Good Friday Morning! With failed votes in the House and Senate, the government shutdown continues. Supposedly, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer, and Donald Trump are working on negotiating a deal now — without Nancy Pelosi. We’ll see how that goes. I’ll dig more into the shutdown below. This week I’m doing some quick hits on three stories: the government shutdown, the Buzzfeed story I briefly mentioned last week, and an update on the topic of social media and how its changing society, which I’ve covered multiple times. I have a piece coming out today for the Conservative Institue on the Covington High School story, look for that there. Links follow.
Where you can find me this week
Make sure to sign up for the Conservative Institute’s daily newsletter. You can also go to their Facebook page. You can join Ricochet here. And I do recommend their ever-growing network of podcasts, which you can find on all popular podcast platforms. They have a show for every topic you can imagine, and the list continues to grow.
The Democratic Party is beginning to match the UK Labour Party in the number of antisemites it houses. The Women’s March is only the beginning. Democrats should purge their house sooner rather than later. The longer this is allowed to grow, it’ll take over the party just as it has Labour.
Are we controlling social media, or is it beginning to change us? Old technological theorists and futurists believed that mass media would forever change how humanity behaved. Social media might be another revolution on that front.
The Government Shutdown Continues
The failed House and Senate votes weren’t a surprise. As I mentioned above, the headline stories shifted to report that McConnell and Schumer are claiming to work on a deal with Trump. Pelosi shot down the very idea of the Senate and White House plan, and Trump’s demands.
All that said, I still think McConnell and Schumer are working together. McConnell is a far more shrewd leader than Schumer. McConnell is likely trying to shift the political storm for Trump. Right now Trump and Pelosi are locked in their places with little leverage or wiggle room from their positions or bases. Nothing has changed from what I wrote last week:
Conventional wisdom in DC is that Trump will end up declaring a national emergency to build a wall at the border, knowing that it will get mired in the courts. This plan will allow Congress to freely pass funding to reopen the government without using any wall language. Both sides will declare victory. This scenario also allows Trump to run on the issue of the wall for the next couple of years.
The theory is based on an old post over at Ace of Spades HQ called, “The MacGuffinization of Politics.” It’s a brilliant post that, if you apply it to the current news, points out that none of this news cycle is about the wall, but instead about Trump. It’s about making sure Trump comes out of this as the hero — not whether the wall gets built.
It’s a good theory overall and may happen, though I hope it doesn’t because having Presidents declaring random emergencies to achieve policy victories is both constitutionally dubious and politically dangerous. I’m more of the opinion Pelosi is working Trump over to beat him down enough to give him an off-ramp eventually. People wrongly assumed her ploy with the State of the Union was about trolling Trump (Trump firing back at her over the plane was trolling). Pelosi is establishing the narrative over Trump’s SOTU by having people disagree with the first line: “The state of our union is strong.” It’s hard to say that with a straight face in the middle of a shutdown. Pelosi is waving a red cape, like a matador, expecting Trump to run at it. He’s already losing the polling battle over the wall; she wants him to lose the SOTU too.
If she lowers him enough, that gives her the chance of either making him a lame duck or offer him an off-ramp to achieve legislative victories she wants. If she provides Trump an off-ramp, then Democrats are shifting their focus from Trump to attacking McConnell and the Senate. Having Trump and Senate Republicans take the blame is more lucrative long-term for Democrats. If Pelosi can get Trump to attack Senate Republicans for her in the process — she’ll be thrilled.
For now, the national emergency is probably off the table (hopefully for good). But the political landscape hasn’t changed that much.
I was right about Pelosi using the State of the Union as a means to dig Trump a deeper hole. The optics of Trump giving a SOTU while the government is in the middle of a shutdown are lousy. Trump and Pelosi both know it, which is why Trump backed down and said he’d wait until the closure was over to deliver a SOTU.
Trump is unequivocally losing the fight over the shutdown. In the FiveThirtyEight approval rating averages, his approval rating is dipping below 40%, and it’s almost there in the RealClearPolitics average. He hasn’t experienced lows like this since December of 2017. Six in ten Americans blame Trump for the shutdown, with 33% of Republicans saying its a problem.
