of the WaPo piece doesn’t actually make that claim.  And it would be a line of argument more absurd than claiming that the reason people don’t like visiting the dentist is because they don’t understand the purpose of doing so.

NPR went so far as to commission an Ispos poll to quantify our ignorance.  But the poll may say as much or more about the likes of NPR or the WaPo as it does Americans’ knowledge of tax policy.

Indeed, as one reviews the poll results and NPR’s analysis, you might wonder: “If only there were people whose job it was to inform the public about public policy…”

NPR starts by noting that 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney was basically correct in observing that 47 percent of Americans don’t pay federal income tax, but people seem to have forgotten it.  Perhaps that’s because the establishment media is only interested in this sort of statistic when it can be used as a cudgel against a Republican.  Left-leaning journalists don’t highlight the number of people who don’t pay individual income taxes.  Stop the CMSes.

According to the poll, a majority of Americans also think low-income people pay too much in income tax, despite most of that 45-47 percent being low-to-middle income.  Again, you could see why a left-leaning media is largely uninterested in correcting that misconception.  But NPR helpfully conjectures that maybe people would support even more tax transfers to the poor, “regardless of how the current tax code looks.”  So why do we care whether Americans know these details again?

NPR then had Ispos a true or false question: “For the highest earners, the percent of federal income taxes they pay now is significantly higher than it was in 1980.”  NPR seems to have deduced after the fact that this was a bad question.  If “percent” is taken as the “rate,” the correct answer is “false”; if “percent” is taken as “share,” the answer is “true.”  That doesn’t stop NPR from choosing the former as the “correct” way of reading the question in its accompanying graphic, which tells you how NPR saw it before they got the answers.

However, if the point is to demonstrate an ignorance of tax policy, the real question is why NPR cares about the marginal tax rate for the highest earners.  Individual income tax revenue as a share of GDP was an identical 8.7 percent in 1980 and 2015 (the last year for which we have final figures), despite the top marginal rate being 70 percent in 1980 and 39.6 percent in 2015.  And the share was lower in the 1950s, when the top marginal rate was 90 percent.

The top marginal rate does not come close to telling the story, given the complexity of the Internal Revenue Code.  And the remarkable stability of individual income taxes as a share of GDP over the decades since WWII might have a story about economics and politics to tell NPR, however much the staff may not want to hear it.

Instead, NPR would like to spin its cherry-picked statistic as a tale of income inequality instead of a tax code that has become far more progressive — one of the most progressive tax systems in the world.  That’s far more comforting than facing the possibility that there is a practical limit on how much one can tax “the rich” to fund an ever larger and more intrusive government.

NPR also reaffirmed that Americans overwhelmingly agree that “The tax rate on income from work should be lower than the tax rate on income from wealth.”  NPR added: “This is another result that might make the richest Americans squirm,” because apparently making “the rich” squirm is the true aim of American tax policy.

If NPR was truly interested in our collective ignorance about tax policy, they might have asked how many Americans understand that capital gains taxes are: not indexed for inflation; a double tax on income; and encourage present consumption over future consumption.  Or that U.S. cap gains tax rates are above the average for other developed nations.

NPR’s poll then finds 49 percent of Americans think 75 percent of the federal government’s revenue comes from personal income taxes (when it’s really about 47 percent).  NPR then notes: “Of all the taxes Americans pay, income tax probably requires the most thought. After all, payroll tax comes automatically out of each paycheck. Sales tax is imposed at the cash register. And so on.”

If NPR wants to complain about Americans’ ignorance about taxes, it might have considered whether government prefers less transparent, more automatic taxes — withholding payroll taxes being the classic example — precisely because politicians want Americans to be ignorant of how deeply they’re reaching into our pockets.

Lastly, NPR is miffed that the GOP’s efforts to rebrand the estate tax as a “death tax” is effective in making it less popular, especially among Democrats.

