Catastrophic Credibility Loss Event
Capitol Insurrection Roundup, Part 1
Joe Biden has been sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. I will skip commenting on yesterday's inaugural, which despite the pandemic restrictions was still the usual overblown ceremony enjoyable only to partisans and to people who are way too emotionally invested in politics. I will only make a passing reference to the inaugural poem. While listening to it, I recognized it immediately, not as the recitation of a poem, but as the dramatic reading of an op-ed—which makes it perfect for the Age of Didacticism.
Instead of talking about that, I'm going to offer an overview of the events of the two weeks leading up to the inauguration. Why talk about that? Isn't that all gone and in the rearview mirror. Oh, I wish it were. But those events establish the conditions under which Biden starts his presidency, in a way that everyone hasn't quite absorbed yet.
Joe Biden has already launched a whole ream of executive orders to begin implementing his agenda, some of which will be good (loosened restrictions on immigration) and most of which will be bad (a list that will require a whole article on its own). But this is not our main challenge right now.
Our challenge is that Biden enters office with his political opposition severely weakened by a Catastrophic Credibility Loss Event: the January 6 invasion of the US Capitol.
"Catastrophic Credibility Loss Event" is my term for a phenomenon that happens every once in a while in politics, a watershed event that tips the scales toward one side of the political debate and against another, at least for a while. When an event like this happens, it is important to recognize that it has happened, to understand how it happened, and to evaluate the extent to which the catastrophic loss of credibility is deserved or undeserved. If we don't do that, then we will respond to it in ways that are inappropriate and serve to undermine our values rather than protect them. I'll provide some big examples of that below.
But the first and most basic thing to understand is that a Catastrophic Credibility Loss Event is not primarily a political phenomenon, and it cannot be understood or responded to within the framework of ordinary politics. It is a cultural phenomenon and manifests itself in widespread repudiation even by ordinarily non-political agents.
There are a lot of superficial similarities between being unfairly suppressed by a censorious atmosphere of intellectual conformity, and being spontaneously ostracized and repudiated by your fellow men because of your legitimately odious views and actions. There is, of course, a huge temptation for those who are enforcing the latter to pretend that they are enforcing the former. But there is an equally huge temptation for those who are being cast out for their odious actions to pretend that they are the victims of a narrow-minded orthodoxy.
It merely adds to the confusion of our era that both of these things are going on at the same time, so we have to sort out which is which.
That brings us to the question of whether the catastrophic loss of credibility is deserved or undeserved.
The Red Mirage Coup
When it comes to Donald Trump, the answer is absolutely, "yes."
When I say that Donald Trump incited the insurrection two weeks ago, some people demand that I find in his speech at that day's rally a line where he specifically told his followers to storm the Capitol. But this ignores the wider context, which is that Trump spent his entire re-election campaign building up the mythology of a stolen election, casting doubt on the legitimacy of the outcome, and then planning to exploit that doubt to remain in office no matter what.
Jaime Herrera Beutler, one of the small number of Republicans in the House of Representatives who voted for Trump's second impeachment, gave a good rundown of this evidence, including the fact that Trump helped organize the January 6 rally and kept pumping up his most fanatical followers to "fight." Is that just a rhetorical flourish? Well, sure it is, until your followers decide to take you seriously and beat a Capitol policeman to death.
The phrase "stolen election," and the organization of rallies under the heading "Stop the Steal," are the equivalent of "fighting words." In our system, to declare an election to be stolen is to declare that the government is illegitimate and that violence to overthrow it is justified. That is precisely what people concluded when they chose to believe Trump.
We've seen a lot of reporting recently about exactly how violent the attack on the Capitol was, who was behind it, and how much worse it might have gotten. Check out an inside account by a reporter who was on the scene, following around the Groypers and Proud Boys who were talking about civil war and about hanging their political enemies, and describing their disappointment at not being able to get their hands on hastily evacuated senators.
To show how deliberate the incitement to this violence was, notice that the slogan "Stop the Steal" was originally used by Trump toady Roger Stone back in 2016, to prepare Trump's excuse for losing that election. So undermining the legitimacy of the election was a deliberate and long-planned strategy.
Another report describes how thoroughly Trump prepared this "stolen election" narrative throughout the 2020 campaign.
As Trump prepared for Election Day, he was focused on the so-called red mirage. This was the idea that early vote counts would look better for Republicans than the final tallies because Democrats feared COVID-19 more and would disproportionately cast absentee votes that would take longer to count. Trump intended to exploit this—to weaponize it for his vast base of followers.
