Category Archives: Random Blogging

The Call Of Moral Duty

I empathize with Michael Gerson, George W. Bush’s former speechwriter who is now a columnist for the Washington Post. Closer to home, I’m sympathetic to conservative blogger Paul Ogden. Despite significant policy disagreements with them, I respect these longtime conservatives, because they are two of the few–very few–who have remained intellectually honest during the Trumpification of the GOP.

People like these remind us that there is an intellectually respectable conservative philosophy, and that its basic tenets haven’t changed even if the party that used to espouse them has.

In a recent column for the Post, Gerson confronts the conflict between political philosophy and a desire to exercise power.

Is it time for anti-Trump conservatives to recognize that they have lost the political and policy battle within the GOP and to accommodate themselves as best they can to an uncomfortable reality?

This is the argument of the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Henry Olsen, one of the most thoughtful political analysts on the right. On issues such as trade, immigration and the Muslim travel ban, he argues, Republican critics of President Trump are dramatically “out of step with conservative[s].”

As Gerson sees it, this is a call to put aside differences on some policies in order to work together on the implementation of other goals upon which there is broad agreement within the conservative movement. In the abstract, that’s normal political realism; even within a particular faction of the same party, policy differences will exist and need to be negotiated.

As Gerson recognizes, however, these aren’t normal times.

If Trump were merely proposing a border wall and the more aggressive employment of tariffs, we would be engaged in a debate, not facing a schism. Both President Ronald Reagan and President George W. Bush played the tariff chess game. As a Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney endorsed the massive “self-deportation” of undocumented workers without the rise of a #NeverRomney movement.

But it is blind, even obtuse, to place Trumpism in the same category. Trump’s policy proposals — the details of which Trump himself seems unconcerned and uninformed about — are symbolic expressions of a certain approach to politics. The stated purpose of Trump’s border wall is to keep out a contagion of Mexican rapists and murderers. His argument is not taken from Heritage Foundation policy papers. He makes it by quoting the racist poem “The Snake,” which compares migrants to dangerous vermin. Trump proposes to ban migration from some Muslim-majority countries because Muslim refugees, as he sees it, are a Trojan-horse threat of terrorism. Trump’s policy ideas are incidental to his message of dehumanization.

So how do we split the political difference on this one? Shall we talk about Mexican migrants as rapists on every other day? Shall we provide rhetorical cover for alt-right bigots only on special occasions, such as after a racist rally and murder?

Gerson continues his analysis: Republicans criticize media bias, but Trump is trying to delegitimize criticism as “fake news” and mainstream journalists as “enemies of the people.”  Politicians being investigated can be expected to push back, but Trump is trying to discredit all federal law enforcement and he deliberately cultivates citizen distrust of a mythical“deep state.”

We have seen similar damage in the realm of values and norms. In the cultivation of anger and tribalism. In the use of language to inflame and demean. In the destruction of a common factual basis for politics, making policy compromise of the kind Olsen favors impossible.

As Gerson says, these choices are not a dialectic requiring synthesis. They’re alternatives demanding a choice. Instead of capitulating to the party’s white nationalists in hopes of policy victories and partisan dominance, Gerson counsels elected leaders to “remind Americans who they are and affirm our common bonds,” and to work for an

agenda of working-class uplift, not an agenda of white resentment — which will consign Republicans to moral squalor and (eventually) to electoral irrelevance. For principled conservatives to hear the call of moral duty and stand up for their beliefs until this madness passes. As it will.

People join political parties for all sorts of reasons. Both parties are mixtures of policy wonks, rigid ideologues and political theorists along with rank and file folks influenced by their parents, co-workers or friends.

Trumpism confronts the dwindling number of intellectually-honest Republicans with a difficult choice: whether to swallow hard and continue to be obedient soldiers in a debased, white nationalist GOP, or remain true to the conservative philosophy that led them to join the party in the first place, even at the cost of antagonizing old friends.

The call of moral duty is clear.

Trump’s GOP

Ever since the 2016 election, liberal publications have been bending over backwards to include more diversity of opinion, a project that isn’t going so well. As we saw with the Atlantic‘s recent effort, there is considerable conflict over what sorts of “conservative” opinions should be given a respectful hearing–which opinions deserve to be part of a reasoned and civil argument–and which are so beyond the pale that including them would simply legitimize abhorrent positions.

