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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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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Resist the Trump Narratives

No, this is not about Russia.  It started out as a few further thoughts on Pres. Trump’s big speech and the reactions to it.  But as I realized those reactions are mostly a function of popular narratives about Trump, it became more interesting to write about narratives — Trump’s narratives in this case.

If you’re reading a political blog, I probably don’t have to tell you what a narrative is.  But if you’re young enough, you may not know the “narrative” is a concept imported from lit crit in the early oughts by some of the old school blogosphere to describe the overall framing political actors (including the media) build around the events of our times, generally to influence our perception of these events.

You are also aware that Trump’s opponents and harshest critics already have a narrative about his ascension and presidency that serves for the baseline of their continued opposition and criticism.  Conversely, Trump’s supporters — and some of the anti-anti-Trump right — have a counter-narrative that serves as their baseline.

Those trying to judge Trump’s rise and his governance on an issue-by-issue basis will receive static from both factions.  That static often plays out in a popular genre of sub-narrative titled “This is How You Got Trump.”

These narratives — including “This is How You Got Trump” — leave out a lot of fairly recent history.

We have quickly forgotten that 2016 involved the Democrats trying to retain control of the presidency for a “third term,” a feat accomplished precisely once (in 1988) since the enactment of the 22nd Amendment.

We tend to gloss over the fact that real GDP increased 1.6 percent in 2016, far below growth in 1988 and below what will generally keep a party in control of the White House. We might note in passing our foreign policy woes, but forget they’re much worse than they were in 1988, when the Reagan administration had put into place the polices that would win the Cold War.

In short, the fundamentals pointed to a classic “change” election.  Even the New York Times figured this out before the election.  And we may remember it from time to time, but it’s not part of either of the clashing Trump narratives.

We were surprised by Trump’s strength in the Rust Belt and upper Midwest; we thought much less about Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin having unified GOP governments headed into the election.  Hillary Clinton also missed that memo, despite the fact that the Democratic Party has been conceding working-class white voters since her husband first won the presidency.

Hillary decided to run as the candidate of the Obama coalition, but she was not the nation’s first black President, and not nearly as natural a campaigner.  She should have considered she might perform more like John F. Kerry in key Midwestern battlegrounds and campaigned accordingly.

Hillary’s incompetence on that point was merely the sprinkles — albeit necessary sprinkles — on her cupcake of failure.  She carried more negative baggage than any other major-party candidate in modern history, excepting Trump on some items.  But Trump, even with his myriad flaws, wasn’t under FBI investigation.

All of this was much-discussed in the immediate aftermath of 2016’s surprise outcome.  And none of it is to discount Trump’s accomplishments, his appeal to the white working class, his dogged campaigning in key states down the stretch when even his campaign doubted his chances, and so on.

But most of it does not find its way into the competing narratives about Trump, which now imagine him to be either Gozer the Destructor who will lay waste to the countryside or the Populist Colossus remaking the GOP and forever altering the trajectory of American politics.  Either one of those scenarios could come to pass, but he’s also the guy who was outpolled by most conventional GOP Senate candidates and the average GOP House candidate.

Of course, Trump does wield a great deal of power and influence as President, so the reactions are not irrational.  But even a Pres. Trump is unlikely to prove to be the Destructor or the Colossus.  Our reactions are exaggerated and distorted by our tendency to build narratives.

People subscribing to one narrative or the other would do well to acknowledge there are some elements of truth in both, and that there is much excluded from both.

I would urge people to abandon their reliance on narratives, but this would be as silly as people urging the abandonment of religion, or nationalism, or any number of things that are part of the human experience.  It would be profoundly unconservative to ignore human nature in that way.

People love telling and hearing stories.  We love it in politics as an agent of influence.  We love it in media because we understand our attraction to drama.  We love it in life because stories help us understand and organize a complex and often chaotic world.

Indeed, the story of Trump disturbs people in no small part because it challenged or seemingly disproved the narratives that many relied upon to organize and explain their politics and their world.  Conversely, those happiest with Trump’s victory are happy their narratives were confirmed, even if our complex and chaotic world might suggest those narratives are as fragile as those supposedly disproven.

There’s no chance people will abandon their love of narratives, particularly when confronted with the story of the reality TV star who becomes President.  But we can strive to remember that even compelling narratives almost inherently leave out many messy complications in favor of confirming our priors.

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