The GOP has a narrow window to get their agenda through.
So far, 2017 is what 2009 looked like on Earth 2.
Republicans are beset by angry constituents at town halls. The GOP is the object of spontaneous grassroots demonstrations in the streets and America’s transportation hubs. Republicans have chosen to dismiss these displays as “astroturf,” artificial grassroots activism by paid, professional protesters. Bitter and fearful partisan liberals are imposing purity tests on their partisan representatives, demanding that any Democrat who compromises with the Trump White House—including voting for the confirmation of Cabinet-level nominees—endure a primary challenge. Starved of grassroots enthusiasm and facing the nadir of their political influence, Democrats are listening. Some are even flirting with the prospect of holding the debt ceiling hostage to constrain the White House—a course that Democrats once claimed was the political equivalent of terrorism.
Of course, lightning rarely strikes twice, but the effects of Bizarro 2009 on the GOP’s congressional majorities could be devastating. In every midterm election since the dawn of the 21st Century, save 2002, there has been a wave of voter anger directed at the party in control of the White House. In 2006, that anger cost the GOP control of both chambers of Congress. Democrats lost control of the House and the Senate in 2010 and 2014 respectively. FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten noted that, while we’re only one month into the Trump presidency and uncertainty reigns, Trump’s 40 percent job-approval rating as measured by Gallup makes him unpopular enough to cost the GOP control of the House.
Straight-line projections are fallacious, and political conditions will change between today and November of 2018. The present trajectory of this presidency should, however, be enough to send chills down the spines of vulnerable Republican members of Congress.
One aspect of 2017 that does not resemble 2009, though, is the nature of this presidency. Donald Trump is as powerful a unifying force for his opposition as was Barack Obama, but (despite superficial claims to the contrary) Trump does not have Obama’s transformative vision. Barack Obama and the 111th Congress committed themselves early to a course that many Democrats knew would cost them their political careers, but they were sacrificed upon the altar of radical progressivism.
From financial regulatory reform, to the creation of new bureaucracies, to the empowerment of unions, to the remake of the national healthcare system, and more, vigorous legislative activity typified the first two years of the Obama era. These are early days, but the GOP has so far been less united behind a realizable and transformative agenda. The GOP-led 115th Congress’ disunity isn’t entirely to blame for this condition. They as a party are led by a president whose vision is vague, whose ideology is amorphous, and who is addicted to distraction.
At the moment, Donald Trump is “at war” with his intelligence community. They have drawn blood in the form of a mountain of leaks so embarrassing to the White House that Trump was compelled to ask for his national security advisor’s resignation. Of course, there would have been no embarrassments had Trump not selected for the pivotal post a man with a reputation for indiscretion and controversy. The opening week of the Trump presidency was plunged into avoidable controversy following the disastrous implementation of a flawed executive order on immigration. This is to say nothing of Trump’s cascading stream of self-pitying tweets on the latest insult to his dignity that drives the news cycle or his penchant for bizarre, if not amusing, public streams of consciousness.
All of this might give the GOP in Congress cover to pursue a transformative agenda without the pervasive scrutiny of the press hindering their progress, but these scandals demand congressional attention.
For example, it was House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz’s intention to ignore the controversy that erupted when the retail chain Nordstrom dropped Ivanka Trump’s brand of clothing, provoking the president’s ire. Calling President Trump’s support for a boycott of that private business relatable and “not a big deal” did not, however, go over well with his Trump-skeptical constituents back home in Utah. Yet when White House advisor Kellyanne Conway told Fox News Channel’s audience to “go buy” Ivanka brand clothing, Chaffetz pounced, calling her remarks “wrong, wrong, wrong, clearly over the line, unacceptable.” Who knows what changed Chaffetz’s mind on the matter, but getting an earful from both constituents back home and from swing district-dwelling Republicans about his reluctance to investigate this White House couldn’t have hurt. If Chaffetz’s intention was to let this infraction slide, events got away from him.
