A Blog on Politics, Principles, and Uncovering the Narrative

Category: Narrative

The Slow-Burning Fire

Many people are worrying about an impending coup. If you have been having that feeling, then it’s time to re-orient yourself.

The coup is already happening; in fact, it started a few decades ago, and has been moving along like a slow-burning Reichstag fire. Trump may simply be hurrying its pace somewhat, making the mythical frog in boiling water a little more aware of what’s happening. But the point that many are missing is that Trump is not the threat; he’s trying to ride the threat, but the real danger is the ongoing conservative redefinition of our country. If we allow conservatives to hold Trump as separate and at a distance rather than recognizing that he is simply taking control of their vehicle, we invite even more disaster.

This has been happening in the Supreme Court, as the right wing of that establishment has been slowly rewriting the constitution and the standards for legal reinterpretation. The Second Amendment is now legally something completely different from what it was originally intended; corporations are now enshrined constitutionally as super-citizens, their money granted the exalted status of “free speech.” In the name of “Originalism,” the original shape of the constitution is being rewritten. The standards for that reshaping have been defined by Scalia and his fellow travelers as nothing less than the camel’s nose under the tent; for example, Scalia established that all one needs to deny the existence of the separation of church and state is to point out that it has been done on a regular basis, so the original intent is no longer relevant. For a new legal precedent to be set, all you need to do is point to a violation of an existing principle. Every time this happens, the context and details are too complex for popular consumption, so it just gets normalized that much more easily.

This has been happening in the Executive, which over the years has eroded from a bastion of leadership to little more than a figurehead, with the real power being behind the throne—all while the office gains more and more power. It’s not who gets elected as much as who is pulling the levers; do you think that Trump is writing any of those executive orders and memoranda? People like Bannon are the real power, like Cheney and Rumsfeld were for Bush, as they and a similar crowd were for Reagan. An actor, a dunce, and a carnival madman—the precedent has been set that the office holder doesn’t even need to be smart, just likable. Meanwhile, the powers behind him move to make the office all the more powerful, presiding over an ever more dominant intelligence establishment that bows to their rule, and a military grown to gross proportions.

This has been happening in Congress, where conservatives have made hyper-partisanship, obstruction, control by monied interests, and disdain for facts the new normal. Having moved in virtual lockstep, Republicans have shown that as long as they are in power, the other party is irrelevant and to be ignored, while as long as they are out of power, monolithic obstructionism is the norm. They openly flagellate themselves before powerful billionaires for favor and backing. More significantly, democracy itself has been reshaped; through radical redistricting and pervasive voter suppression have allowed a smaller and smaller minority to maintain power and control over the legislatures at the federal and most state levels. Not just in the presidency, but also in Congress, almost as a norm now, Democrats get more votes, but Republicans win the elections. Over the past 25 years, both Republican presidents lost the popular vote, and for some time now, Republicans in the House have gained fewer votes than Democrats, despite maintaining a lock on the majority in power.

This has been happening in the media, as we slowly saw the likes of Murrow, Cronkite, Woodward & Bernstein, and so many other legends fall into distant memory. The change started with the rise of the angry popular punditry, which gave way to the advent of Fox News, which in turn presided over the rise of Internet right-wing media empire, which defines for so many what is “real.” All have, for decades now, eschewed the principles of objectivity and even adherence to fact, and have normalized the practice of calling bias and propaganda “news.” The now-prevalent “fake news” is hardly new. In the 80’s, the conservative economic media somehow allowed the bizarrely nonsensical “Laffer Curve” to somehow gain respect; back in the 90’s, Rush Limbaugh made everyone believe that trickle-down worked because Reagan cut taxes and doubled revenues (neither one fully true, and the implied conclusion absolutely false). Such myths and misnomers started to become the norm. The conservative Narrative now holds sway over “truthiness.” Anti-war liberals became soldier-haters, spitting on returning vets, despite nothing of the sort ever having happened; the Narrative is so powerful, it creates whole episodes and events that never happened and the people remember it as if they saw it happen themselves, like crowds of Muslim immigrants cheering 9/11 on rooftops in New Jersey. We have new definitions of classes: the wealthy are job creators, while unions are corrupt; Christians, whites, and men are persecuted, while minorities, gays, and women demand “special privileges” forced by political correctness. Late-term abortions, Feminazis, welfare queens, violently rampaging immigrants stealing our jobs—all mythical, but all now accepted by most as either fact, or something close to it.

This has been happening in education, with a public education under attack by those who favor privatization, greater reach of religious schools, and who despise the concept of critical thinking. A colleague at my university was shocked the other day when an American student proclaimed that college was overblown because “we need more workers, not thinkers.” Remember back when Rick Santorum called Obama a “snob” for wanting everyone to have a shot at higher education? He said the same thing—we need more people who work with their hands, more garbage collectors and carpenters. Critical thinking, he told us, is just something that erodes our religious solidarity. We’re slowly being deprived of a solid educational system, as fewer and fewer of our citizens are even capable of critical thinking.