The ball is in Pelosi’s court. She knows she can’t keep things shut down forever, and everyone will come to the table eventually. And although the polls are blaming Trump, if she stays away from any deal for too long, she risks hurting the Democratic Party if sentiment shifts. The Trump White House believed they could force her hand and shift public sentiment quickly, but that’s not happening.
She has two paths she can take here: offer Trump an off-ramp, as I suggested above. Or, she can say “damn the torpedos!” and keep the shutdown going full throttle to weaken Trump as much as possible.
This is where McConnell comes into play. His decision to work with Schumer is a bid to show the public that the White House and Senate have a deal, and the only holdup is Pelosi. If he can do that, he may be able to shift the narrative. McConnell providing some interference is why I think Pelosi eventually comes back to the table. Harming Trump is easy, but you don’t want to hurt your coalition in the process. There’s a fine line to balance there, and the incentives are lined up for an eventual deal.
But McConnell’s success here depends on how well the Senate holds together. Recent reporting shows the GOP fraying at the edges:
Republican senators clashed with each other and confronted Vice President Pence inside a private luncheon on Thursday, as anger hit a boiling point over the longest government shutdown in history.
“This is your fault,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) told Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) at one point, according to two Republicans who attended the lunch and witnessed the exchange.
“Are you suggesting I’m enjoying this?” McConnell snapped back, according to the people who attended the lunch.
Johnson spokesman Ben Voelkel confirmed the confrontation. He said Johnson was expressing frustration with the day’s proceedings — votes on dueling plans to reopen the government, both of which failed to advance.
The argument was one of several heated moments in a lunch that came just before the Senate voted on the opposing plans to end the shutdown offered by President Trump and Democrats.
The outbursts highlighted the toll the shutdown has taken on Republican lawmakers, who are dealing with growing concerns from constituents, blame from Democrats, all while facing pressure from conservatives to stand with Trump in his demand for money to build a wall on the border with Mexico.
Six Republicans broke ranks to vote for the Democratic plan, which would have reopened shuttered government agencies through Feb. 8, without any wall money. Among them was Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who explained in the lunch why he planned to vote for both bills.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who voted for Trump’s bill but opposed the Democratic plan, started to interrupt him and Romney snapped back, according to one of the people who attended the lunch and another person familiar with it. The exchange was lively but not particularly angry, they said.
The other issue is that Democrats want to run against Trump in 2020. If they weaken him too much during the shutdown, they risk giving strength to a potential GOP primary challenger to Trump. If that primary challenger wins, Democrats lose their favorite punching bag. Yes — I know Democrats lost to Trump in 2016, but they won the midterms in 2018. Politically, they want and need Trump and haven’t learned a thing since 2016.
Primary challenges to sitting Presidents are the historical norm, not the exception. Clinton, Bush, and Obama didn’t have to face a challenger, for a variety of reasons. Clinton and Bush were just too popular to challenge. Obama had a real threat in 2012. Liberal pundits and Bernie Sanders wanted Obama primaried in 2012 (people forget Obama was very weak in 2012, he was also weak before the recession took hold and sunk McCain in 2008). But the Obama camp worked hard to tamp down those challenges.
I’ve also noticed an uptick in talk of primary challenges to Trump in 2020. Johnathan V. Last at The Bulwark, Jonah Goldberg, and Tim Miller, who last worked on Jeb Bush’s Presidential campaign and many others, have all suggested the concept in the past week. And though I doubt they’re working together on this, I do think they’re clearing the political air to help a potential challenger.
They’re probably right on a primary challenger. And depending on who it is, I think a primary challenge could help Trump resolidify his base. The odds of a primary challenger successfully challenging Trump are incredibly small. The only reason you’d want to do one is to try and change the direction of the party like Reagan did in challenging Gerald Ford in 1976. Otherwise, all you do is help Trump.
But I digress…
The point is Nancy Pelosi isn’t incentivized to keep the shutdown going forever. Her incentives are to weaken Trump as much as humanly possible, without hurting her party, before cutting a deal. I also believe Democrats still hold the same belief Hilary Clinton held in 2016 — Trump in office is their best bet to retake all of Congress and the White House. The only question is how much federal employees will have to suffer in the process.
I don’t know the answer to that, but I’d expect the pain to get much worse for them before it gets better.
Buzzfeed’s reporting falls apart
Last week, while I was writing and editing this newsletter, news broke late from Buzzfeed news that claimed Donald Trump directly told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress. Buzzfeed claimed their sources said:
President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.