Vox weighed in on that issue awhile back.

The article considered–and criticized–recent efforts by the New York Times to broaden the perspectives represented by its columnists.

The newspaper’s defense, articulated repeatedly by Bennet, news editor Dean Baquet, and onetime ombudsman Liz Spayd, is that the paper is pursuing diversity of opinion, attempting to challenge its readers. “Didn’t we learn from this past election that our goal should be to understand different views?” asked Baquet.

That defense doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. As I said in a column on Stephens last year, “it takes a particular sort of insularity to hire a pro-war, anti-Trump white guy as a contribution to diversity on the NYT editorial page.”

As the article acknowledged, Donald Trump’s victory was seen by a number of  people in “elite political circles” as evidence that they had been living in a bubble of their own–that they had utterly failed to understand a supposed “heartland” filled with Trump voters, and that they needed to understand the perspectives of those voters. (I have yet to run across Trump voters who want to understand the perspective of the “elitists” who were unwilling to hand the nuclear codes to a four-times-bankrupt reality star with no government experience.)

David Roberts, who wrote the Vox column, is particularly critical of the conservatives who write for the Times.

Consider, oh, David Brooks. His conservatism, of Sam’s Club affectation, fiscal conservatism, tepid social liberalism, and genial trolling of center-leftists at Davos — whom does it speak for in today’s politics, beyond Brooks?

Or Ross Douthat. He is sporadically interesting, often infuriating, but above all, pretty idiosyncratic. His socially conservative “reformicon” thing — whom does it speak for in today’s politics, beyond Douthat?

Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss are a familiar type of glib contrarian. Their opposition to Trump has given them undue credibility among Washington lefties, whom they relentlessly (and boringly) troll. But whom are they speaking for? What has the Never Trump movement amounted to?

Roberts argues that, although these writers might serve the purpose of challenging liberal thinking, they don’t expose Times readers to the people who voted for Trump–the people from whom they are allegedly alienated.

The signal feature of the 2016 election is that it settled the question of whether US conservatism — the actual movement, I mean, not the people in Washington think tanks who claim to be its spokespeople — is animated by a set of shared ideals and policies. It is not.

For many years, many people have convinced themselves otherwise. A lot of people believe to this day that the Tea Party uprising and the subsequent eight years of hysterical, unremitting, norm-violating opposition to Barack Obama was about small-government philosophy and a devotion to low taxes and less regulation, and had nothing to do with social backlash against a black, cosmopolitan, urban law professor and his diverse, rising coalition.

And therein lies the dilemma. An effort to understand conservative philosophy is irrelevant to the reality of today’s GOP. Whatever one thinks of Paul Ryan, he represents the  “small government, low taxes, anti-social welfare” conservatism with which well-meaning (albeit naive) liberals want to engage. Whatever else his departure may mean, it is a signal that the GOP is now the party of White Nationalism, not conservatism, and it has no coherent or remotely respectable philosophy with which to engage.

At this point, though many people on all sides still refuse to acknowledge it, the evidence is overwhelming: It was cultural backlash, against immigrants, minorities, uppity women, liberals, and all the other forces seen as dislodging traditional white men from their centrality in American culture.

It’s Trump’s party now.


The Parable Of The Plumber

 Parables are short stories intended to illustrate general principles or moral truths. Although the term is generally used in a biblical context, it occurred to me that a recent, extremely annoying, definitely not apocryphal experience I had with a plumber might be a parable for our time.

I won’t use the name of the company, not because it deserves such consideration, but because the problem it represents is anything but unique.

We had used this plumbing company without incident previously, and its name was well-known, so when our 16-year old toilet needed a new flush valve,  my husband called them.   The young woman who answered the phone was intent upon enrolling us in a yearly “maintenance contract,” and kept him on the phone for a considerable time selling him on its benefits. She finally scheduled the repair during a 4 hour window on the following day. He rescheduled some errands  (I was at work) and waited, but the plumber never showed.

When he called to inquire what had happened, he got another young woman on the phone, who checked to see what had happened. It appeared that person he’d spoken with previously had been so focused on trying to sell him the yearly contract that she’d neglected to schedule the plumber. Young woman number two apologized, during what also became an unnecessarily lengthy conversation.

