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Flooding the Zone with Bullshit

All politicians lie. So do the rest of us. What separates our two main political parties is that only one of them lies a lot. It’s part of their modus operandi. You won’t find Republicans admitting it’s their guiding strategy, but at least one did. From VOX:

We’re in an age of manufactured nihilism…..I call this “manufactured” because it’s the consequence of a deliberate strategy. It was distilled almost perfectly by Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News and chief strategist for D____ T____. “The Democrats don’t matter,” Bannon reportedly said in 2018. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”

What we’re facing is a new form of propaganda that wasn’t really possible until the digital age. And it works not by creating a consensus around any particular narrative but by muddying the waters so that consensus isn’t achievable.

My theory is that Republicans lie so much for two reasons. Big elements of their policy agenda — like low taxes on the rich and cutting Social Security and Medicare — aren’t popular, so it helps to avoid the truth. It’s also the easiest way to stop Democrats from getting anything done. Democrats tend to think government can make people’s lives better. Republicans tend to disagree. Republican icon Ronald Reagan once said the most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”. No Democrat would ever say that. The result is that some people, helped along by Fox News, Facebook, etc., believe the lies and others don’t know what to believe.

We’re witnessing an example of Republican lies and obfuscation right now. So far, the Lord of Mar-a-Lago and his supporters have suggested that Biden personally ordered the FBI search of the premises; that T____ had a perfect right to take those highly sensitive documents to Florida and not return them when the government wanted them back; that he needed them for his work; that he didn’t take them, the FBI agents planted them there during the “search”; that T____ could have declassified all those documents; yet there was an informal standing order that any document taken from the White House was automatically declassified (although nobody in the White House followed up on that informality and it would be irrelevant even if it were true, since the laws in question don’t say anything about whether documents are classified); and one of the latest: the White House staff didn’t pack them up, it was the General Services Administration, so I guess it was their fault the stuff went to Mar-a-Lago and were never returned.

Flooding the zone with bullshit.

Here are two other recent examples that got me thinking about this. The first pertains to the mysterious Mar-a-Lago documents. From The Washington Post:

When it comes to the sheer embrace of innuendo and a concerted lack of logical consistency, it’s difficult to top the latest entry….. In recent days, D____ T____ and conservative media have debuted a new whataboutism defense: What about Obama?

Several Fox News shows on Wednesday picked up on a New York Post column that noted Barack Obama at the end of his presidency had 30 million records shipped to Chicago for his presidential library. “They shipped 30 million pages of sensitive and possibly classified materials to Chicago, and, by the way, he has yet to return any of it to the National Archives. Not one page,” Fox host Sean Hannity intoned. “So is his house about to get raided?”

Former T____ campaign legal adviser Harmeet Dhillon added: “Are there SWAT teams descending on Chicago to get those documents? No. And so the double standard and triple standard here is very apparent”….

But there’s no evidence Obama has hidden anything from the Archives or that he didn’t go through the processes required to share and protect those documents once they left Washington.

And on Friday, after T____ raised the issue again, the Archives sought to put an end to the charade. It issued a statement outlining these facts and assuring that it has custody of classified documents:

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) assumed exclusive legal and physical custody of Obama Presidential records when President Barack Obama left office in 2017, in accordance with the Presidential Records Act (PRA). NARA moved approximately 30 million pages of unclassified records to a NARA facility in the Chicago area where they are maintained exclusively by NARA. Additionally, NARA maintains the classified Obama Presidential records in a NARA facility in the Washington, DC, area. As required by the PRA, former President Obama has no control over where and how NARA stores the Presidential records of his Administration.

In other words, there’s no parallel.

And from the Crooked Media newsletter, one more:

Two days ago, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted “Do you make $75,000 or less? Democrats’ new army of 87,000 IRS agents will be coming for you—with 710,000 new audits for Americans who earn less than $75k.” He was parroting talking points from basically every conservative politician and commentator that the Inflation Reduction Act’s $80 billion appropriation for the Internal Revenue Service means more taxes and more audits for middle-class Americans.

