Are We All Colluding with the Russians?
Top Stories of the Year: #3
I've been counting down the top stories of the year, looking back at the big events of 2018 and reviewing my coverage of them.
I have been unenthusiastic about covering the still-unfolding set of scandals, or possible scandals, involving Donald Trump and his various associates. There's an awful lot of smoke and it's looking increasingly like there's some kind of fire there—but there's also a good chance this is going to end up as "The Clinton Impeachment Rerun We Didn't Want But Probably Deserve," that is, a scandal based on real misconduct—but on an issue tied to Trump's louche sex life and only tangentially to his duties in office.
As with the Clinton impeachment back in the 1990s, I think this serves to distract us from the things we really need to worry about under the political and cultural influence of Trump.
The real problem is the sense of overhanging existential dread: "For every good thing we get out of this administration—say, a reasonably good Supreme Court appointment or two—there is always the question looming in the background of when we're going to have to pay the price."
The warning sign isn't what's happening in the courts. It is something that happened, appropriately, in the field of television entertainment.
The cancellation of Roseanne Barr's new television show—a reboot, actually, of her old television show—sent shock waves because "both Barr and her character are Trump supporters," so her show "was considered a way of giving not just Trump voters but blue-collar Middle Americans, along with their culture and concerns, a presence on television that is generally lacking."
The problem is that the show's demise was totally foreseeable.
Did I mention that Barr has been crazy for decades—a 9/11 Truther who rails about government mind-control conspiracies? So who thought it was a good idea to set her up as the public stand-in for the right and for Middle America?
But she is not the only television celebrity with a history of saying questionable things who has been suddenly embraced as a standard-bearer of the right. She's not the only one with a bad habit of tweeting before thinking, or of ill-considered statements that could be plausibly construed as sympathetic to racists. She's not the only one with a following of fans willing to concoct defenses for anything she does or to dismiss all allegations against her as fake. It may turn out that she won't be the only one to be heralded as a champion of the common man, only to end up setting back that cause....
The comparison is pretty apt. Eight years is a very successful run both for a presidential administration and for a television series, and the Trump administration is not much farther along than the "Roseanne" reboot was. You can hail it as a success, even if Trump's ratings, by presidential standards, are not as stellar as those of "Roseanne." But it's not a good idea to ignore the erratic and repellent behavior that threatens to destroy the whole thing and set back the wider cause, possibly for a long time. The price we pay for Trumpism might be the same price we just paid for "Roseanne": the consequence of putting the fate of a worthy cause in the hands of an unworthy standard-bearer.
Anyone who really knew Roseanne Barr must have been waiting this whole time for the other shoe to drop, for her batty views and erratic personality to blow everything up. Those of us who remember who Donald Trump is are haunted by the same kind of dread.
All of this is harder to bear because, despite some accomplishments on taxes, regulations, and judicial appointments, Trump has turned out to be a failure on the most important long-term issue: government spending.
Congress passed and President Trump signed a deal to avert a government shutdown for another two years by basically giving the Democrats all the spending they wanted and increasing discretionary spending by $150 billion a year....
Republicans spent decades slowly, haltingly moving the Overton Window [the "range of ideas tolerated in public discourse"] toward reform of the entitlement state. In the 1990s, Republicans made welfare reform so popular that they got Bill Clinton to sign it. They briefly forgot about all fiscal discipline during the 2000s when they were preoccupied with the War on Terrorism, which also gave them a convenient excuse to blow the previous decade's budget surpluses and start borrowing again. But with the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2009, there was once again pressure to do something about the vast size of government, and Paul Ryan rose to fame by being the first prominent politician to propose significant reform of middle class entitlements. Not only did the earth not swallow him up, he was selected as the vice-presidential running mate for Mitt Romney. The Overton Window had moved to the point where we could at least discuss trimming back the entitlements that drive federal spending. In Overton's terminology, it had gone from "unthinkable" to "acceptable." Paul Ryan even put together a budget that was projected to drive federal spending as a percentage of GDP well below current levels.
Now, like Sisyphus, just as they were about to reach their goal, Republicans have let it slip out of their hands and roll back to the default state of bipartisan support for Big Government.
