Exhaustive Methods

The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.

Garry Kasparov, Russian dissident and former world chess champion

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

Hannah Arendt

This week’s featured post is “How will they change their minds?” The “they” refers to Trump supporters.

You also might be interested in the talk I gave last week.

This week everybody was talking about Russian manipulation

The FBI and CIA now seem to be in agreement: Russia hacked Democratic emails and gave them to WikiLeaks because Putin wanted Trump to win. The NYT did an extensive article about how it happened.

It’s no mystery why Putin would favor Trump. I was describing that motive already back in August. Steve Benen gives the story a broader perspective by reviewing Trump and Putin’s comments about each other over the past year. Basically, Trump has surrounded himself with pro-Russian advisers (including people like Paul Manafort who took large sums of money from the now-overthrown pro-Russian government of Ukraine), and has consistently spoken highly of Putin and defended Russia’s point of view whenever it became an issue.

The Russian interference ought to horrify any American, independent of party, but of course Democrats seem much more concerned about it than Republicans. But several Republican senators have a long history of hostility to Russia and Putin — McCain and Graham, most obviously — and they don’t seem inclined to reverse themselves that easily. So some kind of hearings will be held, and we’ll see what comes out.

Masha Gessen at The New York Review of Books has an insightful article about the stylistic similarities between Trump and Putin. For example:

Lying is the message. It’s not just that both Putin and Trump lie, it is that they lie in the same way and for the same purpose: blatantly, to assert power over truth itself.

In an interview with RT, a Russian state-funded news source, WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange claimed the leaked Democratic emails did not come from the Russian government. Given the partisan role WikiLeaks played in the election — they didn’t just dump the Clinton emails on the public, they attempted to raise as much anti-Clinton buzz as possible in the way they released and tweeted about them — I have doubts about Assange’s objectivity.

and the Electoral College

It votes today. Theoretically, the electors could defect from Trump and throw the election into the House, where he might win anyway. But probably they’ll just elect him.

and the near-completion of Trump’s cabinet

CNN and the NYT are both keeping a running lists of who has been nominated. A few trends:

  • lots of white guys. Nominees for all the top positions — State, Defense, Treasury, Attorney General, and Homeland Security — are white men. Carson, Chao, and Haley are the only appointees of non-European ethnicity. Chao, Haley, DeVos, and McMahon are the only women.
  • lots of rich people. Republican cabinet choices (and some Democrats as well) are usually fairly well-to-do, but the Trump cabinet is off the scale. Betsy DeVos’ family is worth over $5 billion. Wilbur Ross has $2.5 billion. Rex Tillerson made $27 million as CEO of Exxon Mobil in 2015, and Andrew Puzder has made as much as $10 million in a year from CKE Restaurants.
  • lots of generals. Mattis at Defense, Kelly at Homeland Security, and Flynn as National Security Adviser.
  • not a lot of relevant education or experience. The poster boy for this is Rick Perry at the Department of Energy. DoE’s primary mission is overseeing everything nuclear, from power plants to nuclear weapon stockpiles to radioactive waste disposal. Obama’s energy secretaries were two distinguished Ph.D. physicists: Nobel-prize winner Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz. Perry majored in Animal Science and generally got bad grades. Similarly, Education Secretary DeVos has never studied education or worked in a school, Secretary of State Tillerson has no foreign policy experience, and neither does U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Ben Carson is educated — he’s a doctor — but it’s not clear he knows anything about Housing and Urban Development.
  • no draining the swamp. Tillerson at State is from Exxon Mobil and Mnuchin at Treasury is from Goldman Sachs. DeVos, Ross, Puzder, and McMahon at SBA were all big donors to the Trump campaign.

We also know Trump’s choice for ambassador to Israel: David Friedman, who would be considered a right-winger among Israelis. He has described the two-state solution as “a con” and wrote in 2015:

Judea and Samaria historically have deep Jewish roots and were validly captured 48 years ago in a defensive war – far more legitimately than through the atrocious acts that today dictate the borders of most countries. … As a general rule, we should expand a community in Judea and Samaria where the land is legally available and a residential or commercial need is present – just like in any other neighborhood anywhere in the world. Until that becomes the primary consideration for development, how can we expect to be taken seriously that this is our land?