Of course, the progressive bias of the media is not the only reason outlets like NPR don’t really want to cover tax policy in depth.  I’ve previously invoked the old adage that “great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; [and] small minds discuss people.”  It’s much easier to draw an audience obsessively covering the circus atmosphere of the Trump administration, or a doctor dragged off an airplane, or the doctor’s lawyer’s press conference than tax policy.

Moreover, I suspect the establishment media privately thinks as I do:  that public opinion on taxes is basically governed by the notion of “I would prefer that someone else pay more taxes, while I pay fewer.”  This extends to the olds burdening the youngs with a future higher tax burden to support their entitlement programs.  The establishment media really doesn’t want that to be the big story.

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The Root Cause of Campus Authoritarians

Saturday’s clash of Trump supporters in and New New Leftists in Berkeley, CA may be the latest headline.  While this Weimar-as-farce violence is to be condemned, the April 12 Wellesley News editorial defending restrictions of free speech on campus is ultimately more important.

In some ways, the student editorial is no different from past attempts to justify the New New Left authoritarianism growing at America’s colleges and universities.  It relies on at least two common yet bogus propositions.

The first is that whatever these Che wannabes deem to be “hate speech” is not free speech and thus not protected by the Constitution.  Even Politifact has figured out this is false.

The second, equally bogus proposition is that someone engaged in “hate speech,” however defined, somehow infringes on the rights of students in a manner justifying physical violence.  However, as infamous right-wing writer Adam Gopnik once put it in a conservative cesspool called The New Yorker:

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

Gopnik was referring to the Islamist attacks on Charlie Hebdo, but the point is equally applicable here.  As many others have noted, it’s Orwellian for campus Maoists to claim they are creating “safe spaces” when said spaces are created by mob violence or the the threat thereof.

Yet, I noticed — albeit anecdotally via social media — there was much more progressive pushback against the criticism of this editorial than after the prior riot at UC Berkeley or the assault on author Charles Murray and battery of Professor Allison Stanger at Middlebury College.

It would be easy to attribute the difference in pushback on simple cowardice.  Many liberals know what the violence the New New Left promotes is not widely accepted and they are ashamed to be associated with it.  So a few may write against it, but many will simply close their mouths and look the other way, lest they be shunned or targeted by fellow travelers.

But I suspect that one of the reasons more progressives are touchy about the Wellesley editorial is something noticed by Patterico and Allahpundit — the abysmal quality of the student editors’ writing. “We have all said problematic claims?” Well, that phrase is certainly problematic.

And consider this sentence: “Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech; it is hate speech.”  That sentence is garbled garbage that almost certainly denotes something close to the opposite of what the authors intended.  If you’re going to make an ridiculous claim, at least try to sound sophisticated.

The awful writing helps put a spotlight on the incoherent “thinking” undertaken by budding totalitarians in our nation’s supposedly elite institutions.  It also draws attention to how deep the rot is at these institutions.

As I’ve previously noted, much of this rot stems from prior successes in eliminating or minimizing Western Civilization in curricula.  The ideological conformity in American education deprives students of an appreciation of the West’s virtues, and left-leaning students of the ability to effectively critique the West’s vices (hence the need to suppress their opponents).

Unfortunately, this is just one particularly pernicious aspect of the overall dumbing down of American education.

So when the poorly-educated but self-righteous staff of the Wellesley News moons the world, progressives feel more obligated to defend what is effectively The Establishment.  The Federalist’s publisher, Ben Domenech, recently asked readers to “Consider The Possibility That We Are Led By Idiots.”  If there’s anything progressives want you to consider less than that, it’s the idea that so-called elite institutions are simply creating another generation of idiots to succeed them in “leadership.”

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Political Journalism and Political Science: Still a First Date

At Poynter, James Warren writes about last weekend’s meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, focusing on a panel titled, “The Media and the 2016 Election: A View from the Campaign Trail.”  While I appreciate the journalists who would show up to such a thing, if Warren’s report is any indication, even the journalists interested in political science still have a lot to learn from it.

