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Simon Maloy

Author ››› Simon Maloy
  • Investigating Trump is not “harassment”

    Don’t fall into the trap of conflating Democratic oversight with retribution

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    This morning, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell made a point of warning House Democrats not to use the powers of executive oversight and investigation they won in yesterday’s midterm elections. He said the incoming House Democratic majority’s plans for investigating Donald Trump’s corruption are tantamount to “presidential harassment,” and he warned that the strategy will backfire on the party in the same way it stung congressional Republicans during the Bill Clinton years. “I’m not so sure it will work for them,” McConnell said.

    Obviously this advice was not offered in good faith, but McConnell’s words weren’t meant for Democratic ears to begin with. McConnell was speaking to conservative media and mainstream pundits, and he wanted to lay down the marker that all Democratic investigation of the White House will be illegitimate, punitive, and politically motivated.

    McConnell has a receptive audience. On Fox News, former Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz -- who spent years leading endless Republican fishing expeditions into the 2012 Benghazi attacks -- complained that Democrats are going to be “insatiable” in their investigations because “they can't believe that Donald Trump's the president. They're going to go after everything from impeachment, to pharmaceuticals, to how is the president profiting from his hotel.” Meanwhile, pundits on other networks are already preemptively scolding Democrats for overreaching with investigations and helping Trump:

    This is an easy trap to fall into -- the mainstream press has an unshakeable affinity for both-sideism that wrongly conflates actual malfeasance (like, say, having your golf-club cronies secretly set veterans policy) with lesser offenses (like, say, being “too aggressive” in investigating the president). Republicans and the conservative media are laying this trap because they understand the threat posed by real, sustained oversight of the Trump administration.

    The past two years of government have been marked by two separate, linked dynamics: sprawling and flagrant corruption by the president, his family, and senior members of his government; and the complicity of a Republican-controlled Congress that thwarted all investigation into Trump’s graft and determinedly shirked its oversight duties to shield the president politically.

    Now Republicans have lost their ability to protect their corrupt president, and they’re scared that the bill is coming due. And they know full well just how bad it could get: Prior to the election, House Republicans compiled and shared a handy spreadsheet of the Trump administration’s corrupt acts and abuses of power they were worried Democrats would dig into if they won subpoena power. The House GOP’s spreadsheet is remarkable both for the large number of discrete scandals it contained, and the fact that it still doesn’t come anywhere close to a full accounting of the president’s corruption.

    What McConnell, Fox News, and other conservatives are banking on now is that the media will assist them in framing all investigations of the president’s actions as nothing more than partisan squabbling and score-settling. They’re going to try and turn the president -- who has so far enjoyed a free hand to abuse his power and enrich himself -- into a victim of “harassment” by a Democratic coalition that is motivated solely by lingering outrage over the 2016 election. It’s a transparently cynical and self-serving ploy to shield Trump from the grossly overdue investigation he deserves.

  • The perfectly incoherent Trumpism of Charlie Kirk's Campus Battlefield

    Does Charlie Kirk hate safe spaces or love them? Depends.

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    It's ridiculous that I even have to write this review. Campus Battlefield: How Conservatives Can Win the Battle on Campus and Why It Matters, by Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk: Why does anyone have to know anything about this book, or about Charlie Kirk? What hideously twisted nightmare reality are we inhabiting in which Kirk -- one of countless opportunistic grifters parasitically leeching money from the conservative movement’s diseased, distended pre-corpse -- is a figure of relevance?

    The answer to these questions can be found in the foreword to Campus Battlefield, which was provided by Donald Trump Jr. “The more time I spent with Charlie Kirk and the more I learned about Turning Point USA, the more I realized there was something unique that we were missing,” Trump Jr. writes of his time on the 2016 campaign trail with the author before exhorting readers to “support Turning Point USA.” Kirk is a friend of the first family and an ally of the president, which gets him on TV and grants him access to dark-money billionaires.

    And so here I am, stuck with the grim task of reading and reviewing Campus Battlefield, which isn’t so much a “book” as it is an advertisement for Kirk’s organization and an artless distillation of the aggressive grievance politics that define Trumpism.

    Much like the president Kirk glorifies, Campus Battlefield is a sloppy and incoherent mess. It valorizes a gauzy ideal of academia -- “colleges are supposed to be a place (sic) of discourse, characterized by thoughtful debate, a search for knowledge, and civility” -- while also casting lazy, haphazard, and atrociously written allegations of academic perfidy. “The Classics, which have survived for centuries because of their enduring relevance, have been pushed aside by the proposition that they are little more than the narrow-minded, racist, misogynist, homophobic ramblings of old white men,” Kirk complains, citing nothing in evidence. “A smug liberal elite has trashed them, arrogantly presuming to know better and smart enough (sic) to create an entirely new explanation of everything.”

    Campus Battlefield is also very difficult to read, given that the text is broken up in random places by quotes of Charlie Kirk’s tweets. Chapter 4 features a self-serving appropriation of counterculture activist Mario Savio’s legacy, which is inexplicably interrupted by an April 2018 Kirk tweet about how “Affirmative action is a racist program.” At one point Kirk quotes himself quoting George Orwell:

    Jamming these tweets into the text is one of several strategies Kirk uses to pad out the book without producing any original content; it also features extensive block quotes of sources and copy-and-pasted material from websites Kirk’s organization operates.