In general, I worry about any ambassador who uses “we” and “our” when talking about the country he will be posted to.

and Trump’s conflicts of interest

Trump cancelled a press conference in which he was going to announce his plans for handling his businesses while in office. Originally scheduled for last Thursday, it’s been put off until some unspecified date in January. (NPR lists seven questions it would have liked to ask.) Many are speculating that it will never happen; at some point we’ll just get a statement about what the arrangements are, and he will never answer questions about them.

During the campaign, Trump proposed turning management of his businesses over to his children, who presumably would not be part of the government. Now, even that separation is becoming tenuous. Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner apparently will have roles in the Trump administration. Eric and Donald Jr. might be slated to take over the business, but they also have been involved in the transition, including the selection of the Interior Secretary. So even if there is to be some kind of line between the Trump administration and the Trump Organization, everybody seems to already be on both sides of that line.

The issue that is likely to arise first concerns the new Trump International Hotel located in D.C.’s Old Post Office building, which is owned by the U.S. government and leased to the Trump Organization. The lease explicitly prohibits “any elected official of the Government of the United States” from “any benefit that may arise” from the lease.

The Brookings Institution published a scholarly assessment of the various ways President Trump “would arrive in office as a walking, talking violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution”, which prohibits officials of the U.S. government from accepting gifts from foreign governments or making other profitable arrangements with them. The document is a clear exposition of the history motivating the Clause and how it has been interpreted. The authors (Norman Eisen, Richard Painter, and Lawrence Tribe) conclude that no solution proposed or hinted at by Trump or his campaign comes close to eliminating the conflicts of interest the Clause prohibits. Unfortunately, the only recourses they propose involve action by either the Electoral College (today) or the Republican-controlled Congress.

One silly way that Trump’s conflict-of-interests surface is how personally he takes any attack on his businesses. Recently, Vanity Fair published a damning review of Trump Grill, the steakhouse in the lobby of Trump Tower. Our President-Elect then felt compelled to tweet back an attack on how badly the magazine is doing under its current editor. And that naturally made headlines and resulted in a huge jump in Vanity Fair subscriptions. Thanks, Donald! Could you go after The New Yorker next?

Washington Monthly believes Trump will face resistance from Republicans in Congress.

Time proclaimed Trump “Person of the Year“. That really isn’t an honor, it’s an answer to the question: “Who was most central to the news this year?” They couldn’t have chosen anybody else. Trump’s story drove the campaign, which dominated the year. If you could go back in time and tell yourself who you should keep your eye on in 2016, how could it be anybody but Trump?

and you might also be interested in …

To no one’s great surprise, Dylann Roof was found guilty of killing nine members of Charleston’s Mother Emanuel Church. The death penalty is still a possibility. Most coverage of the story still makes him sound like a disturbed individual, rather than a terrorist radicalized by the white-supremacist movement. This is typical; I’ve been writing about the same phenomenon for more than four years.

Another example of the norms of fair play being tossed aside: After losing the governorship in North Carolina, Republicans in the legislature changed the law to drastically limit the power of the incoming Democratic governor. It’s entirely legal, but they’re not even pretending to respect the will of the voters any more.

I could do a long rant on the importance of norms to democracy, but I’ve already done it. Paul Waldman points out how the illegitimacy cascades:

In this closely divided swing state, Republicans enjoy supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature because of aggressively gerrymandered legislative districts that pack African-Americans together in order to dilute their power. The districts were declared unconstitutional by a federal court earlier this year, and the state has been ordered to redraw them and hold special elections next year.

So while they still have that ill-gotten supermajority, they’re using it to change the rules further in their favor.

