Good Friday Morning! It’s back to normal in the newsletter this week. After two weeks of looking back and projecting forward, I’ll return to some regular news coverage. Thank you for indulging me in that exercise. This week I dig into the book “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff, currently taking DC by storm, I go through a recent judicial opinion claiming Trump must follow an Obama executive order on DACA, and finally, I lay out my thoughts surrounding the current Oprah for President talk. Links follow.
New this week at the Conservative Institute
I was amazed to see this piece take off so quickly. It’s my most viral piece yet getting shared or liked on Facebook nearly 2,000 times. So big thanks to everyone for sharing it over social media, I’m very grateful.
In this piece, I trace the history of the 25th Amendment, its enactment, and what that understanding tells us about its interpretation. Finally, I apply that account to the stories out about Donald Trump and Democrats new attempt to “impeach” him through the 25th.
Fun fact I didn’t have space to add: Former Vice President Dick Cheney believed there was a gap in the 25th Amendment regarding the Vice President. What happens if the Vice President is incapacitated but alive? The Constitution only covers the President in this scenario. Cheney, who has a long history of heart issues, and his lawyer created a workaround: Cheney had a pre-written letter of resignation to his lawyer with instructions to deliver it to the President if Cheney was ever incapacitated. Fortunately, he never had to use it.
“Fire and Fury” – A kind-of first-hand account of Trump as POTUS Year 1
By now you’ve no doubt heard of the new bestseller taking Washington DC by storm: “Fire and Fury – Inside the Trump White House” by Michael Wolff. It’s quickly rocketed to the top of all bestseller lists and sales charts, and it currently sits at #1 most read on Amazon.
Wolff was given first-hand access to the Trump White House in its first year. Why they decided to grant Wolff this access is beyond me, but they did. I haven’t read it. I don’t plan on reading it either. Wolff’s stories don’t match historical or journalistic standards. People won’t be using this book at a later date to render historical judgments on the Trump administration.
Here’s how I know that, in 2004, the New Republic ran a devastating profile of Wolff, who was then transitioning to political writing after building a career working the New York high society/culture scene. Wolff often takes a grain of truth and spins it into far more than it ever was:
Much to the annoyance of Wolff’s critics, the scenes in his columns aren’t recreated so much as created–springing from Wolff’s imagination rather than from actual knowledge of events. Even Wolff acknowledges that conventional reporting isn’t his bag. Rather, he absorbs the atmosphere and gossip swirling around him at cocktail parties, on the street, and especially during those long lunches at Michael’s. “He’s around town enough to have those insights, to spot people, to come across [pieces of information],” says a friend. He also has a talent for making the most of even the briefest encounters. “His great gift is the appearance of intimate access,” says an editor who has worked with Wolff. “He is adroit at making the reader think that he has spent hours and days with his subject, when in fact he may have spent no time at all.”
And you can tell this lack of accuracy is beginning to show in Fire and Fury. First, during an MSNBC interview, Wolff defended his book’s accuracy by saying he wasn’t in the journalism business and, “if [the book] rings true, it is true,” which isn’t a ringing endorsement of accuracy. And second, he wilted during an interview with Meghan McCain on The View, where he couldn’t answer simple questions of accuracy.
I’d treat Wolff’s book with the same accuracy of a high society gossip column. I don’t think historians will use it because it’s impossible to prove. But I also wouldn’t treat it as entirely made up either. There are some aspects of it from excerpts that you can verify with real journalism.
Wolff is a bit like an impressionist painter, the canvas shows a foggy image if you view it in its entirety, but if you get up close and examine the details, it’s just a mishmash of colors. Taken as a whole, the book shows essential themes from the first year of Trump’s Presidency: dysfunction, infighting, power politics, and people leaking to the press to improve their image. But it’s doubtful many of the details he uses to get to those themes are accurate.
Fire and Fury should ready with many grains of salt. This is especially true when Wolff ventures into the 25th amendment, as I discussed in my Conservative Institute column above.