    The general thrust of Campus Battlefield is that the university system is overrun by liberal professors and activists who persecute conservative students. This argument is based on the eager conflation of “professors are liberal” and “professors are indoctrinating students with liberalism.” For Kirk, it’s sufficient to point an accusatory finger at a select group of college professors and denounce them as radicals. The reader is then supposed to arrive on their own steam at the conclusion that professors who espouse leftist viewpoints are propagandizing in the service of Marxism, enforcing rigid conformity of thought, and punishing conservative students for thoughtcrimes. (A conservative academic whose research Kirk cites in the book wrote in 2012 that while “the Right faces special challenges in higher education, our research offers little evidence that conservative students or faculty are the victims of widespread ideological persecution.”)

    Kirk argues that rampant leftism has perverted colleges and universities, which he says should be “safe places for the teaching and expression of all ideas, not just those endorsed by the liberal curia.”

    That’s a lofty ideal, and Kirk’s aspiration to it is outright bullshit. On the one hand, Kirk demands completely open debate of all ideas. On the other, Kirk and his group maintain the Professor Watchlist -- a website that functions as a sort of blacklist for left-wing professors whose ideas Kirk (and his donors) have deemed too “radical.” The statement of purpose for the Professor Watchlist embodies these two warring ideas and makes no effort to reconcile them:

    TPUSA will continue to fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish; however students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.

    Much of Chapter 3 is devoted to naming and shaming these “radical” professors with copy-and-pasted entries from the Professor Watchlist website. The criteria for inclusion is comically low; one Michigan State professor qualified as radical because she “taught students how to argue with conservatives about issues such as illegal immigration, refugees, and the Dakota Access pipeline when they go home for Thanksgiving.” Professors on the list have reportedly faced harassment and death threats.

    A similarly dissonant take on “safe spaces” drives much of Kirk’s griping. He spends considerable energy mocking liberal students for their “desperate need for campus safe spaces” and derides the idea that words can cause hurt. “Words have become sticks and stones,” he writes. “Colleges have morphed from places of higher learning into playgrounds where name-calling sends children home crying.”

    However, for conservative students, the safeguarding of feelings and protection against name-calling are of paramount importance. Liberals can “call conservatives anything they want. Without criticism. Without penalty. Without rebuke, official or otherwise,” Kirk complains. “Fascist! Bigot! Homophobe! Racist! Birther! Misogynist! Wingnut! Oh, and let’s not forget: Deplorable!” In one paragraph he’ll chide overly sensitive liberals, and in the next he’ll solemnly relive the martyrdom of insulted conservative students.

    “Conservatives don’t live in a liberal fantasy world where they are taken care of by cadres of compassionate folks who feel their hurt,” he writes. Feeling the “hurt” of conservatives students, however, is the reason for Turning Point USA’s existence, and Kirk wants readers to know that he feels that hurt. “Are you a closet conservative? When you walk into the first day of class, do you wonder if the teacher will ridicule you in front of the class if you express your conservative views?” he writes. “This is beyond unfair. It is dangerous.”

    This is why the Trump family loves Kirk; he and his book are pure expressions of Trumpist politics. He leans intensely on white grievance while mocking the plights of minorities (one chapter is titled “Black Victimization Bunco”); he demands the in-group (conservative students) receive protection and status (“safe spaces,” unchallenged expression of any idea) while also demanding that protection and status be denied to out-groups (liberals, minorities); and he makes zero effort to reconcile these contradictions while substituting aggressive combativeness for substantive heft. It’s a simple trick: posture as an alpha tough guy, but when the slightest offense arises, performatively howl like a whipped dog.

    In that spirit of bad-faith victimhood, I am obligated to close my review of this tome on the dangers of suffocating the free exchange of ideas by highlighting the plight of someone whose lust for lively debate has been cruelly quashed by Charlie Kirk: me.

    Earlier this year, Kirk tweeted that a California school has a “graphic mural depicting the President being killed by an Aztec warrior” and warned: “The left no longer just hates Trump. They want him dead.” I was incredulous both at the suggestion that a school mural represented “the left” and at Kirk’s affected outrage, so in the spirit of debate I tweeted back that he’d “strap[ped] on a metaphorical diaper.”

    For this, I was blocked by Kirk.

    How ironic that Kirk, who loves idea-based discourse so much, was scared to debate whether his tweet cowering before the menace of some wall art in California was the figurative equivalent of shitting his own pants. My argument was rooted in fact: One of Turning Point USA’s more famous stunts involved its activists protesting “safe spaces” by wearing adult diapers. How can it be beyond the bounds of discourse to impute this diaper-centric mode of thinking to Kirk when he held up one school’s mural painting as representative of “the left?”

    Maybe Kirk silenced me because the organization reportedly believes the diaper fiasco is “not funny” and is frustrated that “every time Charlie [Kirk] tweets they tweet back pictures of him in a diaper.”

    They are wrong. It is very funny.

    And guess what? Free discourse is supposed to be difficult. How can Charlie Kirk expect to function in the Hobbesian carnage of the marketplace of ideas if he can’t handle it when I confront him with the mainstream viewpoint that he is -- metaphorically, at least -- a diaper lad? Alas, Kirk was triggered by my ideas and swaddled himself in a safe space where he wouldn’t be exposed to new, uncomfortable truths.