His preparations were deliberate, strategic and deeply cynical. Trump wanted Americans to believe a falsehood that there were two elections—a legitimate election composed of in-person voting, and a separate, fraudulent election involving bogus mail-in ballots for Democrats.
In the initial hours after returns closed, it looked like his plan could work. Trump was on track for easy wins in Florida and Ohio, and held huge—though deceptive—early leads in Pennsylvania and Michigan.
But as Bill Hemmer narrated a live "what if" scenario on his election telestrator from Studio F of Fox's gargantuan Manhattan headquarters, the anchor sounded confused. "What is this happening here? Why is Arizona blue?" he asked on camera, prodding the image of the state on the touch screen, unable to flip its color. "Did we just call it? Did we make a call in Arizona?" Because of a minor communication breakdown, Hemmer's screen had turned Arizona blue before he or the other anchors, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, found out that Fox's Decision Desk had called it....
Trump had spent a bellicose summer and early autumn railing against mail-in ballots. After a toxic Sept. 29 election debate with Biden, Trump's internal poll numbers nose-dived. He started choreographing election night in earnest during the second week of October, as he recovered from COVID-19.
His former chief of staff Reince Priebus told a friend he was stunned when Trump called him around that time and acted out his script, including walking up to a podium and prematurely declaring victory on election night if it looked like he was ahead.
This only accelerated after Election Day. Here is a report about what happened in the immediate lead-up to January 6, when Trump tried to pressure then-Vice-President Pence to go to the floor of the Senate and overrule the election results.
When Mr. Trump's efforts to overturn the election results were rejected at every turn by state officials and judges, Mr. Trump was told, incorrectly, that the vice president could stop the final validation of the election of President-elect Joseph R. Biden, Jr., in his role as president of the Senate presiding over the Electoral College count.
Mr. Pence's counsel, Greg Jacob, researched the matter and concluded the vice president had no such authority. Prodded by Rudolph W. Giuliani and Jenna Ellis, two of his lawyers, Mr. Trump kept pressing....
In the Oval Office last week, the day before the vote, Mr. Trump pushed Mr. Pence in a string of encounters, including one meeting that lasted at least an hour. John Eastman, a conservative constitutional scholar at Chapman University, was in the office and argued to Mr. Pence that he did have the power to act.
The next morning, hours before the vote, Richard Cullen, Mr. Pence's personal lawyer, called J. Michael Luttig, a former appeals court judge revered by conservatives—and for whom Mr. Eastman had once clerked. Mr. Luttig agreed to quickly write up his opinion that the vice president had no power to change the outcome, then posted it on Twitter.
Within minutes, Mr. Pence's staff incorporated Mr. Luttig's reasoning, citing him by name, into a letter announcing the vice president's decision not to try to block electors. Reached on Tuesday, Mr. Luttig said it was 'the highest honor of my life' to play a role in preserving the Constitution.
It is clear that Donald Trump was plotting to overturn the legitimate vote, and that he put forward all his effort to try to make it happen.
But how far beyond Trump should the blame extend? Let's start with...well, here's the headline, because I still have a hard time believing this actually happened.
The MyPillow Coup
After January 6, the deadly serious "red mirage" coup attempt eventually gave way to the preposterous MyPillow Coup.
Mike Lindell is a guy from Minnesota who made a fortune hawking pillows on TV infomercials, then in recent years became a fanatical booster of Donald Trump. How fanatical? The week before the inauguration, he showed up for a meeting at the White House and showed off to a photographer his notes calling for the imposition of martial law as part of an effort to reverse the election. He then gave an interview in which he expressed hope that the heavy military presence in Washington, DC, brought there to protect against the first coup, was secretly part of a plan to stage a second coup.
This became known as the "MyPillow Coup," and the best comment on this came from the blogger AllahPundit: "The MyPillow coup attempt is the perfect ending to Trump's presidency in that it's deeply sinister and completely absurd all at once. You worry, then you feel embarrassed for worrying, then you remember he's capable of anything."
The immediate consequence was a cascade of retailers dropping MyPillow from their stores.