Steve Peoples of the Associated Press suggested the 2016 election was leading him to question all of his assumptions, which is probably a good practice for most people in general.  But Warren reports that Peoples wondered what journalists would do if you cant trust the polling.

If this was Twitter, I’d be hashtagging that sentiment #facepalm and #headdesk for several reasons.

First, it is usually the case that post-election seminars feature journalists confessing that too much of election coverage is focused on the horse race.  Political scientists would tell you there’s good reason to be concerned about it:

“Patterson (1993; 2005) and others fear that the focus on the game over substance undermines the ability of citizens to learn from coverage and to reach informed decisions in elections or about policy debates. Capella and Jamieson (1997) argue that the strategy frame portrays candidates and elected officials as self-interested and poll driven opportunists, a portrayal that they show promotes cynicism and distrust among audiences. Farnsworth and Licther (2006) go so far as to suggest that horse race coverage in the primary elections results in a self-reinforcing bandwagon effect with positive horse race coverage improving a candidate’s standing in subsequent polls and negative horse-race coverage hurting a candidate’s poll standings.”

The 2008 and 2012 elections had much the same problem.  And 2016 was no different, with horse race coverage accounting for most of the reason a candidate like Donald Trump got mostly positive coverage.  Indeed, while Nate Silver is a data journalist rather than a political scientist, his analysis supports the bandwagon thesis: the media covered Trump well in excess of his poll standings, ultimately driving those standings higher despite bad favorability numbers.

In contrast, you can check Jack Shafer‘s 2008 hot take defending horse race coverage to see how much worse it sounds now than then (and it sounded bad then).

Second, while there was a small systematic error in the 2016 polling, Nate Silver explained before the election why his model showed a 28.6% chance of Trump winning and the reasons he gave pretty much explained in advance what happened.  And even if you don’t buy the precision of a model like Silver’s (and you probably should not), it was Sean Trende (who holds a poli sci degree) noting that a 25% chance was like flipping a coin and having it come up heads twice in a row — hardly shocking.

Instead, journalists and more conventional pundits tended to see 25% — or even 14% — as 0%, when in fact, sometimes unlikely results occur.  That does not wipe out the laws of probability.  The chances of rolling a six on one die are only 16.67%, but it still happens and when it does, it doesn’t mean the die is loaded or defective.

Third, polling isn’t the only thing political science has to offer journalism.  Political science could also offer a number of fundamental reasons — 2016 being an open seat election in a mediocre economy involving two poor candidates and a Democratic Party that had been losing white working class voters for decades — that helped account for Trump’s victory, all of which could have been considered and incorporated into journalists’ thinking well in advance of election day.

Molly Ball and Nia-Malika Henderson apparently commented on the sorry state of the Democratic Party.  Ball thought it was “hard to underestimate how screwed the Democrats are,” but noting their situation wasn’t hopeless, recalled that Barack Obama was a little-known state senator before the 2008 election.

I’m hoping Warren mischaracterized Ball, as this is almost entirely incorrect, and any good political scientist would have been able to correct her.

First, by the time of the 2008 cycle, Obama had been elected to the U.S. Senate and had been the highly-publicized and highly-lauded keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.  Political scientists would identify such a person as a rising star, well positioned to compete in the “invisible primary” of party officials, donors and influencers that occurs before a single vote is cast.

And in fact, Obama proved to be a prodigious fundraiser from both Wall Streeters and small donors alike.  While it was certainly possible that he could have fizzled had he lost the Iowa caucuses, political scientists would have predicted he could mount a strong challenge to Hillary Clinton.

[Aside: The fundraising is usually crucial because of the cost of paid media.  In 2016, Donald Trump entered the race with high name-ID and a press willing to provide free media well in excess of his poll numbers.]

Second, as for the Democrats being screwed, Jay Cost (another political scientist by education, iirc) has observed that “[i]f the Republican party were a publicly traded company, January 20 would be the day to sell, sell, sell.  This may sound counterintuitive, but the verdict of history is clear, if not quite unanimous: The moment a party achieves total control of the government is the moment just before power begins to slip through its fingers.”

