The Outsider Perspective brought to you by The Beltway Outsiders.
Good Friday Morning! What a week. The new running joke about this White House is that we’re only 24 hours away from a new earth shattering news story breaking between 5 and 6 pm. There’s always a worse story about to break. That’s been true this week. The firing of the FBI Director would eat up weeks of news in any other Presidency. Right now that story is a footnote to all other stories relating to this White House. And we’re only 120 days into the Trump era. I’ll jump right into the mess that is Trump/Russia. After that, I’ll go into why the so-called “Benedict Option” provides a false reality for Christians. And finally, I’ll wrap things up with a story on how we create our echo chambers. Links follow.
Comey memo, Special Counsel, and an FBI investigation into Flynn and Manafort. Oh, my.
By far the biggest news of the week was the announcement of a special counsel to oversee the FBI’s investigation into links between Trump’s campaign and Russia (if you’re confused about the terms special counsel and special prosecutor, read this). The selection of former FBI Director Robert Mueller was a wise decision and should ensure the investigation is free from partisanship. That isn’t to say both sides won’t attack Mueller, in fact, I’ve seen just that from conservative and liberals. But it does mean the investigation is in the hands of someone both legal, and law enforcement communities respect. As Lawfare noted:
There’s a lot of reason to be cheered this evening by the decision of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to name a special counsel to investigate L’Affaire Russe, and there’s even more reason to be cheered that the individual he selected is Robert Mueller. Earlier this evening, David Kris—who worked closely with him—described Mueller as “experienced, knowledgeable, capable. He is utterly incorruptible. He cannot be intimidated. At this stage in his career, he has nothing to prove, no reputation to burnish, no axe to grind. He is ramrod straight in his integrity.” The description is one from which few who have worked with Mueller will dissent.
He’s also got some other virtues for the particular task at hand that are worth spelling out. There are actually very few people in the country who have both significant prosecutorial experience and have run a major investigative force. One of them was Jim Comey. Another one is Robert Mueller, who used to run the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and was also a U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California and an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the District of Massachusetts, where he prosecuted fraud, corruption, and terrorism cases. That was all before he ran the FBI for 12 years.
Right now, the country is missing an FBI Director, and it’s also missing unambiguously independent leadership on the prosecutorial side for this investigation. There aren’t very many who can approach Mueller’s ability plausibly to stand in for both of those deficiencies.
There will still be obstacles with Congressional committees investigating the same issues. But Mueller’s investigation should be beyond reproach. If you believe Trump is innocent in the matter, then Mueller is probably the only person who could prove the allegations are false without being seen as a partisan. That follows for any other prosecutorial decisions he makes. Mueller has the integrity to back up any conclusion he makes.
What does this mean? Well, for one, it probably means Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort are in trouble. Both men have allegedly committed unethical actions towards the United States. Flynn accepted payments from Turkey and advocated US military positions that favored Turkey in his short term in the White House. Paul Manafort has blood on his hands from supporting various Putin-backed dictators. In a nutshell, both need to lawyer up because they’ll likely have to answer for their sins.
What does it mean for Trump? No one knows. The likelihood of collusion between Trump and the Russians is small. Multiple reports and a bi-partisan selection of security experts have repeatedly said there’s no evidence of collusion. The latest report from Reuters found that among the 18 known contacts between Trump’s campaign and the Russians in 2016, none of them proved a conspiracy. If proof of collusion exists, it has not been leaked or found. Yet.
That isn’t to say Trump and his staff haven’t acted unethical or illegally in the past four months. Trump’s firing of Comey is suspect, along with his dealings with Flynn. But there is nothing available pointing to impeachment (rampant tin-foil conspiracy theories from Louise Mensch, the Palmer Report, and Rachel Maddow notwithstanding). The only option at this stage is to allow Mueller to investigate everything thoroughly.
Investigating everything is the key for Republicans and Democrats. If you want the truth in this matter, the choice is clear: subpoena everything and sort it out later. Is Comey telling the truth about his memo? Subpoena it. Does Trump have tapes of his conversations with Comey? Subpoena it. Are Flynn and Manafort lying about their roles? Subpoena everything related to them you can get. Subpoena everything. Call every person’s bluff on the matter and force truth into the light. America needs the truth. Not conspiracy theories about what may or may not be happening.
