Harsh Your Mellow Monday: Your Premise Is Bad Edition
Another Monday, this time the first one for August 2020, or as is seems in real time, the 158th day of March.
“The problem in defense,” says Dwight D. Eisenhower “is how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without.” Plenty of that going around. In the social media age, it sure seems like folks who fight the hardest against something more and more come to resemble the thing they hate the more they obsess over it. The old saying of “The best defense is a good offense” has merit to it not just as sounding clever, but in practicality. If all you are doing is bunkering in and trying to prevent, prevent, prevent, there is no growth, nothing positive, nothing happening but diminished resources, narrowing focus, and no plan for an end game other than being starved out, giving up, or passed by. Living under siege all the time is no way to live at all, folks. Don’t just live in a bunker, get out there, fighting if you have to, but at least be moving forward.
That’s enough runway; let’s get going with Harsh Your Mellow Monday
The Wrong Kind of Case
[HM1]With The case for Trump will come down to his record. It’s a strong one in The Washington Post, Hugh Hewitt surmised his 800-word case for the president’s reelection thusly:
While establishing himself as the most accessible-to-the-media president in modern times, Trump has also stripped off the veneer of objectivity from the “fake news.” “Blue Bubble” journalists are the last to know the contempt in which they are held beyond the Acela corridor and outside Silicon Valley and Hollywood. They mistake their small audience share for success. In fact, most of America would rather watch a mystery poetry slam than their “news.” Trump hammered that home, and journalists hate him for it. In turn, Blue Check Twitter confirms the contempt that “elites” feel for more than half of America.
Trump’s brawling, slugging, tempestuous approach to everything in every hour has worn down many, but his road is marked by these accomplishments. Former vice president Joe Biden’s near-50-year run in government is marked by . . . well, you fill that in. Polls say Biden is far ahead. We shall see.
There’s an aesthetic critique of Trump that has convinced elites that he must be beaten, that he is cruel and beneath the office. But Americans want their jobs and security back. They like the police. And, yes, most of the time they mostly admire Trump’s style and, almost always, his results.
Setting aside the individual merits to the points Hewitt lays out, it is his premise that is the main problem with his take. This is not a “run on your record” election. We have had many of those; Clinton in 96, W in 2004, and most recently Obama in 2012 all are recent examples of incumbents running on their records and winning another four years relatively comfortably. None of those three had the curveball of the present crisis combo of COVID and economy that has been radiating outward for five months and counting. Nor does there seem to be any abatement coming between now and November. With schools getting ready to restart with varying levels of chaos, the looming start to a new fiscal year that is going to be historically ugly, and the slow realization that the election results are very likely to be a multiple day — if not weeks or months — affair in settling, the pre-March 2020 record is going to feel like a lifetime ago to many voters.
His referencing to the “small audience share” of the granted adversarial media and doubting of the polls are mile markers on the “silent majority” road to success the president and his supporters have been referring to more and more of late. This too eats at his own premise, however. With such a, –according to Hugh– strong list of accomplishments why would the supporters of the president be the 8-12 points worth of silent by which Team Trump currently finds themselves trailing Joe Biden?
Joe Biden, mind you. The barely animated figure with 40+ years of just hanging around on the perimeter of things that were happening with a paltry accomplishment-to-time-served ratio to show for it. The Joe Biden whose campaign was nearly broke in February and came in fourth in Iowa. The Joe Biden who became the default rallying point for a huge mass of the Democratic Party as primary voters took a look at the looming possibility of a Bernie Sanders nomination and ran, not walked, to the polls in record numbers to put down the Democratic Socialists in their own party and bring an abrupt end to a primary that looked like it might go a while longer. A Joe Biden who is currently winning the presidential race by doing almost nothing at all.
Your record is not a selling point when Joe Biden is wiping the floor with it simply by breathing.
