The Plum Line | Opinion
November 29, 2017 at 10:49 AM
THE MORNING PLUM:
This morning, after the news broke that NBC News has fired veteran anchor Matt Lauer for inappropriate sexual behavior, President Trump mused that NBC executives should be fired for putting out “Fake News,” and unleashed this broadside: “Check out Andy Lack’s past!”
This call for a look into vague allegations against NBC News’ chairman prompted some to marvel at how “brazen” Trump is being, given the sexual charges leveled at him, too. Similar surprise greeted Trump’s willingness to endorse Roy Moore while shrugging that Moore “totally denies” the believable charges against him, as that reminded everyone just how lacking in credibility were his own dismissals of so many equally believable accounts about himself.
But such incredulity misses the deeper significance of this stuff. The brazenness of it is the whole point — his utter shamelessness itself is meant to achieve his goal. In any given case, Trump is not trying to persuade anyone of anything as much as he is trying to render reality irrelevant, and reduce the pursuit of agreement on it to just another part of the circus. He’s asserting a species of power — the power to evade constraints normally imposed by empirically verifiable facts, by expectations of consistency, and even by what reasoned inquiry deems merely credible. The more brazen or shameless, the more potent is the assertion of power.
The Post reports today that Trump has taken to privately questioning the authenticity of the “Access Hollywood” tape of him repeatedly boasting about his affection for sexual assault. The Post also reports that when things are going particularly badly, he calls confidantes to “boast about his successes.”
Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that Trump regularly brags to people about winning a majority of women — he didn’t — and has even reverted to questioning the authenticity of Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Trump’s advisers sometimes even steer him away from areas where he is prone to dabbling in “manufactured facts.”
To date, Trump has made over 1,600 false or misleading claims as president. Routinely, the lies are demonstrably false, often laughably so. But this actually serves his ends. It is impossible to disentangle this from his constant effort to undermine the news media, seen again in today’s NBC tweet. In many cases the attacks on the media are outlandishly ridiculous, dating back to the tone-setting assertion that the media deliberately diminished his inaugural crowd sizes, even though the evidence was decisive to the contrary. Here again, the absurdity is the whole point: In both the volume and outsize defiance of his lies, Trump is asserting the power to declare the irrelevance of verifiable, contradictory facts, and with them, the legitimate institutional role of the free press, which at its best brings us within striking distance of the truth.
Press critic Jay Rosen has surmised that Trump represents something broader, “an organized campaign to discredit the mainstream press in this country,” which “takes many forms.” To wit: When conservative activist James O’Keefe got busted trying to bait The Post with a false accuser of Moore, to discredit the believable charges against him, O’Keefe skipped over questions about whether he had employed the woman, instead citing laughably meaningless video “evidence” to cast further doubt on The Post’s commitment to reporting the truth. Those who claim O’Keefe is now “on the defensive” miss the point. He isn’t trying to win an argument. The goal is to render fact- and evidence-based inquiry itself a cause for suspicion.
Trump is not responsible for O’Keefe’s antics, but they are fellow travelers. Margaret Sullivan, summing up the mindset they are both trying to achieve in their followers, quotes Hannah Arendt: “If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.” Others with similar missions have gravitated to Trump. Brian Beutler points to former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon’s deep admiration for history’s most successful wielders of the power of disinformation as agitprop.
I don’t claim to know whether this is merely instinctual on Trump’s part, or part of a strategy. As Trump biographer Tim O’Brien puts it, Trump constantly “tells fables to himself” and “about himself,” and has long self-consciously regarded this as “one of his great skills.” Trump has been doing it for so long that the separation between instinct and conscious technique has probably disappeared. But one thing is clear: Terms like “lying” or “delusional” don’t do justice to what we’re seeing here, and we have not yet seriously reckoned with its true nature and what it really means.
* CORPORATIONS WILL REWARD INVESTORS, NOT WORKERS: Bloomberg surveys major companies and finds that they frankly admit the gains from the GOP tax plan will go to shareholders, not workers. Note this, from John Shin of Bank of America Merrill Lynch:
“Companies are sitting on large amounts of cash. They’re not really financially constrained,” Shin, who conducted a survey of more than 300 companies asking their plans for a tax overhaul, said in an interview. “They’re still working for their shareholders, primarily.”