Finally, Ball apparently wants to know if there has been a lasting realignment of the parties, or whether 2016 was an anomaly.  Trende’s book, The Lost Majority, would tell you no such thing truly exists.  See also Jay Cost:

In addition, while the panel apparently noted that Hillary did well with college-educated whites, I have noted previously that Trump was outpolled by down-ticket GOPers in many races, often by appealing less to working-class whites and more to college-educated whites.  John Judis — a progenitor of the Emerging Democratic Majority theory — noted the GOP’s overall improvement with white voters, but particularly college-educated white voters, back in 2015.

The GOP having Trump as its public face might change those trends in time, even if it did not occur in 2016.  But a political scientist would tell you that’s where the analysis starts.

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Meet the New Boss…

…Same as the old boss.  But then, you’ve probably heard The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” many times already.  Pete Townshend’s power chords and sardonic lyrical commentary on revolution, perfectly paired with Roger Daltrey’s epic scream of frustration.  IIRC, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once offered a similar viewpoint, albeit without the groundbreaking sequenced synthesizer, the rolling thunder of Keith Moon on the throne, or the double threat of John Entwistle keeping the time and soloing throughout.

Although it’s really still too early for confident conclusions, the conventional wisdom now seems to be that the Trump administration carries the whiff of a failed revolution before reaching the arbitrary but much-hyped 100-day mark.

Pres. Trump entered the White House vowing to drain the swamp of our nation’s capital.  In recent days, however,  Trump has decided that it’s worth bombing Syria over chemical attacks on civilians, Syrian strongman Assad must leave power at some point, Russia is not going to be our best bud, NATO is not obsolescent, China is not a currency manipulator, Fed Chair Janet Yellen may not be worth dumping, and the crony capitalism of the Ex-Im Bank is perfectly tolerable.

Also, there is the seeming decline of Stephen Bannon, Trump’s nominal senior counselor and wannabe nationalist philosopher.  He’s been removed from his perch at the NSC and losing internal battles to Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.  He’s just some guy who works for Trump now.  Bannon’s post-government future is being imagined, if not expedited.

I could discuss the merits of these apparent flip-flops and policy shifts, as many will.  Some are quite welcome and defensible, from my perspective, e.g., China really isn’t a currency manipulator now (if it ever was) and dropping that kerfuffle in return for China’s help with North Korea (as seems likely) is a good trade, imho.

Instead, let’s look at the larger picture.  If the current trends hold — a somewhat risky assumption when the mercurial Trump is under discussion — the portrait that emerges is of an insurgent, outsider campaign suddenly giving way to a largely establishment GOP (perhaps even Wall Street Democrat-influenced) administration.

I could argue that this isn’t shocking, that Trump was historically a New York Democratic donor who opportunistically went RINO to capture a nomination from gullible folk who listen to talk radio or who mistook reality TV for reality and took the grossly excessive media coverage of his campaign as validation of its seriousness.

Rather than sip from a hearty mug of schadenfreude, however, I want to focus on the notion that Trump’s seeming quick-change act is a bad thing, even if I think I might like the policies better than those we would get from the Full Trump.

After all, in a representative Republic, people that voted for Trump ought to get what they voted for, even in the Menckenesque expression of the idea.  Similarly, all of those who supported or voted for other Republicans, particularly more establishment candidates, cannot help but feel they were cheated by the passions of the star-struck and the gullible.  Trumpists may not get much of what they want, while others will get their policies as executed by someone whom most thought lacked the experience or temperament for the job.

In many respects, it seems like the worst of both worlds.

To the degree that Trump’s rise and ultimate victory is a byproduct of Americans’ precipitous decline in trust of our institutions — especially political institutions — the “meet the new boss” dynamic will only fuel that distrust and potentially make our politics even more toxic in the future.  Trump fans may become more alienated and perhaps more radical, while his skeptics may get to see their ideas discredited by the incompetent execution of an amateur.

