The Trap of Liberal Tears

The Trap of Liberal Tears

For much of the Trumpist Right, it's all about Liberal Tears.

Tweeting over the weekend columnist/author Kurt Schlichter declared:

The main reason for President Trump to pardon Sheriff Joe was fuck you, leftists. The new rules, bitches.

Trumpist talker John Cardillo echoed the sentiment:

Once @realDonaldTrump eliminates #DACA, leftists will drown in their own tears. Win win

This has become a familiar pattern among some on the right, who rush to defend anyone (especially Trump) who is attacked by the Left, no matter how reckless, extreme, or bizarre their behavior has been.  If Liberals hated something, the argument goes, then it must be wonderful and worthy of aggressive defense, even if that meant defending the indefensible and losing elections. So in years past, conservatives embraced and defended figures like Christine (“I am not a witch”) O’Donnell and lost winnable senate races with candidates who said bizarre things about rape (Todd Akin) or were just too weird for the electorate (Sharron Angle.)

But in the era of Trump, the appetite for Liberal angst has morphed into an addiction.

The Pardon of Joe Arpaio Was Worse Than You Think

The Pardon of Joe Arpaio Was Worse Than You Think

Where to begin here?

In the name of “law and order,” President Trump just pardoned a man who defied the law to violate constitutional rights.

On the obvious level, his pardon was an unmistakable symbol to the darkest fringes of his nativist base. But it was also an insult to law enforcement itself. Far from being a martyr who was persecuted for “doing his job,”  Sheriff Joe Arpaio was a caricature of law enforcement – living up to every stereotype of a lawless, brutal, racist cop, who ignored fundamental rights and reveled in calculated cruelty. 

Behind the Arpaio Pardon: The Alex Jones-Drudge-Hannity Nexus

Behind the Arpaio Pardon: The Alex Jones-Drudge-Hannity Nexus

Here’s a bit of useful background to the president’s hint that he intends to pardon former Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, illustrating once again the influence of the fever swamps on Trump’s thinking.

For months, the idea of pardoning for Arpaio has been been a cause celebre for the Alt Right and a near obsession for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars website.

Was Infowars’s support in fluential on the president? Arpaio thinks so. Via Media Matters:

Donald Trump's Grievance Presidency

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Because you surely have; the meltdown of Donald Trump’s shambolic presidency may be the most predictable event in political history.  

The rationalizations, wish-casting, and projections of the pro-Trump flunkies notwithstanding, his presidency is cratering, at least in terms of governing. As Trump becomes more isolated and his relations with Congressional leaders trend into mother-in-law territory, the prospects for legislative victories appear to have gone south of slim. As a result, his presidency has now shifted into the full-on Grievance Phase.

This was also predictable.

As I tweeted the other day, it is worthwhile going back to the last weeks of the 2016 campaign, when Trump seemed on track to an historic defeat. Re-read this piece from The Washington Post’s Philip Rucke and Robert Costa, headlined “Inside Donald Trump’s echo chamber of conspiracies, grievances and vitriol”:

He is preaching to the converted. He is lashing out at anyone who is not completely loyal. He is detaching himself from and delegitimizing the institutions of American political life. And he is proclaiming conspiracies everywhere — in polls (rigged), in debate moderators (biased) and in the election itself (soon to be stolen).

In the presidential campaign’s home stretch, Donald Trump is fully inhabiting his own echo chamber. The Republican nominee has turned inward, increasingly isolated from the country’s mainstream and leaders of his own party, and determined to rouse his most fervent supporters with dire warnings that their populist movement could fall prey to dark and collusive forces.

This is a campaign right out of Breitbart, the incendiary conservative website run until recently by Stephen K. Bannon, now the Trump campaign’s chief executive — and it is an act of retaliation.

Four days later, Costa predicted that this “Trump-driven divide” would haunt the GOP long after the election.

The axis of furious conservative activists and hard-right media that spawned Trump’s nationalist and conspiratorial campaign is determined to complete its hostile takeover of the GOP, win or lose.

Trump’s insistence that the election will be “rigged,” which he again suggested at the debate, has only stoked the specter of a grievance movement that will haunt Republicans for months and years to come — threatening to leave the longtime norms of American politics shattered and Washington paralyzed by his followers’ agitation and suspicion.