This has been happening in our bedrock principles, as we see them torn down one by one. The freedom of the press is under particular fire now, after having been weakened by a sustained cultural assault over the decades. We now accept the doctrine of First Strike, which was once unthinkable. We accept the policy of torture more and more. We know that the government routinely violates our Fourth Amendment rights, monitoring us and reading our correspondence, and we simply accept it as a given. Walls against religious establishment crumble, removing the only institutional protection we have against actual, not imagined persecution of religious and philosophical minorities, as we see our Muslim citizens slowly becoming second-class citizens or worse. We see less and less the principles of Democracy practiced, fewer and fewer of the true concerns of the founders respected.

This has been happening in politics in general, as money has shamelessly come to control every aspect of government, and not only corruption but even foreign intervention has become normalized—every time it happens and is not quashed, it becomes something that we just accept and live with.

Trump and those behind him did not start this. All they did was step on the gas. So much so that the whole ungainly structure is rocking and buckling somewhat, but nevertheless is rushing along in another surge, not quite as radical as the one following 9/11, but radical nonetheless.

The path to dictatorship has been slowly blazed over the last generation, as a new reality takes form. The question is not whether it is happening, but rather whether we will recognize it, like the mythical frog in boiling water, and have the power to overcome the sheer force of all of those who have been sold on the idea that it’s what makes America great again.

Perhaps Trump is a blessing in disguise; it’s possible that he’ll make it far more clear how far our system has been compromised.

However, it is just as likely that conservatives will use Trump as a way to claim that since the system is broken, it must be reshaped even more, pushing us even closer to a real dictatorship, just one that we are even less aware of.

And that is the real take-away: Trump may be vying for the position of dictator, but he’s not the real threat. The patiently constructed conservative push to reshape our country, led by the Republican Party, pushed by the right-wing media, directed via the Narrative—that’s the threat. Not Trump.

The greatest blunder we could make would be to fail to tie what Trump is doing directly and irrevocably to the Republican Party and the conservative movement in general.

The First Casualty

The Trump administration must be at war, because—fittingly enough—truth was its first casualty, when Trump and his aides lied about the size of the inaugural audience.

Lying is nothing new regarding Trump, and this particular reaction was fully predictable; after all, there had been a movement for weeks to deny Trump a large audience, given his obsession with relative size and his agitation when anything else is even suggested. People knew it would cheese him off, and they knew he would react this way.

And sure enough, the Trump inauguration was poorly attended and not as viewed as many inaugurations past. The inaugural “parade” had few if any attendees at all; stands were empty, and the route was almost deserted. The inauguration ceremony itself was crowded only at the front; the massive throngs from Obama’s first inauguration dwarfed Trump’s, famously shown in comparison images. The New York Times even showed that the 2017 Women’s March just days earlier beat the inauguration in crowd size.

Trump only did halfway decently in terms of his Neilsen ratings, which he made much of on Twitter—but a quick reference to the Neilsen site shows that Trump’s inauguration rated only 5th in recent history, behind Reagan, Obama, Carter, and Nixon, in that order. Trump had to resort to comparing his numbers favorably to the numbers of Obama’s second inauguration, events for which recent presidents enjoyed only half of the numbers of their first inaugural.

So, Trump blustered about his numbers. So what? The man is obsessed with comparative size, nothing new there. So what’s the fuss?

The problem comes up when you factor in the official administration response to the issue, and—more importantly—to the tone set by the administration’s first press conference.

When Sean Spicer, Trump’s brand-new press secretary, held his very first conference on the first full day of the Trump presidency, he greeted the press corps with a pack of lies.

That also may be nothing new, but there is a big distinction: the Trump administration’s lies were blatant. And by “blatant,” I don’t mean the normally blatant lies where you know they’re lying but they could present the thinnest-veiled attempt to make it seem like there is some small kernel of truth involved somewhere.

No, by “blatant” I mean that Spicer made claims that were easily proven as wholly contrary to obvious fact. So obviously false that the media, which almost never calls what politicians say “false,” began pointing out the lie immediately; the New York Times, for example, published the shockingly blunt headline, With False Claims, Trump Attacks Media on Turnout and Intelligence Rift.

Spicer claimed that “420,000 people used the D.C. Metro public transit” on the day of the inauguration, relative to 317,000 for Obama in 2013. That was verifiably false; D.C. Metro had reported that ridership in 2013 had been 317,000 by 11:00 am—and that the figures for Trump’s day by the same time was only 193,000. Full-day figures for Trump were only 571,000, compared to 1.1 million for Obama in 2009 and 782,000 in 2013.