In order to expedite the repair, my husband gave her the make of the toilet (Kohler–a pretty standard brand) and the part number of the flush valve we needed. She had clearly never heard of Kohler–she asked whether that was a brand and could he spell it, which was disconcerting coming from someone who worked at a plumbing company. She did repeat the part number twice, to be sure she’d heard accurately.

This time, the plumber did show up (the following day), but without the part. According to him, she hadn’t passed on the information. He said he’d have to locate the part and come back, but that we really should consider buying a new toilet.

This was a Friday. The plumber left (without selling us a new toilet) saying he would secure the proper part and be back Monday. He did return on Monday, as promised, but with the wrong part. He left again, promising to find the right one and to call when he did.

At that point, I called our daughter who had mentioned that she had a plumber she liked. When I called that company, the phone was answered by a knowledgable person who immediately dispatched a plumber, and texted me to let me know he was on the way. (They even included a photo of the man they sent, so I’d know it was him.) That plumber was at my home within an hour of my call, and proceeded to install the new flush valve–properly and without trying to sell us a new toilet.

Guess which company I will use in the future?

Why do I say this mundane story is a parable?

The first company markets itself constantly. It runs lots of television spots and internet ads, and periodically mass mails “special offers.” It’s pretty obvious that the owners place more importance on image than on competence.

We live in an age that promotes celebrity over substance. We prefer pundits who tell us what we want to hear to “elitists” who actually know what they are talking about–politicians who give us slick sales patters over less-assured candidates who recognize the complexities of issues. But name-recognition and celebrity will only take you so far. At some point, you have to be able to do the job.

The Trump Administration has a lot in common with that first plumbing company we called.

Did Fake News Give Us Trump?

Can you stand one more discussion of “fake news”?

The Washington Post has reported on a study that strongly suggests Trump owes his 2016 upset win to the same “fake news” he regularly excoriates.

The study from researchers at Ohio State Universityfinds that fake news probably played a significant role in depressing Hillary Clinton’s support on Election Day. The study, which has not been peer-reviewed but which may be the first look at how fake news affected voter choices, suggests that about 4 percent of President Barack Obama’s 2012 supporters were dissuaded from voting for Clinton in 2016 by belief in fake news stories.

Here are the false stories, along with the percentages of Obama supporters who believed they were at least “probably” true (in parenthesis):

  1. Clinton was in “very poor health due to a serious illness” (12 percent)
  2. Pope Francis endorsed Trump (8 percent)
  3. Clinton approved weapons sales to Islamic jihadists, “including ISIS” (20 percent)

The researchers determined that twenty-five percent of those who had voted in 2012 for Obama believed at least one of the three stories. Of that group–that is, of the voters who believed at least one of the fake news stories– 45 percent voted for Clinton. Of the Obama voters who did not believe any of the fake news stories, 89 percent voted for Clinton.

This alone does not prove that fake news made a difference, of course. A recent Princeton-led studyof fake news consumption during the 2016 campaign found that false articles made up 2.6 percent of all hard-news articles late in the 2016 campaign, with the stories most often reaching intense partisans who probably were not persuadable. And it wouldn’t be surprising if Obama voters who weren’t reliable Democratic supporters were more apt to believe fake news stories that affirmed their decision not to vote for Clinton.

So the researchers sought to control for other factors such as gender, race, age, education, political leaning and even personal feelings about Clinton and Trump using multiple regression analysis, a method to measure the relative impact of multiple independent variables. According to the researchers, all of these factors combined to explain 38 percent of the defection of Obama voters from Clinton, but belief in fake news explained an additional 11 percent.

Other researchers ran a variety of other simulations using the data from the Ohio State study, and the consensus was that fake news cost Clinton about 2.2 or 2.3 points apiece in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Clinton lost Michigan by 0.2 points, Pennsylvania by 0.72 and Wisconsin 0.76 points.

Disinformation, propaganda, “fake news”–whatever we want to call it– is a significant and growing problem, and that problem isn’t limited to political campaigns. Recognition of the proliferation of unreliable information has undercut public trust in government and in other important institutions. As Anne Applebaum recently wrote, also in the Washington Post, it isn’t just Russian bots we need to worry about.

Fox News and the Trump-friendly media operate in exactly the same way. As I’ve written in the past, Donald Trump openly used Russian slogans and narratives during his 2016 election campaign.

