Bred for Circuses
Conservatives and Republicans can win few arguments honestly on the merits; most of their policies are awful for the vast majority of Americans and benefit only a select few, typically the rich and powerful. Conservative positions tend to be unpopular, too. Rather than change their policies, conservatives choose to lie constantly and shamelessly, and to stoke the worst impulses of their base. Key to these dynamics is ignoring matters of truth and fact, as well as any serious discussion of greater principles about how our country should work. Instead, they try to reduce everything to my team against your team, us against them. The Republican Party is aided in this by a large block of rabid, authoritarian conservatives and a propaganda network eager to feed the faithful the latest two minutes hate, 24/7. Outsized media personas play a critical role in this strategy. ("Conservative" and "Republican" are pretty interchangeable in this post, but for more on that, see the first link above.)
Conservatives and Republicans are also aided, however, by shallow political coverage by mainstream media outlets that far too often withhold essential context from their audiences by refusing to fact check or call out lies, by pretending policy doesn't matter, by pretending both major American political parties are basically the same and both sides are equally to blame for our political problems, and that any deeper look is pointless and/or partisan. Shallow coverage is cheaper to produce and avoids offending some viewers (while aggravating others), and is also seen as neutral and savvy by some reporters. Unfortunately, it's lousy for informing citizens and thus bad for democracy. Propaganda typically demonizes the perceived opposition unfairly, whereas shallow political coverage is loath to call out even clear wrongdoing or hypocrisy by one party. Thus both lying and gutlessness reduce the national political discourse to superficial, bad sports coverage of two competing political teams and to treating important matters as mere entertainment, a sitcom, a circus.
We've seen all these dynamics play out in the impeachment hearings on Donald Trump, related press conferences and media coverage of all of it. During the impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives, several observers noted that Republicans seemed less interested in making coherent arguments or convincing the general populace of their cause than creating video clips for Fox News to run for the conservative base. After the hearings moved from the intelligence committee chaired by Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) to the judiciary committee, Republicans pulled the stunt of putting Schiff on a milk carton poster, saying he was missing because he rejected their call to appear as a witness. (Republicans also asked to call the anonymous whistleblower yet again.) Schiff rejected the request, instead pointing to the intelligence committee's 300-page report and the evidence it covered, and added:
There is nothing to testify about. I think if the President or his allies in the Senate persist it means they are not serious about what they are doing. What would I offer in terms of testimony, that I heard Dr. [Fiona] Hill in open hearing say such and such? That is not pertinent. The only reason for them to go through with this is to mollify the President and that is not a good reason to try to call a member of Congress as a witness.
Trump has repeatedly, angrily expressed a desire to prosecute Schiff for paraphrasing him, but has run into the small problems that that's not illegal and Trump is not a dictator. Judiciary chair Jerold Nadler (D-NY) unsurprisingly sided with Schiff about testifying, and in his letter to Republicans, Nadler cited the "independent evidence" for the conclusions of the report and issues initially raised by the whistleblower. Nadler also reiterated for the umpteenth time concerns about witness intimidation and threats of retaliation by Trump and other conservatives against the whistleblower. As for the report itself, Professor Heather Cox Richardson, who's delivered excellent analysis on the impeachment hearings and related stories, offered up a nice summary on 12/3/19:
The big news today was that the House Intelligence Committee released its report on its investigation into the Ukraine scandal that is at the heart of the impeachment case against Trump. Although the report was long, it had two very clear points: the facts against Trump prove that he solicited a bribe—wording designed to show that the scandal meets the Constitution’s threshold for impeachment—and that Trump obstructed justice in his attempts to stonewall Congress and intimidate witnesses. Obstruction of justice is a crime; it is what took Nixon down in 1974.
The report lays out that the Ukraine scandal is at heart an attempt to rig the 2020 election and destroy our democracy with the help of a foreign country. It points out that this is a pattern for Trump, who benefited from Russian aid in 2016 and who has openly called for help from China as well as Ukraine before the upcoming election. The report notes that Trump’s call with Zelensky took place the day after Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified in public, apparently convincing Trump he was no longer in danger of being nabbed for working with Russia in 2016, and was willing to try a similar scheme again.
The report also notes that the Founders worried about precisely this behavior, and that if it is not checked, democracy is over. The House Intelligence Committee report is a remarkably clear, concise, and powerful document.
For their part, the White House ignored all the facts and relied instead on disinformation. . . .