  • Bret Stephens' despicable Kavanaugh apologia

    The NY Times columnist is “grateful” for Trump’s bullying of Christine Blasey Ford

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The first sentence of Bret Stephens’ New York Times column this morning is a lie. “For the first time since Donald Trump entered the political fray, I find myself grateful that he’s in it,” Stephens wrote, explaining that he is “grateful because Trump has not backed down in the face of the slipperiness, hypocrisy and dangerous standard-setting deployed by opponents of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.”

    The idea here is that Stephens, ostensibly an implacable and principled #NeverTrump conservative, has been forced by the liberal response to credible allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh to do the unthinkable and rally behind Donald Trump. This is the “first time” this has happened, Stephens writes, which is supposed to give you an idea of just how perfidious the left’s conduct has been.

    This is a lie, and it’s an important lie because it exposes the dishonesty at the core of the tiny yet bafflingly influential cadre of #NeverTrump pundits. Back in May, after Trump announced the United States’ precipitous withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, Stephens praised the president for standing up to Iran “apologists” and lauded his “courageous decision.” After Trump fired missiles into Syria as retribution for chemical attacks on civilians, Stephens saluted Trump and pressed the president (who he believes is mentally compromised) to unleash a full-scale war on the Assad regime.

    Stephens, like most #NeverTrump conservatives, makes a grand show of opposition to the president but the split second he sees Trump pursuing his preferred policies, the hand-wringing and monocle-dropping outrage are quickly supplanted by cheerleading.

    In today’s column, Stephens argues the left has forced him to support a president who mocks survivors of sexual assault, even though that mockery was “ugly and gratuitous.” Stephens is grateful for Trump’s response to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about Kavanaugh’s alleged assault because he’s “a big fat hammer fending off a razor-sharp dagger” of false sexual assault allegations.

    The first moment was a remark by a friend. “I’d rather be accused of murder,” he said, “than of sexual assault.” I feel the same way. One can think of excuses for killing a man; none for assaulting a woman. But if that’s true, so is this: Falsely accusing a person of sexual assault is nearly as despicable as sexual assault itself. It inflicts psychic, familial, reputational and professional harms that can last a lifetime. This is nothing to sneer at.

    The second moment, connected to the first: “Boo hoo hoo. Brett Kavanaugh is not a victim.” That’s the title of a column in the Los Angeles Times, which suggests that the possibility of Kavanaugh’s innocence is “infinitesimal.” Yet false allegations of rape, while relatively rare, are at least five times as common as false accusations of other types of crime, according to academic literature.

    This is some artless statistics-mangling on Stephens’ part. Saying false accusations of rape are “at least five times as common” as false accusations of other types of crimes deliberately elides the findings of the same study that the rate of false rape accusations is 5 percent. Calling this “relatively rare,” as Stephens does, vastly undersells the rarity. On top of that, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center cautions that “research shows that rates of false reporting are frequently inflated, in part because of inconsistent definitions and protocols, or a weak understanding of sexual assault.”

    Stephens’ statistical gymnastics isn’t responsive to Ford’s testimony anyway, nor does it justify the president’s dark and vicious mockery of Ford. The whole column makes clear that Stephens cares far less about Ford’s words than he does the behavior of Democrats. All Stephens has to say about Ford’s testimony is that it was “not preposterous but is also largely uncorroborated.”

    Largely! Stephens betrays no interest in the 40-plus people claiming information about the allegations against Kavanaugh who’ve been rebuffed by the FBI. And he’s not at all concerned about the many former classmates and friends of Kavanaugh who’ve come forward to say the judge has been lying about his conduct in high school and college. Stephens wants to believe Kavanaugh, and he wants Kavanaugh confirmed. The main purpose of citing false rape statistics is to help him feel better about throwing his support behind Trump’s abominable conduct.

    And I’m guessing that Stephens needs that psychological coddling because what he’s doing now is precisely what he acidly critiqued other conservatives for doing prior to the 2016 election. “Mr. Trump’s unrelenting and apparently irrepressible bigotry, misogyny, bullying and conspiracy-mongering won’t keep Republican leaders from supporting him,” Stephens wrote in The Wall Street Journal the day before Trump’s election, “provided he mouth pieties about appointing more Scalias to the court or cutting corporate tax rates.” Stephens has come around to Trump’s irrepressible bullying and misogyny just as he is on the cusp of appointing another Scalia to the court.

    He’s still a good #NeverTrump conservative, though, because the liberals made him do that.

  • Decades of Trump family tax fraud doesn’t bother conservatives who demanded Obama be “vetted”

    The tax swindler president gets a pass from the right

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    One of the dominant narratives about Barack Obama in conservative media and Republican politics hinged on the idea that no one knew who America’s first black president really was. This notion that Obama was hiding his true self found countless avenues of expression -- obsessions over his college transcripts; fine-toothed parsing of personal anecdotes related in his books; sinister insinuations about the childhood years he spent in Indonesia; dimwitted conspiracies about who actually wrote his autobiography; equally stupid conspiracies about his biological father; still dumber conspiracies about the famous black men who could be his “real” father; and bad-faith efforts to impute to Obama the politics of every controversial figure he encountered in his public life. The current president’s ascent in Republican politics began with a bigoted smear campaign to demonstrate that Obama had covered up his true place of birth.