These are ominous signs for an administration that is not yet one month old. The 2018 election cycle begins in earnest well before the dawn of 2018, and the demands of an election cycle tend to impose paralysis on Washington. Hard votes will only become harder as the weeks pass, even if Donald Trump’s job approval rating recovers. Congressional Republicans need to forge ahead with their legislative priorities and make the most of their once-in-a-generation political clout. History suggests that their power will be fleeting, and the distraction in the Oval Office only makes that eventuality more likely. For the GOP, the clock is ticking.
The Clock Is Ticking, GOP
Must-Reads from Magazine
The perils of hype.
Imposing reporting requirements on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) is like jailing activists. Criticizing journalists is like physical violence against them. Repatriating citizens of a wealthy, stable democracy is like sending them to death camps. All of the above follow logically from real statements made recently by respected people or organizations, and they reflect a pernicious modern trend that might be called “defining deviancy up.”
Take, for instance, German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer’s assertion that Hungary’s legislation banning foreign donations to NGOs puts it in “the ranks of countries like Russia, China, and Israel, which obviously regard the funding of non-government organizations, of civil society efforts, by donors from abroad as a hostile or at least an unfriendly act.” His purpose was to shame both Hungary and Israel by lumping them in the same category as Russia and China in their treatment of NGOs.
But while all four countries do impose some restrictions on foreign funding of NGOs (and in Israel’s case, for good reason), in China and Russia, this is part of a systematic attempt to silence criticism of the government that includes jailing and torturing activists (China) and even killing them (Russia). In Israel, NGOs can and do criticize the government without fear. The only “restriction” they face is that if more than 50 percent of their funding comes from foreign governments, all their published material must note that fact (unlike Russia or China, Israel places no restrictions on funding from nongovernmental foreign sources).
By lumping these countries together, Schaefer didn’t merely smear Israel; he also paradoxically legitimized Russian and Chinese abuses. After all, if Russia and China are no worse than Israel, they can’t be that bad.
Moreover, such comparisons eviscerate one of the West’s main weapons against human rights abuses: the power to name and shame. By treating non-issues like NGO reporting requirements as major rights violations, Western officials are like the boy who cried wolf: Eventually, many people will simply stop listening to them.
Worst of all, however, if jailing and killing activists provoke no more outrage than imposing financial reporting requirements on NGOs, brutal dictatorships have no reason not to go straight to the torturing and killing. That provides more effective suppression for the same price in international opprobrium.
For another example of this pernicious approach, consider Freedom House’s lowering of Israel’s press freedom ranking earlier this year “due to unprecedented personal attacks by the prime minister on leading investigative journalists, which contributed to a hostile environment for the press.”
Once, press freedom was measured by objective factors like whether journalists could write what they please without fear of physical or financial consequences—a standard by which Israel does fine. As Freedom House admitted, “Israel hosts a lively, pluralistic media environment in which press freedom is generally respected … Legal protections for freedom of the press are robust … The Israeli media collectively offer a diverse range of views, and they are generally free from overt political interference.”
But today, that isn’t enough: Politicians must also serve as the media’s cheerleaders. Should they dare to criticize it–something politicians have done since the dawn of time–then, in Freedom House’s view, that’s just as bad as the overt oppression practiced by other countries on its list of “most noteworthy” declines.
India, for instance, “declined due to violent reprisals against journalists” and “government blocking of internet service and halting of printing presses” in Kashmir. Hungary “declined because independent media have been squeezed out of the market, partly through the acquisition and creation of outlets by presumed government allies.” Hong Kong “declined due to increased mainland interference in local media as well as multiple attacks on journalists during demonstrations.”
Such inane comparisons clearly undermine Freedom House’s credibility. But worse, if governments can use violence against journalists, block internet service and take over the independent press without suffering any more international criticism than they’d get for making petulant remarks about journalists, what is to deter any government unhappy with the media–i.e. every government that ever existed–from taking such forceful measures?
Finally, consider the new trend of Holocaust survivors speaking out against President Donald Trump’s immigration policies because, as one told the Michigan state legislature: “I see a lot of parallels to what is going on right now in cities like Ann Arbor and Pontiac, where ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is coming in and with the help of the local police are picking up immigrants,” and the infamous roundup of Parisian Jews during the Holocaust that resulted in most of his family being murdered at Auschwitz.