Fast forward to this week, and Trump’s Phoenix rant, twitter storms, attacks on the “fake news,” and on his fellow Republicans. It’s all there as if nothing has changed: the politics of division, paranoia, anger, with Trump always as the victim – the “fighter” who is being betrayed by an opposition that is simultaneously weak, low energy, and yet “dark and collusive.”

 In defeat, Trump’s campaign would have evolved into an ongoing “grievance movement.” But in victory, the result has been the same thing, a president unable to lead, but determined to stoke a deep sense of alienation and grievance among his base. For Trump, that may be enough.



We Are Not Immune To History

My interview with Ana Marie Cox appears in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine. You can read the whole thing here. 


Q: How do you think the elevation of hard-liners has affected the party?

A: I wake up every day in disbelief. It’s not that just that Donald Trump is president. It’s
that he has empowered the worst people in the world: people who would’ve been
regarded as misfits and crackpots just a few years ago. We’re being tested in a
fundamental way, and I think we operate in a system that simply assumes that you
have honorable people who will be constrained within political norms. Now they’re
being violated on a daily basis. I don’t think America comes out on the other end of
this unaffected. We’re not immune to history.


Bannon's Departure Doesn't Change This Presidency

Like so many others on the Right, Steve Bannon thought he could ride the tiger. Instead, he and his allies have become the latest road kill in this shambolic presidency. Just another Friday in August.

While it’s tempting to see Bannon’s fall as an inflection point, the reality is that his departure does nothing to change the fundamental nature of this presidency, which continues to be shaped by Donald Trump’s erratic character and impulsivity

Ironically, though, Bannon’s firing comes just days after what may have been Peak Bannon: Trump’s full-throated embrace of much of the Alt Right agenda. In his final days, Bannon openly relished the escalation of a racially-charged culture war:  “Just give me more. Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it,” told The New York Times.  Trump agreed, channeling Bannon as he tweeted support for maintaining monuments to Confederate heroes. 

So Bannon’s firing creates a new dynamic on the Right, with an uncertain outcome, especially as it comes in the midst of other cracks in Trump’s shrinking base.

Trump’s loss of support from the GOP mainstream, including members of the business community and congressional Republicans, was damaging enough, but a break with the Bannon-Breitbart wing could lead to bitter divisions within the hardest of the hard core wing of the president’s base. 

Last year, Trump beat the establishment, but he relied on the populist, nativist movement that Bannon had cultivated for him. Simply put, he can’t afford to lose the base that elected him in the first place.

Bannon has already declared that he going to “war” with the forces he believes have stymied Trump’s populist agenda. With Bannon back at the helm, expect Breitbart and its allies to attack against “the Democrats, globalists, generals, bankers, and hawks,” who now dominate the White House and are plotting to undermine and the populist/nativist movement.

Already, they are warning that Trump’s presidency is in danger of being derailed by RINOS (Republicans in name Only).  Within minutes of his firing, a headline on the Breitbart website declared: “With Steve Bannon Gone, Donald Trump Risks Becoming Arnold Schwarzenegger 2.0,” a reference to the action star turned liberal-leaning governor of California. 

"Bannon won’t go straight at Trump,” observers Ben Shapiro (himself a former Breitbart staffer). “That would be foolish. Instead, he’ll pretend to be Trump’s ally in fighting the swamp from the outside.” That means that “Bannon will pretend that Trump’s foibles are really just Trump being misled by others. Until, that is, Bannon finds a convenient way to turn on Trump himself."

But Bannon may also find that he is reaping what he has sowed. For the last year, he imagined that he could control, shape, and use Donald Trump. (In that sense, he was much like Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, and Mitch McConnell.) But he helped create something else: a cult of personality that may be immune to the attacks he is about to launch.

Bannon and others helped create the persona of Trump as the great leader and perpetual victim – a man who’s every falsehood, slur, blunder, and fraud had to be rationalized and defended at any cost. For months, it has been obvious that Trump cannot be controlled (even by himself) and is not going to pivot to anything remotely presidential. It has been obvious that his ignorance and indifference to policy runs deep; that he is a man without any deep principles and little loyalty to even his closest allies. But despite all that, his base continues to rally to him and will likely continue to do so. 

