Monday was a big day for Sean Hannity, the conspiracy-minded Fox News Channel host. After all, it’s not every day that the president of the United States — even one you’re as close to as Hannity is to Donald Trump — schedules the unveiling of his choice for the Supreme Court in order to give you a ratings boost. According to Gabriel Sherman of Vanity Fair, some White House staff members believed Trump did exactly that. Sherman tweeted that Trump may have chosen 9 p.m. at the behest of his sleazy new communications director, Bill Shine, the former head of Fox News.
Despite this propitious opportunity, Hannity didn’t really deliver the goods, prattling on for an hour with his usual talking points and his usual guests. He didn’t quite come off as bored, but his anger and his enthusiasm seemed rote. Indeed, there was a play-acting quality to the proceedings in general. Both Republicans and Democrats know that the president’s choice, Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh, is pretty much a lock to win confirmation.
Important thread by David Roberts of Vox on how President Trump has exposed the right for what we knew in our hearts it was all along: an inchoate collection of grievances uninterested in policy or ideas. He’s also got some smart things to say about what’s wrong with The New York Times’ conservative columnists, who are monolithically anti-Trump. Start here:
1. All right, this controversy over conservative columnists in @nytopinion is bugging me. Everyone is dancing around the central point! (The same central point everyone dances around in *numerous* contemporary controversies.) So I'ma lay it out.
Is it possible to be more politically irrelevant than #NeverTrump conservatives? From the moment that Donald Trump began his presidential campaign, the conservative establishment has been in a perpetual state of horrified gobsmackery. But that hasn’t stopped the Trumpist base from taking over the Republican Party.
And so it was that on Saturday the starboard-leaning pundit Mona Charen was booed at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) for the apostasy of suggesting that, no, it’s not OK for conservatives to make excuses for the sexual predator in the White House. And no, it’s not OK for CPAC to invite a member of the neo-fascist, Holocaust-denying Le Pen family to address the gathering.
Nor was Charen merely booed. She actually had to be escorted out of the building by security guards lest some overly enthusiastic #MAGA types decided to place themselves between her and the door.
“I spoke to a hostile audience for the sake of every person who has watched this spectacle of mendacity in disbelief and misery for the past two years,” Charen wrote in an op-ed piece for The New York Times. “Just hearing the words you know are true can serve as ballast, steadying your mind when so much seems unreal.”
Charen was followed by her fellow anti-Trumper Max Boot, who recently joined The Washington Post’s opinion section — and who, on Sunday, went so far as to say that he could no longer call himself a conservative. “I prefer to think of myself as a classical liberal,” Boot wrote, “because ‘conservative’ has become practically synonymous with ‘Trump lackey.’”
Charen, Boot, and other anti-Trump conservatives find themselves in an unusual position. On the one hand, they get plenty of attention, especially on the editorial pages of the Times and the Post, where they provide satisfying entertainment for the papers’ mostly liberal readers. On the other hand, they have been virtually cast out of the Republican Party, which these days is in thrall to the racism, nationalism, and demagoguery that have been the hallmarks of the Trump era. At least Democrats can look forward to the next election.
The marginalization of traditional conservatives has been a long time coming. Back in January 2016, National Review — founded by William F. Buckley Jr. — published a special issue titled “Against Trump.” The list of conservative pundits who oppose Trump is impressive, and includes former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum (whose year-old Atlantic piece on how Trump could build an autocracy remains must reading), Weekly Standard founding editor Bill Kristol, Commentary’s John Podhoretz, the Post’s Jennifer Rubin, Michael Gerson, and George Will, and the Times’ David Brooks, Ross Douthat, and Bret Stephens. Even farther-right pundits who share some sympathies with Trump’s positions, like Rod Dreher of The American Conservative and Ben Shapiro of The Daily Wire, always are careful to make it clear that they do not support the president himself.
In many ways, members of the non-Trumpist right have no one but themselves to blame. This moment did not come out of nowhere. Richard Nixon had his “Silent Majority.” Ronald Reagan exploited racial tensions and helped create the notion of the undeserving poor. Indeed, those members of the white working class who voted for Trump are direct descendants of the so-called Reagan Democrats. The conservative intelligentsia was only too happy to exploit these voters over issues of race, guns, and abortion so that they could pursue their real agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy, free trade, and endless war.