A lot of us on the right have spent the first year of the Trump administration trying to puzzle through his overall impact. On regulation and taxes, he has been much better than expected. In his personal style and messaging, he has been exactly as bad as we feared, and he never seems to learn. But on the most important issue of the era—whether or not we make peace with Big Government—he has now definitively failed.
All of this was underscored by Paul Ryan's decision to retire as Speaker of the House and not seek re-election to Congress.
Ryan is leaving a Congressional majority that can't stop increasing the budget of the Department of Education, even when the Secretary of Education herself requests steep cuts. Which is one of the reasons Republicans are not likely to remain a congressional majority....
Ryan's departure makes it official. Nobody cares about the federal debt. Too bad it still cares about us.
It's not just the deliberate policies of the Trump era that are a problem. It's the harebrained schemes hatched on Twitter.
His latest scheme is to send the military to build the wall and presumably to guard our southern border....
[I]n increasing order, the objections are that a) this is yet another major policy idea announced on Twitter rather than in some rational, sensible manner; b) it's an impractical idea that can't possibly achieve its stated goals; c) it's an attempt to grab Pentagon funds in order to avoid having to get approval from Congress; and d) it's a massive deployment of the US military on our own soil, without a genuine national security crisis that would justify such a suspension of normal safeguards.
It's a spectacularly bad, ill-considered idea, announced in an offhand and unserious way. In other words, pretty much a normal day in the Trump administration.
Yet resistance to Trump has been fading on the right for most of this year, and that includes National Review editor Rich Lowry—the same one who produced the "Against Trump" issue—who caved in because, "Trump is closer to the national Republican consensus than his conservative detractors." As I noted,
[F]or many intellectuals, particularly those who write about politics, there is a powerful, ultimately irresistible pull to go where your audience goes—combined with a pathological fear of being out in the wilderness, disregarded and irrelevant. At the very least, there's the desire to fit in with one's friends and coworkers and the people you spend the most time with. I've always thought that's why conservative columnists for the New York Times tend to go native. It may also explain the conservatives who are being stampeded onto the Trump Train. They feel the pull of their tribe, and where it goes, they go also.
This is already starting to come to a head for writers and intellectuals on the right, primarily because of two recent events: the closure of the Weekly Standard, one of the leading journals of conservative ideas. This is part of a wider trend I have observed (at close range) among right-of-center publications.
It's not merely that Trump has been bad for conservative intellectuals who don't take his side. He has been bad for the conservative intelligentsia across the board.
Trumpism does not need intellectuals. Trump does not start with the assumption that there are certain big ideas about public policy or the role of government that he has set out to champion. He starts with the assumption that whatever he happens to want to do at the moment must be a genius move that will result in an easy win, and anyone who contradicts him is a loser who should be ignored—or maybe tweeted at obsessively for the next three days.
Intellectuals do start with ideas, and they measure political leaders by how consistently they champion and implement those ideas. So Trump and Trumpism has no use for them. They just get in the way.
This is not a matter of animus against a certain set of ideas. It's animus against ideas as such.
(As to my personal experience, I can't help noting that I finally got invited to pitch an article to The Weekly Standard—after it stops publishing.)
More recently, Julie Kelly, a writer with a fanatically pro-Trump publication, American Greatness, launched a series of vile insults against a sexual-assault survivor, just because her target is the wife of a prominent Trump-skeptical conservative writer. (I've had some previous interaction with Kelly by way of The Federalist, and I found this latest outburst utterly unsurprising.) This set off some waves among the conservative commentariat. Following on the demise of a publication whose writers would never have acted like this in a thousand years, it is leading to a certain amount of stock-taking about which voices have been elevated in the current era and what they are establishing as the new standards—or lack thereof.
To be sure, every viewpoint has unsympathetic advocates. But these people behave in a vile way specifically because they are emulating their leader and acting according to the rules he established, which they helped justify. They wanted a name-calling schoolyard bully because, "BUT HE FIGHTS." They didn't consider what this would do to (or reveal about) their own souls.
All of this does have a connection to the scandals, or potential scandals, for which President Trump is being investigated. The Trump campaign is accused of "colluding" with the Russian government by seeking its help in getting elected and (according to some of the latest accusations) trading a soft line on Vladimir Putin for the prospect of a lucrative Trump development deal in Moscow.
