Upheaval at Fox, But It’s Still Rupert’s Empire

Bill O’Reilly is out after 21 years of holding the flagship position on-air at Fox News Channel, as the sexual harassment charges and settlements piled up.  But no one should seriously doubt that Rupert Murdoch remains the Palpatine of his media empire.  Indeed, the turmoil at the network even now proves it.

To be sure, people will opine that O’Reilly’s ouster represents a victory for Rupert’s sons, James and Lachlan, bolstered by senior executives at other divisions within the Murdoch empire who chafed at the seeming special treatment for the man with the falafel.  And it is nice that 21st Century Fox is being dragged into the late 20th Century.  I know people who still work there and the HR office doesn’t need to be run by Roger Sterling and Don Draper.

But what Rupert understands is money.  Not just the relatively small-to-him sums being paid out to settle claims brought against O’Reilly or former program honcho Roger Ailes, or to buy out their contracts.

Rather, he’s likely looking at the threat posed by FNC’s highest-rated show being boycotted by prestige advertisers.  FNC’s primetime has always been based on the model of talk-radio-with-pictures; Rupert undoubtedly noticed what happened to the revenues and clearance for the entire conservative talk radio sector once a similar boycott stuck to Rush Limbaugh.

But the turmoil that has gripped FNC over the past year largely has been caused by Rupert’s control over his vision for the operation, both before and after yanking O’Reilly off camera.

The general narrative has been one of Rupert fighting his sons over the direction of the network he created with Ailes many years ago.  As right-leaning talk video, it has attracted largely the same demographic as right-leaning talk radio: white seniors.

James and Lachlan would like to start the transition that will be inevitable as its core audience literally dies and is replaced by another generation that may not have the same politics as the current one.  Rupert sees the current FNC as a yuge cash cow and is loath to fuss with the formula.

While I might prefer the sons’ vision for FNC, I can’t blame Rupert for the impulse to not fix what isn’t broken, especially when you have to answer to stockholders.  That said, there is also an argument that you can stagnate and lose when you don’t take the initiative to innovate from time to time.  And it is very much a question of timing that is probably unknowable.

All of that said, consider that the departures of Ailes and O’Reilly were basically forced upon Rupert by the circumstances, not by choice.  OTOH, Rupert chose to let Megyn Kelly leave last year — and FNC’s schedule would have been far more stable had he met her asking price.

That choice was quite consciously one in the direction of a Trumpier FNC, as is yesterday’s decision to give Eric Bolling a show while moving the rest of The Five to primetime.  And it is most evident in the meteoric rise of Tucker Carlson, who has surfed the shock waves at FNC from weekends to Greta Van Susteren’s slot into O’Reilly’s chair.

Carlson is nothing if not flexible.  He has been a middle-of-the-road conservative for CNN, a provocative prankster at the Daily Caller, a libertarianish righty for MSNBC, and now a Trumpian tribune for Fox (even dropping his signature WASPy bow tie in favor of more proletarian neckwear).

As Carlson told McKay Coppins recently: “I’m not much of an economic conservative, and I’m not conservative at all on foreign policy.  If your politics don’t change when circumstances do, you’re an idiot, you’re a reactionary.”

I could write a longread deconstructing that quotation alone, but today is not that day.

Rather, the important thing now is that Carlson’s chameleon-like adaptability has provided him with an opportunity, but one that comes with its own inherent challenge — and one Rupert has imposed on FNC in general.

The challenge of boarding the Trump Train is that it doesn’t run on tracks.  You have no idea where it’s going to make stops.  Indeed, Trump has recently been making a raft of policy shifts seemingly away from populism and nationalism, and toward a far more conventional Republican approach.

Carlson’s reaction has been to do things like debate Lindsey Graham for agreeing with Pres. Trump’s new position on Syria, and to bring Ann Coulter on to chastise Trump.*

Carlson thus seems (so far) to be taking the Bannonesque position of holding Trump accountable to that segment of his core voters who were really serious about Trump’s advertised nationalism and populism.