Trump also supported a plan, set up by Cohen, to visit Russia during the presidential campaign, in order to personally meet President Vladimir Putin and jump-start the tower negotiations. “Make it happen,” the sources said Trump told Cohen.
It’s one of those, “Big, if true” stories. Because if its true, this story is evidence of Trump committing obstruction of justice, and guarantees the House of Representatives would impeach him.
At the time I said to keep an eye on the story. I had reservations on it, saying, “The entire story is set up on them having two law enforcement sources. I find this odd because Mueller’s team hasn’t leaked a thing to the media so far. The press has never known what Mueller was going to do until he did it.”
A reader helpfull sent in a link, “25 leaks about the Mueller investigation and the problems they may cause.” It’s solid and worth your time. I disagree with it though, and I don’t think Mueller’s team has leaked as much about the Special Counsel investigation as much as Trump’s team has leaked it.
And part of the proof of that is the Buzzfeed story. Buzzfeed claims in their account they have two law enforcement sources providing them with information. But the story didn’t even last 24 hours. The very next day, Robert Mueller’s office issued a statement denying the story:
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s office on Friday denied an explosive report by BuzzFeed News that his investigators had gathered evidence showing President Trump directed his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about a prospective business deal in Moscow.
“BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate,” said Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller.
The statement was remarkable on several levels — first, the special counsel’s office speaks exceedingly rarely, and second, the statement seemed to drive a stake through a sensational allegation that Democratic lawmakers suggested earlier in the day could spell the end of the Trump presidency. As earthshaking as the claims in the story were, no other media organizations were able to match them.
That last sentence by the Washington Post, emphasized by me, is critical: not one news organization was able to corroborate a single thing Buzzfeed reported. In every other big, explosive, or exclusive news story, other news organizations rush to try and find their sourcing for the story.
No one had a thing. And as the day rolled along, before the Special Counsel’s statement, no one stepped up to back up Buzzfeed. The media was radio silent on those efforts. After Mueller’s statement, Ronan Farrow, the reporter who has broken all the big #MeToo stories, including the Harvey Weinstein story, said:
I can’t speak to Buzzfeed’s sourcing, but, for what it’s worth, I declined to run with parts of the narrative they conveyed based on a source central to the story repeatedly disputing the idea that Trump directly issued orders of that kind.
Which suggests that this story was floating around the media sphere looking for a site to run it. It also indicates to me that Buzzfeed’s sourcing didn’t come from anyone in Mueller’s office, or if they did work with Mueller, they’re no longer there, like a Lisa Page/Peter Strzok type.
The other reason I typically see Mueller’s operation as more airtight than most: every single DC reporter is trying to break this story. Anyone who gets a scoop has awards and book deals waiting for them. And none of them can correctly predict what Mueller is going to do in a given situation. They’re blind.
That isn’t to say Mueller’s office hasn’t leaked, but the media cues suggest the bulk of these leaks are coming from elsewhere.
Most of the leaks come from when Mueller’s office is talking to people in Trump administration, making requests of Trump, or something similar. Given that Trump’s entire administration is one big leak, led by Trump himself, it’s far more likely the bulk of these leaks are coming from Trump and his legal team.
As with all things Trump-Russia, give any explosive story 24-48 hours to cool off. Look for other news organizations to verify it — if they can’t, that’s a huge red flag. In my experience, most national news sites can confirm a story on this front within 6 hours. If they can’t do that, the original story has problems.
The “new” left — resembles the European Left
The last few weeks, I’ve written about social media and its changing impact on our culture and lives. Last week, I wrote that social media had eliminated the gatekeepers of media and other parts of culture:
The ancient Greek historian, Polybius, believed in a process called anacyclosis. With it, he described the rise and fall of governments in cycles. One form of government devolved into another, his cycle looked like: 1. monarchy, 2. kingship, 3. tyranny, 4. aristocracy, 5. oligarchy, 6. democracy, and 7. ochlocracy.
The broad point he made was that the rule of one (monarchy/tyranny), descended into the rule of a few, (aristocracy/oligarchy), and the rule of the few descended into the rule of the many (democracy/mob rule). And from there, the cycle repeated because out of mob rule a single ruler could always emerge victoriously. Polybius applied this to government’s, but I’m beginning to think in the internet age, we’re witnessing this happen to every aspect of society.