I’ll leave you with one final thought: Trump’s support is plummeting. You can look at any opinion or approval tracking poll and see the same result: Trump’s supporters are beginning to lose faith. Their support is critical not only to him but GOP support in 2018. Despite every bad story right now, Trump’s approval could swing back in the opposite direction by mid-Summer if Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy retires and Trump appoints a successor (heavily rumored to be true in legal circles). Trump’s base would rally back to him over that fight and reinflate his polls. News cycles come and go. The lesson everyone should take from 2016 is this: No one knows what story will drive voters to the polls or trigger Trump’s rise or collapse with the electorate. The Midterm elections should prove to be just as volatile.
The False Hope and False Reality of The Benedict Option
Rod Dreher had a thought-provoking piece over in the American Conservative this week called “Christians Tempted by Trump Idolatry.” I’ve put it in the links section for today’s newsletter; it’s worth your time. But I wanted to focus in on the premises behind Dreher’s book, and the passages he relies on in the article, “The Benedict Option – A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian World.”
Dreher’s book has been making the rounds in conservative Christian intellectual circles. Columnists like David Brooks in the NYT have called for people to read it, even though they disagree with it. Brooks did not agree with Dreher because Brooks is a garden-variety liberal who wants Christianity to conform to progressive morality. I do not agree with Dreher because I don’t believe retreat and exile are compatible with Christian values.
Dreher’s premise is that the culture wars, Evangelical Christianity, and the overall “moral majority” movement failed. Liberals won the culture war, and the only thing left to do is to learn how to survive in a post-Christian nation. Add to that the destructive nature of Trump’s victory, and you get an uncertain climate for Christians, Dreher argues:
[T]his brings us to the more subtle but potentially more devastating effects of this unexpected GOP election victory. There is first the temptation to worship power, and to compromise one’s soul to maintain access to it. There are many ways to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar, and some prominent pro-Trump Christians arguably crossed that line during the campaign season. Again, political victory does not vitiate the vice of hypocrisy.
There is also the danger of Christians falling back into complacency. No administration in Washington, no matter how ostensibly pro-Christian, is capable of stopping cultural trends toward desacralization and fragmentation that have been building for centuries. To expect any different is to make a false idol of politics.
What’s more, to believe that the threat to the church’s integrity and witness has passed because Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election is the height of folly.
One reason the contemporary church is in so much trouble is that religious conservatives of the last generation mistakenly believed they could focus on politics, and the culture would take care of itself.
I’d agree with Dreher’s observations concerning the church. It has relied on politics as its primary war and lost many costly battles in the process. I’d argue the Church gave up its spiritual power in the world and clamored for political power instead. And in the process lost both.
Dreher’s solution pulls from the example of a monk: St. Benedict of Nursia. Benedict saw the world as fallen, lost, and beyond saving. Instead of engaging the world, Benedict went into exile to build monastic communities which followed Christian values. Dreher sees this as a comparable example for modern Christians: retreat from society and the world to create Christian communities isolated from the world. Dreher sees this as the path towards saving and protecting Christianity.
I profoundly disagree. I find little Biblical support for Dreher’s solution. He sees this plan as a way of building “arks” to save Christians. What he ignores is that Noah built that ark over the course of 100 years. And Noah preached to those lost people every day trying to get them to repent. Not only did Noah not retreat into exile from a society more lost than ours, he actively engaged the culture.
The examples continue in the Bible, the worst cities and people groups had missionaries, prophets, and teachers sent to them. Retreating was not an option. The Apostles all traveled into pagan cities to preach. Old Testament Prophets told Kings when they were wrong. When Christians did flee from cities, they spread the Gospel to other lost towns.
Retreat and exile are not the Christian options. You can argue tactics, but not exile. If a significant change is to happen in America, it will not be because the Church exiled themselves like Yoda on Dagobah. It will be because the Church was fully engaged in attempting to change people’s lives.
Echo chambers don’t happen by accident – we purposely create them
At the beginning of a theater class, my instructor scattered everyone around the room to begin a warm-up exercise. Each person in the class was given a card with code words on it and separated from each other. She wanted to prevent us from interacting with each other until she gave us our instructions. I had a card with an odd description – purple roach. I had no idea what it meant. Everyone else had similar unusual code words.
After she separated us, she then went to each person, looked at their description, and described for them what character traits we had to act out on stage. She told us the characters we had and then made us improv a scene she would set.
So we all gathered back on the stage and started the scene. We were at a bus stop waiting for the bus to arrive. The scene started, and we commenced interacting with each other. As people began mingling, certain personalities clashed, other meshed, and people drifted around on the stage. After about 15 minutes of the exercise, the teacher told us to freeze. She pointed out that everyone on the stage had moved to interact with the characters that best matched our personalities. Characters had formed small groups on stage that matched her observation.