These are grave matters, but Republicans do not want to discuss the facts and principles driving all serious discussions of impeachment. Likewise, Republicans showed little interest that intelligence committee ranking member Devin Nunes (R-CA), who led the Trump defense in the first set of impeachment hearings, allegedly was part of the Ukraine scandal himself to some degree. As of late November, Republicans had offered at least 22 excuses for Trump (or by another count, 64), many of them contradictory. This blunderbuss technique is a reliable sign of bullshitting and bad faith. Similarly, the Republicans' competing impeachment report "is a series of red herrings." (As of this writing, the House has impeached Trump, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has vowed to coordinate with the White House during any trial in the Senate, further suggestion that the fix is in and the Republican-majority Senate will not convict Trump, regardless of the merits of the charges.) Meanwhile, Trump's unhinged letter to Nancy Pelosi frames the entire impeachment process as driven by a personal vendetta against Trump, not the serious matter of upholding core principles of the U.S. Constitution that it is. Trump's conceit is that Schiff, Pelosi, and every single person who's said something critical of him, given factual evidence harmful to him or moved to curtail his power simply dislikes him personally versus, say, being motivated to uphold the rule of law and think of the good of the country and other higher principles. Trump and the Republicans cannot win an honest, substantive discussion. So they need to reduce everything to: Their guy doesn't like our guy. Just because he's our guy. Fight for our guy. Fight for the team. Attack the enemy.
These dynamics are not remotely new, even if they've become more prevalent not just in politician's arguments but in the political coverage itself. Back in 2006, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg discussed the theatricality of political commentary, even comparing the choice of political talk show figures to sitcom casting. This was back when Ann Coulter was arguably at the nadir of her awfulness, selling shock value and viciousness, and getting plenty of coverage from mainstream media outlets in addition to her usual support from Fox News and other conservative entities. What Nunberg describes as political "smut" overlaps with behavior we might now call trolling, and Coulter was one of the most successful practitioners at the time:
Take Ann Coulter's recent description of the 9/11 widows as self-obsessed witches who were enjoying their husbands' deaths. As calumnies go, it doesn't have a patch on the things people were saying in the 1864 election, when the Democrats called Lincoln a leering buffoon, and Horace Greeley accused the Democrats of stealing the votes of dead Union soldiers. But it's only in the current age that remarks like those could turn someone into a media celebrity who's invited to appear on Jay Leno and the Today Show to repeat her choicest remarks for the delectation or outrage of their viewers.
Coulter's celebrity is a good measure of what has become of political discussion. You'd scarcely describe her as a political thinker, no more than you'd describe Simon Cowell as an critic of the arts. But like Cowell, she has an unerring gift for media theatrics. It isn't just her penchant for making snarky or outrageous remarks. Plenty of people do that without being invited onto the Today Show, and in fact Coulter doesn't get a lot of national attention for her run-of-the-mill ruminations about giving rat poison to Justice Stevens or fragging John Murtha. But the remark about the 9/11 widows was irresistible for its brazen and gratuitous tastelessness and the obvious pleasure Coulter took in consternation she created.
Is Coulter is sincere about the things she says? That's a silly question, like asking whether schoolchildren are sincere in the taunts they throw at each other across the school yard. But that doesn't make her a satirist, as her defenders like to claim -- usually with the implication that her literal-minded liberal critics don't get the joke.
Satire depicts things as grotesque in order to make them seem ridiculous -- what Stephen Colbert does in his Bill O'Reilly persona or Christopher Buckley does with the pointed caricatures of Thank You For Smoking. But Coulter isn't actually sending anybody up -- not herself, certainly, and not the targets of her remarks. Her fans may enjoy hearing her talk about poisoning Justice Stevens or say that it's a pity Timothy McVeigh didn't park his truck next to the New York Times building. But that's not because the remarks make either Stevens or New York Times seem particularly ridiculous. It's because Coulter seems to be able to get away with unbridled aggression by presenting it as mere mischief, leaving her critics looking prim and humorless. ("Perhaps her book should have been called 'Heartless,'" said Hillary Clinton after Coulter's remarks about the widows, inviting the response, "Oh lighten up, girl.")
That rhetorical maneuver doesn't really have a name, but it's a close relative of what we think of as smut. In the strict sense, of course, smut is the leering innuendo that veils sexual aggression. But in a broader sense, smut can be any kind of malice that pretends to be mere naughtiness. It might be a leering vulgarity, a racial epithet, or simply a venomous insult -- what makes it smut is that it's tricked out as humor, so that if anyone claims to be offended you can answer indignantly, "Can't you take a joke?"