    The unstated political intent behind all this aggressive and frequently deranged probing into Obama’s past was to leverage racial anxiety and portray Obama as foreign, un-American, and dangerous. The stated justification was that America needed to break through the political persona Obama had created and understand who the “real” Barack Obama was.

    “All people want to know is: What has this man ever actually accomplished in government? What does he plan for America? In short: Who is the real Barack Obama?” then-Republican presidential candidate John McCain said in a 2008 campaign speech.  “He’s been elected president,” Fox News’ Sean Hannity said shortly before Obama’s inauguration. “My question is: Do we really know the real Barack Obama?” Conservatives were singularly obsessed with debunking Obama’s self-told origin story and exposing the true “radical” they already had convinced themselves was hiding behind it.

    Now here we are in 2018 and Donald Trump, who benefited more than any other Republican politician from telling grotesque lies about Obama’s background, is president of the United States, having successfully campaigned on his own mythology as a business genius and self-made billionaire. That mythology was always based on grandiose lies and relied heavily on intense secrecy and media credulity. This week it was ripped to shreds by a New York Times investigation into the Trump family’s wealth which found that Donald Trump was heavily dependent on dubious -- and often fraudulent -- financial support from his real-estate developer father, Fred Trump.

    The true Donald Trump is a child of privilege whose wealth was always secure. He was disastrous as a businessman, but he was singularly effective in devising schemes (in collaboration with his dad) to conceal those failures with complex and inventive forms of tax fraud. The Donald Trump who markets himself as a business phenom is actually a spectacular failure who so values personal wealth and the outward appearance of success that he would commit fraud and even attempt to railroad his ailing father into altering his own will.

    This is precisely what conservatives were warning would happen with Obama: A president’s facade was shorn away to reveal something far more sinister, with dire implications for our political system. And early indications are that the right couldn't care less.

    Fox News has spent the day since the Times story dropped spinning it as positive for Trump, arguing that the illegal behavior described in the story actually shows that Trump is -- in the words of Neil Cavuto -- “pretty clever.”

    Sean Hannity, who aired a series of programs in the run-up to the 2008 election purporting to expose “The Real Barack Obama,” brushed off the Times’ deconstruction of Trump as a “slander” cooked up by Democrats who “think they're losing the vote on Judge Kavanaugh.” Breitbart News, which committed itself to a much-publicized (and often hilariously inept) “vetting” of Obama in 2012, limited its coverage of the Times story to publicizing Trump’s attacks on it.

    Such hypocrisy is to be expected, I suppose, but it’s still wild given all the dire warnings conservatives sounded about what a secret radical president would mean for U.S. policy. The situation we now face is that a sitting president with a long-standing record of fraud and tax evasion is responsible for overseeing the IRS and directing tax policy. The Times article describes the intricate, intra-familial schemes the Trumps devised so Fred Trump could line the pockets of his children without paying taxes. Are we just going to assume that similarly fraudulent arrangements do not exist between Donald Trump and his children, one of whom is a senior official in his White House?

    The potential for corruption is staggering, and it hovers menacingly above all the acts of official corruption we already know about. And yet, few on the right seem invested in loudly asking “who is the real Donald Trump?” I guess it would be pointless anyway; we know the real Donald Trump is a fraud and a tax cheat, but they just don’t give a damn.

  • Brett Kavanaugh went full Hannity

    To save his nomination, Kavanaugh unleashed his inner wing nut

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Brett Kavanaugh came into yesterday’s Senate hearing on his nomination to the Supreme Court in dire trouble. Prior to his appearance, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard wrenching, agonizing, and manifestly credible testimony from Christine Blasey Ford as she described the sexual assault she says Kavanaugh inflicted upon her over three decades ago when they were both still in high school. Committee Republicans, likely sensitive to the optics of a sexual assault survivor being interrogated by their all-male roster, outsourced their questioning to sex-crimes prosecutor Rachel Mitchell, who didn’t manage to undercut Ford’s credibility but did poke a few holes in Kavanaugh’s.

    Cornered, threatened, and facing the abrupt termination of what was supposed to be a painless ascension to the Supreme Court, Kavanaugh went feral. His opening statement kicked off with an acerbic screed aimed at the committee Democrats. Yelling into his microphone and flushed with anger, Kavanaugh denied every allegation against him. He snapped at the Democratic senators on the committee, talked over them, and petulantly threw their questions back in their faces. And all throughout the hearing, he lied about matters large and small.

    Much of the coverage focused on Kavanaugh’s anger and his tone, and many conservatives were quick to argue that his rage was understandable as that of a man falsely accused. But the most revealing moment of Kavanaugh’s testimony came early on when he said this:

    This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election. Fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record. Revenge on behalf of the Clintons. and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.

    If you’ve spent any time watching Fox News or listening to conservative talk radio, rhetoric like this should be instantly recognizable: conspiratorial, steeped in grievance, and swaddled in anger. Watch Sean Hannity’s program on literally any night of the week and you’ll be bombarded with near-identical harangues about shadowy left-wing conspiracies driven by resentment over President Donald Trump’s election and invariably connected somehow to Bill and Hillary Clinton.

    “The entire basis of Robert Mueller’s so-called investigation is based on a lie and a conspiracy theory that was cooked up by the Obama administration, by Democrats, and by the liberal news media as an excuse for why Hillary Clinton lost the election,” Hannity complained this past January. “Mueller’s investigation has now morphed into a Democratic political hit job.” Compare that to the Supreme Court nominee’s accusation of a “calculated and orchestrated political hit” fueled by “anger about President Trump and the 2016 election” and Clintonite vengeance. Brett Kavanaugh was not a judge in that moment; he was a pro-Trump cable news pundit.