For traditional conservatism to be relevant again, it must first move beyond its current media platforms of liberal op-ed pages and tiny magazines. The Trumpists have their own media in the form of Fox News, Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh, and out-and-out conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones — and they reach tens of millions of people who believe their propaganda and falsehoods.
Still, nothing is forever. Although it is impossible to imagine the sequence of events that would result in the conservative establishment’s gaining ascendance over Trumpism, it was just as impossible several years ago to imagine that Trump would take over the Republican Party — and, of course, be elected president. If conservatives are going to make a comeback, though, they need to address their own rot from within.
In an essential Post article on the marginalized conservative press, National Review editor Rich Lowry sounded like he gets it. “One of the giant ironies of this whole phenomenon for us is that Trump represents a cartoonish, often exaggerated, version of the direction we wanted to see the party go in,” he was quoted as saying. “Trump was in a very different place on regulation and trade, but we had been widening the lens of mainstream conservatism and arguing that the party needed to be more populist.”
In other words, something like Trumpism — only without Trump, racism, or xenophobia. It would be a start.
Last week I wrote about my frustrations with Twitter after I locked myself out through a series of mishaps and couldn’t get back in. Thanks to some human intervention, I’m back. But Twitter and other internet services need to do a much better job of helping customers who lack the connections to get beyond automated customer service.
I’m glad that state gambling officials are looking into whether Wynn should continue to hold the license for the casino that’s being built in Everett. But Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature should go much, much further. The legalization of casino gambling pushed by Baker’s predecessor, Deval Patrick, was one of the worst decisions ever made in this state. It should be undone. The Everett property should be put to a better and higher use. Why not make it part of the region’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters? How about the facility that Apple wants to build?
Unfortunately, we know what’s going to happen. Maybe the license will be transferred to Sheldon Adelson or another casino executive. Maybe even that won’t happen — Wynn could “retire” from his company and life would go on as usual. It’s a shame. Ultimately the casino business will do for Greater Boston what it did for Atlantic City, laid low through the machinations of yet another sleazy casino operator, Donald Trump. And we’ll all be wondering what our state’s leaders were thinking.
The idea that Donald Trump is too mentally unstable to serve as president is not new. Just a few weeks after the 2016 election, the liberal commentator Keith Olbermann thundered that Trump should be removed from office under the 25th Amendment — and never mind that Trump wouldn’t actually be sworn in for two more months.
“For my money, he’s nuts — couldn’t pass a sanity test, open book,” Olbermann said in a GQ video viewed more than 840,000 times.
Olbermann was hardly alone. During the past year President Trump’s psychological fitness has been regular fodder for the media. Stat, the Boston Globe-owned health and life-sciences news service, tracked the deterioration of the president’s verbal abilities and gave a platform to a physician who speculated that Trump has an “organic brain disorder.” CNN media reporter Brian Stelter has asked repeatedly if Trump is “fit for office.” Last Wednesday, Politico revealed that a Yale psychiatrist, Bandy X. Lee, the editor of a book titled “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” had met with members of Congress and told them, “He’s going to unravel, and we are seeing the signs.”
All of which is to say that when Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” was released late last week, the ground was already plowed and well-fertilized. So it’s no surprise that it became an immediate sensation. If Wolff were providing us with new information, we would need time to process it, to assess the truthfulness of his reporting (something that’s happening anyway), to weigh it against other accounts of the president’s behavior. Instead, it confirms and adds detail to the story of the childish, impetuous, cruel, and supremely self-centered bully who has dominated our public discourse from the moment that he rode down that escalator some two and a half years ago.
Note, by the way, that I did not write that Trump has “narcissistic personality disorder” or “organic brain disease” or any of the other psychological and medical conditions that have been ascribed to him. I’m not qualified, of course. But neither is a highly credentialed psychiatrist unless he or she has actually peered inside the presidential skull. Whether Trump is suffering from a diagnosable psychological disorder is beside the point — we can observe his horrendous and frightening behavior on a daily basis. This is, after all, a man who took to Twitter just last week to assert that his nuclear button is bigger than Kim Jong Un’s. (Sometimes a cigar really isn’t just a cigar.) Is the why really that important? As Josh Marshall put it at Talking Points Memo:
All the diagnosis of a mental illness could tell us is that Trump might be prone to act in ways that we literally see him acting in every day: impulsive, erratic, driven by petty aggressions and paranoia, showing poor impulsive control, an inability to moderate self-destructive behavior. He is frequently either frighteningly out of touch with reality or sufficiently pathological in his lying that it is impossible to tell. Both are very bad.