But in gauging who is colluding with the Russians, we have to have a clear idea of why the Russians are the bad guys (again) and what it is they want.
Most of all, what Russia is projecting out into the world is Putin's permanent war of propaganda and disinformation. Russia's FSB, the successor to Putin's old KGB, runs "troll farms" where paid propagandists create anonymous social media accounts and try to inject the Kremlin's agenda into other countries' political discussions. Russia pioneered this approach in Finland and the Baltic states (where the trolls were opposed by a volunteer brigade of "elves"). Aside from being places Putin still cherishes ambitions of Russian dominion, these countries have relatively small populations that can be overwhelmed by office buildings full of Russian propagandists sitting at computers. America is a much larger country, so Russian troll farms have had a more marginal impact, and those who think Russian trolls tipped the election are surely exaggerating. But it wasn't from lack of trying.
Yet Putin doesn't have to tip elections to achieve his goal. He achieves it merely by sowing chaos and discord, which serves his goal of discrediting free countries as a superior model of government. Those who have followed my work for a while know my fascination with the concept of "normal life," the revolutionary notion that living in a vibrant free society is, or should be, a kind of metaphysical norm. The more conflict Putin sows in the West, the more he is able to point to the world's vaunted democracies and sneer that this kind of "normal life" is all an arrogant delusion.
From that perspective, Donald Trump's presidency is a triumph of Putin's information war. Trump's comments at yesterday's press conference [with Putin] were in response to exactly the kind of domestic discord the troll armies set out to amplify. Trump is now far more determined to fight his internal enemies and their "Rigged Witch Hunt" than he is to stand up to America's geopolitical foes. The FSB ought to hang up a "Mission Accomplished" banner.
Of course, many of Trump's critics, particularly on the left, have fallen for the same tricks. They scream that Trump is undermining "democratic norms"—then they argue for the elimination of the Electoral College, tell us that the Senate or the Supreme Court is illegitimate, and campaign to suspend the social media or crowdfunding accounts of any heterodox voice. Democratic norms, indeed.
But most of all, we are duped into sharing partisan clickbait—on both sides—intended to keep all of us constantly at each other throats. I noted this in response to one particular example of a fake controversy ginned up by a Russian clickbait site.
So what was the Russians' goal?
"[T]he video stages extreme feminist activism and manages to provoke extreme anti-feminist reactions.
"A central element in the modus operandi of the famous 'troll factory' in St. Petersburg has been to promote not just one, but different and opposing extreme views. During the American Presidential election campaign in 2016, the goal of the operation was to sow discord in the political system, and address divisive issues via groups and pages falsely claiming to represent US activists. Messaging was, e.g., not only pro-Trump, but also protesting against Trump, all to drive in wedges."
In other words, they were acting like pretty much everyone else in the American political debate and particularly the American media. So it looks like we're all collaborating with the Russians these days in a race to delegitimize our own political system.
One of the consequences of this is that both political parties are focused on appealing to smaller and more dogmatic factions of voters.
A few years back, I considered writing an article on what I saw as an unfortunate "fifty plus one" strategy, in which the two major political parties were always looking to win elections by fifty percent plus one, the narrowest margin of victory possible, which deprived the winner of the kind of national mandate that, say, Ronald Reagan won with his landslide in 1984.
At the time, I didn't anticipate that we would see a presidential election in which the final vote tally was 48% to 46%—and the candidate with 46% was the winner. "Fifty plus one" now seems like an impossible ideal of national consensus....
Democrats have...spent the last year talking themselves into the idea that they would have beaten Trump if they had nominated Bernie Sanders. So it is looking likely that the party is moving way far out to the left on all issues. This could lead them to squander a historic opportunity to regain power by running against an unusually unpopular incumbent president—one who is himself appealing to a narrow constituency of fanatical core supporters.
Or as I put it before the midterm election, "this is a contest over who can confuse the resounding of its own echo chamber with the voice of the people—while the sobering reality is that voters pretty much hate both parties and their leadership."
That's how this story from 2018 sets us up for one of the big stories of 2019: the beginning of the 2020 presidential campaign. It also prepares us for how little fun it is going to be.
Speaking of lack of fun, that sets us up for the next story in our countdown: what Political Correctness is doing to our art and entertainment.