Josh Marshall acknowledges that you can blame Hillary Clinton’s loss on Clinton herself, or that you can blame it on external factors like Russia or the FBI or the Electoral College. (Any close election has many difference-making factors.) But since neither Clinton nor Bernie Sanders is likely to run again in 2020, we could probably find a better use of our time than trying to refight the primary battle.

Fake news is a real problem. But if we don’t use the term carefully, it won’t mean anything. Already, it’s starting to become an insult rather than a description.

There was a sort-of-happy ending to an otherwise disturbing story out of the University of Minnesota: The football team backed off of its threat not to play the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on December 27. They were defending 10 of their teammates suspended after an alleged sexual assault on September 2.

Police had decided not to charge the players with a crime, but the University’s internal process has a lower standard of proof (preponderance-of-evidence rather than beyond-reasonable-doubt). The University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action has recommended expulsion for five of the players, and either suspension from the University or probation for the other five. A hearing on that report is scheduled for January. In the meantime, the Athletic Director has suspended all ten from the football team.

Thursday, the team assembled as a group in uniform and read a statement demanding that the players be reinstated. They wanted a private meeting with the regents (i.e., without either the athletic director or the University president) about “how to make our program great again”. (It’s hard not to interpret that as a political statement: Trump has been elected, so the country is done with all this political correctness about sexual assault.)

The players’ case is that the sex was consensual, and a 90-second video of part of the 90-minute encounter has been offered as proof. (Think about that: The players’ defense is that they were involved in a group sex act where people videoed each other, but that it was all consensual. That may be a fine legal defense, but does the University want these guys representing the school?) The team’s coaches seemed to be supporting them rather than the administration.

Big money was at stake for the University. Last year’s Holiday Bowl paid $2.83 million to the participating schools, and additional advertising and ticketing revenue is at risk, not to mention the fund-raising bump a school gets when it’s alumni watch its team on national TV.

Fortunately, the administration didn’t back down. The team got its meeting with the regents and the president and athletic director, during which “it became clear that our original request of having the 10 suspensions overturned was not going to happen.” If it had, how could anyone justify sending a daughter to the University of Minnesota?

One of the things I said I’d be watching for in the Trump administration is “Taking credit for averting dangers that never existed.” Well, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski has proclaimed victory in the War on Christmas.

Merry Christmas, which you can say again because Donald Trump is now the president. You can say it again! It’s okay to say—it’s not a pejorative word anymore.

If Trump wants to declare an imaginary victory in an imaginary war, how can you argue with him?

Wisconsin conservative talk-radio host Charlie Sykes is retiring. A never-Trump Republican to the end, Sykes’ farewell message is blistering:

We destroyed our own immunity to fake news, while empowering the worst and most reckless voices on the right.

This was not mere naïveté. It was also a moral failure, one that now lies at the heart of the conservative movement even in its moment of apparent electoral triumph. Now that the election is over, don’t expect any profiles in courage from the Republican Party pushing back against those trends; the gravitational pull of our binary politics is too strong.

I’ve been resisting covering speculation about what the Trump administration might do, because there’s just too much of it and I think reality already gives us enough to worry about. But the alternatives for repealing ObamaCare are starting to sound fairly solid, so let’s talk about them.

To start with, it seems unlikely that Republicans in the Senate can unify around eliminating the filibuster, and they have only 52 votes rather than 60, so just a straight repeal can’t pass the Senate unless they come up with a way to start rolling Democrats, which so far they’re not doing.

The way around the filibuster is a process called “reconciliation“, which is complicated, but basically requires a bill to be entirely fiscal. However, there are also non-fiscal aspects to ObamaCare, and leaving them in place while repealing the taxes and subsidies would make a huge mess:

What the health care policy experts consulting with GOP staff have been arguing is that repealing Obamacare’s subsidies and individual mandate – but leaving market regulations that require insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions (which the 2015 reconciliation model would do) – would have catastrophic effects for the insurance market.

Exactly what is and isn’t fiscal is outlined here.