    To no one’s surprise, Kavanaugh’s testimony was loudly celebrated by the Republican establishment and conservative media. GOP senators who were content to let their proxy counsel speak for them to Dr. Ford abruptly abandoned her to join and echo Kavanaugh’s aggrieved complaint.

    During and after the hearing, the general reaction was that Kavanaugh was putting on a performance for an audience of one -- specifically, Donald Trump, who values this sort of aggressive combativeness (particularly from powerful allies who are facing sexual misconduct allegations). And that’s true insofar as Kavanaugh needed to reassure the man who nominated him, and he succeeded in that effort. But it would be incorrect to view Kavanaugh’s testimony yesterday as some sort of act or contrivance.

    This is who Brett Kavanaugh is. This is the Brett Kavanaugh who worked as a deputy to former independent counsel Ken Starr and harbored a singular obsession with long-debunked conspiracy theories about Clinton White House official Vince Foster’s suicide. This is the Brett Kavanaugh who, as a staffer in George W. Bush’s White House, was linked to a scandal surrounding emails stolen from Democratic senators (Kavanaugh’s blanket denials of having knowingly received those stolen documents were convincingly debunked by Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats).

    The Kavanaugh that we saw at the confirmation hearings earlier this month who talked about the virtues of an independent and nonpartisan judiciary, who said “a good judge must be an umpire -- a neutral and impartial arbiter who favors no litigant or policy,” who warned that the “the Supreme Court must never be viewed as a partisan institution” -- that was the fake Kavanaugh. That Brett Kavanaugh was putting on a show and playing the part of an impartial jurist. Maintaining that fiction yesterday would not have helped his cause, so he cast it aside and let his inner Hannity take control.

    Now it seems likely that Kavanaugh will be confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate and ascend to the Supreme Court. Chances are pretty good that, at some point, the high court will be forced to weigh in on the Russia investigation conducted by special counsel Robert Mueller: an investigation that Trump has attacked as a Democratic conspiracy linked to Hillary Clinton that is driven by lingering anger over his election.

    Hey … where have we heard that before?

  • Ben Shapiro's Fox News elections show doesn't cover elections

    The Ben Shapiro Election Special is long on culture war, short on campaign coverage

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    To kick off the first episode of his limited-run weekly series on Fox News, Ben Shapiro observed that “we are in the midst of the one of the most important election cycles of our lifetime.” This is true insofar that every federal election cycle is important and the current election cycle is indeed happening while we are alive. But this election cycle is so important that Fox News created a special show for Ben Shapiro to talk about the upcoming elections: a show it calls The Ben Shapiro Election Special.

    Some of you might have questions, like: “Why is Ben Shapiro hosting a show about elections?” and “What the hell does Ben Shapiro know about elections?” and “What can I possibly learn about elections from a guy who ‘doesn’t seem to care very much about facts’?”

    These are all reasonable questions. They’re also completely moot, given that The Ben Shapiro Election Special neither covers nor cares about the election cycle that supposedly justifies its existence. As I wrote when the show was first announced, it’s all just a flimsy pretense cooked up by Fox to audition Shapiro as a replacement Sean Hannity. The network wants to capitalize on Shapiro’s hilariously inapt reputation as (in the words of The New York Times) “the cool kid’s philosopher.” The end product is functionally indistinct from the rest of Fox News’ prime-time programming -- hyperbolic attacks on liberals, factual errors, rigid ideological conformity -- with just enough lip service paid to its gimmicky “elections” premise to emphasize how absurd it is.

    Six minutes and fourteen seconds: That is the total amount of time Shapiro’s first hour-long program devoted to what could be generously described as election-specific coverage. Those six minutes and fourteen seconds were divided between two segments: a one-on-one interview with pollster Scott Rasmussen that was devoted to an inch-deep discussion of the national generic ballot and Democrats’ chances to take over Congress, and a two-minute panel discussion featuring sports journalist Jason Whitlock, crime novelist (and podcaster for Shapiro’s website The Daily Wire) Andrew Klavan, and “conservative millennial” pundit Allie Stuckey.

    Again, you’re probably asking yourself what electoral insights could have been gleaned from this panel. Whitlock provided the answer when Shapiro solicited his 2018 election predictions, and he demurred because he -- like everyone else involved -- is not an elections analyst.

    The vast bulk of the first episode of The Ben Shapiro Election Special was instead devoted to stuff that falls more into Shapiro’s comfort zone: attacking liberals. The first half of the show was just an extended monologue lashing out at “the left” for the handling of reports that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh committed sexual assault; accusing Democrats of dirty tricks; and attacking the credibility of professor Christine Blasey Ford, who reported that Kavanaugh assaulted her.

    “Ford’s lawyers are now demanding that for her to testify, Republicans should make Kavanaugh testify before she does,” Shapiro said. “That’s insane. It’s obviously a poison pill. There is no legal proceeding in America or any other civilized country where the defendant testifies before the plaintiff.” That’s a sound rejoinder but for the facts that a Senate hearing is not a legal proceeding, Kavanaugh and Ford are neither defendant nor plaintiff, and back in 1991, Clarence Thomas testified before Anita Hill.