Hewitt isn’t completely wrong about aesthetics, though. The president very much benefited with his style in 2016 against Hillary Clinton. Years of loathing from the right of the Clintons in general and Hillary in particular hit the perfect inflection point with the perfect person willing to unload all that invective upon her. To the president’s base the constant combat is daily manna for the MAGA faithful to show their chosen avatar is fighting the fight. Hugh has a fair point in many folks enjoying a predictable and often condescending media getting any sort of comeuppance. It is the sort of visceral thrill that cuts faster than an ideological or policy argument. However, the aesthetics that worked during the economic boomtimes of 2016-2019 are not going to assuage all too real chaos of fall 2020. There isn’t enough anger and contempt in the world for the media to cover up for a lost job, or a chaotic school, or the threat or loss of a loved one to a disease that has killed 157K Americans and counting.
And yet, the president is far from done in this campaign. Historically, the incumbent usually finds a way to tighten up a race, and that is still Joe Biden representing Team Blue, thoroughly capable of self-destruction at any moment. The argument Hewitt and the president’s supporters ought to be making is not the president’s record, but the only argument they have that has proven to gain traction: It’s Trump or the left. The president and his surrogates have been trying to do that, but unlike the far more hated Hillary Clinton ol’ Joe is a much more palatable and normal level of politician. If you manifested the ever-popular “generic democrat” and made it flesh to walk among us at 77 years of age it would look a lot like Joe Biden.
Hewitt also makes a grave error in his closing argument. A lawyer should know better than to ever leave “Well, you fill that in” hanging because that is exactly what folks will do. In an election that for many is an up-or-down referendum on the president, far more folks than Mr. Hewitt will like may roll with “It doesn’t matter.” An electorate who makes the mental leap to “it doesn’t matter” about one candidate as long as they are not incumbent, bodes very ill for the president. The mounting chaos in the country will not help either, and Hewitt and others can point to China all they want for the source of the COVID crisis, but at five months and counting the president needs some kind of win to avoid it being forever the lead item on the list of reasons for his political downfall.
This will not be a record election. It will be a “what have you done for me lately” election. The president had best do something for someone not in his base, and quickly, if he is to remain behind the Resolute Desk come 2021.
About That Song…
Sing along, you know the words…
To Anacreon in Heav’n, where he sat in full glee
A few sons of Harmony seny a petition,
That he their inspirer and patron would be,
When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian:
Voice, fiddle and flute,
No longer be mute.
I’ll lend you my name, and inspire you to boot…
And, besides, I’ll intruct you, like me, to entwine
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine.
Oh, you don’t know that one…well, you know the tune to it. Maybe you know the remix…
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare,
the bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave
Yes, we Americans took Francis Scott Key’s poem and frankensteined it to a drinking song about Greek gods of wine to make an national anthem. Ain’t it grand? Thankfully we don’t start a ballgame singing the wonders of the myrtle of Venus and it being entwined — as in the Biblical sense — with Bacchus’…you know what, let’s just move on.
Anywho, once your friend and mine Frank Scotty Key jotted down his poem, the drinking ditty seemed to fit just right and off we went with it. Key was obviously familiar with the song; he had written a different poem in 1806 set to the tune, so that his new work was a harmonious match could not have been accidental. By the time The Star-Spangled Banner was officially signed into law as the national anthem in 1931 by Herbert Hoover, folks had basically made it the anthem already.
The playing of the anthem for sporting events came mostly from baseball during and right after WW2, then migrated to other sports. The meaning and attention to the anthem at sporting events has ebbed and flowed over the years; events like 9/11 bring it to the fore. The NBA started regular anthems in 1981, and the NFL — while having played the anthem before games for decades — did not officially have players on the field for the now-common ceremonies until 2009. The Colin Kaepernick protests and kneeling of four years ago brought the debate to the forefront over standing/kneeling/whatever during the anthem again. Which brings us up to today, and with the NBA restarting their “bubble season” the league that is easily the most progressive and outspoken on political issues has social issues like Black Lives Matters plastered everywhere. On the court, on the jerseys, and in planned kneeling:
Which brings us to Byron York’s Twitter feed:
Colin Kaepernick won. When he started, just one athlete refused to stand for national anthem. Now, just one athlete refuses to kneel during anthem. In course of weeks, a complete collapse of hallowed American ritual. pic.twitter.com/lXrFQvNU5C
— Byron York (@ByronYork) August 2, 2020
“…A complete collapse of hallowed American ritual”….that’s interesting verbiage for a made-for-TV moment of protest and messaging.