Every primary sector of our politics, culture, and communal life is getting ruled by a form of anacyclosis. Social media influencers are nothing more than demagogues rising from the fray of a mob rule in the culture, media, religion, government, and other spheres. And because the mob can feed whatever desires it wants, it can raise single rulers in these areas to feed its desires.
Those tyrants, in turn, use their new-found celebrity fame to either enrich themselves or push their agendas. Internet mobs are the new puritan class for these tyrants, who use their social media weight to attack non-believers.
I expounded upon these thoughts at the Conservative Institute:
When McLuhan and his contemporaries, like George Orwell, wrote about mass media, the inherent assumption behind their claims was that control of mass media led to control of the people. But it’s not the government molding us, as Orwell feared — rather, it’s the democratizing forces of technology. And it’s not an explosion of ideas or mixing of cultures, but a global homogenization and hardening of polarized lines.
It’s trendy in intellectual circles right now to describe all of this in tribal terms — according to many academics, everyone has a tribe and is self-selecting toward that tribe. But this slightly misses the point; it’s not just a tribal phenomenon, but homogenizing of culture.
The smartphone-and-social-media age we live in has done two things: First, it’s stripped the power of all institutions. One of the leading indicators of trust in institutions, the Edelman Trust Barometer used by the business world, shows historical lows of trust in nearly all key industries.
Second: This age has put social media influencers in place of these institutions. As Sandi Kempel observed in an article about Facebook’s issues with trust: “In place of institutions, people have placed their trust in other people.”
But when thinkers like Kempel say people are replacing institutions, they’re insinuating that we’re dealing with various forms of mob rule with individual leaders.
Mob rule doesn’t just describe a democracy gone wrong. It perfectly describes a world where social media influencers try to outdo each other on the political and cultural divides.
And I bring this up because Noah Smith, a liberal writer, made an interesting point on a FiveThirtyEight column discussing the socialist takeover of the Democratic Party. He said, “Every European and Canadian who sneers that “America doesn’t have a real Left” can now officially SHUSH. We do have a real Left now.”
While the American Democratic Party has always had socialists and Marxists in its ranks, they’ve never had control of the party. FiveThirtyEight’s piece discussed how these new socialists are taking over the party:
[Sean] McElwee is one of a cadre of young left activists whose voices have grown louder in the years following Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump. Many came of political age in the decade following the financial crash of 2008, and many are disillusioned by a Democratic Party they think has been ideologically hollowed out. They’ve organized outside the traditional party apparatus — the Democratic Socialists of America, the Justice Democrats — and worked to get representation in Congress, pushing figures like newly minted congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley. Now they find themselves holding greater purchase than ever before in the formal Washington political process.
For a few years now, Democratic voters have shown they’re primed for a leftward shift, and this rising group of activists and politicians wants to push them even further. At the heart of the young left’s project is a discomfort with the free market capitalist system under which we live. It’s a system deeply ingrained in many Americans’ identities, though increasingly less so: 2016 was the first year since Gallup started tracking the question that it found Democrats had a more positive view of socialism than they did of capitalism.
This new group of activists wants to capitalize on that shift. And they’re doing it by tweeting incessantly and acting impertinently toward their fellow Democrats. Unlike bright young political things of years gone by, their purpose is to confound the party’s leadership, not earn their praise.
To this end, McElwee calls himself an “Overton Window Mover.” It’s a high-minded allusion to how activists can influence the national conversation to make fringey ideas seem less radical. He and the others have already opened the Democrats’ window, and the winds of change that blow through it might be more F5 tornado than gentle summer breeze.
There are two points to be made here. First, these socialists aren’t modern so much as they are old. Noah Smith is right in that these are European style socialists, giving the Democratic Party a strong wing that is anti-capitalism.
European socialists showing up on American shores is part of the homogenization of culture I’ve been talking about incessantly. We expect America to have liberals and progressives, but when our political movements start shifting into an alliance with the actions in other countries, we’re losing what makes our political beliefs unique. And this is a statement that goes for the left and right. Many on the right think Donald Trump’s election should go along with nationalism in Europe and votes like Brexit.
Creating a unified global culture is the end goal here, where everyone has the same enemies on the left and right.