Lindell may be in even deeper trouble. Like most election conspiracy theorists, he has been promoting extravagant claims about voting machines manufactured by a company called Dominion. These claims range from the arbitrary to the provably false, and they have been rejected in every court where they have been presented. So Dominion—in an understandable attempt to protect its reputation and save its business—has been filing defamation lawsuits against the more prominent conspiracy theorists. Hence the groveling retraction posted by the conservative website The American Thinker, which was forced to admit to lying to its readers rather than face a lawsuit they know they would lose. (See what I mean about catastrophic credibility loss?) Dominion has filed a similar suit against Lindell, who has vowed to fight it, which means that the company had better start planning what they're going to do with their new pillow manufacturing subsidiary.
A similar spontaneous shunning is happening to John Eastman, the lawyer who advised Mike Pence that it's totally OK for the vice president to throw out the results of the Electoral College. (I'm not surprised to hear him spouting such crackpot theories. I last encountered Eastman when he was declaring Kamala Harris ineligible as part of his crusade against birthright citizenship.) He has now been forced to resign from his university position.
This is not "cancel culture"; it is civilizational self-preservation. When someone advocates imposing martial law to overturn an election, he must be shunned from polite society. He must be ostracized.
The hallmark of cancel culture is the employment of the most drastic forms of social shunning against the most trivial or imaginary infractions. (See an excellent analysis by Cathy Young.) This, by contrast, is the employment of the most drastic forms of social shunning against the most drastic threats to the foundations of a free society. "Ostracism" is a good word for it, because it comes to us from the Ancient Greek custom of cutting off the ambitions of a would-be tyrant by ejecting him from the entire sphere of political influence. Subverting an election is such a fundamental sin in our political system that it is appropriate to punish it with banishment from public life.
This, by the way, is why it is important for Donald Trump's impeachment trial to continue. Even though he can no longer be removed from office, Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution also specifies that impeachment can result in "disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States." It is a permanent removal from political life, at least on the federal level.
Every society has basic rules about what it regards as acceptable, if provocative, debate, and what is beyond the pale. The question is whether those bounds are wide or narrow, whether they are enforced by voluntary consensus or government decree, and whether the standards by which they are enforced are rational and established by persuasion, or whether they are irrational and dogmatic. We're about to get a mix of the two.
Arbitrary conspiracy theories, especially those that are intended to undermine and overturn a free election, are properly considered beyond the pale in a free society, for the same reason that white nationalists and neo-Nazis are beyond the pale. But no, this standard is not and will not be applied consistently, and just last summer, we saw another fundamental sin, lawless rioting and looting, widely justified and excused by the left. Yet this is just another way to say that the insurrection apologists on the right are taking their cue from the riot apologists on the left. That doesn't excuse them; it just condemns them further.
So the next question is: How far should this social and political ostracism be applied?
The Real Victims Here
Probably the most common response I saw from conservatives after January 6 was something along the lines of, "We are the real victims here."
There were many, many examples of this, but I'll choose two from The Federalist, which, alas, can be counted on for that sort of thing nowadays. John Daniel Davidson gave the insurrection the "mostly peaceful protest" treatment, insisting that "the vast majority didn't so much as jostle a barrier, let alone smash a window or throw a punch." Then he tries to sell us on the idea that it's really important to sympathize with the views of people who gathered to support a conspiracy theory.
Similarly, my replacement at The Federalist, Emily Jashinsky, worries that the Capitol riot "will hurt the people who were already hurting most, the decent rally goers continually ignored and smeared, now saddled with the baggage of violence they did not commit." If you actually read the piece, you can see that she understands the catastrophic loss of credibility January 6 has induced for the right. Under those circumstances, the easiest thing for the conservative movement to do, to protect itself, would be to thoroughly disavow the relatively small group of fanatics who gathered for the "Stop the Steal" rally. Instead, they have to portray them as The Real Victims Here. This is what happens when the culture of victimhood thoroughly infuses the political right.
Similarly, when we go beyond the inner circle of Trump's associates, the one man likely to suffer a significant level of ostracism is Missouri Senator Josh Hawley. He will suffer it because of a single photo—please follow that link, it's an interesting story—that showed him giving raised-fist encouragement to the "Stop the Steal" ralliers shortly before they became rioters. Hawley went about as far as you could go in pandering to the "stolen election" conspiracy theories, betting he could gain the support of Trump's fanatical followers without being directly implicated in their worst assaults on a free election. He bet and lost.
Hawley was the leading candidate in the search for a "sane Trump": a calculating politician who would take on the mantle of Trump's authoritarian populism, with a specifically anti-capitalist twist, but without the compulsive tweeting and the self-defeating lack of discipline. So the implosion of his political career would be a welcome result.