Voters who swallowed the multiple indignities of the last year are unlikely to break with him because Bannon thinks that Gary Cohn is a globalist. 

But do not expect a more modulated or moderate Trump. Instead expect the president to attempt to insulate himself against Bannonite attacks by throwing out even more red meat for his base, and escalating the culture wars that Bannon has done so much to foment. 
In other words, don’t expect much to change.  Bannon may have helped write the ill-fated travel ban, but it was Trump who denounced “Mexican racists,” and called for a Muslim ban. It was Trump, not Bannon who rode to prominence by spreading Birther conspiracy theories. It was Trump, not Bannon, who retweeted white supremacists and refused to distance himself from white nationalists during the campaign; Trump, not Bannon, who attacked a Mexican-American judge, demeaned women, and mocked a disabled reporter.

Firing Steve Bannon doesn’t fix what is wrong with this presidency. The cancer at the heart of this White House isn’t the staff. It’s the man in the Oval Office and he is not changing.


What Trump Is Doing To The Conservative Character

Curious minds want to know: how would conservatives react if Donald Trump fired special prosecutor Robert Mueller? If he issued sweeping pardons of his family members and cronies, or even himself?

Would that cross a red line for movement that once claimed to care about the rule of law? Would there be a backlash among the folks who once insisted that character mattered and rushed to buy books like the Book of Virtues?

Or would they go along, once again shifting their standards to accommodate the need to defend Trumpism?

Obviously, this would be a defining moment. As David French wrote recently:

If he does any one of these things — much less several in combination — the GOP will have to decide, once and for all, if it is an American political party or a craven, fearful instrument of Donald Trump’s personal brand.

We may already know the answer. Trump, who remains unbowed and unchanged by the presidency, continues to transform the party that last year capitulated to him. Or more accurately, the conservative movement continues to transform itself into his image.

I’d written about this earlier this year:

[In] the right’s new media ecosystem, a willingness to accept and rationalize lies has now become a test of tribal loyalty.  Unfortunately, the effects run even deeper as Trump’s acolytes in politics and social media model their behavior on his, combining the worst traits of the school yard bully, the thin-skinned nastiness that mimics confidence; the strut and sneer that substitute for actual strength, vindictive smash mouth attacks have replaced civil engagement. …Think of it as trickle down boorishness

Now comes Ben Shapiro, with an insightful analysis of how conservatives have come to fully embrace Trump’s character and its most loathsome manifestations. A year ago, many conservatives rationalized their support for Trump because the “ends justified means — and that the end was the implementation of conservative policies.” And, indeed, there have been some significant wins, most notably the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and some of his environmental policies.

But, writes Shapiro, “now that Trump isn’t actually implementing conservative policies, the truth is coming out: For most conservatives, the ends don’t just justify the means, the means are the ends. All that matters is the punching, even if the punching is both counterproductive and immoral.” 

For many conservatives, Trump's character is no longer a glitch… it’s what they love. “Trump’s character is now a thoroughly accepted positive good,” writes Shapiro.

All of which suggests that Trump isn’t the engine, he’s the hood ornament for a certain movement that now feels liberated from traditional rules of decent behavior. Trump allows us to indulge our id and feel righteous while doing it. We grew up believing that decent behavior made you a decent person — but then we realized that breaking the rules not only makes victory easier, it’s more fun than having to struggle with the moral qualms of using moral means to achieve moral ends.

Shapiro describes the “backwards logic” that many on the Right now use “to absolve ourselves of moral responsibility.”

 The first premise: The other side, which wants bad things, cheats and lies and acts in egregious ways.

The second premise: It requires cheating to defeat them.

The third premise: If they are not defeated, the country will be destroyed.

 Conclusion: It is morally required to cheat and lie and act in egregious ways.

In other words, we have become precisely what he hated and claimed to stand against. Add in the ways the Right has succumbed to cult of personality politics and you have the toxic stew in which we now find ourselves marinating.