Judicial Extremism in DACA Decision
A recent federal district judge ruling says that Trump’s decision to reverse the Obama era DACA memo is wrong. Of all the current rulings for and against the Trump administration, this might be the dumbest. I don’t use that term lightly either because no law supports what the judge decided.
At issue is the DACA memo, first issued by Barack Obama, and then rescinded by the Trump administration. Without going into any specifics, Obama had an agency issue an executive order. Other conservative legal thinkers and I argued the DACA memo was unconstitutional. The Obama administration disagreed, so DACA went into effect.
Trump gets elected to office, and one of the first orders of business his legal advisers suggested was repealing DACA on grounds it was unconstitutional. Trump then rescinded an executive order from the prior administration. All of this is entirely lawful and well within the scope of any President. Democrats were up in arms over it, but legally, that should have been the end of it.
Enter District Court Judge William Alsup, who ruled against the Trump administration saying that a President doesn’t have the power to rescind an executive order. Law Professor Josh Blackman took Alsup to task for a ludicrous opinion, and I agree with him. And as best as Blackman can tell, Alsup ultimately made up the law for his 49-page opinion. Again, I’d agree. What Alsup did is contrary to every single rule anyone would ever teach in law school.
Alsup’s decision will get overturned. He’s ruled against Trump in the past with idiotic opinions. But if you ever wanted an example of judicial extremism, Alsup is Exhibit A. The President has complete authority to overrule a previous administration’s executive orders. It’s an inherent power in the office. Saying otherwise is a breach of separation of powers and unconstitutional.
Celebrity Presidents – a troubling sign for democracy’s trajectory
Oprah Winfrey gave a great speech at the 75 Golden Globe Awards, accepting the Cecil B. de Mille award. I highly recommend listening to it because it deserves the plaudits it’s receiving. The speech was so well received; it kickstarted an Oprah for President 2020 flurry online.
As is typical in social media flourishes of this nature, there was the initial reaction that was part ironic and part real towards wishing Oprah would run for President. That was followed by the inevitable backlash of people arguing Oprah wasn’t good enough to run for President for one reason or another. And then the first round of people responded saying it was either a joke or sincerely defending the woman. Social media is relatively predictable on this front.
They all miss one point: Donald Trump is President of the United States. There is absolutely nothing stopping Oprah from becoming President. Trump winning a major party’s nomination and then winning the general election crossed a line this country had never ventured across before.
My more liberal friends will point to Ronald Reagan saying he was a celebrity President. That’s a pretty far stretch. Reagan’s glory days in Hollywood were long before he ever sought office. He was also governor of California in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. He was well established as a politician on the national scene when he ran for President. Trump walked off a TV studio set and into the oval office. No one else even remotely compares, not even former Senator Al Franken. Oprah would do the same as Trump if she ran. We’ve crossed a rubicon moment here.
I suppose, on some level, we should have seen this coming with the advent of the social media age. All the online media platforms like Facebook, Google, Youtube, Twitter, and so on have ushered in a new world that thrives on democracy. The internet age is probably the closest thing we’ll ever see to a real democracy where the majority, combined with the market’s invisible hand, guides all decisions.
The new age has ushered in much good. It’s easier to hold politicians accountable, it’s easier to educate yourself, and it’s easier to engage politically with the issues. But there’s a dark side, and it’s the same dark side that’s always been inherent with democracy: mob rule.
The ancient Greeks believed in the political concept of “anacyclosis.” We get the concept from Polybius, Plato, and Aristotle. In short, they thought that there are three primary forms of good, but weak, government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Each of these types of governments devolves into a debased version of itself: tyranny, oligarchy, and ochlocracy (mob rule). What the Greeks believed is that over time, because the good forms of government are weak, they tended to devolve into the worst type. Monarchies devolve into tyrants, aristocracies devolve into oligarchies, and democracy devolved into mob rule.