The alternative would be to repeal the whole thing through reconciliation, but that requires a way to work around the Senate parliamentarian, who is likely to rule against such a move. In other words, it requires tossing aside another democratic norm: We’re the majority, so we get to say what the rules mean, even if a good-faith interpretation says they mean something else.

The one thing still missing from either approach — nearly seven years after ObamaCare became law — is the “replace” part of repeal-and-replace. There is still no official Trump administration or congressional Republican plan for replacement. Repeal-without-replace takes healthcare coverage away from about 20 million people.

and let’s close with something that goes all the way

If we’re in a post-truth world, maybe it’s flat.

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  • Larry Benjamin  On December 19, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    One thing I’ve noticed about many of Trump’s cabinet appointees is their hostility to LGBT rights. Trump has said that same-sex marriage is a “done deal,” but he’s surrounded himself with people who feel otherwise, starting with Mike Pence who supports the torture of gays and lesbians.

    • 1mime  On December 19, 2016 at 3:35 pm

      Come on, Larry, you’re not really believing what Trump “says” are you? Any man who thumbs his nose at as many democratic principles as he has won’t have any compunction about not keeping his word on gays.

    • Alex  On December 19, 2016 at 9:09 pm

      Trump doesn’t say things because he believes them, he says things to get what he wants. That’s one of the reasons that he contradicts himself. If the first thing he said didn’t get the reaction he wanted, he just says something else.

    • Larry Benjamin  On December 19, 2016 at 9:12 pm

      I doubt that Trump cares one way or the other. If it makes Mike Pence happy, he’s not going to argue.

  • Alan  On December 19, 2016 at 12:39 pm

    Assange is an incredibly frustrating man. He’s understandably angry that Obama and Clinton both want his ass up for trial. And Wikileaks’s early work was essential, the exact sort of whistleblowing that I absolutely do not want stopped. But instead of being the bigger man about it, he burned all of Wikileaks’s noble aspirations on his personal weapon. Either he knew the Russians were helping him and was willing to lie about it, or his zeal to lash out made him blind to it. He had to know that the DNC emails were basically a pile of nothing. Maybe they were worth releasing anyway, but instead of pointing out a few kinda bad things and letting people judge for themselves, he had to spin ever little tiny thing into a massive criminal conspiracy. He made himself part of the Republican messaging machine.

    • Kelly Schoenhofen  On December 19, 2016 at 1:33 pm

      I’m not sure if the author (James Ball) is the best source – he did spend 3 months at Wikileaks, and his detractors are other Wikileaks people that mostly scream about him violating his NDA so all the information he puts out you shouldn’t be able to read 😉 (the irony there I think escapes them) – but he wrote this shortly before the election, and its a jarring piece on the 180 degree turn Wikileaks has done in the last few years and how they played a role in the 2016 elections:

    • 1mime  On December 19, 2016 at 3:32 pm

      Assange is no doubt gloating over Clinton’s loss, but what he fails to grasp is that he will get no help from Republicans, either. No one trusts him. One day, he will be turned out from embassy protection and he will be extradited. Freedom of the press and of information is critical to a free society, but when it is used vindictively, it violates the essence of free speech.

      • Larry Benjamin  On December 19, 2016 at 4:04 pm

        It’s not as if Trump exactly approves of what Assange does in principle. Wikileaks poses a threat because they could decide to publish his tax returns or expose him in some other way.

      • 1mime  On December 19, 2016 at 5:23 pm

        Now that possibility (Wikileaks publishing Trump’s tax returns, etc) would make for a very interesting moral dilemma for me……

    • DMoses  On December 19, 2016 at 4:01 pm

      Assange’s stated goal when starting wikileaks was to “bring down the conspiracy against the people that are political parties” With specific respect to democrats and Republicans.

      He never had any noble aspirations.

  • Kelly Schoenhofen  On December 19, 2016 at 1:39 pm

    >how could anyone justify sending a daughter to the University of Minnesota?

    I have three sons, I don’t want them to go to the UofM either if the message their leadership propagates is financial payouts and slut-shaming trump morals and ethics.