The second point I’d make is that you should note the term “Overton Window.” It’s the new trendy term among elites right now.
The goal of those trying to move the “Overton Window” is to mainstream radical or extreme ideas by flooding society with their beliefs. The more people encounter an idea, the less they think it’s extreme, and the more open they are to accept the idea. The goal is to make the unthinkable ideas acceptable in ordinary discourse.
Bernie Sanders was an Overton Window for the Democratic Party. He may have only been a protest vote for most Democrats and has little to no chance of winning the primary this time around, but he mainstreamed socialism in a way that has given it a base in the Democratic Party. And now Democrats have to pay homage to all the new socialist stars of their party.
Donald Trump is an Overton Window that shifts the Republican Party towards populism, more to the left in some ways.
Ideas and elections have consequences. And right now, in both parties, the extreme ends are working to shift the Overton Window towards the far ends — which in turn hardens polarization. It’s why the country seems more divided than ever because the work of activists is slowly eroding any common foundation the two sides of the American political divide share.
I’ll have more to say on the Overton Window later on, but this piece seemed like an excellent chance to introduce the topic.
Links of the week
The Media Wildly Mischaracterized That Video of Covington Catholic Students Confronting a Native American Veteran: Journalists who uncritically accepted Nathan Phillips’ story got this completely wrong. – Robby Soave, Reason Magazine
If You Still Think Nick Sandmann’s Smile Is Proof of Racism, You’re Seeing What You Want to See: Some are incapable of viewing the MAGA-hat-wearing teens from Covington Catholic as anything other than pure evil. – Robby Soave, Reason Magazine
Libel Law and the Covington Boys: Facts vs. opinions; compensatory/presumed/punitive damages; negligence, recklessness, and knowledge; libel per se; timing; choice of law; and more defamation law fun. – Eugene Volokh, The Volokh Conspiracy
The Covington Scissor: Welcome to another controversy algorithmically designed to tear America apart. – Ross Douthat, The New York Times
The Covington students failed to act like grownups. So did the adults. – Megan McArdle, The Washington Post
A Game-Theory Solution for a Fractured America: If your opponent isn’t going away, cooperation is the winning strategy. – Noah Smith, Bloomberg Opinion
This Time It’s Russia’s Emails Getting Leaked: The Russian oligarchs and Kremlin apparatchiks spared by WikiLeaks in the past will not be so lucky this week, when transparency activists drop a massive archive of leaked docs. – Kevin Poulsen, The Daily Beast
Why 2020 candidates cannot ignore Iowa or New Hampshire – Harry Enten, CNN
Venezuela, America Stands With You: It’s a humanitarian and economic crisis, but also a matter of regional security. – Mike Pence, The Wall Street Journal
Poll: Support for ‘Medicare-for-all’ fluctuates with details – The Associated Press
The Mess We’re in – Jonah Goldberg, National Review
This Is How the Left Destroys Itself: It’s ridiculous to claim that the Covington Catholic schoolboys are a symbol of what ails America. – Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic
Don’t Believe Ilhan Omar: She knew what she was doing. – Abe Greenwald, Commentary Magazine
Covington Catholic Is the Terrible Sequel to the Kavanaugh Case – David French, National Review
How We Destroy Lives Today: Will the Covington Catholic High School fiasco change social media? – David Brooks, The New York Times
Described as Defeated, Islamic State Punches Back With Guerrilla Tactics – Rukmini Callimachi, The New York Times
Anti-Christian Ideology Is an Emerging Aspect of White Progressive Populism – David French, National Review
Satire piece of the week
Ultrasound Unable To Detect Heartbeat In New York State Legislators – The Babylon Bee
ALBANY, NY—After the New York State Legislature voted to greatly expand abortion rights all the way up until the point of birth Tuesday, doctors quickly ordered echocardiograms on every lawmaker who voted for the bill, but tragically, no heartbeats were found by any of the ultrasounds.
Physicians desperately searched the chest cavities of the legislators for any sign of a heartbeat but found only a black void where normal human beings have a heart.
“Not a single one of these legislators appears to have a heart,” said one doctor gravely. “This is a known medical condition. When you try to justify the murder of infants, you slowly sear your conscience. As a side effect, your heart begins to harden. Finally, it becomes pure stone and eventually withers away into nothing, leaving you with a black void: a husk of a human.”
Thanks for reading!