All of this is a logical extension of the binary politics that drove many conservatives to embrace Trump last year. In a piece I wrote for The New York Times earlier this year, I described it this way: 

In this binary tribal world, where everything is at stake, everything is in play, there is no room for quibbles about character, or truth, or principles. If everything — the Supreme Court, the fate of Western civilization, the survival of the planet — depends on tribal victory, then neither individuals nor ideas can be determinative.

So it is perhaps not surprising to see how many conservatives have been corrupted by the need to keep pace with the vertiginous reversals, rationalizations, outrages, and deceptions of Trumpism. Jonah Goldberg writes:

 Put on your hip boots and wade into the swampier recesses of Twitter, Facebook, online comment sections, or Sean Hannity’s oeuvre and you’ll see riots of rationalization. Trump’s lying is celebrated. His petty vindictiveness is redefined as leadership. Cheating is strength.

Trump will not, of course, always be with us. But he will leave a mark on the culture and character of conservativism for a very long time.

Memo to the Media: Get It Right

My latest, from the Nieman Reports:

Donald Trump and the GOP may lack a coherent governing agenda, but they have no doubt about their electoral strategy: Run against the media.

The campaign against the media is not simply a reflection of the president’s notoriously thin skin or a sideshow distraction; it is central to Team Trump’s political style and his agenda. Trump needs an enemy and in the absence of a polarizing figure like Hillary Clinton to run against, the “fake news” media will do just fine. Even though the national press corps won’t be on the ballot in 2018, the GOP will run against it as aggressively as it runs against the Democrats. This is, after all, how you motivate your base.

To see Trump-era politics simply as matter of dueling policies is to fundamentally misunderstand the current dynamic. Actual achievements are less important than striking the right pose and attacking the right enemies. The New York Times’s James Poniewozik explains that politics today “is attitudinal, not ideological. The reason to be for someone is who is against them. What matters more than policy is your side’s winning, and what matters more than your side’s winning is the other side’s losing.”

Indeed, as Republican health care reform efforts floundered, Washington Post reporter Robert Costa tweeted that most Republican elected officials were not fearful of a primary challenge if they opposed the repeal of Obamacare. “They see [the GOP] base,” Costa tweeted, “as grievance/fake news obsessed, not [Obamacare] obsessed.”

And for Trump, the media is the perfect foil. The president himself tweeted out a GIF depicting him body slamming a figure labelled “CNN,” after the cable network admitted it had published an erroneous story and fired three of their journalists. For Trump and his supporters, it was a triumphant moment, and a taste of what is surely to come, especially if Trump’s political position continues to deteriorate.

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, notes, “It’s all they know. They aren’t prepared for anything else.” For Trump, running against the media also “makes good sense, what with the Republican base in a permanent state of rage at ‘cognitive elites,’” he notes. “It makes even better sense for a President with a base-only strategy.”

Not surprisingly, the campaign against the media has become the one consistent, permanent feature of this White House. Charlie Warzel and Adrian Carrasquillo of BuzzFeed observe: “Trump has been clear on one issue: the untrustworthy ‘fake news’ purveyors of the media. As he’s struggled to even put into motion the kind of sweeping legislation he promised on the campaign trail, Trump’s relentless focus on the media has been the only constant amid the disorganization. Six months in, it seems clear that Trump’s only real ideology—and the only true tenet of Trumpism—is to destroy what he believes is a deceitful mainstream media.”

Early signs suggest that the strategy is working, at least among Trump’s hard-core supporters. The relentless attacks, they write, have convinced much of Trump’s base “that the mainstream media is corrupt and reckless.” “Trust in the media has been steadily declining for years in public opinion polls,” they note, “but Trump weaponized it during his campaign and now uses the full influence of the White House to promote the anti-media agenda.”


Why the Case for Transparency Must Be Made Anew

Of course, not all of this is new. Years before Donald Trump derided the media as “fake news,” Vice President Spiro Agnew famously labelled journalists “nattering nabobs of negativism.” But that was a very different era and the media need to understand that the challenges they now face are broader, deeper, more complicated as they become central players in the election campaign rather than simply observers.

All of this increases the pressure for the media to get it right.

This has always been important, but now that errors are weaponized by partisans to discredit the “fake” media, the pressure to avoid self-inflicted wounds has intensified. Even routine mistakes are seized upon to discredit the entire enterprise of journalism. This is the harsh reality check: No matter how good American journalism is, much of the electorate has been conditioned to reject it as “fake.” The last campaign saw an explosion of hoaxes, fabrications that often seemed to overwhelm legitimate news on social media.