And it’s just not fucking true. The 87,000 agents figure was plucked from a Treasury report from May 2021, not even used in the Inflation Reduction Act. The facts are these: the IRS has been systematically defunded for decades, and total staff is currently equal to what it was during World War II, when the U.S. population was less than half what it is now. Much of the funding will go towards rehiring due to the fact that over half(!) the current IRS staff is eligible for retirement in the next five years.

Onto the audits: IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, who was appointed by D____ T____, said in an August 4 letter to lawmakers that after the bill was approved, “audit scrutiny” would not be raised on small businesses or middle-income Americans. Rettig, I repeat: a T____ appointee, said, “The proposal would direct that additional resources go toward enforcement against those with the highest incomes, rather than Americans with actual income of less than $400,000.” Which is, you know, exactly what Democrats have been saying this whole time…..

Wealthy Republican lawmakers and pundits have a vested interest in killing any tax bill that targets them, and they use this same playbook of spuriously insisting that the middle class will suffer every time.

According to a Majority of the Supreme Court, the Earps and Doc Holliday Were the Bad Guys at the O.K. Corral

The Smithsonian Magazine offers a brief history lesson regarding gun control:

Marshall Virgil Earp, having deputized his brothers Wyatt and Morgan and his pal Doc Holliday, is having a gun control problem. Long-running tensions between the lawmen and a faction of cowboys … will come to a head over Tombstone’s gun law.

The laws of Tombstone at the time required visitors, upon entering town to disarm, either at a hotel or a lawman’s office. Residents of many famed cattle towns, such as Dodge City, Abilene, and Deadwood, had similar restrictions. But these cowboys had no intention of doing so as they strolled around town with Colt revolvers and Winchester rifles in plain sight…

When the Earps and Holliday met the cowboys on Fremont Street in the early afternoon, Virgil once again called on them to disarm. Nobody knows who fired first….

The “Old West” conjures up all sorts of imagery, but broadly, the term is used to evoke life … in small frontier towns – such as Tombstone, Deadwood, Dodge City, or Abilene, to name a few. One thing these cities had in common: strict gun control laws.

… Frontier towns by and large prohibited the “carrying of dangerous weapons of any type, concealed or otherwise, by persons other than law enforcement officers.” Most established towns that restricted weapons had few, if any, killings in a given year.

But Justice Clarence Thomas and his reactionary colleagues have their own view of history. From Talking Points Memo:

Thomas, writing for the majority, slapped down New York’s 100-year-old concealed carry licensing scheme Thursday on the grounds that it has no historical analogue. [Wait, doesn’t a law that’s 100 years old have some history on its side?]

Government interest — like protecting the safety of its citizens — is not enough to get around the all-expansive Second Amendment, he writes. To be legitimate, a gun regulation must have a historical cousin….

The notion is farcical on its face: there must be some 18th or 19th century law mirroring any modern-day gun regulation, even for weapons that the people of that time could not have imagined existing?

Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, focuses his dissent on the patent ludicrousness of determining constitutional rights solely through historical precedents.

“Will the Court’s approach permit judges to reach the outcomes they prefer and then cloak those outcomes in the language of history?” he ponders, before sketching out his argument that his conservative colleagues have done just that.

Breyer lays out his own list of cases ranging from English precursors to early American laws all the way up through U.S. law in the 20th century. He lists cases that he argues support New York’s licensing scheme, many of which the conservative majority found some reason to reject: “too old,” “too recent,” “did not last long enough,” “applied to too few people,” “enacted for the wrong reasons,” “based on a constitutional rationale that is now impossible to identify,” “not sufficiently analogous,” Breyer reels off.

“At best, the numerous justifications that the Court finds for rejecting historical evidence give judges ample tools to pick their friends out of history’s crowd,” he writes….

[This decision] rings similar to Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion overturning abortion rights, which roots much of its argument in cases where abortion access was not protected in the country’s earliest days, and before. He asks [Americans] to unflinchingly accept that a constitutional right for women is only valid if it existed in a time when women were considered much less than full citizens.

To sum up, David Roberts on Twitter:

[The Supreme Court] is just going to keep doing stuff like this, worse & worse & worse….A tiny group of hyper-ideologues, forcing the rest of us to live medievally. That’s the current status quo trajectory….