I wouldn’t presume to judge any survivor’s emotional response. But on a rational level, even opponents of Trump’s immigration policies ought to recognize that this is ludicrous. The biggest source of illegal immigration to America is Mexico–a democratic country which, by global standards, is both wealthy and stable (hence its membership in the OECD). Moreover, the migrants are Mexican citizens with full rights in Mexico. Whether or not deporting illegal immigrants makes for good policy, it’s not remotely comparable to France deporting its own citizens to a foreign country where they had no rights and which was ruled by a genocidal dictatorship.
Once again, by treating all deportations as equally unacceptable, opponents make the truly unacceptable seem not so bad. There are countries to which America shouldn’t be deporting people. But if activists treat deportations to Mexico as no less outrageous than deportations to genuinely repressive or dysfunctional countries, they’ll have no credibility left to combat the latter. Moreover, supporters of mass deportation will see no advantage to exempting certain countries from the deportation list, because doing so won’t diminish opposition to their policy.
In 1993, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase “defining deviancy down,” he was concerned that formerly unacceptable behavior had become unexceptionable. But it turns out that defining deviancy up can have the same effect: Treating behavior which should be unexceptionable as if it were unacceptable makes the truly unacceptable seem not so bad. That’s precisely why moral hierarchies are critical to any properly functioning society: If everything is equally evil, then “evil” loses all meaning.
Thus, by defining deviancy up to include even completely legitimate actions, people who genuinely seek to increase respect for human rights are instead creating a system of moral equivalence in which even the worst offenses are no longer beyond the pale.
He just can't help it
On Thursday, the president released a statement—where else?—on Twitter.
“With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have no idea whether there are ‘tapes’ or recordings of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings,” the president asserted.
The carefully worded statement, complete with subordinate clauses and series commas, was probably not crafted like most of Trump’s tweets are: on a whim. The impulsive tweet that compelled the president to legally indemnify himself was, however, a perfectly characteristic Trump tweet. It was a missive that was also indicative of the president’s penchant to bluff himself into dangerous corners.
“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press,” Trump tweeted on May 12. The tweet, seemingly composed for no discernable reason, is now believed to have been a response to a May 11 New York Times story. That dispatch cited conversations the former FBI director had with the president, as related to reporters by Comey’s associates, in which he described Trump’s demanding “loyalty.” If Comey had not directly leaked those conversations to reporters, he got right to work covering his hide immediately after Trump issued this threatening tweet.
In testimony before Congress, Comey said that he revealed the existence of memos he took regarding his conversations with Trump explicitly because of the “tapes” tweet. Moreover, Comey said he did so in order to compel Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint a special counsel to overtake the Bureau’s investigations into the Trump campaign. Some have speculated that, based on Trump’s shifting explanations for Comey’s dismissal, the FBI director was relieved of duty because he would not publicly state that Trump was not personally under investigation, which he wasn’t. Because of the president’s paranoid, self-defeating behavior on Twitter, however, he is now personally under investigation.
This tale of self-destruction is not unfamiliar. It’s reasonably similar to the sequence of events that was set in motion as a result of a fit of presidential pique on social media involving the allegation that Barack Obama’s administration “had my ‘wires tapped.’”
That March 4 tweet compelled House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes to jump out in front of the scandalous revelations and provide the president some political cover. Seventeen days later, Nunes traveled to the White House to meet with an administration source at a secure location to review intelligence involving the “unmasking” of Trump administration associates swept up incidentally in foreign surveillance. Nunes spent the next few weeks vaguely insinuating that Trump’s tweet was accurate, leading the president to agree that he had been “vindicated” by the House chairman.
Two days later, Nunes reversed himself and the source of his information became a scandal. Just over one month after Trump’s original tweet, Nunes was compelled as a result of ethics complaints to join Attorney General Jeff Sessions in recusing himself from any investigation into the Trump campaign. Thus, only as a result of his own imprudence and urge to seek self-gratification, Donald Trump purged himself of one of his closest and most powerful allies in the House.