You may have heard that there are errors in “Fire and Fury.” That Wolff must have been wrong when he claimed that Trump didn’t know who John Boehner was. That a few names and facts are mixed up and that some Trump officials claim they were misquoted. At such a fraught moment, it’s too bad that Wolff wasn’t more careful given that Trump and his supporters (and, sadly, New York Times reporter Ken Vogel) will seize upon anything to discredit him. But having read the book over the weekend, I was struck by how much of it was already publicly known, and how much of what wasn’t known came from the exceedingly careless lips of Trump’s thuggish former mastermind, Stephen Bannon, who hasn’t denied anything — including his description of a meeting between a Russian contact and Trump campaign officials Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner as “treasonous.”
Moreover, the president’s attempts to discredit the book have only bolstered Wolff’s standing — especially Trump’s threat to sue Bannon for violating a nondisclosure agreement, a tacit acknowledgment that what Bannon told Wolff was true. Nor did it help that the president bizarrely tweeted that he is a “very stable genius” in response to Wolff’s evidence that he is, well, unstable and is thought by some of his associates to be borderline illiterate.
Last Friday, on NBC’s “Today” show, Wolff said that “100 percent of the people around” Trump, “senior advisers, family members, every single one of them, questions his intelligence and fitness for office.” Do you doubt that? Recall that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the president a “fucking moron.” Consider that former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg concedes he probably told Wolff that Trump is an “idiot.” Remember how mortified the president’s staff was when Trump defendedthe “many good people” in the white nationalist movement.
The media need not offer a clinical diagnosis of the president in order to tell us about his state of mind. What news organizations have been doing, and should be doing more of, is reporting on whether Trump is fit for office. Michael Wolff has done all of us a service by moving that subject from chatter on the periphery to the center of the public conversation.
The media and “fake news” in the Age of Trump. The long, slow fade of newspapers in the face of technological and social change. The irrepressible urge to silence unpopular speech. The demise of net neutrality.
Those are some of the themes that rose to the top of my most-read commentaries for WGBH News during the past year. With 2017 drawing to a close, I thought I’d take a look back. Will 2018 be any different? Better? Worse? As the hack’s favorite cliché would have it, time will tell.
1. Political polarization is real, but especially on the right (March 15). Scholars at Harvard Law School and MIT studied how 1.25 million articles about the presidential campaign were shared on social media from April 2015 through Election Day. And they discovered something disturbing: While supporters of Hillary Clinton were consuming a relatively healthy media diet of mainstream and liberal sources, Donald Trump’s supporters were clustered tightly around a right-wing echo chamber dominated by Breitbart News. This “asymmetric polarization,” as the authors described it, helped explain why many Trump voters were likely to believe falsely that Clinton had committed a crime by using a private email server — or, in the more fetid swamps of the far right, was involved in a child sex ring run out of the basement of a Washington pizza restaurant.
2. The long, ugly decline of the newspaper business (Jan. 26, 2016). No good news here, but it resonated enough to rise near the top of my list even though it was from a year earlier. Fittingly, I wrote this column on the Amtrak to Philadelphia, where I was heading to interview folks about billionaire H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest’s just-announced decision to donate his money-losing Philadelphia Inquirer and its affiliated media properties to a nonprofit organization. The newspaper crisis is not one of readership. Rather, it is a story about advertising. Print ad revenues have dropped dramatically, while any hopes that those losses would be offset by a rise in digital income have been squelched by the Facebook-Google duopoly. The result: Armageddon.
3. When should the media call a falsehood a “lie”? (Jan. 3). Several weeks before the fact-challenged president-elect was sworn in, I took on the dicey issue of how to label untruthful political statements. Except in the most egregious cases, I came down on the side of explaining why a particular utterance is untrue without resorting to the L-word. After all, in most cases we can’t be sure whether someone speaking falsely actually knows he is doing so. I’m sticking by that judgment, even though President Trump has turned out to be, according to PolitiFact, every bit as untruthful as candidate Trump.
4. Fake news, false news, and why the difference matters (Nov. 21, 2016). Another holdover from the previous year. I’m afraid that the distinction I was trying to make has been lost now that we have a president who routinely denounces the traditional media as peddling “fake news” simply because he doesn’t like what they’re reporting. But I thought that if we could narrow the definition of fake news to for-profit crapola produced by content farms trying to game Google’s and Facebook’s algorithms, then it might be possible to eliminate at least some of it. Meanwhile, “false news” — untrue or distorted political propaganda — could be dealt with as we always have: by countering it with the truth.