In that broad sense, smut can sometimes be innocuous fun. It's a staple of sitcoms, in what you could think of as a Wooo! moment. That's the moment when a character who's comically malicious or catty (think Betty White, Rhea Perlman, Joseph Marcell) makes a remark that's just offensive or risqué enough to brush the limits of taste, and the studio audience reacts by saying "Woooo!!"
The political talk shows traffic in these moments, too -- not surprising, considering how much those shows owe to the classic sitcom. When you think of the most successful practitioners of the genre, whether Coulter, O'Reilly, or James Carville, there isn't a one of them who couldn't be the model for a recurring character on Cheers or Drew Carey -- the waspish virago, the bombastic blowhard, the sly yokel.
And as on the sitcoms, the drama of the political talk show is character-driven rather than plot-driven. Watching O'Reilly or Hannity and Colmes, you can't help recalling the bickering on All in the Family, where politics was always just a pretext for the clash of personalities. It doesn't matter whether the ostensible issue is the massacre at Haditha or an increase in wild bachelorette parties; it's going to be reduced to grist for the eternal squabble between liberals and conservatives -- not as adherents of opposing political philosophies, but more as distinctive political genders. ("Who are these parents who allow their kids to sleep with Michael Jackson?," Alan Colmes asked a couple of years back, and Sean Hannity answered, "Liberals.")
Coulter and Trump share a great deal in terms of a bullying style, but also in their knack for nabbing mainstream coverage and validation, in large part by crafting a character to sell, a media persona. (Coulter thankfully gets less attention these days. Incidentally, Coulter has criticized Trump for not building a border wall and not being harsh enough on immigration, but says she will vote for him anyway. My most in-depth post on Coulter is this one, although some links are broken.) Coulter, like many conservative political commentators, has always been light on substance or outright rejects it. Instead, the key selling point for such figures has always been viciousness and 'owning the libs,' to the delight of their audience. Coulter is now a less popular conservative belligerent than, say, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Mark Levin, Alex Jones, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Tomi Lahren and perennial ragemonger Rush Limbaugh (among others), but currently, they're all eclipsed by the biggest conservative troll of them all, Donald Trump.
As we've covered before, Trump's main selling point to the conservative base is spite; he promises to hurt the people they fear and dislike. He's a bigot, and racism and bigotry form a key part of his appeal to his fans. The recording of him bragging about sexual assault did not sink his presidential campaign and at least 25 women have accused him of sexual misconduct. Trump constantly lies; as of October 2019, he'd told at least 13,435 false or misleading claims over 993 days. In 2016 shortly after being elected, Trump paid $25 million to settle fraud cases against Trump University, a business that one of its own employees described as "a fraudulent scheme." Trump also recently paid a $2 million settlement for using charity funds supposedly going to military veterans for personal use instead, including buying a portrait of himself. (Grifting runs in the family; son Eric Trump's charity misused funds meant to go to St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, which predominantly serves kids with cancer.) Imagine the conservative outrage if Barack Obama or really any Democrat had done a fraction of this, yet most of them give Trump a pass.
Trump's image as a successful businessman is an utter fiction constructed by Trump himself, aided by his late father and by fawning media coverage. He's not a business genius, or even a competent businessman – he just plays one on TV. As The New York Times reported in 2016:
[Trump's] casino companies made four trips to bankruptcy court, each time persuading bondholders to accept less money rather than be wiped out. But the companies repeatedly added more expensive debt and returned to the court for protection from lenders. . . .
All the while, Mr. Trump received copious amounts for himself, with the help of a compliant board. In one instance, The Times found, Mr. Trump pulled more than $1 million from his failing public company, describing the transaction in securities filings in ways that may have been illegal, according to legal experts.
In 2018, The New York Times further reported that rather than being largely a self-made man, Trump inherited at least $413 million from his father, and his entire family has enriched itself with possibly illegal schemes. In 2019, the Times reported that Trump lost over a billion dollars over a decade, losing more money than any other individual in the United States in that time period while simultaneously selling himself as a great dealmaker. Trump's retorts to these reports were unconvincing; as The New Yorker's John Cassidy put it, Trump stands revealed as the biggest loser. Trump's dealings with Deutsche Bank further undermine any claims of actual business acumen versus his ability to scam lenders. Trump may not actually be a billionaire and almost certainly has less money than he pretends, but nonetheless, he'd have more money if he had simply invested in the stock market than attempted all his deals. (As people have joked, Trump has lost money selling booze, steaks and gambling to Americans. Who does that?)