Spicer made many other provably false claims, but you get the idea. The lies were so transparent that even Fox News called them out on the lie. Fox is normally the perpetrator of exactly that kind of lie; when they call you a liar, you know you’ve been schooled.

This comes after several weeks of Trump sparring with the media, calling any outlets he doesn’t like “fake news,” and—after an abortive attempt to move the press corps out of the White House—even hinting that future press conferences will deny entry to some news organizations or reporters.

The situation was not made any better when Kellyanne Conway, when challenged with Spicer’s fake numbers, retorted, “You’re saying it’s a falsehood and Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.

And there’s the headline: “Alternative Facts.” It pretty much crystallizes not just the Trump administration’s approach to the truth, but the approach by much if not most of conservative politics over the past several decades.

Newt Gingrich made this clear when being interviewed on CNN during the GOP convention. When he claimed that the crime rate was up, CNN reporter Alisyn Camerota pointed out that his statement was wrong:

CAMEROTA: But violent crime across the country is down.

GINGRICH: The average American, I will bet you this morning, does not think crime is down, does not think they are safer.

CAMEROTA: But it is. We are safer and it is down.

GINGRICH: No, that’s just your view.

CAMEROTA: It’s a fact. These are the national FBI facts.

GINGRICH: But what I said is also a fact. … The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics that theoretically may be right, but it’s not where human beings are.

CAMEROTA: But what you’re saying is, but hold on Mr. Speaker because you’re saying liberals use these numbers, they use this sort of magic math. These are the FBI statistics. They’re not a liberal organization. They’re a crime-fighting organization.

GINGRICH: No, but what I said is equally true. People feel more threatened.

CAMEROTA: Feel it, yes. They feel it, but the facts don’t support it.

GINGRICH: As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and I’ll let you go with the theoriticians.

See? Alternative Facts. Some people were startled by this at the time, but this is actually very much unsurprising to anyone who has been paying attention to something called “The Narrative.”

The Narrative is a neoconservative strategy to lead public opinion where they want. It is, in short, the string of lies told by conservatives to create a sense of reality that serves conservative interests. It’s nothing new; it even predates Ronald Reagan’s infamously mythical Welfare Queen. It’s what both Bush administrations used to create a false sense that Iraq was just months away from creating nuclear weapons, and what was used to make so many believe that we actually did find WMD in Iraq, or that Saddam Hussein was in bed with al Qaeda. It’s what conservatives used to make so many of their number believe that Obama is a Muslim, a communist, and Kenyan-born. It made 47% of Republicans believe that Obamacare “death panels” actually existed, and made 49% of them believe that ACORN stole the 2012 election for Obama despite the fact that ACORN no longer even existed. And, thanks to the strongly negative reaction to Sanders’ treatment in the Democratic primaries, it even spilled over into liberal territory regarding The Narrative’s long history of smears against Hillary Clinton.

The Narrative is incredibly effective. Even if it does not convince everyone, it convinces a very large number of people—mostly conservatives, but a lot of independents, and even some liberals—and makes a huge difference in the political realities reflected in how government works.

The new shift in The Narrative is not that we’re somehow just beginning to hear blatant lies—but that’s been going on for years. Reagan’s Welfare Queen was an out-and-out lie. However, Reagan’s lies were not so easily proven to be lies. Reagan never named the woman he spoke about, leaving just enough deniability to cover him with the press. Bush 43 never specifically stated that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11—he made the implication crystal clear, but never in a way that anyone could point to and claim that Bush had made a definitive statement.

The press has always been extremely cautious in its wording regarding this. Even with the outright lies Trump has been spewing, you will note that the word “lie” is not used, not by the mainstream press. The reason is that the word “lie” implies that Trump knows it’s a lie—and we can’t be 100% sure that he doesn’t in fact believe it. So they stick to the word “false.”

What’s new, really, is that the Trump administration is lying in a way that can easily be shown up. They produce numbers which are easily checked, and then call them “alternative facts.”

What has not been determined yet is whether this in fact makes a difference. After all, it was perfectly clear that Obama was not born in Kenya—but still, millions of people believe otherwise.

In addition, with so much distrust generated by conservatives over the accuracy of the media, it would not be surprising at all if the bare-faced nature of the Trump administration’s lies made no difference at all.

In the NBC interview, Conway not only called Spicer’s words “alternative facts,” but initially swatted away the accusation of falsehood by making a big deal about the fact that one reporter tweeted that Trump had MLK’s bust removed from the West Wing. It was not a lie—the bust had been moved and was hidden from view by people standing in front of it, and the reporter soon retracted the tweet—but Conway used that one claim to create a false equivalency, apparently somehow an excuse which relieved the Trump administration press secretary from any responsibility for reporting the truth.

And while that argument was as paper-thin as it was childish, it nevertheless likely resonated with Trump’s audience, and may have actually worked to a great degree.

Time will tell as to how Trump’s new approach to The Narrative works.

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