But what if that’s not a yuge segment of Trump voters, let alone Fox News viewers?  What if Trump’s support is driven more by the tribal drums of traditional partisanship, by GOPers who voted for Trump because he was a better choice than Hillary Clinton, who like his recent turn towards more traditional Republicanism, and are just more inclined to side with the President over some griping talking head on Fox?

Carlson has changed his politics to fit what he thinks are vastly changed circumstances.  But he’ll be judged by an audience that may become less incline to cheer New Tucker at the very moment he’s received the big promotion.

And again: Rupert runs a capitalist empire; he won’t think twice about demoting Carlson if the ratings decline — or dispatching any of the people at FNC who have trimmed their sails to the Trumpian winds of months past.  In that regard, Rupert is the alpha chameleon of his empire.  It’s not easy being green, but that’s his preferred color.

*[Aside: Carlson’s inferior knowledge of the Middle East compared to Graham, much like his flailing idiocy about capitalism when trying to debate Mark Cuban, tends to prove my point that Carlson should debate tomato cans less, to keep in shape.  I reiterate this even though the New New Left’s collegiate antifa are a major symptom of what’s wrong with America these days and need to be exposed.  Carlson’s taking the big chair and will need to up his game if he wants to stay there.]

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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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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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Gorsuch Will Live. Norm Will Die.

For months, there’s been plenty of talk about candidate and Pres. Trump destroying various political and cultural norms.  Fair enough.  Most of this talk, however, comes from Democrats (or the Left broadly), who are in the process of upending a political norm themselves.

The nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to serve as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court was favorably voted out of the Senate Judiciary Cmte yesterday on a party-line vote.  It seems likely that the Democrats will filibuster his nomination when it reaches the Senate floor, which in turn will likely cause Senate Republicans to change the rules to eliminate the filibuster for SCOTUS nominations and to confirm Gorsuch by majority vote.

The GOP will be entirely justified in changing the rule.  Gorsuch is eminently qualified for the position.  No credible complaint has been lodged against his ethics.  His record is overwhelmingly in the majority of the panels on which he has served for the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.  His opinions are generally well-founded and lively in language.

In contrast, the Democrats’ opposition has been an incoherent mess.  Much of it has been an improper, results-oriented attack on his decisions, continuing the losing claim of Hillary Clinton’s campaign that courts should decide cases based on identity politics.

OTOH, when they aren’t painting him as an extremist, they’re conceding he’s really pretty mainstream, but cannot be confirmed after the way the GOP refused to hold hearings on Pres. Obama’s election-year SCOTUS nomination of Merrick Garland (an approach previously endorsed by Dems like Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer).

Further, Dems are supposedly alarmed that Gorsuch might reconsider precedents like Chevron v. NRDC, or even Roe v. Wade, which Democrats have taken to calling a “super-precedent” (a term as imaginary as a unicorn).  But they are also alarmed that he would be unwilling to reconsider precedents they don’t like, such as Citizens United v. FEC.  Again, a completely political, results-oriented approach that itself departs from the historic norm for judicial nominations.

Ending the filibuster for SCOTUS picks is the next step after Senate Democrats ended the filibuster for judicial nominations to lower courts.  Republicans had blocked a number of Pres. Obama’s judicial nominees, but it must be noted that this was in part a response to the Democrats’ filibuster of prior GOP nominees like Miguel Estrada, a highly-qualified  jurist blocked more than once for no other reason than Dems’ fear he eventually would be appointed to the SCOTUS.

The GOP was also responding to the attempted filibuster of Samuel Alito’s SCOTUS confirmation.  While unsuccessful, the Alito filibuster was supported by Senate Democratic leadership and by then-Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden and John Kerry, to name a few.

Indeed, it could be said the Democrats have been attacking the norms for judicial nominations since at least the Reagan-era nomination of Robert Bork, an episode so egregious that the man’s name became a verb signifying a political smear.  Even after the Borking, Republicans attempted to adhere to the traditional norm of supporting well-qualified SCOTUS nominees despite philosophical disagreements, as can be seen by the near-unanimous vote for Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  The GOP got nothing for their consistency.