Conservatives sure love their macho daddy figures, from those fake cowboys, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, to that fake, successful businessman, Donald Trump. The book The Art of the Deal played a critical role in selling the myth of Trump, but its deeply regretful ghostwriter Tony Schwartz has explained how he made Trump appear far more thoughtful, competent and ethical than he actually is. The Art of the Deal in turn helped Trump get an even larger vehicle for mythmaking, the NBC TV show, The Apprentice. As The New Yorker article "How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump As an Icon of American Success" explains:
"The Apprentice" portrayed Trump not as a skeezy hustler who huddles with local mobsters but as a plutocrat with impeccable business instincts and unparalleled wealth—a titan who always seemed to be climbing out of helicopters or into limousines. “Most of us knew he was a fake," [producer Jonathon] Braun told me. "He had just gone through I don’t know how many bankruptcies. But we made him out to be the most important person in the world. It was like making the court jester the king." Bill Pruitt, another producer, recalled, "We walked through the offices and saw chipped furniture. We saw a crumbling empire at every turn. Our job was to make it seem otherwise."
(For more on the mythic Trump created on The Apprentice, see The New Yorker again, The New York Times, Fortune and People's piece on Fisher Stevens' documentary on Trump, The Confidence Man.)
Donald Trump is probably one of the worst businessmen in human history and also possibly the most successful con man. His image as a great businessman and dealmaker is a complete fraud. About the only authentic things about him are his vanity, bigotry, greed, proud ignorance and spite. Yet the conservative base loves him and congressional Republicans loyally defend him despite any misgivings.
Mainstream media outlets have often struggled to cover Trump, as well as conservative and Republican perfidy in general. In contrast to some of the excellent investigative journalism mentioned above, daily news coverage of political clashes often descends to a "he said, she said" level. For example, Dan Froomkin's piece criticizing a New York Times article on impeachment is aptly titled, "In the war on truth, the press can't be an innocent bystander." Fact-checking and calling out liars is essential, but often doesn't occur. Likewise, as we've mentioned before, "coverage on the 2016 presidential race almost entirely ignored policy issues and focused on shallow issues with false balance." Such coverage decisions help candidates with bad positions, slim policy portfolios or a habit of lying. False equivalencies and "both siderism" also remain persistent scourges to good journalism, but rather than delve into that here, I'll once again link past posts by digby, driftglass, alicublog, Balloon Juice, LGM and my own archives.
Consider entertainment programming – and news sold as entertainment – and the picture grows even worse. NBC created The Apprentice and played a central role in creating the myth of Trump that enabled him not only to run for president but win. NBC also let Trump host Saturday Night Live even after cutting ties with him over bigoted comments. And NBC and other mainstream outlets have long validated Trump and earlier toxic figures such as Ann Coulter. Trump received more than $5.9 billion of free media coverage during the election, over twice the amount received by Hillary Clinton. In 2016, then-CBS chairman Les Moonves made some infamous remarks about the "circus":
Donald Trump’s candidacy might not be making America great, CBS Chairman Les Moonves said Monday, but it’s great for his company.
"It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS," Moonves said at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference in San Francisco, according to The Hollywood Reporter — perfectly distilling what media critics have long suspected was motivating the round-the-clock coverage of Trump's presidential bid.
"Most of the ads are not about issues. They're sort of like the debates," Moonves said, noting, "[t]here's a lot of money in the marketplace."
The 2016 campaign is a "circus," he remarked, but "Donald's place in this election is a good thing."
Moonves' later claim that he was joking was unconvincing. Trump was a horrible candidate who frequently behaved vilely, but he was a showman, so CBS, NBC, and other outlets gave Trump tons of coverage, some negative, but not really that critical, and certainly not substantive, given their scant discussion of policy. They rejected sound editorial judgment and shamefully if predictably chose short-term profits over a sense of civic duty to meaningfully inform their audiences, especially because they thought Clinton would win and their behavior could not affect the election. But it most certainly did.
