December 26, 2019
Today began and ended with Trump melting down. This morning, after a silence during the holidays, he came out swinging at the Democrats generally, and at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi specifically. Then this evening, apparently against the advice of his lawyer, he retweeted a story that named someone claimed to be the whistleblower, a person who currently has a security detail for protection, not in a foreign war zone, but in our own nation’s capital.
It seems clear that Trump cannot bear that Pelosi—whom he is calling “Crazy Nancy”-- is not rushing to send the articles of impeachment over to the Senate for a trial… a trial that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already promised will exonerate Trump. It is worth noting that it has been only a week since the House passed the articles of impeachment, and we have had major religious holidays in that time, and yet Trump is obviously angry and desperate for movement on impeachment. But he’s got to wait even longer. The House will not be in session again until January 7—twelve days from now—and the Senate calendar for January is still in flux.
In other impeachment news, you will recall that Noah Feldman, the Harvard Law Professor who testified before the House Judiciary Committee in favor of impeachment, wrote an op-ed last week saying that Trump was not officially impeached until the House sent the articles of impeachment over to the Senate. Trump jumped on this idea, and has been saying that he is not really impeached. Today one of the other law professors who testified, George Washington University’s Jonathan Turley, who was called by the Republicans and was opposed to impeachment, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post entitled “I testified against Trump’s impeachment. But let’s not pretend it didn’t happen.” The title pretty much sums it up. As Turley concluded: “The House speaks in its own voice and in its own time. It did so on Dec. 18, 2019.”
For all the drama of these two stories, I have been more interested in what feels to me like a changing trend: it appears that media is finally recognizing that it cannot simply report “both sides” of the news as if they are equally valid when one side is lying. On the evening of December 24, Rolling Stone magazine published a short interview with Chuck Todd, an NBC journalist who moderates Meet the Press and who is the Political Director for NBC News. On December 29, Meet the Press is doing a show on disinformation and how it is weaponized, and this interview was a teaser.
It's really important to understand that “misinformation” and “disinformation” are different things. “Misinformation” is bad information caused by errors-- someone makes a mistake. “Disinformation,” though, is deliberately false information intended to manipulate public opinion. Another word for disinformation is propaganda.
In the interview, Todd laments that he has been “absurdly naïve.” Right up until he had Senator Cruz on his show recently and Cruz echoed Russian propaganda, Todd apparently believed that the Republicans were acting in good faith when they talked to the media. Todd says he was “stunned” by Cruz’s embrace of Russian disinformation, especially since he was the third senator to do exactly that on the show. Cruz had asked to come on, and Todd thought that since Cruz had always been a Russia hawk, he wanted to set the record straight. When, instead, he followed the party line, Todd finally got it: Trump Republicans are using the media to spread propaganda.
Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, responded to this revelation by pointing out that it was on Todd’s own show in January 2017 that Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway launched the concept of the administrations lies simply being based on “alternative facts.” But, Rosen writes, media leaders nonetheless treated officials’ lies as hyperbole, just Trump and his spokespeople being ridiculous.
The upshot is that, three years later, Trump’s base is divorced from reality, while other Americans are so tired from incessant gas lighting we have lost faith that we can still perceive reality. This is why gaslighting is effective propaganda: having lost confidence in their own perceptions, people are so eager for peace they are willing to accept a strong leader who will promise to create stability.
I’m with Rosen on this. There is no excuse for such “naivete” on Todd’s part. He’s the Political Director for NBC News, after all, and should have had a better handle on the well-known methods at play here.
Even more, it has been very clear that today’s Republican Party has risen to power by rejecting facts and creating its own reality. After World War Two, Republicans and Democrats both shared a belief that the government had a role to play in regulating the economy, providing a basic social safety net, and promoting infrastructure. Indeed, that belief about government was so widely embraced it became known as the “liberal consensus.”
In 1951, William F. Buckley, Jr., fresh out of college, wrote a book attacking that consensus by attacking fact-based argument. In God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom,” Buckley said that trying to reach the truth by constructing arguments out of facts—the premise of the Enlightenment-- was a worse superstition than the Dark Age traditions the Enlightenment tried to root out. When presented with fact-based arguments, voters kept choosing the liberal consensus. So far as Buckley was concerned, that consensus flew in the face of God’s laws. So, Buckley concluded, it was imperative to stop arguing based on facts, and simply promote a “Conservative” view of the world by whatever means necessary.
The construction of a narrative undercutting the popular liberal consensus took the modern Republican Party further and further away from a fact-based reality, until by 2002, journalist Ron Suskind had this extraordinary exchange with one of President George W. Bush’s aides.
"The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles…. He cut me off. 'That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. '…When we act, we create our own reality…. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'”
Ten years later, in 2012, Thomas E. Mann from the left-leaning Brookings Institution and Norm Ornstein from the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute warned that it was imperative to stop saying “both sides do it,” because the parties were not equally polarized. “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics,” they wrote. “It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
We now have a president who has made more than 15,000 false or misleading claims in fewer than three years in office, and it has become increasingly clear recently that those lies echo Russian propaganda. Senior officials repeat his claims to the media, creating their own reality.
It is my sense that Todd’s revelation is a sign that media figures are starting to see how they are being used to advance disinformation. There has been discussion emerging of how to report the news without providing a platform for lies. If it takes hold, there will be an important shift in media coverage of the administration and congressional supporters in the new year.
Congressional calendar: http://cdn.videos.rollcall.com/author/2019/12/2020CONGRESSIONALCALENDAR.pdf
Nicholas Rasmussen @NicholasRasmu15The damage this President is doing to our professional civil service — and particularly to civil servants focused on national security — is serious and likely to be catastrophic if he wins reelection. That so many R members of Congress seem ok with that is the part I can’t abide. https://t.co/KIKDkVbvyW
Jay Rosen’s piece: http://pressthink.org/2019/12/the-christmas-eve-confessions-of-chuck-todd/