    “The real agenda here obviously has nothing to do with whether Brett Kavanaugh actually attempted to sexually assault a girl 36 years ago,” Shapiro said of the Democrats’ handling of the Kavanaugh allegations. “It has everything to do with painting a picture, a picture of evil Republican sexists who don’t care about women who are sexually abused.” Amusingly, a couple of minutes later Shapiro stepped on his own point by noting that President Donald Trump “didn’t help things” by attacking Ford’s credibility, which “makes Republicans look insensitive.”

    From there, The Ben Shapiro Election Special veered off into a harangue about the evils of “social justice” and one-sided relitigations of the Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork nominations. Shapiro deployed some harsh broadsides against columnist Ana Marie Cox, comedian Chelsea Handler, former Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid, and several other people whose shared characteristic is that they are not running for any elected office in 2018.

    The panel discussion featured more of the same, with Shapiro and his guests giving their takes on Google’s alleged bias against conservatives and mocking a transgender woman who, per Vice, “has undergone extreme body modification to become a dragon.” Zero insight -- electoral or otherwise -- was gleaned from the discussion, though Whitlock’s joke that he self-identifies as Denzel Washington did elicit some fantastic awkwardness from Shapiro:

    I could go into more detail, but there isn’t actually any point. If you’ve seen anything Fox News has aired in prime time over the last 20 years, then you’ve already seen The Ben Shapiro Election Special.

  • Trump's war on the Lester Holt interview

    A presidential media assault on the president’s self-incriminating words

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    The president and his attorneys are not subtle. Caught up in the grinding gears of the Russia investigation, they’ve apparently decided that whatever legal strategy they’ve adopted (if they have one) must be complemented by a loud, clanking, and incessant media blitz to exonerate the president in the court of public opinion. And so they go on TV -- constantly -- to proclaim Trump’s innocence and endlessly litigate the evidence that suggests otherwise.

    By watching how they communicate, you can suss out clues to which issues are causing the president and his lawyers the most grief. At the moment, for whatever reason, Trump and his team seem preoccupied with the idea that the president might have admitted to obstruction of justice when he told NBC’s Lester Holt last year that “this Russia thing” was on his mind when he fired former FBI Director James Comey. And so they’re trying to rewrite recent history by lying about the Holt interview and brazenly retconning Trump’s relationship with Comey.

    Earlier this week, Trump gave an interview to The Hill that touched on the Justice Department’s Russia investigation and Trump’s controversial May 2017 firing of Comey. Trump spun a nonsensical story about how he wished he had fired Comey before he became president:

    "If I did one mistake with Comey, I should have fired him before I got here. I should have fired him the day I won the primaries," Trump said. "I should have fired him right after the convention, say I don't want that guy. Or at least fired him the first day on the job. ... I would have been better off firing him or putting out a statement that I don't want him there when I get there.”

    Trump obviously could not have fired Comey while Barack Obama was still in office. And while Trump did attack Comey during the 2016 campaign over the decision not to recommend charges against Hillary Clinton over her email server, he revised his opinion of the FBI director after Comey reinitiated the email investigation just days before the election. “It took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made in light of the kind of opposition he had where they’re trying to protect her from criminal prosecution,” Trump said at the time. “What he did, he brought back his reputation. He brought it back.”

    This week’s preposterous revisionism seems like an effort to establish a motive for Trump’s firing of Comey: specifically, that he always wanted to fire Comey, even before the FBI began investigating the Trump campaign’s Russia connections in July 2016. It probably hasn’t occurred to Trump that the fact that he didn’t fire Comey immediately is sufficient proof that this new story is bullshit. But logical inconsistency isn’t the problem he’s trying to solve -- he’s trying to unring the obstruction-of-justice bell he rang during his interview with Holt shortly after the Comey firing.

    In that May 2017 interview, Trump told Holt that he had decided to fire Comey regardless of whatever recommendation he got from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. “He made a recommendation, but regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it,” Trump said. “And, in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won.’”

    Trump and his legal team have long been aware of the problem this interview presents and have employed various strategies to defuse it. The president has accused Holt of “fudging my tape” -- an incendiary and false allegation that the tape itself disproves. Trump’s lawyers have opted for a subtler, though still dishonest, strategy of arguing that Trump’s comments and the interview have been broadly misunderstood.

    Jay Sekulow, who hosts a radio program when he’s not legally representing the president, argued on CNN on Wednesday evening that it is “not correct” to say Trump fired Comey because of the Russia investigation. “You know that when there are interviews, there are edits and there is a longer transcript,” he told CNN’s Chris Cuomo. “And I will just tell you without disclosing any detail, that when you review the entire transcript, it is very clear as to what happened and I'm not going to give you information on how we provided it, but in our professional discussions with the office of special counsel, we have addressed that on multiple occasions appropriately. And the evidence, when you look at the entire evidence, you don't see it.”

    Sekulow was alluding to the Trump legal team’s communications with special counsel Robert Mueller, which specifically address the Holt interview. Trump’s lawyers argue that once you consider the entire interview transcript, “a fair reading of the president’s remarks” is that he fired Comey for incompetence and fully expected the Russia investigation to continue, perhaps even drag on longer.