Americans who have been voting for change cycle after cycle for perhaps as long as 16-20 years may reach the Daltrey-esque primal scream moment.  I can’t say I would blame them much.

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When Kicking Your Friends is Bad Politics (Spoiler: Almost Always)

As I went about my Tuesday, I hadn’t been planning to write something critical of Pres. Trump or his media defenders.  That was before coming across The Wall Street Journal’s James Freeman, writing about Neil Gorsuch’s ascension to the Supreme Court.

Freeman writes: “[Monday] morning Neil Gorsuch became the 113th Justice of the Supreme Court, vindicating the decision of conservatives to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. This may signal the end of the Republican NeverTrump movement, which in its heyday attracted the support of literally dozens of think-tank scholars and columnists in a broad coalition that stretched from Washington, D.C. to as far away as Manhattan.”

Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that one hasn’t seen much of the #NeverTrump hashtag since the election, when most pundits of that stripe decided to back Trump when he did the right things (like nominating Gorsuch) and criticize him when he missteps (like the botched rollout of the travel ban).

Instead, it is apparently necessary to review How You Got Gorsuch for those who may have recently been struck on the head by a large, blunt object.

Originally, candidate Trump suggested that he might appoint his sister, a pro-choice federal appeals judge, to the SCOTUS.  He later claimed he was joking about this, but he also suggested during a debate that judges sign bills.  It was fairly obvious that when it came to judicial nominations, Trump was as much a Know Nothing as he was on… well, most everything else.  And it was quite disturbing to NeverTrump types and others, especially following the February 2016 death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

So it was that in March 2016, Trump took the unusual step of promising to make public a list of potential SCOTUS nominees.  His campaign worked with the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation to compile that list.  “Worked with” is also a fairly charitable description; the news story in the prior link used the word “outsourced.”

As Ilya Shapiro observed while this work was proceeding, FedSoc was a “hotbed” of NeverTrump sentiment.  FedSoc and Heritage represent precisely the think-tankers Freeman chose to gratuitously insult in the WSJ.  The quiet assistance of a small number of such key people, whose assistance was by no means guaranteed, came at a crucial time for the Trump campaign.

During the campaign, the NeverTrump crowd was routinely bashed by Trump fans for putting their principles above winning.  But without such people, it is unlikely the Trump campaign would have compiled and published such a list.  And without such people willing to give the campaign the benefit of their uncompromised, principled analysis, the list would likely have been ineffective.

Trump’s defenders would like to pretend that anyone with NeverTrump views, by definition, could not assist Trump.  It is also typical of the “binary choice” myth Trump’s defenders propagated that all NeverTrumpers necessarily wanted Hillary Clinton to win.  This ignores the entire history of politics producing otherwise unimaginable alliances, and ignores the role of NeverTrump types in pressuring Trump in the first instance to do something that would prove crucial to the victory of his own campaign.

Indeed, it was generally outlets like National Review, which had published a special “Against Trump” issue, that kept beating the drum for Trump to publish that list, right up to the very day he finally did it.

When Trump published that first list (Gorsuch would subsequently appear on a supplemental list), people across the political spectrum understood what it represented.

The Hill noted the list was a response to attacks from “true conservatives” like Ted Cruz that Trump could not be trusted to nominate conservative judges.  Even Gawker recognized the role played by FedSoc, adding that the list was an offering to a GOP faction led by Bill Kristol — one of the most visible NeverTrumpers at the time.

The list became a prime talking point for selling Trump to conservatives by people like radio talker Hugh Hewitt.  I mention Hewitt in particular because he is by his own admission a Party Man and as such previously advocated for the SCOTUS nomination of a mediocrity like Harriet Miers.

It was opposition from dissident conservatives (including not only future NeverTrumpers like Kristol, but also a number of future Trump supporters, ironically) that caused Miers to withdraw and Samuel Alito to become the nominee.  Anyone think that was the wrong move?  Bueller?