The point was this: people self-segregate, whether actors or real people. People find people, groups, and personalities that they best interact with and stay there. Self-segregating happens in every area of the world, including politics. The most common version of this is the “natural-gerrymander.” A natural-gerrymander is where one political party gets a stranglehold over a district because the people who move there have the same beliefs.
The internet and social media have ramped up self-segregating beyond anything we’ve seen in the past. In all prior generations, people had to form social clubs to find people with similar interests or personalities. Now, anyone in any community can find people across the globe with similar interests. Computer algorithms help this process along by learning what you like and then giving you those things. So now, you may live in a deeply red district, but by using online communities, you can effectively wall off yourself off and communicate with only like-minded people.
In the end, this is how echo chambers are born. We self-segregate with people, online communities, and news sources. During 2016 election, the big problem was “fake news.” I saw conspiracy theories promoted by serious conservative pundits and politicians. Liberals engaged in hand-wringing over why the institutional force of media agencies had no power. But the same thing is happening on the left. Right now, wild conspiracy theories get promoted by Harvard Law School Professors of Constitutional Law (Lawrence Tribe). People have built such insular communities and echo chambers that they can’t even see past easy-to-spot conspiracy theories.
And in the end, this is the ultimate point: for all the convenience and added pleasure our echo chambers give us; they’re ultimately a set of blinders. The more we hone that echo chamber to our liking, the blinder we become to the world around us. It’s not unique to either side. Fox News is hiding bad stories about Trump and MSNBC is airing the unhinged fever dream conspiracies of a lunatic. In a world made uncertain by Trump, people are desperately seeking solace in their narrative-driven echo chambers instead of seeking the truth.
The world is going blinder by the day. And unfortunately, there’s no teacher to tell everyone to freeze, stop, and learn the lesson.
Must read news links
Christians Tempted By Trump Idolatry by Rod Dreher, The American Conservative
If Donald Trump, through his own bumbling braggadocio, inadvertently revealed some of the nation’s most secret intelligence to the Russians, this is a very, very big deal. We do not have proof that Trump did this, but finding out the answer to that question cannot be a matter of indifference. There is no doubt that there are people within the intelligence community and permanent Washington bureaucracy who would like to see Trump fail. Maybe they are lying about the disclosure to the Russians — and if so, may their lies be exposed and may they be held responsible for what they have done.
But maybe they aren’t lying. What Trump is alleged to have done is perfectly within his character. Either way, the American people have to know. It is time for the sources of this leak to come forward, even if it means they have to resign. The stakes are too high.
For my tribe, conservative Christians, the stakes are mighty high as well. Many of us have already been willing to ignore a lot of things we previously said that we should not ignore — this, for the sake of supporting Trump. I did not vote in the presidential election, but I certainly understand why conservative Christians may have voted for Trump with a heavy heart, given how hostile Hillary Clinton would have been to our interests. Now, though, we had better be asking ourselves where the line is that Trump would have to cross to cost him our support. If — if — we learn that Trump did what he is alleged to have done, and you stand behind him even so, how do you answer the charge that Christians care so much about access to power that they will turn a blind eye when the president they support blabs extremely sensitive national security secrets to the Russians? Are we really idolaters who would sell our souls to stay in the king’s good graces?
What Can Congress Do If Flynn (Or Anyone Else) Refuses to Comply With a Subpoena? by Susan Hennessey and Helen Klein Murillo, Lawfare Blog
If Flynn does refuse to comply with the subpoena, the Committee has two basic choices: let it go or pursue contempt remedies against Flynn. Notably, the Congressional Research Service issued a detailed report just last week on Congress’s contempt power and the enforcement of subpoenas—though the timing may be coincidental. Back in March we wrote about the rules governing congressional investigations and Congress’s contempt options:
Just as the Supreme Court has long recognized congressional subpoena power, so too has it upheld the enforcement power of contempt. If a witness refuses to comply with a subpoena to either produce documents or testify, Congress has a few options: inherent contempt authority, the criminal contempt statute, and various civil enforcement mechanisms.