“Neither the broad American public nor the center-left Democratic & media establishment understands or appreciates how [fucking] lunatic the right has gotten” is something I’ve been saying for two decades now. Was always true & still is.

A Few Immediate Reactions to Our Renegade Right-Wing Supreme Court’s Latest Dictate

From Mark Joseph Stern of Slate:

The Supreme Court’s fourth and final opinion of the day is in Bruen. In a 6–3 opinion, [Clarence] Thomas writes that New York’s strict limits on the concealed carry of firearms in public violates the Second Amendment.

Thomas’ opinion for the court dramatically expands the scope of the Second Amendment, blasting past ostensible restrictions laid out in Heller to establish a new test that will render many, many more gun control laws unconstitutional.

Before today, about 83 million people—about one in every four Americans—lived in a state that strictly limited concealed carry to those who had a heightened need for self-defense. Now, zero people live in such a state.

Thomas’ opinion for the court suggests that judges may NOT consider empirical evidence about the dangers posed by firearms when evaluating gun control laws. They may only ask whether a modern regulation has some analogue that is rooted in American history.

It’s difficult to overstate how devastating Thomas’ opinion is for gun control laws. This goes so, so far beyond concealed carry. The Supreme Court has effectively rendered gun restrictions presumptively unconstitutional. This is a revolution in Second Amendment law.

From Paul Waldman of The Washington Post:

Just getting started reading the gun decision, but every sentence so far makes clear what a joke and a scam “originalism” is. It continues to amaze me that anyone takes it seriously.

It’s just one assertion after another about how what people thought in 1790 is sacrosanct, except when it isn’t, but also here’s a novel way to think about 1790, but also that doesn’t matter either. It’s Calvinball as legal reasoning. The bad faith is just incredible.

[Note: Calvinball is a game invented by Calvin and Hobbes. Calvinball has no rules; the players make up their own rules as they go along.]

From yours truly and Matt from the UK:

Isn’t the entire problem here that you’re paralysed by your constitution, because it makes the question into exegesis of this supposedly infallible document, rather than actually analysing the problem and considering what to do about it?

Excellent point. We are paralyzed by a document that’s 230 years old and difficult to amend. But we are also paralyzed by right-wing judges (i.e. politicians) who use this vague notion of “originalism” (what the founders intended) to justify their contemporary political beliefs.

Yes, but then ‘originalism’ is possible because of the written form. Without one, my country has no equivalent paralysis. Plenty of our own constitutional problems, of course, but they don’t really result in regular spree killings in schools.

Yes, having a written constitution is clearly a constraint, being old & difficult to amend adds to that basic constraint, and having a Supreme Court with too much power & too many political hacks issuing dictates makes it even worse. (My answer assumes there can be degrees of paralysis.)

The Exhilaration of Incoherence?

My vacation from the national news is now nine days old. It’s boring at times, but not too bad. The only bit of “news” that’s slipped through is that (1) the president said something especially bad (which wasn’t news at all) and (2) what he said may have been that his supporters should break the law by trying to vote more than once (he thinks that voting two or three times is much easier to do than it is).

What follows isn’t really news, therefore. It’s news analysis that I found interesting. From Varun Gauri at Three Quarks Daily:

The style and rhetoric of the Txxxx era appears to be historically unique, the result of the narrow and unexpected electoral victory of a man who honed his skills performing as a reality TV idiot savant. But I believe that the rhetorical style of Txxxxism — nonsense, incoherence, giving truth the middle finger— will outlast Txxxx.

When people say that Txxxxism will outlive Txxxx, they usually refer to the political economy. Typically, they mean [for example] that rising levels of immigration and the coming emergence of America as a majority-minority nation evoke nostalgia and a politics of resentment . . . But I think that it is not only the structural forces that are likely to endure, but also the trappings of Txxxxism, what we think of as its ephemera — the circus atmosphere, the sensation that up is down, the experience of having fallen through the looking glass.

To understand the appeal of rhetorical Txxxxism, first consider a few stylized facts. First, as Ezra Klein has argued, Txxxx’s poll numbers are amazingly stable. Despite the loss of more than 180,000 Americans to Covid-19, an unemployment rate over 8%, and rising racial tensions, Txxxx’s approval rating hardly moved, from 41% in late to 2019 to 42% today. His support is only loosely tied to facts on the ground. . . .