Then as now, those who want a SCOTUS more grounded in the text of the Constitution than the fashionable political causes of the day — and those who want to brag about nominees with this philosophy — ought to thank, not insult, those who work to identify such jurists, those who publicly agitate for their nomination, and those who work behind the scenes to ensure it happens.

OTOH, I suppose it doesn’t matter if the plan is to simply be a lackey for anything a nominally-GOP administration proposes.

But why make a big deal out of Freeman’s anti-historical cheap shot?  Aren’t I being a bit too touchy about this?

Well, I live in the world where Pres. Trump’s job approval ratings are trending badly for him.  I live in the world where Trump’s support is eroding even with core parts of his base.

I live in the world where insulting people likely to be allies in that Reagan 80 percent way is bad advocacy and bad politics, particularly when those being inaccurately insulted are largely responsible for someone like Gorsuch being nominated in the first instance.

I live in the world where the Trump administration still routinely embarrasses itself.  If and when they do so on a truly grand scale, people like Freeman may find they have reaped silences where there might have been tepid support, or criticism where there might have been silences.

And yet Trump and his media defenders can’t seem to give up attacking those from whom they probably need support, as we saw when the President and various of Murdoch’s minions decided to try to place all the blame for the failure of a bad and wildly unpopular healthcare bill on the conservative Freedom Caucus, rather than the House leaders who drafted it in secret or the President who backed it to the bitter end.

I have used harsher language here than I usually do precisely to demonstrate that snark is something which may please the writer and his friends, but is unlikely to win hearts and minds, which is generally the object of successful politics.

Kicking one’s supposed allies is a very Trumpian trait, but one not likely to serve Trump or his media defenders well in the medium-term.

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“Fake News” Checking and Fake “News Checking”

You may have read that Google plans to include “Fact Checks” of its news search results, much as Facebook has taken to doing with its news feeds.  And like Facebook, Google is farming out the job to so-called “fact-checkers” including Politifact, Snopes and the Washington Post.

The left-leaning biases of these organizations is well documented, but let’s briefly review them.  Politifact is essentially forced run lengthier explanations to justify the site’s disparate treatment of Left and Right, and treated Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton quite differently, despite consistent polling showing most voters found them both dishonest and untrustworthy.

Most recently, Politifact retracted a 2014 article that found Obama Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s claim that “we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out” of Syria to be “Mostly True.”  Politifact handed out that rating despite the fact that there were discrepancies in the accounting and some stockpile sites lacked even an agreement for inspection.   It turns out that the assurances of Democrat politicians and global bureaucrats are assertions, not facts.

Snopes hires as fact-checkers alumni from various left-wing news sites like Raw Story.  And they are not very transparent when asked about their practices.  So it’s not surprising that the Snopes coverage of Hillary Clinton’s email scandal contained only a few fact checks, almost all of which reviewed claims other people made about it, rather than Clinton’s numerous and obvious false statements about it.  Even The Guardian managed to fact-check Hillary.

As for the Washington Post, consider that the WaPo discontinued fact-checking during the first two years of the Obama administration, when Democrats also held large majorities in Congress.  Fact-checking resumed at roughly the same time a GOP Congress regained control in 2011.  The Washington Post sees itself as speaking truth to power…unless it’s untrammeled Democrat power.

Indeed, the Washington Post recently exercised no editorial control when Dana Milbank published a column based on claims about judicial filibusters less accurate than claims which previously had been awarded two and three Pinocchios by the WaPo fact-checker.  This approach is fact-checking for thee, not me.

None of this is surprising because so-called “fact-checking” is not so much about establishing facts but imposing a particular Truth.  And it is not about being restrained by their own Truth as it is about imposing it upon the Other.

While I do not agree with BuzzFeed’s EIC Ben Smith on everything, he is certainly correct to note (as Charlie Sykes has) that left-leaning Big Media is desperate to try to retain the “gatekeeping” power they enjoyed in the pre-internet age.  They, with the help of complaining left-wingers, have managed to cajole some of the biggest players in the internet media cartel into helping them.