In this sense, the GOP tried to maintain the norm of confirming well-qualified jurists; the Dems are trying to destroy the remnant of that norm after decades of effort.

And in a way, none of this should surprise anyone much, as Democrats are by nature not particularly fond of norms  — at least not those they are establishing and imposing.  Progressivism is at its heart a philosophy that is not fond of Constitutional norms, as Woodrow Wilson made plain before and during his Presidency.  And in general, they are not disposed to ask why a fence exists before removing it.

Of course, some societal norms are worth junking.  Jim Crow is one obvious example, though progressive Democrats will crow much more about their role in ending it than their prior interest in eugenics (some of which still turns up in the unguarded thoughts of abortion advocates).  Fewer are interested in examining less obvious examples.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that in politics, people’s concern about norms is usually as situational as their position on any other question.  It would be far better if those purporting to be concerned about norms were willing to have an adult conversation about why certain fences might exist, regardless of which partisan tribe holds a temporary majority.  But that norm appears to have been knocked down long ago.

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Donald Trump and the Sleaze Factor

Most of yesterday’s buzz was about the miasma of Trump investigations.  There was a flap over whether the Justice Department sought to prevent former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates from testifying in the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election.

Recall that to date, there appears to be no public evidence that Trump associates’ contacts with possible Russian agents involved wrongdoing (though there are some odd transactions in the past of Trump’s one-time campaign manager, Paul Manafort).

There is also a flap over the committee’s chairman, Devin Nunes, refusing to disclose to the committee who gave him intelligence reports that indicated Pres. Trump and his associates may have been ensnared in incidental intelligence collection outside the probe into the Russia-related issues.

Recall that to date, there appears to be no public evidence to substantiate Nunes’s claim this intelligence was improperly circulated without redacting the names of Trump and his associates in cases where the names were of no intelligence value.

In recent days, I have noted the tendency to treat similarly unsupported claims as Very Big Deals by anti-Trumpers and anti-anti-Trumpers, according to their confirmation biases.  I have also noted that there is a certain sort of partisan fever that drives people to give way too much credit to even nutty conspiracy theories.

Today, I simply want to add that the odds are that none of it may matter much.

Consider that Ronald Reagan got dubbed “the Teflon President” by Rep. Patricia Schroeder on the basis of her list of 225 Reagan administration personnel or nominees who were the subject of allegations of ethical infractions.  It led Dems to claim the Reagan administration had a “sleaze factor.”  The Associated Press drily noted: “The figure has been disputed.  Most were never charged with any wrongdoing, although some nominees didn’t get jobs after the alleged transgressions came to light.”

That didn’t stop the more sober Washington Post from claiming a list of 110 senior administration officials have been accused of unethical or illegal conduct from 1981-86.  Even so, some of the biggest accusations, such as those against Labor Secretary Ray Donovan, fizzled.  The major convictions would mostly come during the Iran-Contra scandal in Reagan’s second term (and some of those would be reversed due to grants of immunity issued in the Congressional investigation).

None of the earlier Reagan-era scandals and pseudo-scandals (which were in large part a function of the then-new standards of the Ethics in Government Act) mattered in the grand scheme because they didn’t touch the President personally and — tbh — people simply don’t care as much about scandals when the economy is doing well (see also: Clinton, Bill).

Based on what we know to date, I would expect the same basic rules to apply here.  Both stories so far look like pseudo-scandals not involving either Pres. Trump or Obama directly.  And if the economy picks up as the GOP hopes, few outside the partisan fever swamps will care much.

As such, the anti-Trumpers are likely just spinning their wheels until some investigation with credibility delivers some evidence bearing on whether Trump associates behaved badly.  And the anti-anti-Trumpers are in the same boat regarding Nunes’s claims.  The latter, however, also carry a whiff of the people who are constantly complaining that the establishment media isn’t covering their pet story enough. Sad!

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Trump, Surveillance, Leaks, Hysteria

Partisanship has a way of coloring views of the news, especially of highly-charged stories involving Trump campaign and transition officials turning up in government surveillance.