Just to get the particulars out of the way, the NBA is encouraging players to express themselves, unlike previous years where the league forced Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to stand for the anthem when he wanted to protest and make a political statement about the country. That was 25 years ago, and in the pre-internet era it took weeks for anyone to even notice it. So this isn’t a rule breaking issue at least as far as the NBA goes. But the way York phrases it, and many others, hints that a horrible thing has none the less occurred. To be clear, the folks kneeling have the right to do so, as do the individuals who do not kneel have every right to make their decision. The silliness of saying a protest that is for increased rights means no one has a right to not participate is as ridiculous as the shallow folks who demand there be no dissent whatsoever during a song about the land of the free.
But to the matter at hand: If the ritual of standing for the national anthem at a sporting event is “hallowed”, who consecrated it to be so?
If pre-tip, pre-kickoff, pre-whatever festivities are “hallowed ritual” then the proposition is that somehow sports are now integrated and mandatory ordinances of…what exactly? Perhaps York is arguing that the nebulous and elusive American Civic Religion that holds patriotism as the one, true, holy, apostolic unifying force that all Americans are just hardwired to lovingly take into their hearts. It must be nearly religious, since the slightest blasphemy against the trinity of flag, song, and country is met not with gentle rebukes or questions of motive but with insinuations that you hate America, spit on veterans, and probably kill random puppies in the name of Karl Marx. See, the hardwiring of TRUE Americans would be upset at such things as not respecting the anthem, don’t you see? The causes don’t matter if the rituals are not properly kept and observed.
Spare me. A unifying sense of country and duty is a fine thing — and a level of respect for both is necessary in a functioning society — but they make for shallow and meaningless religion. The rowdys in section 230 of the arena have been laughing and giggling through the anthem for decades before they got all incensed at a player not properly performing the ritual as they see fit. The star-spangled displays of the NFL are great imagery that was done as much for marketing as anything else. Folks who want to boycott and protest Kaepernick, Nike, and anything else that is insufficiently patriotic are oddly nowhere to be found in protesting, demanding change, or even bringing attention to the actual Veterans Affairs system that literally kills vets through incompetency, bureaucracy, and sometimes even darker things, like outright murder, that go unchecked.
If you really want to show yourself as a true believe who is fully down with truth, justice, and the American way, you don’t need a full blown ritual, or an inquisition to purge heretics from the civic religion of patriotism, or even a social media presence to rant about it all.
All you have to do is maintain your bearing and not have a patriotism so shallow that it is shaken to the core by someone not ritualizing as you see fit.
Me, personally, to the day I die I will stand for the national anthem, as close to being at attention as I can physically manage in my current state, hand over heart. It’s not particularly comfortable to do so. But loving something like freedom isn’t about being comfortable. Which is the point of those using the rituals of our country to bring attention in the first place. It’s ok to disagree, to make the comfortable uncomfortable, to challenge things. That’s how a free society works. That discomfort is the workings and machinations of the grinding tensions of perfecting an imperfect union.
Uniformity to a civic religion might make folks more comfortable, but it wouldn’t be utopia; it would be atrophy, and mean the dying of all the good things and freedoms possible if we just keep fighting for them. Or, if you can’t manage that, tolerating and allowing those who do.
Twisting, Turning, Through the Never
With the election looming the never ending argument over what is, what isn’t, and who constitutes #nevertrump is living it’s best life now.
And if it remains unclear whether the Lincoln Project—and a similar group, Republican Voters Against Trump—will actually be able to sway voters, as opposed to just racking up views online, the surge of interest in Never Trump groups is certainly being mirrored in Trump’s sagging polls. The president is facing a loss of support among key constituencies who voted for him in 2016, including white suburban women. If he fails to win back those voters, his reelection is in serious danger. His campaign seems to have realized this—hence his efforts to woo white suburb-dwellers by portraying America’s cities as bombed-out hellscapes, and by calling on the “Suburban Housewives of America” to turn against Joe Biden.