Republicans in Congress already have ample reason to keep their distance from the president. His determination to keep the Senate’s health-care bill at arm’s length and allow the congressional GOP to absorb all the criticism until he’s sure it’s not politically toxic should communicate to Congress that they are on their own. It is, however, Trump’s habit of setting himself on fire in moments of paranoid agitation that should give Republicans pause.
The president is not predictable, and he has a habit of making his allies fall on grenades. For now, the president has plenty of troops to call on, but he’s going to run out.
Maybe it's not everyone else's problem.
For months, Democrats have resisted the notion that they were the problem. Despite a series of historic losses resulting in the party’s worst position in nearly a century, Democrats convinced themselves that their philosophy was shared by a majority of the country. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, after all. The left dominates popular culture. An electorate made up of minorities and single women and the Democratic dominance it will yield is just over the horizon. These myths sustained Democrats through the darkest early days of the Trump era, but they’ve since lost their luster. The party’s failure in Georgia on Tuesday has had a dramatic psychological effect. Democrats have been humbled. Now, finally, the party’s notables are starting to realize that it is them—not the country nor its voters—who have to change.
“Our brand is worse than Trump,” Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan told the New York Times. This contrarian Democrat from a Trump district mounted a quixotic effort to remove Nancy Pelosi from leadership late last year, but his crusade is receiving new converts. “I think you’d have to be an idiot to think we could win the House with Pelosi at the top,” said Texas Democrat Rep. Filemon Vela, on the record, despite having supported Pelosi against Ryan. “Nancy Pelosi has been an effective bogeyman for Republicans for decades, and it just seems like it’s time for her to go,” an unnamed Hillary Clinton staffer told the New York Post. The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics chief Larry Sabato told the Post he had heard from at least two “senior Democrats” telling him they want Pelosi out.
Democrats who cannot convince themselves to turn on the party’s House leader are, however, persuaded that they need to make some adjustments. New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes both told the Times that Democrats need a comprehensive and specific agenda for creating jobs. After spending the last 18 months claiming, not inaccurately, that the American economy had finally recovered from the 2008 recession and with the national unemployment rate at just 4.3 percent, this will prove a discordant message. Still, it’s clear that Democrats are resolved now to do something, even if they’re not quite sure what that something is.
Even the liberal intelligentsia is coming around. Writing in The Atlantic, the liberal columnist Peter Beinart admirably conceded that a demonstrably false notion once seduced him and his fellow liberals: the idea Republicans grew more partisan over the Obama years while Democrats did not. Focusing specifically on immigration, he demonstrated how Democrats lost touch with the country on the issue, began to resent the pressures on immigrants to assimilate as a form of chauvinism, and lost touch with the American public.
Other liberals have criticized the modern left for elevating identity politics to almost religious significance. Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla called for a post-identity liberalism last November only to be attacked by the faithful for “whitesplaining” and “making white supremacy respectable again.” Republicans were genuinely nervous when the Democratic Party put former Tennessee Governor Steve Beshear—a white, Southern septuagenarian with a drawl—up against Donald Trump following the president’s February address to Congress. Talking communitarianism before a handful of virtually monochromatic Americans in a greasy spoon diner represented a real threat to the GOP in the age of Trump, but not more so than it did to the identity-obsessed left. Liberal elites on the coasts laughed Beshear out of the room, and the GOP dodged a bullet.
It is revealing that this process of reflection was inspired by a novice candidate’s loss in an overhyped special election in a GOP district. The commitment to self-delusion Democrats displayed over the eight months between the 2016 election and Georgia’s 6th District House race is a marvel that cannot be overstated. Normally, when a party loses a presidential race to a supremely unqualified and unpopular alternative, they’d engage in some soul searching. But they didn’t. Perhaps because to do so would be to examine how Barack Obama causally presided over the utter devastation of their party at almost every level.