This week, CNN reported: “The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, US officials told CNN.”

Righties, particularly those of the anti-anti-Trump bent, focuses on the “supposed” and the “possibly” to conclude the story was No Big Deal.  The story is certainly qualified, but the dismissal tends to ignore the fact that it’s a report on an ongoing investigation and that unless some sort of charge is brought, it’s a fair bet the evidence will be below the level needed to bring charges.

Conversely, the same basic group of righties thought this week’s press event by Rep. Devin Nunes — chairman of the House Intelligence Committee — (helpfully transcribed by Lawfare) was a Very Big Deal.

Nunes initially claimed that: “on numerous occasions, the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.  Details about persons associated with the incoming administration, details with little apparent foreign intelligence value were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting.  Third, I have confirmed that additional names of Trump transition team members were unmasked. And fourth and finally, I want to be clear, none of this surveillance was related to Russia, or the investigation of Russian activities, or of the Trump team.”

He added that the collection itself appeared to have been legal (i.e., were likely part of conversations of or with foreign surveillance targets), which casts doubt on the claim reported by Fox News that documents may show the Obama administration was using the cover of legitimate surveillance on foreign targets to spy on President-elect Trump (unless your definition of “spy” is incredibly broad).

Also, as noted by the Lawfare bloggers: “In his initial statement, [Nunes] makes what seem to be bold and unequivocal claims, but he then spends the question and answer period significantly undercutting several of them.”  Indeed, Nunes now says he does not know “for sure” whether Trump or members of his transition team were on the phone calls or other communications at issue.

It’s odd that the same people who relied on qualifiers to proclaim the CNN story to be No Big Deal overlook the contradictions and ambiguities in the Nunes claims to deem them a Very Big Deal.  By which I mean not odd at all if you can hear the the tribal beating of partisan drums in the background.

Nunes, however, further raises the serious allegation that Trump or members of his transition team were “unmasked” (i.e., their identities were not redacted as would usually be the case for U.S. citizens in cases of incidental collection) in cases without foreign intelligence value, and that said reports were widely disseminated.  This is precisely the concern civil libertarians have raised about our foreign surveillance efforts during the post-9/11 era.

FWIW, Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking Dem on the House Intelligence Committee, claims Nunes told him most of the names at issue were masked, but that Nunes claimed he could still figure out the likely identities of the people involved.  The resolution of that question of fact will be significant.  The closer Schiff is to being right, the less likely that the “smoking gun” suggested by Fox News sources will be found.

Nevertheless, this claim is consistent with what I thought was a very odd March 1 New York Times story that reported: “In the Obama administration’s last days, some White House officials scrambled to spread information about Russian efforts to undermine the presidential election — and about possible contacts between associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump and Russians — across the government.  Former American officials say they had two aims: to ensure that such meddling isn’t duplicated in future American or European elections, and to leave a clear trail of intelligence for government investigators.”

Note: The Nunes claims do not involve Russia, but the notion of widely spreading sensitive material regarding the Trump camp is a common theme.

I found the NYT story odd because it is essentially an unfavorable admission by the leakers, raising the question of why they would want this dispersion effort made public.  Stupidity and hubris can never be ruled out.  But there is another possibility.

It could be that the leakers wanted this brazen taunt in print precisely to provoke a reaction.  They may have thought Trump might be goaded into tweeting about it, and every news cycle consumed with stories that Trump associates were picked up in foreign surveillance is a bad one for Trump, because most don’t follow this story closely and the center-left media isn’t going to put a neutral or pro-Trump spin on the coverage.

Trump didn’t tweet about it, but it may have caused people to come forward with the documents that caused Nunes to go public (and then to the White House before consulting the Committee).  The leakers admit they want investigators to find the material they dispersed.   And so long as the general gist of the story from the media is that people in Trump’s camp were under some sort of cloud, the leakers may be quietly happy with Nunes, especially if it turns out he exaggerated.