5. Paul Ryan, partisan hack (March 21). Your basic hit job on a loathsome politician. There was a time when Ryan was regularly described as a principled conservative intellectual. He never deserved it; and, following the passage of massive tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, it appears that much of the public now knows it.
6. Everything is not the same (Oct. 11). The traditional media’s obsession with balance, even at the expense of the truth, has persisted in the Age of Trump. The example I invoked in this column were assertions in our papers of record, The Washington Post and The New York Times, that the Democrats’ growing embrace of old-fashioned liberalism was just like the Republicans’ move to the extreme right. Perhaps the Republican establishment’s support for a credibly accused pedophile in the recent Alabama Senate race will dampen such instincts, at least for a little while.
8. The 2017 New England Muzzle Awards (July 3). For 20 years, my co-conspirator Harvey Silverglate and I have been singling out affronts to free speech — first for the late, much-lamented Boston Phoenix and in recent years for WGBH News. The 2017 edition focused on the rise of social media as a menace to freedom of expression. Among the examples: YouTube’s restricting access to a pro-Israel video by Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz; Instagram’s taking down nude photos posted by the Museum of Fine Arts; and the Boston Police Department’s proposal — later withdrawn — to monitor social-media activities to make sure we’re not doing anything suspicious. As Huxley predicted, repression would come in the form of free services that let us share pictures of our cats.
9. Why the Entercom-CBS merger will harm Boston radio (Feb. 13). Starting in the mid-1990s, nearly all meaningful ownership restrictions on radio stations have been cast aside. Rather than requiring localism as a guiding principle, Congress and the FCC have embraced corporate empire-building. Some months after I wrote this column, CBS announced that it would sell the last news station on the local commercial dial, WBZ (AM 1030), to iHeartMedia, formerly known as Clear Channel. Naturally, iHeart’s first move was to fire WBZ’s respected program director, Peter Casey. The demise of commercial stations has helped fuel the rise of public radio, including news outlets WGBH (89.7 FM) and WBUR (90.9 FM). In this case, though, what’s good for public media is not good for the public at large.
10. Keeping it neutral on social media (Oct. 26). After The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal were diagnosed with terminal old fogeyism for issuing elaborate policies on their journalists’ use of social media, I came to their defense. My basic rule of thumb: Reporters expected to cover their beats in a fair, impartial manner should act accordingly on Twitter. And even opinion journalists have an obligation to stay away from using offensive language, endorsing candidates, or anything else they wouldn’t otherwise be allowed to do.
Finally, my thanks to WGBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2018.
Doug Jones’ victory in Tuesday’s Alabama Senate race underscores the crucial role that journalism plays in our public discourse.
If The Washington Post’s Stephanie McCrummen, Beth Reinhard and Alice Crites hadn’t interviewed courageous women and exposed Roy Moore as a likely pedophile, the outcome of the election could have been very different. And if the Post hadn’t turned the tables on Project Veritas when it attempted a sting to discredit its reporting, the consequences for journalism would have been catastrophic.
To understand the current Trumpist obsession with Hillary Clinton and the Uranium One story, you first need to know what it is not. Uranium One is not a scandal or even a discrete set of facts that can be weighed and assessed. Rather, it is a talisman wielded by President Trump’s most ardent defenders in the hope of warding off the burgeoning Russia scandal.
Thus we have absurd characters like Sean Hannity of Fox News calling it “one of the biggest scandals in American history involving another country.” And The Daily Signal, a right-wing website published by the Heritage Foundation, asking, “Why isn’t the mainstream media covering Uranium One?” And Conrad Black, who speculates in The New York Sun that special counsel Robert Mueller will — or at least should — go after Clinton’s allies the Podesta brothers for their role in Uranium One now that the Russia inquiry has fallen apart. Because, you know, nothing says fallen apart quite like the indictment of two former Trump campaign officials and a guilty plea from a third, with the promise of more to come.
David French, a prominent anti-Trump conservative, explained in The New York Times what’s going on:
The desire to think the best of Mr. Trump combined with the deep distaste for Democrats grants extraordinary power to two phrases: “fake news” and “the other side is worse.” “Fake news” erects a shield of disbelief against the worst allegations and allows a person to believe that Mr. Trump is better than he is. For too many Republicans, every single troubling element of the Russia investigation — including multiple administration falsehoods about contacts with Russian officials — represents “fake news.”