At the moment, though, he doesn’t need to borrow from them anymore. A recent New York Times analysis of how the president came to be obsessed with the “caravan of illegal aliens” listed the ways the original story came to be enhanced and misreported, deliberately, by what we would in another country call pro-regime media. As retold on “Fox & Friends,” or hyped by Frontpage Mag, “Beltway pundit,” and thousands of bots and trolls (both voluntary and professional), the story lost some critical details: that many of the group were refugees from Honduras’s drug wars, or that many planned to stay in Mexico, or that others hope to cross the U.S. border legally to apply for asylum. By the time the tale of the caravan reached the president’s Twitter feed — which has featured faked or mislabeled video in the past, as well — it was an “invasion” requiring the presence of the National Guard.

We can’t do much about the expression of opinion, but gatekeepers can verify or debunk factual assertions. The problem is, except in what we now call “legacy media” we no longer have gatekeepers. And thanks to the ubiquity of social media, disinformation spreads.

As someone once said “A lie can travel around the world three times while truth is still putting on its pants.”

That’s a big problem, and we need to solve it.

Worse Than We Could Imagine

Apology: yesterday, I accidentally pre-posted an upcoming entry. If you got an email before I could correct it, I apologize for cluttering up your inbox!

The more we learn about Robert Mercer, the worse he looks.

Open Secrets recently published a description of messages that a Mercer organization sent through Facebook and Google to influence the November 2016 elections, and they are despicable–not just because they helped elect Donald Trump, but because they fed the tribalism that is tearing at the American fabric.

As the final weeks of the 2016 elections ticked down, voters in swing states like Nevada and North Carolina began seeing eerie promotional travel ads as they scrolled through their Facebook feeds or clicked through Google sites.

In one, a woman with a French accent cheerfully welcomes visitors to the “Islamic State of France,” where “under Sharia law,  you can enjoy everything the Islamic State of France has to offer, as long as you follow the rules.”

The video has a Man in the High Tower feel. Iconic French tourist sites are both familiar and transformed — the Eiffel Tower is capped with a star and crescent and the spires of the Notre Dame are replaced with the domed qubbaof a mosque.

The Mona Lisa is shown looking, the ad says, “as a woman should,” covered in a burka.

If it wasn’t already clear that the ad was meant to stoke viewers’ fears of imminent Muslim conquest, the video is interspersed with violent imagery. Three missiles are seen flying through the sky as the video opens. Blindfolded men are shown kneeling with guns pointed at their heads, and children are shown training with weapons “to defend the caliphate.”

This was only one of three supposed travel ads. Just a few days before the election, another “travel promo” showed Syrian refugees ruling America. The ad changed the iconic Hollywood sign to read “Allahu Akbar.” The Statue of Liberty was pictured wearing a burka and holding a star and crescent, and Ground Zero in New York was portrayed as place where  “Islamic victories” were celebrated.

Most voters never saw the ads, nor were they intended to. The organization that produced them is a far-right “social welfare” non-profit called Secure America Now. It used information obtained from Facebook and Google to carefully target these messages, sending them only to the voters in swing states who were most likely to be receptive to them.

And new tax documents obtained by OpenSecrets show that the money fueling the group came mostly from just three donors, including the secretive multimillionaire donor Robert Mercer….

Mercer has become a household name not only for his political spending in recent years or his peculiar interests — such as part-timing as a New Mexico police officer or funding stockpiles of urine in the Oregon mountains — but also for bankrolling the alt-right and the data firm Cambridge Analytica, both of which helped Trump clutch victory in 2016.

As OpenSecrets reported last month, SAN received another $2 million from the 45Committee, another pro-Trump dark money group, which is itself partly funded by other dark money groups.

These ads “were viewed millions of times on Facebook and Google,” according to Bloomberg. Reports also assert that Facebook used Secure America Now to test new technology, “sending out 12 different versions of the video to see which was the most popular.”

The ads were written to minimize the likelihood that the IRS would rule them campaign expenditures. They made no mention of a candidate. (Of course, Trump’s anti-Muslim bias and his constant insistence that Muslims entering the country posed a danger is a less than subtle clue to the intent of the ad campaign.) Trump had called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”  and had referred to Syrian refugees as possibly “one of the great Trojan horses.”

Evidently, for people like Mercer, and companies like Facebook and Google (what happened to “Don’t be evil”?), playing on the fears and exploiting the bigotries of susceptible voters is just another campaign tactic. And if you can do that on the “down low,” so much the better.