I suspect that trying to impose authority rather than earning it will merely perpetuate the cycle of distrust that has already brought the media to new lows.

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Do Trump Statements Come With an Expiration Date?

Many of you may be familiar with Jim Geraghty‘s Rule from 2008: “All statements from Barack Obama come with an expiration date. All of them.”

But what about statements from Donald Trump, in light of his seeming about-face on attacking Syria?

I ask because Philip Klein (a smart guy, particularly on healthcare policy) has an… interesting explanation of how to square Trump’s attack on Syria with his campaign rhetoric: “Though he didn’t try to convey any sort of coherent grand strategy, his own disjointed heterodox statements actually made people feel that on a gut level, he was basically where they were.”

Well, I’m old enough to have heard that theory before:  “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”  That was Barack Obama, in the prologue to The Audacity of Hope.

And this is why the whole concept of “taking Trump seriously, but not literally” was such a transparent dodge by his supporters and apologists.  It was apparent to anyone who pays attention to any area of policy that candidate Trump had almost no knowledge of or facility with policy and was unable to even adequately describe his own policies on his own website.  It’s one of the reasons that most people thought he lacked the knowledge or temperament to be President during the campaign.

Now he’s President Trump and his team has asked his intelligence briefers to cut down on the number of words in the daily briefing book and use more graphics and pictures.  And it was pictures of child victims of the Assad regime that ostensibly prompted Trump to shift his position.

For now, it’s working.  Having fired Michael Flynn and removed Stephen Bannon from the NSC, Trump does seem to have mostly followed through on his promise to hire the best people when it comes to natsec, e.g., James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and Nikki Haley.

Trump’s also getting good press for striking Syria, even from quarters who were afraid to publicly criticize Obama’s feckless foreign policy while he was in power.

Moreover, Trump voters are so deafened by the tribal drums that many don’t even notice his inconsistency.

But while Klein notes that the potential for problems if things escalate in Syria is still hypothetical, it’s not exactly unlikely either.  And even if Syria does not grow as a challenge for the U.S., there will inevitably be others.

When the going gets rougher, it’s entirely possible that Trump’s voters, not to mention the media, will focus more on the incoherent leadership at the top.

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This is TrumpTV

Remember when people were concerned that after Donald Trump lost the election, he would start up a “news” channel?  Good times.  Instead, Trump won and we have a surplus of Trump TV.

You might think I’m referring to the Fox News Channel.  Granted, the ostensibly straight news side of Fox doesn’t totally shill for the President (my family’s biggest Trump fan now prefers the even more Trump-friendly Fox Business Network).  But when FNC’s biggest star was again being accused of being a little too fresh with the womenfolk, not unlike Trump, his old milkshake buddy volunteered his support.

But I was also thinking of Jonathan Mahler’s NYT Magazine piece, “CNN Had a Problem. Donald Trump Solved It.

The problem? “[A]n existential threat was looming. In a world where cable cutters were consuming their news in bite-size portions on their phones and streaming free video over the internet, how much longer would anyone be willing to pay for expensive cable packages? Real breaking-news events happened only every so often, and people lost interest in them quickly; more quickly than ever, in fact, now that there was so much else to distract them.”

The solution?  Donald J. Trump, Bringer of Ratings.  And after the election, “[w]hat [CNN Worldwide president Jeff] Zucker is creating now is a new kind of must-see TV — produced almost entirely in CNN’s studios — an unending loop of dramatic moments, conflicts and confrontations.”  Sound like anyone we know?

As Mahler notes, while at NBC, Zucker “helped usher in the age of reality TV, first with the gross-out show ‘Fear Factor’ and then with ‘The Apprentice’,” which of course starred Trump.

Zucker has brought that sensibility to CNN: “As Zucker sees it, his pro-Trump panelists are not just spokespeople for a worldview; they are ‘characters in a drama,’ members of CNN’s extended ensemble cast.  ‘Everybody says, “Oh, I can’t believe you have Jeffrey Lord or Kayleigh McEnany,” but you know what?’ Zucker told me with some satisfaction.  ‘They know who Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany are.'”