Second, nor is Txxxx’s appeal about his policy goals. It’s not as as if the administration has set out a series of appealing policy initiatives, only to be frustrated by checks and balances or federalism. There are barely any policy goals to speak of. . . . Apart from appointing conservative Supreme Court Justices skeptical of abortion rights, there are hardly any policies even on the agenda that carried Txxxx in 2016, including comprehensive immigration reform, the opioid crisis, and urban violence. Instead, what we see is theater for xenophobes . . .

Third, Republican partisans appear to support an idealized version of the man. Despite Txxxx’s notorious cable TV watching habits and frequent golf trips, 66% of Republicans believe him to be a “harder worker” than any president in history. Despite the barrage of lies and millions in federal tax dollars directed to his own business interests, 72% believe him to be “honest and trustworthy.” Despite not appearing to know how World War 1 ended or who Frederick Douglass was, and advocating bleach and other quack cures for covid, 77% believe he understands “complex issues.”

It’s as if support for Txxxx is the coat of arms for his coalition. Republican partisans support each other supporting Txxxx, whatever they think of Txxxx himself. They recognize each other and constitute a group through their Txxxx support. They support the idea of Txxxx. He’s the flag around which they rally.

How does this work? Larry Bartel’s recent survey of Republican partisans is revealing. It finds that anti-democratic attitudes among Republicans (e.g., using force to save a traditional way of life) are strongly correlated with ethnic antagonism; they are much more weakly correlated with political cynicism, partisanship, cultural conservatism, and even affection for Txxxx himself. In other words, support for the norm busting of Txxxxism is less about the man himself and more about the ethnic advancement, and the identity, of the group supportive of norm busting.

Like support for a military coup, the rhetorical style of Txxxxism, whose salient aspects are a flaunting disregard for facts and truth, even the exhilaration of incoherence, is a form of norm busting. It is an attack on standard forms of discourse. It is also an implicit attack on the function of key institutions, including the scientific establishment (which identifies facts), the media (which filters facts), and the political parties (which translate facts into policies).

The pleasures of this kind of norm busting, provocative incoherence, are the pleasures of trolling. Incoherent provocation leads supporters of traditional norms to become indignant, and squander energy trying to make sense of contradictory and truth-free statements. It’s delicious to see defenders of key institutions (like me) get their knickers in a twist. It’s fun, a minor form of sadism, to “own the libs”. . . .

The rhetorical style of Txxxxism shows that the coordinating focal points for the Republican coalition can even be devoid of semantic content. Txxxxian Republicans recognize each other, and constitute themselves as a group, when they troll the outsiders by flaunting incoherence. Those actions are also a power play — the demonstration that coordination is laughably easy; coherence and language and messaging are superfluous.

It has long been understood that there is a psychic payoff to coordination without discourse; the use of symbolic rituals, as Durkheim described, can create collective effervescence and a sense of group belonging. But what is happening here is not only coordination without discourse but coordination against discourse. Republican partisans are demonstrating that power does not arise from discussion; it arises merely from will and mutual recognition. Political power is that easy for us, the trolls seems to say. We know ourselves, even without words. . . .  

The Republican coalition has long struggled to overcome elements of incoherence in its ideology, though perhaps no more than the average large-scale political coalition — the support for small government sits uneasily with a massive military as well as with the religious regulation of private life. But what we are witnessing now is qualitatively different. Although there may be continuities with the history of anti-scientific positions in the party, current events have the quality of a self-conscious political discovery. That is why I believe the exhilaration of incoherence will remain significant in Republican discourse.

Txxxxism has shown that a largely homogenous group in the United States can coordinate, and recognize itself as a political actor, by flaunting incoherence. Txxxx’s successor may or may not be performer, a reality TV personality more interested in showmanship than policy. But because this approach is relatively inexpensive (a leader doesn’t need to invest in learning policy or persuading people about their positions), democratic (anyone can troll), and pleasurable for supporters, the next Republican leader will be tempted to use the rhetorical style of Txxxxism, or face challengers who do. Flaunting incoherence is fun, fast, and cheap . . .