Obama entered office with his party in control of 62 of 99 state legislative chambers. When he left office in January 2017, Republicans controlled over two-thirds of America’s legislative chambers. The GOP has veto-proof majorities in 17 states compared to the Democrats’ 3. In 2009, Democrats had 31 governorships. Today, the GOP has 33. In 25 states, Republicans have total control of every lever of government, and, in three more states, the GOP can override the Democratic governor’s veto. At the federal level, Democrats lost a net total of 61 seats in the House of Representatives over the course of eight years and ten seats in the Senate. The Obama years saw a generation of up and coming Democratic lawmakers wiped out.
These facts need restating because Democrats have been so loath to internalize them. Perhaps because Obama remained popular with the public or because he was such a towering cultural figure, Democrats perceived liberalism to be the nation’s governing ethos even standing amid the rubble of the president’s legacy.
Maybe the introspective left will turn a critical eye toward Obama amid this long-delayed display of humility. It is remarkable that it took a party as thoroughly routed as Democrats this long to even entertain the possibility that it isn’t everyone else’s problem. After all, that’s the first step toward recovery.
From the July/August COMMENTARY symposium.
The following is an excerpt from COMMENTARY’s symposium on the threat to free speech:
When Heather Mac Donald’s “blue lives matter” talk was shut down by a mob at Claremont McKenna College, the president of neighboring Pomona College sent out an email defending free speech. Twenty-five students shot back a response: “Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist . . . classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live.”
Some blame the new campus intolerance on hypersensitive, over-trophied millennials. But the students who signed that letter don’t appear to be fragile. Nor do those who recently shut down lectures at Berkeley, Middlebury, DePaul, and Cal State LA. What they are is impassioned. And their passion is driven by a theory known as intersectionality.
Intersectionality is the source of the new preoccupation with microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and privilege-checking. It’s the reason more than 200 colleges and universities have set up Bias Response Teams. Students who overhear potentially “otherizing” comments or jokes are encouraged to make anonymous reports to their campus BRTs. A growing number of professors and administrators have built their careers around intersectionality. What is it exactly?
Intersectionality is a neo-Marxist doctrine that views racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and all forms of “oppression” as interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Together these “isms” form a complex arrangement of advantages and burdens. A white woman is disadvantaged by her gender but advantaged by her race. A Latino is burdened by his ethnicity but privileged by his gender. According to intersectionality, American society is a “matrix of domination,” with affluent white males in control. Not only do they enjoy most of the advantages, they also determine what counts as “truth” and “knowledge.”
But marginalized identities are not without resources. According to one of intersectionality’s leading theorists, Patricia Collins (former president of the American Sociology Association), disadvantaged groups have access to deeper, more liberating truths. To find their voice, and to enlighten others to the true nature of reality, they require a safe space—free of microaggressive put-downs and imperious cultural appropriations. Here they may speak openly about their “lived experience.” Lived experience, according to intersectional theory, is a better guide to the truth than self-serving Western and masculine styles of thinking. So don’t try to refute intersectionality with logic or evidence: That only proves that you are part of the problem it seeks to overcome.
How could comfortably ensconced college students be open to a convoluted theory that describes their world as a matrix of misery? Don’t they flinch when they hear intersectional scholars like bell hooks refer to the U.S. as an “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”? Most take it in stride because such views are now commonplace in high-school history and social studies texts. And the idea that knowledge comes from lived experience rather than painstaking study and argument is catnip to many undergrads.
Silencing speech and forbidding debate is not an unfortunate by-product of intersectionality—it is a primary goal. How else do you dismantle a lethal system of oppression? As the protesting students at Claremont McKenna explained in their letter: “Free speech . . . has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry.” To the student activists, thinkers like Heather MacDonald and Charles Murray are agents of the dominant narrative, and their speech is “a form of violence.”
It is hard to know how our institutions of higher learning will find their way back to academic freedom, open inquiry, and mutual understanding. But as long as intersectional theory goes unchallenged, campus fanaticism will intensify.
Read the entire symposium on the threat to free speech in the July/August issue of COMMENTARY here.
Podcast: Seven theories about Jon Ossoff's loss.
We’re podcasting a day early here at COMMENTARY in order to take the measure of the result in the Georgia special House election. Abe Greenwald, Noah Rothman, and I posit seven possible theories to explain what happened—and then we attack the theories! It’s positively Talmudic. Give a listen.
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