Indeed, a recurring theme in Mahler’s longread is that “[i]t’s a symbiotic relationship that could only thrive in the world of television, where the borders between news and entertainment, and even fantasy and reality, have grown increasingly murky.”

For example, Mahler further notes that “Zucker is a big sports fan and from the early days of the campaign had spoken at editorial meetings about wanting to incorporate elements of ESPN’s programming into CNN’s election coverage.  ‘The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way,’ he told me.  Toward that end, the network built ‘pregame’ sets outside debate halls with excited crowds in the background and created a temporary rooftop studio for the final weeks of the campaign with sweeping views of the White House and the Washington Monument.”

I have written at length about the ESPNization of political media and was inspired to do so by one of those pregame sets.  It’s a decline decades in the making, driven by economics as well as technology.  But the escalation is very much TrumpTV.

The relationship between Trump and Zucker may have soured for the moment, but you can easily imagine the make-up call in which one of them says, right out of the TV/movie cliche book: “You know, we’re not so different, you and I…”

While CNN may have been one of the worst offenders during the primaries, also recall CBS CEO Les Moonves from this period: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”  And post-election, BuzzFeed’s EIC Ben Smith has said “(Trump) has singlehandedly…postponed the collapse of a fair share of legacy media in an interesting way,” though this ignores that sites like his have reaped the clicks as well.

The surface politics of these outlets may oppose Trump, but now more than ever they share his ideology of enriching and empowering themselves by inflaming controversies and increasingly adopting his tabloid standards.  It’s all about the audience share.  In this regard, they all are — like Sean Hannity — Great Americans.

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“Oh, He’ll Change After We Get Married.”

To be fair, men make the same error and both sexes make it in relationships before marriage.  But only some have made this mistake regarding the Presidency.

You see it from the lefty L.A. Times Editorial Board in the kick-off to their remarkably pompous series on “Our Dishonest President.

The Board thunders: “The Times called him unprepared and unsuited for the job he was seeking, and said his election would be a catastrophe’ … Still, nothing prepared us for the magnitude of this train wreck. Like millions of other Americans, we clung to a slim hope that the new president would turn out to be all noise and bluster, or that the people around him in the White House would act as a check on his worst instincts, or that he would be sobered and transformed by the awesome responsibilities of office.”

Why?  Why on Earth did you think that?  You’re likely wrong that the people around him aren’t acting as a check on his worst instincts.  But you observed the life and campaign of 70-year-old Donald J. Trump and know that any hope he would suddenly transform was pure wishcraft.

The same malady persists among some righties, like author Brad Thor:

During the campaign, Thor argued for Trump by comparing him to a drug being offered out of a crappy clinic in Mexico, one that’s the subject of lawsuits over its side effects.

How does that scenario typically work out?  I’m thinking “side effects.”

Had the passengers wrested control of Flight 93 from the terrorists, what were the odds that amateurs would have made a smooth-as-silk landing?

If people had argued that conservatives should vote for Hillary Clinton because she might pivot to her original Goldwater Girl persona as President, or at least not pocket the silverware, the laughter would have been deafening.

Ross Douthat admits that his proposal — that Trump create a think tank inside the White House “to brief the president regularly on how Trumpist premises should shape any given legislative deal” — is an implausible idea.  (Douthat fails to notice that Trumpism has little constituency in Congress.)

Although I suspect some staff turnover is inevitable (as it seemingly is with every Presidency), Douthat recognizes the root of the implausibility of his idea is in Trump’s character — his inability to evaluate arguments, accept advice, or even convincingly project the notion that the administration is about more than his glorification and narcissism.

I can blame Trump for that, and often do.  But I also don’t care to excuse those — Left or Right — who now want to pretend that we should expect much better than this.  The parties could have and should have done better.  Primary voters could have and should have done better.  In that respect, I can’t blame Trump any more than I blame the scorpion or the tiger.

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