This ought to be have been the canary in the coal mine for conservatives, but in a stunning demonstration of the power and resiliency of our new post-factual political culture, Trump and his allies in the right media quickly absorbed, disarmed, and turned the term “fake news” against its critics, draining it of any meaning. Now any news deemed to be biased, annoying, or negative can be labelled “fake news.”

Trump and his supporters now routinely conflate journalistic errors or lapses with intentional distortions; and many voters seem willing to accept the president’s chronic falsehoods or are indifferent to the deceptions.

The result is a toxic and challenging environment for journalists. They can answer the challenge with reporting that is aggressive, accurate, thorough, and fair. The next few years will be a referendum on whether they succeed.

Kirkus Reviews: "How The Right Lost Its Mind"

From Kirkus Reviews: 

A “contrarian conservative” tries to come to grips with what his side of the political aisle has become, and he loathes much of what he sees.

Sykes (Fail U.: The False Promise of Higher Education, 2016, etc.) is a “Never Trump” conservative who has maintained that position after Trump’s presidential rise revealed many in that cohort to be opportunists. The author is an earnest conservative who is truly heartbroken and angry about how conservatism has degraded in recent years, and he lays out in clear and honest prose the many problems with a conservative movement that has been taken over by angry white nationalists. “Sometime in the last decade,” writes Sykes, “conservative commentator Matt Drudge began linking to a website run by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. By doing so, he broke down the wall that separated the full-blown cranks from the mainstream conservative media, injecting a toxic worldview into the Right’s bloodstream. The conservative movement never recovered.” The author also asks whether or not he was partially responsible, through his conservative talk radio show, myriad media appearances, and prolific writings, for the current situation. Except perhaps on this last question of his own culpability and that of pundits like him, the author has written a largely convincing, compelling book. He tends to romanticize a golden age of conservatism, that of William Buckley and Ronald Reagan, both of whom on more than one occasion revealed elements of white nationalist thought. Buckley delivered plenty of screeds against the civil rights movement in his National Review, and Reagan, who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, had his fair share of racism-tinged gaffes, including his statements about “strapping young bucks” buying T-bone steaks and “Welfare Queens” as well as how “humiliating” the Voting Rights Act was to the South. Still, the author’s points about our current state are solid.

A courageous book destined to make Sykes a target among many of the worst elements that he eviscerates, which will, sadly, just confirm the strength of his thesis.

What Have They Got to Hide?

My latest piece from the Nieman Reports

The Trump administration’s penchant for secrecy is not a media issue; it is a democracy issue. And that makes it the weak spot in Trump’s otherwise successful jihad against American journalism.

Ponder this irony: A political movement driven by populist fervor is now aggressively shutting the public out of the business of government. The proclivity for concealment extends from White House briefings to federal agencies to Congress’s taste for hiding the legislative process from the prying eyes of taxpayers.

The Danger of Ignoring Alex Jones

Alex Jones, the conspiracy trafficker who runs the website Infowars, believes that Sept. 11 was an “inside job” and that the massacre of children at Sandy Hook was faked. These are cruel falsehoods that most people don’t want to confront on broadcast television. Megyn Kelly’s decision to interview him, for a show to air Sunday night,has been roundly criticized by people who suggest that we would be better off denying this fringe extremist exposure.

Indeed, when Mr. Jones was merely a marginal figure on the paranoid right, the case could plausibly be made that he was better left in obscurity. But now that, at least according to Mr. Jones, the president of the United States has praised him and thanked him for the role he played in his election victory, it’s too late to make that argument. We can’t keep ignoring the fringe. We have to expose it.

Everything That’s Happening That is Bad is About to Get Worse

This last year was just this really soul‑crushing, disillusioning slog for me, because I really did think I understood what the conservative movement was about. In Wisconsin, we had a very robust conservative movement, a lot of success, and I really thought that this was a movement based on concepts of freedom and individual liberty, small government, constitutionalism. When Trump came along, I kept expecting that the conservative movement would stand up and say, “This is exactly what we aren’t.”