Naturally, Hawley thinks that he, too, is The Real Victim Here, screaming about a "direct assault on the First Amendment" because his book contract was canceled by Simon & Schuster. As Ilya Somin points out, this is a complete inversion of the concept of free speech.
Under Supreme Court precedent, Hawley has no constitutional right to force Simon & Schuster to publish his book. Indeed, any such effort would be a violation of the publisher's own First Amendment rights to refuse to publish authors it disapproves of.
Nonetheless, Hawley's statement is not simply the result of ignorance. It is rooted in a broader worldview under which government should have vastly expanded power to control the private sector and thereby restrict constitutional rights. That vision is widespread on the right, among "national conservatives."... The emerging nationalist right, of which Hawley has been a leader, holds that government should have a free hand to constrain economic liberties and property rights when it concludes that doing so might advance the common good....
Giving government control over online speech and economic activity does not reduce the concentration of power. It increases it. Instead of a marketplace, however flawed, with competing firms, we end up with a single power center—the federal government—deciding what qualifies as equal treatment of speech (Hawley), what qualifies as misleading or 'hate speech' deserving of suppression (the left-wing approach), and which private actors have supposedly excessive influence that must be curbed (both).
Over at The Bulwark, I wrote about a similar inversion of the concept of individual rights being pushed by the people at Parler, the alternative social media platform that was a hotbed of planning and incitement for the January 6 insurrection. Parler went down for a few days when Amazon withdrew their web hosting services. Here's my response to the argument Parler put forward.
The "chief policy officer" of Parler, the social media platform that recently got kicked off of Amazon's servers after it was exposed as a hotbed of planning for the January 6 insurrection, has been going around peddling a lot of nonsense about "censorship" and "surveillance."
What she describes as "censorship" is pressure on social media platforms "to moderate, as they call it, content on their platforms, but that would require 24-hour surveillance, and we don't think that is consistent with the principles of America."
What she describes in skeptical tones as what "they" call moderation is, in fact, moderation. "Moderation" is the proper, technical legal term for what happens when the host of a forum decides what is and is not allowed to appear on that forum. Not only is this moderation the exact opposite of censorship—private hosts making the decisions instead of government—it is also an essential function platforms serve that has helped build the modern Internet.
What she means by "surveillance" is even wackier, because she is referring simply to the hosts reading material posted publicly on their own forum, which I guess makes this "the world of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four."
Knowing the difference between this sort of thing and "censorship" or "surveillance"—knowing the difference between the actions of a private platform and those of government—is Classical Liberalism 101, and all the people on the right who are suddenly playing dumb about it should be ashamed of themselves.
The confused mess people are making of these concepts helps explain not only why Parler doesn't have a leg to stand on in its disputes with Amazon and Google, but also why their forum was doomed to be a cesspool of racism, conspiracies, and incitement from its very conception.
What I didn't highlight in The Bulwark was the name of the Parler official: Amy Peikoff. It's a name that might be familiar to some people on this list. If conservatives should be ashamed for blurring the philosophical difference between government force and private action, this goes double or triple for an Objectivist.
Yet that is the argument being built up. I mentioned above that when you are on the receiving end of deserved ostracism, it's tempting to imagine that you are being unfairly targeted by a narrow-minded orthodoxy. It's also tempting to imagine yourself as a martyr to "free speech" and thus to concoct an excuse to use government power in your own defense.
This is precisely what conservatives are doing, concocting bizarre arguments that social media companies are really "state actors." Worse, the reason they are "state actors" is because their freedom under the First Amendment has been threatened by members of Congress—which therefore justifies Congress in taking away precisely that freedom. Convenient how that works.
But if private media companies can be considered "state actors," then there is no difference between state actors and private actors, and the whole First Amendment becomes meaningless. That's how we get a columnist at RealClearPolitics, another of my former employers gone bad, proposing that we "Nationalize Facebook, Twitter to Preserve Free Speech."
Nationalize the media to preserve freedom of speech. Now there's a Möbius strip of a thought that turns endlessly back on itself.
All of this should temper the immediate and natural sympathy you might feel toward conservatives who are being targeted in this Catastrophic Credibility Loss Event, and to warn you not to immediately believe their bleating about free speech. There is a high likelihood it is insincere.
That said, we should expect that some of the left's response to this will be dangerous, vindictive, and a grab for tyrannical power. That's the prospect I'm going to take up in Part 2 of this roundup.