The tax cuts won’t cause a huge explosion of economic growth that ensures the plan pays for itself, and it won’t result in big raises. It’s a con.
* GOP PLAN MOVES FORWARD, BUT THERE’S A PROBLEM: Sens. Ron Johnson and Susan Collins have received assurances that their demands (more generous treatment of pass-throughs; more money for health care) will be met, giving the plan a boost. But The Post notes:
Beyond bolstering support for the bill, Republicans must also fit the sweeping tax cut — most of it aimed at businesses — into a tight fiscal straitjacket because of their decision to use special budget procedures to avoid a Democratic filibuster. That means the changes sought by Collins, Johnson and others would require finding offsetting revenue elsewhere in the bill. And that could create problems for other Republicans.
It’s still unclear where Republicans will find the money for these changes, and remember, they must stay within the deficit window in order to pass this with no Democrats.
* GOP BILLS WILL REWARD OFFSHORING, BIGLY: Jesse Drucker has a great piece reporting that the GOP tax bills would reward a big bet major companies made by stashing trillions offshore, by allowing them to bring it back at greatly reduced rates:
It would give companies a permanent tax break of about half a trillion dollars, rewarding the likes of Google, Apple, Pfizer and General Electric. … The tax breaks for bringing home such offshore profits “confirm the central tenet of tax planning that a tax deferred is a tax avoided,” said David Miller, a tax lawyer at Proskauer Rose. “For decades, U.S. multinationals have shifted profits abroad and deferred their taxes on them. If either of the tax bills pass, they will be rewarded for doing so.”
Take that, elites!
* GOP TAX PLAN’S POLL NUMBERS ARE AWFUL: A new Morning Consult poll finds that all of 36 percent of registered voters support the House GOP tax plan. And:
While Republicans still mostly back the plan, their support dropped to 59 percent from 66 percent based on what they generally know about it. GOP opposition grew to 12 percent from 9 percent, and the GOP undecided grew to 28 percent from 25 percent.
That’s surprisingly low among Republicans. GOP leaders keep saying they must pass this or get slaughtered in 2018. But will huge tax cuts for the rich really energize the base?
* POLLS SHOW MOORE BACK IN LEAD: A new Emerson poll finds Roy Moore leading Doug Jones in Alabama by 53-47. And a new JMC poll finds Moore up by 48-43. The polling averages now have Moore up by one point, after Jones had held a small lead.
This may mean the polling is now reflecting the deep GOP lean of the state after the revelations about Moore shook up voter responses. To win, Jones still needs massive Dem turnout, depressed Republican turnout, and a lot of crossover votes.
* TRUMP DISSEMBLES ABOUT KNEELING FOOTBALL PLAYERS: Trump likes to say that the protesting football players are causing a major drop in attendance. NBC News sets the record straight:
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy noted … that 98 percent of available tickets to all NFL games have been sold, with ticket sales down 2 percent over last year, in part owing to reduced seating capacity for the Los Angeles teams. Excluding those two teams, ticket sales are down 1 percent, he said.
The NFL says this is the third highest attendance year in its history. But Trump supporters no doubt will continue to believe he’s somehow winning this standoff, anyway.
* AND TRUMP TWEETS ANTI-MUSLIM VIDEOS: Our president just retweeted some choice far-right British anti-Muslim agitprop, including video of a Muslim destroying a statue of the Virgin Mary and a “Muslim migrant” assaulting a “Dutch boy on crutches.” Buzzfeed summarizes:
Britain First is electorally insignificant but has gained a reputation for headline-grabbing anti-Muslim media stunts, including occupying mosques and halal slaughterhouses. It is unclear how Trump encountered the Britain First tweets.
This will do wonders for Trump’s economically struggling supporters in Appalachia and the Rust Belt, along with the huge tax cuts for the rich and corporations he’s set to sign.