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Reaping News

According to a new Harvard-Harris Poll, 59 percent of Republicans say they believe Pres. Trump’s claim that fmr. Pres. Obama wiretapped Trump Tower.  That claim has been rejected by FBI Dir. James Comey, as well as many GOP leaders in Congress.  Similarly, NSA Dir. Michael Rogers has rejected Trump’s claim that Obama asked British intelligence (GCHQ) to conduct surveillance on Trump.  Overall, 66 percent of registered voters reject the claim.

Trump and White House spox Sean Spicer relied on Fox News Channel pundit Judge Andrew Napolitano to justify their claim about GCHQ.  Napolitano had managed to mangle an already dubious claim by wacky CIA analyst-turned-blogger Larry Johnson on RT, the “news” channel funded by the Russian government.

The “news” side of Fox, including anchors Shepard Smith and Bret Baier, tried to distance itself from the ensuing international spat.  Napolitano was indefinitely suspended from FNC over the flap.  Cynics linked the suspension of Napolitano to the backlash the baseless claim could have on Fox News honcho Rupert Murdoch’s proposed deal to purchase Sky News in the UK.

The cynics are finding more ammo in yesterday’s editorial from the Murdoch-affiliated Wall Street Journal, which said of the wiretap claims that “the President clings to his assertion like a drunk to an empty gin bottle” and warned that “he needs support beyond the Breitbart cheering section that will excuse anything. As he is learning with the health-care bill, Mr. Trump needs partners in his own party to pass his agenda. He also needs friends abroad who are willing to trust him when he asks for support, not least in a crisis.”

It’s hard to discount the cynics in light of prior reports that Murdoch was much involved in directing the tone of Fox’s Trump programming, both when it was tough and when it turned soft.  And reports that there have been tensions within the WSJ’s newsroom over its Trump coverage.

Indeed, it’s a little rich to see the WSJ condemning the “Breitbart cheering section” while ignoring Sean Hannity wildly shaking his pom-poms for Trump from Murdoch’s sidecar.

The WSJ is right to be concerned about Trump’s credibility.  One hopes conservative media might take the moment to consider how much they are linking theirs to his, and how it affects the public discourse.

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Trump’s Skinny Budget: Next Step in the GOP Death Spiral?

Possibly, though not in the way Democrats think, and the size of the step remains to be seen.

Pres. Trump presented his first-year “skinny budget” and it’s skinnier than the client roster at Trump Model Management.

So all we know so far is that Trump wants to shift $54 billion to DoD, DHS and Energy and cut that amount from the State Dept. domestic discretionary programs, including Education, EPA, NEA, NEH, NIH, LSC, LIHEAP, HUD CDBGs (which is where the Meals On Wheels kerfuffle is located) and still other combinations of letters of the alphabet.  I am probably fine with cuts of this sort, though I suspect the numbers are pretty arbitrary (pending an OMB review of agency and program effectiveness due in May).

The GOP Congress, however, is not fine with these proposals.  It simply won’t do, you see.  Very few “Harrumphs” in support of Trump.

From these accounts, it further appears there was little coordination between the White House and Congressional GOP leadership on the budget proposals.  Also, it seems that the White House is pushing back on Congressional suggestions of entitlement reform.

The lack of coordination has been a consistent theme in the short period this sideblog has been open (see here, here, and here, for examples).  Yet it’s probably more important when we have a heterodox President like Trump.

Trump’s pushback on entitlement reform bothers me as a fiscal conservative.  But Trump campaigned on leaving Social Security and Medicare alone.  And as a cynic, I must note that most rank-and-file Republicans aren’t serious about it either.

It is therefore entirely possible we will get another year of borrow-and-spend, big government Republicanism.  They can’t cut the big items because they’re big; they can’t cut the small stuff because it’s a drop in the bucket.  And this on top of healthcare reform proposal that seems to excite no one.  All coming in the first year, when the GOP should have maximum momentum.

Trump may blame Congress for rejecting his domestic cuts.  The true conservatives at the grassroots will seethe.  Much of talk radio (with and without video) will once again hand out the torches and pitchforks for a hearty round of “BURN IT DOWN!”

