Wednesday, September 28, 2016

It's just like every election then

Who "won" the first Presidential debate? How does one even judge? Do we just tally up the lies?  Because something tells me that must have been beside the point.  Are we supposed to microanalyze the stagecraft?  What did the swaying mean? How about all that sniffing? What are we supposed to be looking for here?

I've read lots of cheering from Hillary fans ecstatic over their candidate's performance. But they've spent so much time and energy convincing themselves that she is actually in danger of losing the election (she isn't) that they're ready to celebrate any non-horrible news as though they'd just won the SuperBowl.  I've also read where Michael Moore is very angry because he thinks "Trump won" and that is very bad because he has also convinced himself that Hillary is in danger of losing the election. (She isn't.) And of course there's #Trumpwon Twitter which.. well.... whatever with that. Most likely this debate was a push. Both candidates communicated the message they wanted to the audience they had zeroed in on in the particular language each speaks.

Objectively speaking they both were dishonest. This doesn't mean "both sides" lied in the same way, though. Clinton's dishonesty is the boring type fundamental to most candidates. She merely bends her interpretation of a somewhat fact-based slate of statements to suit her purposes. She sounded stern but statesmanlike when she agreed with Trump about using the terror watch list to restrict gun sales. She was telling the truth. But this is actually a horrible policy.  Since Democrats have already demonstrated a blind willingness to get behind it for political stunting purposes this year, though, it's a safe card for her to play.  She also appeared to agree with Trump when she told us "I happen to support" tax repatriation.  Here's what that means for people like, say, Apple's Tim Cook.
Translated into plainer English, this means Cook believes that Corporate America’s longterm plan to hold the U.S. for ransom will in fact come to fruition next year.

U.S. corporations have by now stashed over $2.1 trillion in profits overseas (including Apple’s $181 billion), thereby starving the U.S. of revenue we could use to repair our collapsing infrastructure. What they want is for Americans to get so desperate that Congress is willing to deeply slash the corporate tax rate for “repatriated” money.

This will deliver a one-time jolt of tax revenue, at the cost of sending the message that everyone who possibly can should use tax avoidance schemes like Apple’s in the future.

Cook is right to be optimistic: Hillary Clinton has hinted that she’ll push for exactly this in her first 100 days in office, while Donald Trump has said explicitly that he wants to make it happen.

Moreover, in the interview Cook also notes he’s gotten advice on how to handle this issue from both Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and Bill Clinton.
Hillary partisans scoffed at Trump for answering charges that he is a tax cheat with the one-liner, "That makes me smart." But Hillary Clinton's policy will essentially validate his assertion.  Similarly, Trump sounded pretty crass when, criticizing US exit strategy post-Iraq, he said, "We should have taken the oil!" But this was also exactly the policy Hillary's adviser Neera Tanden was pushing when she wrote in an email that Libya should pay us in oil revenue for the privilege of having been bombed by us. In these instances, the two candidates were espousing strikingly similar policies. Only Hillary actually appeared to know what she was talking about. Make what you will of that.

Hillary doesn't lie quite the way Trump does, of course. Trump's rhetoric clearly exists on a different plane of reality.  But just because Trump says facts wrong doesn't mean he does poorly with his audience. Voters aren't attracted to Trump because they want to see someone get all the answers right. Take for example Trump's comments about "the cyber"and "400 pound hackers." This drew derision from people who prefer a more precise, informed language. But it will play fine with the (massive, by the way) NCIS audience who are used to seeing some vaguely defined nerd stuff catch another criminal every week. These people don't want to hear about the details of international espionage. What they want is someone who will sneer on their behalf at what's bothering them regardless of facts they only tangentially care about.  Trump did plenty of this. And it's why he may have held his own.

Trump can say ridiculous things all night and still accomplish his aim if the result is the other side looking exasperated with him. If his bullshit launches another 500 Samantha Bee and John Oliver monologues, he's all the better for it.  Notice also that, according to Trump in this debate, Howard Stern and Sean Hannity are the keepers of our nation's essential facts anyway. He knows his people and the language they speak.

All of which brings us to  this Jay Rosen article about the contrast between the kind of campaign the establishment press is trying to cover and the "asymmetry" of the campaign we're actually seeing. Sorry about the long quote. It's a long article.
I made this argument in the Washington Post in July. Campaign coverage is a contraption that only works if the candidates behave in certain expected ways. Up to now, they always did. But Trump violates many of these expectations. For example:
Imagine a candidate who wants to increase public confusion about where he stands on things so that voters give up on trying to stay informed and instead vote with raw emotion. Under those conditions, does asking “Where do you stand, sir?” serve the goals of journalism, or does it enlist the interviewer in the candidate’s chaotic plan?
Here’s a more granular example. Up to now campaigns for major party nominees tried to make sure that what the campaign was saying (and the campaign manager, the running mate, the chair as titular head…) reflected what the candidate was saying. If the campaign put out a message contradicted by the candidate, that was a problem. Why? Because mixed messaging confuses the voters and makes the campaign look dumb. Therefore an interview with the campaign manager, the running mate, or some other surrogate was a window into the candidate’s thinking. It had journalistic value for that reason.

The Trump campaign breaks this practice. If Donald Trump calls NBC’s Lester Holt a Democrat (in fact he’s a registered Republican) and attacks him as part of an unfair system, Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, is later free to say that Holt is a “respected, brilliant newsman” who will do a great job as moderator of the first debate. An on-the-ball journalist can ask: hey, which is it? But that’s a practice with a premise. The premise is that a presidential campaign wants to put out a consistent message to avoid confusing people, and to deny journalists a “gotcha” moment. What if that premise is false? The rationale for interviewing the campaign manager, the running mate, or some other surrogate collapses. They say one thing, the candidate says something else and the confusion is not considered a problem. It may even be a plus.

Again and again with Trump, journalists find themselves in this position: persisting with familiar practices that don’t really make sense because the premise behind them has collapsed— collapsed for one candidate, but not the other. And remember: asymmetry fries the circuits of the mainstream press.

I think this is accurate. But, much more importantly, we need to understand that it is nothing new.  In fact this is exactly Karl Rove's "reality based community" dissertation put into practice yet again.  Here's a refresher on that, just for comparison's sake. The "aide" quoted in this 2004 article has since been revealed as Rove.
I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

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 and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
In other words, for all the novelty of having an actual reality TV star as one of the candidates, the dynamics of this election are actually just like every other election in recent memory.  The Democrat is a corrupt dishonest elitist. The Republican is a contemptuous reactionary thug. And the mainstream press apparatus is ill equipped to keep up with either of them.  At least we still have the internet. It's also useless, of course. But it does have Debbie Harry.

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