Unquote.

I don’t understand the psychology of people who openly deny reality, flaunting incoherence but also flaunting their ignorance and their willingness to lie. Coherence, knowledge and honesty tend to make a person look better. Putting that aside, the author may be right about  future Republican candidates trying to copy Txxxx, but they’ll never find anyone as good at self-serving incoherence as he is. The guy has a remarkable talent/pathology. It will be extremely hard to match.

King Donnie the Deplorable Puts On a Show

Mao Zedong, formerly known to most of us as Mao Tse-Tung, was known to the Chinese people as Chairman Mao, but also as the Great Leader, the Great Teacher and the Great Helmsman, among other appellations. Next to Mao, North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il seems rather modest. Hitler was officially known as Führer und Reichskanzler (“Leader and Chancellor of the Reich”). Mussolini was informally known as il Duce (the Leader). 

In the New York City tabloids, the Orange Menace used to be known as The Donald. Perhaps he’s satisfied now with simply being the President, the Commander-in-Chief  and (with due sarcasm) the Leader of the Free World. But if today’s meeting of the cabinet offers a clue, there’s at least a Blessed Leader or Master of All He Surveys in his (and our) future.

According to White House reporter John Harwood of CNBC, the President opened the proceedings just how you’d expect:

He began with an opening statement laced with the sort of wild, self-congratulatory boasts that are his trademark. 

“Never has there been a president, with few exceptions … who has passed more legislation, done more things,” Trump declared, even though Congress, which is controlled by his party, hasn’t passed any major legislation.

He hailed his plan for the “single biggest tax cut in American history,” even though he hasn’t proposed a plan and Congress hasn’t acted on one. He said “no one would have believed” his election could have created so many new jobs over the past seven months (1.1 million), even though more jobs (1.3 million) were created in the previous seven months.

Typically, a president’s initial comments mark the end of on-camera coverage of White House Cabinet meetings, with administration aides then escorting members of the small press “pool” out of the room. But Trump invited reporters to remain as he called on his senior-most advisers to “go around, name your position” and say a few words about the administration’s work.

Later, on Twitter, Harwood wrote: “In covering [the White House] over 4 decades, I’ve never seen a [President of the US] elicit flattery from aides like Trump today”.

According to The Washington Post:

… White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus spoke up to thank Trump “for the opportunity and blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people.”

Priebus said he was offering words on behalf of everyone in the room. But one by one, pretty much everyone else seated around the table took the opportunity to lavish their leader with praise, too, as the media looked on.

“It’s an honor to be able to serve you,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“I am privileged to be here,” said Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta. “Deeply honored.”

“What an incredible honor it is to lead the Department of Health and Human Services at this pivotal time under your leadership,” Tom Price, secretary of that department, added when it was his turn to speak. “I can’t thank you enough for the privileges you’ve given me and the leadership that you’ve shown.”

Brian Beutler of The New Republic described it a more subjectively:

[He] assembled his entire cabinet at the White House on Monday, and, in a display of dominance and humiliation like none I’ve seen in an advanced democracy, invited everyone in attendance to go around the table praising Dear Leader before the press corps. The whole creepy-bordering-on-obscene spectacle lasted about 11 minutes.

[A video of the entire 11 minutes is provided]

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao looks like she’s been taken hostage, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (the only one who didn’t essentially swear loyalty to Trump) is clearly pissed, and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus sounds desperate to keep his job (reportedly, he is). 

It’s been clear for years that everyone who agrees to work for Trump eventually abases themselves, but it usually isn’t as plain as it is here, with multiple supplicants surrounding him, essentially being ordered to humiliate themselves.

Remember how King Lear begins? The old guy meets his daughters and asks “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” Goneril goes first:

Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;
Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare…

Cordelia doesn’t have much to say, but Regan does:

I profess myself an enemy to all other joys,
Which the most precious square of sense possesses;
And find I am alone felicitate
In your dear highness’ love.

Of course, Lear proceeds to lose his mind and eventually drops dead from all the stress he’s endured. If only life in Washington was that simple.

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