There’s a pattern here, you go from the rule of the one to the few, to the many, and devolve back into the rule of the one. The Greeks saw this as cyclical, specifically in the case of democracies where a mob rule would lead to a tyrant taking over.
The best example is the French Revolution. There the push for democracy ended up in a mob rule that murdered and pillaged its way across all of France. Men, women, and children were senselessly raped, tortured, and killed to appease the bloodlust of the mob. That mob eventually devolved into a rule by a tyrant, Napoleon, and ended with a restoration of the Bourbon monarchy (back to monarchy).
I do wonder, on some level, if the social media age is trending towards a rule by a tyrant, because we’re already at the mob rule part of the equation. The mob’s worst tendencies are getting thwarted by the constitution. The question is how long do those bulwarks hold, and will a future President adhere to the fortifications?
One of the most strenuous objections I had to the Obama administration was the unilateral moves they’d make like DACA, which had obvious constitutional problems. Too many liberal commentators on the left presumed a President on the right wouldn’t abuse those powers in the same manner. So far, they’re right. So far, President Trump has stayed within the limits of his office. But if future mobs push more power to a President, how much longer do they hold?
I realize this seems like a huge reaction to watching something as anodyne as an awards speech. But it’s hard not to see the response to Oprah’s statement, and others like it, as part of a broader trend away from a federalist understanding of government, where three co-equal branches compete with each other and keep mob rule at bay. It’s easier to see mob rule in the form of social media pushing us ever more closely to a rule by one. It’s easier to entertain a mob if you hold all the power, as the Roman Senate learned when the Emporer took over and ended the Roman Republic.
There’s a reason the Founding generation believed that everyone was only one generation away from tyranny. They thought as the Greeks did, that good forms of government were weak and rare. This period of history where mostly good forms of government have ruled the world is unique and not guaranteed to continue.
Oprah 2020 may be a fun thing to joke about, but so was Trump 2016 at one point. A society ruled by mobs given in to its desires will trend towards charismatic leaders. And in that long run, it will take more than the constitution to stop those types of tyrants.
Best links of the week
Stop your armchair psychoanalysis of Trump – Becket Adams, The Washington Examiner
Finding the Way Forward on Iran – Bret Stephens, The New York Times
The Bannon Fallacy – Jonah Goldberg, National Review
The Book That Blew Up Washington: Donald Trump, Fire and Fury, and the never-ending shocks to the system – Matthew Continetti, The Washington Free Beacon
The Political Preconditions for Impeachment: Don’t bet on Michael Wolff’s book changing the dynamic in Washington. But here are the three things to monitor to determine if Trump’s job is in jeopardy. – Josh Kraushaar, National Journal
How should conservatives respond to the populist challenge? – George H. Nash, The New Criterion
A Ludicrous Ruling That Trump Can’t End DACA – Joshua Blackman, National Review
The Next Steps for ‘NeverTrump’: The task facing Trump-skeptical conservatives is to change the incentives within the Republican Party that enabled his success, so that other candidates won’t follow his path. – Seth Mandel, The Atlantic
What the Boy Scouts & the #Metoo Hashtag Have in Common – Josh Herring, The Imaginative Conservative
Satire piece of the week
Kid Ready To Start Playdating Again – The Onion
TAMPA, FL—Despite having been hurt more times than he can count, local kindergartner Kyle Gallagher told reporters this week that he’s finally ready to get out there and start playdating again.
Gallagher, whose last serious relationship ended three months ago, said his decision to meet new children and return to the playdating scene wasn’t easy.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous—after all, it’s been a while since I’ve played spacemen with someone else,” Gallagher said between small sips from a grape-juice box. “But I just can’t worry about that kind of thing anymore. It’s time to get back on that horse and see what’s out there for me.”
“I mean, I’m almost five and a half,” he added. “I’m not getting any younger.”
According to sources close to Gallagher, the small child has focused on keeping himself busy in recent weeks by drawing pictures of ninjas and searching for hidden treasures in hopes of distracting himself from the pain of his recent breakup.
Thanks for reading!