  • Abby Hafer  On December 19, 2016 at 3:45 pm

    I disagree with Josh Marshall. Although neither Bernie nor Hillary are likely to run again, I think that it is dangerous fiction to assume that a more pleasing Democratic candidate would have won the election, when the Dems were not only fighting Trump, but also fighting the FBI, the Russian government, Wikileaks, and fake news. Those forces will not go away just because we nominate someone else, even if that someone else is a lovely, wonderful, perfect candidate. We need to insist on laws being enforced, or the Dems will spend another election working their hearts out, only to be defeated by large, powerful governments and agencies over which they have no control.

  • Dangerous Meredith  On December 19, 2016 at 10:42 pm

    I just wanted to wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year. Thanks for all the blogs this year; I look forward to reading them every week and, in my opinion, you are one of the best current affairs bloggers writing.

  • Andrew  On December 20, 2016 at 9:57 am

    I note that winning an imaginary war against an imaginary enemy was a tactic of one of the roman emperors. Was it Gaius, called Caligula, who marched to the English Channel, defeated the sea, and brought home shells and sand and beach pebbles for the victory parade?

    • Larry Benjamin  On December 20, 2016 at 10:28 am

      Of course. This is policy by public relations. Trump’s “saving jobs” at Carrier falls into this category – Carrier gets a tax break (courtesy of Mike Pence, who is still the governor of Indiana), and Trump claims victory even though Carrier is sending the jobs to Mexico anyway. We can expect more of these stunts. Watch for a photo of Trump on the Mexican border, standing in front of workers furiously building a wall, that stops once the cameras are gone, or ICE workers herding a few guys into a paddy wagon, with Trump waving bye-bye as it takes off headed south.

      This can only go on so long, until as Doug points out, eventually the disconnect between “look how effective Trump is and how great things are” clashes with the reality of peoples’ daily lives.

  • Martha Legare  On December 21, 2016 at 11:07 am

    My apologies. I was in the process of setting up my vacation reply and somehow Apple Mail automatically sent the notice to every email I left in my inbox! That will teach me to keep it cleaner =:o


    Martha Legare mobile: 404.815.7766


  • Phoenix Woman (@PhoenixWomanMN)  On December 24, 2016 at 6:28 pm

    The thing about the Republicans is that while the House GOPers, Paul Ryan especially, want to kill Obamacare so they can take the subsidies that made it possible and give them to their richest backers in the form of tax cuts, a growing number of them are beginning to realize that the chaos that will result (including a weakening of Medicare) is going to adversely affect many Republican voters – who will then take it out on the GOP.

    The only way the GOP can kill the ACA, rip the money from its bloodied corpse and hand that money over to their .01 percenter friends without facing an extinction-level event in 2018 is if they con a few Democrats to vote for it too, and so provide “bipartisan” cover on the “if everyone’s at fault then no one gets punished” principle.

    But the Democrats, even the Manchin and Heitkamp types, aren’t cooperating. They know that opposing the GOP on this is not only the right thing to do, but the politically smart thing to do. It’s what will save their seats in 2018.

    So the GOP is in a pickle of its own making at this point. They want to get at the subsidy money, but not at the cost of both the House and Senate come 2018.

    Furthermore, a number of GOP Senators are trying to split the baby by preserving some of the subsidies so they go towards an O-care replacement, but again, this only works if enough Dems agree to help them in the first place – and Schumer’s already made it clear that the Pottery Barn rule applies: If the GOP breaks it, they own it, and they must be the ones to fix it. Which they won’t, because the money needed to fix it is money the GOP wants to give to its rich buddies.

    So dont be at all surprised if suddenly there are stories in the press about how unnamed roadblocks are suddenly keeping the GOP from laying a glove on the ACA.

    • Larry Benjamin  On December 24, 2016 at 7:35 pm

      Or, the ACA will be replaced with something nearly identical to it, called “the Health Freedom Act,” and Trump and the Republicans will pat each other on the back in mutual congratulation. Left-leaning commentators’ articles pointing out how only the name was changed will be met with charges of sour grapes.

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