What? House GOP hasn’t sent health-care bill to the Senate, may need to vote again by Allahpundit, Hotair.com
Remember, although an earlier version of the AHCA would have reduced the deficit by $150 billion over 10 years according to CBO, Ryan and his team refused to wait for CBO’s score of the amended version that passed the House a few weeks ago. And because they didn’t, they ended up holding a Rose Garden ceremony for a bill that might end up being defective under parliamentary rules. Gross malpractice, if the new score is bad:
According to several aides and other procedural experts, if Republicans send the bill to the Senate now and the CBO later concludes it doesn’t save at least $2 billion, it would doom the bill and Republicans would have to start their repeal effort all over with a new budget resolution. Congressional rules would likely prevent Republicans from fixing the bill after it’s in the Senate, the aides said…
If Republican leaders hold onto the bill until the CBO report is released, then Ryan and his team could still redo it if necessary. That would require at least one more House vote of some sort…
‘The Flight 93 Election’ Crashes Again by Bret Stephens, The New York Times
No staff shake-up would have prevented any of this from happening. It would have descended on a hapless White House staff like a superheated pyroclastic flow from a presidential Pinatubo. And it will continue to descend, week after grim week, until Trump leaves or is forced from office.
That is the Trump reality. A man with a deformed personality and a defective intellect runs a dysfunctional administration — a fact finally visible even to its most ardent admirers. Who could have seen that one coming? Who knew that character might be destiny?
To reread “The Flight 93 Election” today is to understand what has gone wrong not only with the Trump presidency, but also with so much of the conservative movement writ large. In a word, it’s become unhinged.
The Special Counsel Who Just Might Save Trump’s Presidency by Eli Lake, Bloomberg View
The storm has been gathering for more than a week. It started when Trump impetuously fired the FBI director, James Comey, claiming at first that he did so on the advice of Rosenstein. Then the president changed his story and told NBC News that he was going to fire Comey anyway and that part of this was because the bureau’s Russia investigation was dragging on.
The Comey camp soon struck back. First his allies leaked that Trump had asked Comey for his loyalty back in January over dinner. Then in a more damaging story, the New York Times reported on a memo Comey had written to record a conversation in which Trump asked him to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn, the national security adviser Trump fired after three weeks on the job.
To state the obvious, all of this made Trump look like he had something to hide. And it did not take long for Democrats to seize on this theme, mounting a campaign for a special counsel as a condition to approve the next FBI director.
Republicans also began to slide away from the leader of their party. Senator John McCain said the Russia scandal was beginning to resemble Watergate. Senator Bob Corker said the White House was in a downward spiral. A Republican committee chairman asked the FBI to hand over Comey’s notes of meetings with Trump. The Russia probe was consuming Trump’s presidency.
Now Rosenstein has offered the president a reset. Trump has a chance to try to focus on foreign and domestic policy. And in this respect the timing is fortunate.
Why Universities Must Choose One Telos: Truth or Social Justice by Jonathan Haidt, The Orthodox Academy
Aristotle often evaluated a thing with respect to its “telos” – its purpose, end, or goal. The telos of a knife is to cut. The telos of a physician is health or healing. What is the telos of university?
The most obvious answer is “truth” –- the word appears on so many university crests. But increasingly, many of America’s top universities are embracing social justice as their telos, or as a second and equal telos. But can any institution or profession have two teloses (or teloi)? What happens if they conflict?
As a social psychologist who studies morality, I have watched these two teloses come into conflict increasingly often during my 30 years in the academy. The conflicts seemed manageable in the 1990s. But the intensity of conflict has grown since then, at the same time as the political diversity of the professoriate was plummeting, and at the same time as American cross-partisan hostility was rising. I believe the conflict reached its boiling point in the fall of 2015 when student protesters at 80 universities demanded that their universities make much greater and more explicit commitments to social justice, often including mandatory courses and training for everyone in social justice perspectives and content.
Now that many university presidents have agreed to implement many of the demands, I believe that the conflict between truth and social justice is likely to become unmanageable. Universities will have to choose, and be explicit about their choice, so that potential students and faculty recruits can make an informed choice. Universities that try to honor both will face increasing incoherence and internal conflict.
Not the Onion piece of the week
The king of the Netherlands has revealed he has been living a secret double life as a co-pilot for a commercial airline.
For 21 years, King Willem-Alexander has taken to the skies twice a month to ferry passengers around on short-haul services for the Dutch airline KLM.
Although travellers may have recognised the monarch’s voice as he updated them on weather conditions and their time of arrival, the royal’s presence was never revealed.
The fleet of smaller Fokker 70 planes flown by the king are now being phased out by KLM, meaning he needs to take time out to retrain and learn to fly Boeing 737s.
The 50-year-old royal described his casual flights as a “hobby” – and said occasionally being able to leave his royal duties behind to concentrate on flying was “relaxing”.
The father-of-three says he has no plans to learn how to fly a bigger aircraft, as flights which involve an overnight stop mean he “cannot get back in time to the Netherlands in case of an emergency”.
Thanks for reading!