    The problem with this explanation is that it is strained to begin with, and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Trump would not have had to derail the entire investigation in order to obstruct it. Recall that Comey testified Trump asked for his loyalty in the months before he was fired, and Comey declined. Trump could have corrupted the probe by getting rid of Comey and installing someone friendlier who would investigate Russian election interference without investigating Trump.

    This avenue was briefly open to the president until he sabotaged it by threatening Comey over Twitter with allegedly incriminating “tapes” of their conversations. That prompted Comey to leak personal memos describing his interactions with Trump in the hope that a special counsel would be appointed -- which is exactly what happened. Since then, Trump has been threatening the Justice Department, raging about the “witch hunt” special counsel probe, and lashing out at his hand-picked attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself from the investigation. The president has been unambiguously clear in his view that senior Justice Department officials should be protecting him.

    Viewed in that context, the Lester Holt interview is incredibly damning of the president, which is why Trump and his attorneys are filling the airwaves with elaborate lies and misinterpretations about it. They recognize the danger of the president’s own words.

  • Fox News auditions Ben Shapiro as an elections expert

    With a short run and lame gimmick, Shapiro gets his shot at a cable sinecure

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Earlier today, Fox News announced that it will be launching a weekly show hosted by right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro that will have a limited, four-week run ahead of the midterm elections. “Ben is a rising star in conservative political commentary and we are excited to add his signature style and well thought out viewpoint to our pre-election weekend lineup,” Fox News says in the statement, which came hot on the heels of news that Shapiro was a conduit for pro-Russian propaganda cooked up by former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

    This is clearly Fox giving a test-run to Shapiro, who the network likely sees as capable of expanding its audience beyond its senior-citizen core. For Shapiro, a part-time Fox News hosting gig is the next step in the life cycle of right-wing punditry: He’s already a columnist and radio host, and he has side hustles hawking gold, dodgy supplements, and doomsday prepper foods, so the obvious next step is “cable news sinecure.”

    What’s weird and funny about Shapiro’s Fox News audition is its transparently phony gimmick. The show is called “The Ben Shapiro Election Special,” and apparently will tap into Shapiro’s supposed expertise in elections analysis. “I am honored to partner with Fox News where we can provide in-depth analysis on the voting trends that will be leading the polls this November,” Shapiro says in the Fox News statement.

    So Ben Shapiro is a hard-right Nate Silver now, I guess. It’s a strange framing to force upon a pundit whose oeuvre is mainly culture-war howling and sensationalized confrontation with ideological adversaries. Shapiro’s chief talent is getting booked for speeches at liberal arts colleges to provoke protests from left-wing student groups and then venerating himself as a warrior for free speech. The meat of his commentary encompasses fairly standard right-wing themes -- rote American exceptionalism, downplaying racial bias in American society, etc. -- dressed up with over-the-top aggressive attacks on “The Left.”

    Shapiro's most significant contribution to our understanding of electoral politics is to offer some variation of “this is why Trump won” whenever a Democrat or media figure does something that annoys him. And, speaking just for myself, I don’t know that I’m quite prepared to trust the electoral analysis of someone who tries to goad candidates for federal office into debating him with bad-faith offers of campaign and/or charitable donations.

    But that’s what Fox News is giving us because … well, I guess they needed something, and the election is coming up, and so sure, why not, let’s have Ben Shapiro be an elections guy now. Whatever.

    It doesn’t actually matter because this is all just a pretext to test out Shapiro as a replacement Sean Hannity for a younger demographic: someone who can theoretically appeal to the youth while giving Fox News’ existing audience the angry, ideologically acceptable opinions it craves.

  • There is no bottom

    Free of oversight and enabled by toadies, the president disappears Puerto Rico’s dead

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico almost a year ago and created a humanitarian catastrophe that continues to this day. The storm obliterated the U.S. territory’s already dilapidated infrastructure, causing an islandwide blackout that still isn’t completely fixed. With many residents denied access to electricity, fresh water, medical care, and other basic services, the death toll from the storm climbed. The official toll stood at 64 until early August, when the Puerto Rican government acknowledged that it was far, far higher -- at least 1,400. A few weeks later, Puerto Rico raised the official death toll to 2,975, based on estimates from an independent study commissioned by the commonwealth government.

    That death toll makes Hurricane Maria one of the deadliest disasters in U.S. history. To President Donald Trump, however, reports that nearly 3,000 U.S. citizens perished on his watch are a personal insult and a conspiracy to undermine him.

    You can read the president’s tweets on the subject if you like, but the gist is that the updated death toll is fake and was invented by unnamed Democrats who manufactured it solely to make Trump look bad. Earlier in the week, the president had been bragging about his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria. “I actually think it is one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about,” Trump said. He also tweeted about the “unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico.”

    This depraved egotism is untouched by any sort of factual merit: To the president, the federal response to Maria was terrific because it was his response, and any suggestion of calamity or incompetence is obviously fake because it can’t be true. “I love Puerto Rico!” Trump declared in the same tweet in which he vanished the island’s thousands of hurricane casualties.

    Just as despicable as the president’s conspiracy theory about dead U.S. citizens was the determined effort by his toadies in conservative politics and right-wing media to defend Trump’s self-serving lies.