Worse than the mainstream outlets, though, are propaganda outlets, most notably Fox News. Fox News has always scored poorly in terms of factual accuracy, but it's moved beyond being a conservative news outlet to being outright propaganda, comfortable to flat-out lie. The same is true of Republicans in government, and the two work closely together. See, for example, Jane Mayer in The New Yorker on "The Making of the Fox News White House" and Greg Sargent in The Washington Post on how "McConnell’s awful Hannity interview shows power of Fox News’s disinformation." In a similar vein, The Post reported, "A Justice Department inspector general’s report examining the FBI investigation of President Trump’s 2016 campaign rebutted conservatives’ accusations that top FBI officials were driven by political bias to illegally spy on Trump advisers but also found broad and “serious performance failures” requiring major changes." Attorney General William Barr, a Republican party loyalist, has undercut his own department and directly contradicted key findings of the report, as covered in Sargent's piece, "William Barr’s deceptions are more dangerous than you think" and Wonkette's "Just When You Thought You Couldn't Respect Bill Barr Any Less." Wired covered Barr and much more in "Fox News Is Now a Threat to National Security." Digby's commented on similar dynamics in "The Nonsense Ecosystem" (adopting a phrase from Daniel Dale) and many other posts. Fox News and the entire right-wing media ecosystem pose a serious and growing problem to democracy. As several people have noted, if Nixon had had Fox News, he might not have been impeached.
Authoritarian conservatism plays a pivotal role in making the propaganda work; Fox News and similar outlets cater to an audience eager to hate their scapegoats du jour. In 2016, then-candidate Trump bragged that "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters." He considered it praise for his supporters' loyalty; it was instead an accurate and chilling description of unquestioning obedience and authoritarianism (and Trump's megalomania). One of Trump's lawyers has actually argued in court that as president, Trump could indeed shoot someone in 5th Avenue and get away with it (shades of Bush lawyer John Yoo). The transcript of Trump's call with Ukrainian President Zelensky is damning, especially with the added context that has been provided by later reporting and the impeachment hearings. Yet Trump and his allies have shouted to "READ THE TRANSCRIPT!" as if it exonerates him. Trump even held a rally where supporters were wearing t-shirts (presumably distributed by Trump's team) saying "READ THE TRANSCRIPT!" Naturally, as The Daily Show discovered in a great segment covering a later rally, most Trump supporters have not read the transcript and were not familiar with the key takeaways, even though some said – without irony or self-awareness – that reading the transcript, not being a sheep and being an independent thinker were all important. They simply believe what they're told, and do so gladly it's from the right authority figures, whether that's Trump himself, Fox News talking heads or other conservative figures. It's completely Orwellian; they will eagerly believe that black is white and insist that their chosen political team is always in the right. (Who are you going to believe, Trump and Fox News or your lying eyes?)
Trump was clearly unfit for office before the election and has provided overwhelming evidence of his unfitness since. The misdeeds for which he's being impeached may not even be the worst things he's done (and who knows what else will come out), but they're certainly sufficient grounds for removing him from office. The conservative base, Republican voters and congressional Republicans simply do not care. Nearly 90% of self-described Republicans voted for Trump in 2016, and assuming he's still in office by the time of the 2020 election, similar percentages will likely vote for him again, despite any disapproval they express. As of this writing, Trump has been impeached but the articles of impeachment have not be sent to the Senate. The Democratic presidential candidate for 2020 has not been chosen and the presidential election has not occurred. Despite some uncertainties about the year(s) ahead, we can make some reasonable predictions, among them that conservatives and Republicans will not behave honorably and it would be folly to expect otherwise.
Conservatives tend to be bullies with power and whiners without it. They've constructed alternative realities with alternative facts, where they can believe what they want and feel simultaneously persecuted (and thus righteously aggrieved) and superior. Some religious conservatives (ostensibly Christian) will even cite ancient Roman persecution of Christians, that they were thrown to lions in the arena. There's some truth but mostly myth to that tale, but regardless, some religious conservatives will apocalyptically invoke the image as a future reality should "socialism" take hold (via a Bernie Sanders presidency, for instance). The truth is that conservatives thrill for combat with their chosen foes, and that they'd just choose new scapegoats if they ever succeeded in eliminating the old ones. They don't believe in treating others as they would like be treated, and certainly don't believe in turning the other cheek. They are pro-spectacle, anti-substance, pro-circus; authoritarian conservatives are particularly bred for circuses. They don't truly object to the idea of throwing people to the lions; they just want the power to choose the victims.
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