The Trump supporters pushing the Uranium One story are impervious to facts not because they’re stupid but because the purpose of telling it is to put the media on the defensive. Nevertheless, there are facts, and I’ve endeavored to find out what they are by consulting the nonpartisan website FactCheck.org.
The verdict: There’s nothing to the claim, first made by then-candidate Trump in 2016, that the United States gave away 20 percent of its uranium to Russia and that Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, was responsible. The facts are incredibly convoluted —we are, after all, talking about the Clintons. The full narrative encompasses the Clinton Foundation, a speaking fee paid to Bill Clinton, and a dubious book called “Clinton Cash,” written by a conservative activist named Peter Schweizer, promoted by Stephen Bannon, and, for reasons that have never been credibly explained, used by The New York Times as the basis for some of its reporting on the Clintons. But, FactCheck.org says:
It may be that individuals and companies sought to curry favor with Hillary Clinton and even influence her department’s decision on the Uranium One sale. But, as we’ve written before, there is no evidence that donations to the Clinton Foundation from people with ties to Uranium One or Bill Clinton’s speaking fee influenced Hillary Clinton’s official actions. That’s still the case.
Vox has a shorter, easier-to-follow take on the deal that calls the Republican conspiracy theory involving Uranium One “a thoroughly debunked and verifiably false charge.” Vox, in turn, cites a report by yet another nonpartisan fact-checking site, PolitiFact, which rated Trump’s accusations against Clinton as “mostly false.”
It’s also worth keeping in mind that Trump, not Clinton, is president — something that you might forget if you get pulled into the Fox News rabbit hole. (Hannity went so far as to call Hillary “President Clinton” the other day.) Even if there were reason to believe Clinton had been involved in wrongdoing (again, there isn’t), the value to the public of pursuing her at this point is not very high. On the other hand, the question of whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians goes to the very heart of our democracy.
“The right-wing response to Robert Mueller’s investigation is to change the subject, preferably to an alleged ‘scandal’ involving Hillary Clinton,” writes CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, who adds: “This creates a thick layer of fog, making it hard to see what really matters. Maybe this is the goal. Regardless, it poses a challenge for journalists who are trying to convey the truth.”
The truth is that the Uranium One story isn’t about the truth. The Trump White House and its allies are essentially gaming the media’s old-fashioned dedication to balance — regardless of the facts — by flinging unsupportable charges that will be reported alongside the Russia news in the name of being fair and objective. Trump’s allies, who despise Clinton, will grab onto those stories and denounce everything else as “fake news.”
It’s an ugly and depressing situation with no clear solution.
There’s a very strong Margaret Sullivan column in today’s Washington Post on the media’s terrible coverage of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It’s especially good to see her call out The New York Times, for whom she was its best public editor before moving on to the Post.
I’ve been trying to think through what would change if the First Amendment were as untouchable as the Second. I’m sure this is an incomplete list, but here are a few ideas that come to mind:
Child pornography would be legal. It might still be illegal to make it because of the horrific child abuse it would entail. But sell, distribute or possess it? No problem.
Obscenity in general would be legal. This is a very slippery concept, and in fact it is difficult to know exactly what would be considered obscene circa 2017. But depictions of bestiality or rape would be fine. As with child pornography, it’s possible that someone could be prosecuted for the underlying acts, but not for selling, distributing or possessing it.
Libel would cease to exist. Want to publish something false and defamatory about someone? Go for it. And don’t worry about whether she’s a private figure. That distinction is so 20th-century.
If the United States is at war, and you somehow come into possession of plans detailing the specifics of an operation against enemy troops, well, go ahead and publish them. Under our new, absolutist First Amendment, Col. Robert McCormick did nothing wrong.
If you’re, say, a Ku Klux Klan leader, and you exhort a mob to lynch a black man standing at the periphery of the crowd, and they do it, you have nothing to worry about. The criminals who actually carry out the deed could be prosecuted for murder, of course, but under an absolutist view of the First Amendment there would be no such thing as incitement.
No rational person, of course, would support any of these changes to the First Amendment. Even someone who considers himself pretty much an absolutist, as I do, has to acknowledge that not every single form of expression can be protected by the Constitution. So why can’t extreme gun-rights advocates see that they’ve abandoned all rationality?