The Never Trumpers’ swift rise from the ashes of history does not have a single cause. There is, as an initial matter, the political savvy of some of the people in question. The Lincoln Project’s searing ads have developed a cult following—though they’ve also drawn criticism on both aesthetic and moral grounds. A series of videos made by Republican Voters Against Trump, which target a different demographic, have been no less engrossing. Made by voters themselves, these videos feature people describing the personal political considerations that lead them to identify as Republicans and yet reject the president. The output of both groups has been gripping and it has been quite different from material released by left-leaning, liberal, or Democratic entities. On a more intellectual level, a new magazine, The Bulwark, which was set up while the movement was still attracting life-support metaphors, has created an institutional home for Never Trump writing. In the drive for mind-share, the Never Trumpers have been tenacious and effective—aided in no small measure by their being the intellectual elite of the conservative movement.
Part of the problem with parsing out the broadly used but not very defined term of “Never Trump” is that there are two distinct types of Never Trump: the principle, and the business model.
The principle of Never Trump is self-explanatory: folks who will not, under any circumstances, support Donald Trump in anything for any reason.
The business model of Never Trump is also pretty simple: lots of folks oppose the president; if you want to stand out in the media environment, having the nomenclature of “Republican/Conservative against Trump” helps you stand out and get noticed.
How this all plays out will be telling. With the loudly prominent Lincoln Project promising to go scorched Earth not just on President Trump but also anyone and everyone who doesn’t share their contempt for him, questions are going to fairly be asked what comes after Trump. Their strategy is heavy on the online trolling and running ads in Washington DC for the express and open purpose of annoying Donald J. Trump as much as possible.
The Republican Voters Against Trump group took a different tact, using testimonials as the core of ads running in swing states. The volume and vitriol might be a notch or two lower than the Lincoln Project, but the goal is roughly the same.
“There became this myth about Trump that his base is so strong and locked in and they loved him,” (Sarah Longwell) says. “I knew that wasn’t true and it wasn’t true for a long time, and that there were a lot of people out there that could be persuaded if the Democrat wasn’t objectionable to them. I knew that Bernie Sanders was never going to fly with these people, but Joe Biden had always surfaced as somebody in our research that if it was him, there was a bunch of people who could be persuaded to vote for him.”
The thesis is, according to Longwell and others, the folks who held their nose and voted for Trump against Hillary Clinton will be comfortable voting for Biden. That could be, though there are variables there that are unproven in an election yet. Biden will be running well to the left of Hillary, or any Democratic nominee of our lifetime. The chaos of COVID and the fallout thereof makes for what will be the most unpredictable environment going into an election year in modern times. And it’s still Joe Biden on the ticket, fully capable of single-handedly blowing up his third run at the presidency the way he did his first two.
The professional wing of Never Trump is betting none of that will matter against an increasingly unpopular and divisive president. The odds are probably on their side for being right.
But, then what?
One of my questions with the dedicated Never Trump folks is what’s the plan for after that? By definition you are building your existence around a temporary thing in the Trump presidency, whether it is four or eight years. What’s the endgame? If you are actually Republicans fighting the good fight against the interloping Trump, is it to “return to normal?” Now, the co-founder of the Lincoln Project is promising to also push policy that would be unfavorable if not verboten in the GOP. If the Lincoln Project is utterly indistinguishable from the run of the mill Democratic 501c3s and PACs except for their founder’s former Republican credentials, it would seem unlikely they will be part of whatever the post-Trump Republican party morphs into.
Which if the proffered version of Never Trump is just a media platform, marketing, and business strategy wouldn’t matter? Controversy is good for business in political branding. If your design on Never Trump is the Republican party coming to you asking for forgiveness and declaring you were right all along, and please show them the way to a new, brighter future, you are delusional.
Most of the Never Trump arguments are very online and very inside-basebally among folks who spend way too much time on politics. Most voters aren’t very ideological at all; they vote for who they like at any particular moment. Voting for the opposing party is not as big a deal as some folks think. Voting for president is an exercise of who you want on your TV for four years more than any policy proposal. But if you like inside-basebally politics, it will be fascinating to watch folks who took the bare knuckle tactics of Trump as the best course of action against him find their place in a world post-Trump, and a party that may or may not welcome them back.
Till then, it’s summertime, and the living is easy for Never Trump.