    The pro-Trump mercenaries at Breitbart.com insisted that Trump was “correct” to argue that Democrats had created a fake death count to smear him, pointing out that earlier estimates put the death toll at around 1,000 (it’s not clear how that helps the president, who tweeted that the death toll wasn’t much higher than 18). Breitbart complained that “the media reported the new estimate as if it were an actual confirmed death toll,” even though the Puerto Rican government revised the official death toll to align with that estimate. (Breitbart’s explanation for why the governor raised the death toll is that he was “under heavy political pressure due to the slow pace of the island’s recovery,” which makes absolutely no sense.)

    Lou Dobbs, whose Fox Business program functions as a self-debasing exaltation of the gloriously infallible Donald Trump, heaped praise on the president for having “the guts to call out the Dems and national left wing media types, who have blindly accepted an amazing tortured inflation of the death toll.” Dobbs’ explanation for how the death toll rose from 64 to nearly 3,000 was this: “It involves as many academicians as humanly possible in the effort, and then you watch the entire exercise become a farce.” Dobbs later tweeted out a video of the segment, which earned a retweet from the president.

    What Breitbart, Dobbs, and the rest of the president’s sycophants leave deliberately unmentioned is that the federal government’s inadequate response to the hurricane is well-documented. Puerto Rico did not receive the same federal attention or assets other less heavily damaged areas of the country received. A recent Government Accountability Office report identified numerous problems with the federal response, including personnel shortages, insufficient resources, and a lack of proper equipment. A PBS and NPR investigation into the federal storm response characterized the Federal Emergency Management Agency as “a government relief agency in chaos struggling with key contracts, basic supplies and its own workforce.” That chaos is in evidence as the crisis continues and “eighty percent of Puerto Ricans rate Trump’s response to Maria negatively.”

    There is no official reckoning of what happened in Puerto Rico because the people in power are more concerned with maintaining power than they are with figuring out exactly how many people died and why. Congressional Democrats are accusing Republicans of stymieing any real federal inquiry into Puerto Rico’s humanitarian nightmare, and there likely won’t be any real accountability so long as Republicans control both houses of Congress. This ugly truth props up Trump’s conspiracymongering and his supporters’ bad-faith defenses -- absent any sort of definitive federal investigation into the administration’s hurricane response, Trump and his enablers are free to hurl outlandish accusations and claim that the president’s critics are smearing him with fake numbers because no one knows precisely how many people died.

    They want to make sure that no one ever really knows what happened in Puerto Rico. Their most important consideration is that the president not be blamed for the catastrophe, and if that means dismissing a couple of thousand dead Americans as a fiction invented by the Democrats, then that’s what they’ll do.

  • I, fraud-ius: Conservatives go back to counting Obama’s pronouns

    Hannity and Dobbs preview the bad-faith attacks they’ll revive for a Democratic president

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    The right-wing barkers who populate Fox News have rediscovered one of their favorite narratives: The president is an incurable and undignified narcissist. Not the current president, mind you. Not the one who made a business of slapping his name on gaudily appointed buildings, who used to call reporters pretending to be his own publicist and boast about his romantic life, who pursues illicit extramarital affairs and then pays his mistresses hush money, who gets a twice-daily briefing on positive cable news chyrons about himself, and who kicked off his presidency by lying extravagantly about the crowd size at his inauguration.

    No, the allegedly bloated and unseemly ego they can’t abide is that of former President Barack Obama, who just returned to the political stage with a critical speech aimed at Republicans generally and Donald Trump specifically. During Obama’s presidency, it was standard practice among conservative pundits to obsessively tally the number of first-person pronouns he used during public remarks and present those numbers as scientific proof of his potentially calamitous narcissism. Now that Obama has reemerged and given a political speech, they’re falling back into old habit.

    Sean Hannity smarmily observed that Obama “was so proud of himself that during his recent hour-long speech he talked a lot about himself, 102 times in one hour.”

    Lou Dobbs -- a tart critic of unseemly vanity who also sports an unnaturally radiant helmet of auburn hair atop his septuagenarian scalp -- complained that Obama “lovingly referred to himself 102 times during his unprecedented attack against his successor in the Oval Office.”

    The news here isn’t that pundits like Hannity and Dobbs are hypocrites -- they obviously are and they don’t give a shit. Moments like these are instructive, however, in that they show how conservative media will react once a Democrat returns to the presidency.

    Donald Trump’s narcissism and intensely fragile ego are more or less his defining qualities. His enablers and apologists in the conservative media who spent eight years howling that Barack Obama was fatally compromised by overriding self-regard either choose to simply ignore Trump’s actual crippling egotism or twist it into a positive. But the second Obama pops his head up, those same pundits momentarily revert to their old ways and start counting Obama’s “I’s” again. This is all being done in transparent bad faith.

    It’s important to recognize this nonsense ahead of time because these liars and propagandists have huge megaphones that they will use to slander and deride whoever challenges Trump for the presidency in 2020. They will energetically attempt to hold those Democrats to standards of moral and ethical behavior that they will never impose upon the current president. When there is no actual scandal to be found, they’ll invent one.

    All of this will be done with the goal of influencing the broader media coverage of those candidates. You can draw a straight line between shallow antics like conservatives counting Obama’s first-person pronouns and mainstream political analysts describing Obama as “aloof,” “professorial,” and the like.

    The key to thwarting this behavior is to recognize early on that it is all rooted in aggressive dishonesty. Hannity, Dobbs, and their ilk will make every excuse for Donald Trump’s scandalous behavior and moral failings and, in literally the next breath, hold Democrats to standards reserved for saints.

    (Video by John Kerr)