They won’t be entirely wrong, either.  The GOP has far less excuse for timidity now that they control two branches of the federal government.  This cycle of frustration (less justified when Obama was President) gets an exhibit in the Hall of How We Got Trump.  Now we may get it again, even After We Got Trump.

Does anyone think that’s a way to ensure GOP turnout in 2018 against an energized Democratic base vote?  Of course, the economy may improve, either organically or with GOP help.  Or we may make progress against the Islamic State.  If these big things happen, perhaps the dysfunction of the GOP leadership in both branches won’t matter much.  But maybe it will matter.

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Donald Trump and the Future of Dystopia

In his most recent column, Jonah Goldberg writes about liberals’ fear of a Trumpist dystopia, making the point that short of hysteria, fear can be a useful thing, as can understanding others’ fears.  I have no issues with his main points, but have additional thoughts on his passing observation that dystopianism is nothing new and that “Hollywood has been running through practice scenarios of doom nonstop from its founding.”

Using the admittedly imperfect Wikipedia list of dystopian films (which arguably manages to be both under- and over-inclusive), a couple of things tend to leap out.

First, the genre really does not take off until the 1950s.  This makes sense.  The first half of the 20th century was just too dystopian in reality to turn dystopianism into entertainment.

Second, the biggest and most memorable films in the genre otherwise make a cultural impact during times where America is feeling a sense of disorder and malaise.  The “golden age” of dystopian cinema (if that’s not an oxymoron) stretches from 1968’s Planet of the Apes (and its sequels) through the pre-Morning-in-America 1980s, which gave us Mad Max, The Road Warrior, and Escape From New York (and arguably Blade Runner).

In between, particularly in the early 1970s, Hollywood produces the classics of the genre, including The Omega Man and Soylent Green (both starring PotA‘s Charlton Heston), A Clockwork Orange, Silent Running, A Boy and His Dog, and cult fave Zardoz.  The crop from the mid-to-late-70s includes Logan’s Run, the brill remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and dystopian bloodsport like Death Race 2000 and Rollerball.

The mid-80s to mid 90s produces a steady stream of dystopian films — or dystopian-adjacent films — but not too many great ones, and not too many with impact in the popular culture.  Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brazil, They Live, Gattaca and Dark City are good, but lack the cultural footprint they should enjoy.  Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is the weakest of the franchise.  Demolition Man and first two Terminator films are not, strictly speaking, dystopian in setting.  RoboCop may be the strongest popular dystopian film of the period.

Aside from The Matrix, the “silver age” of dystopian movies really comes in the post-9/11 period and coincides with not only those attacks, but the decline in institutions that follows the mismanagement of the war, the Great Recession, and the Not-So-Great Recovery.  It’s quite the deluge.

Minority Report comes early (and, like the Matrix series, was probably in the works before 9/11), but 2005 produces The Island and Serenity, 2006 produces Children of Men, Idiocracy, and V For Vendetta, and 2007 produces I Am Legend (a remake of The Omega Man).  Other 70’s dystopias, including Planet of the Apes, Death Race and Rollerball, get remade or reimagined (PotA well, the others not so much).

Nolan’s Batman films are set in a dystopian Gotham City, and Watchmen is squarely in the genre (depicting a more dystopian version of the 1970s, for that matter).  Wall-E brings dystopia for the whole family.  Then there are the big franchises: Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner, and even The Purge produce multiple sequels.  Mad Max: Fury Road is hailed as a return to form.

And this is just dystopian movies.  One could also look at disaster films or paranoid political thrillers as examples of Hollywood projecting America’s sour and mistrustful moods onto the big screen during the 70s and the post-9/11 era.  It’s also notable that the current “golden age of television” was dominated ratings-wise by The Walking Dead.

If Hollywood’s output during the Nixon and GWBush administrations is any guide, we may expect Tinseltown to try to ride the dystopian trend further, perhaps with more timely and “woke” themes.  Whether they succeed will likely turn on the success of the economy, as the market for dystopia turns bearish as the market turns bullish.  In this regard, show business and the reality TV President have a shared future.

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