Divisiveness as Business Model and Political Strategy

by Neil H. Buchanan

Last Friday, I argued that Democrats should not preemptively talk themselves out of the idea of impeaching Donald Trump, should the opportunity ever arise.  Whatever the political merits of talking about impeachment during political campaigns, it makes no sense at all to pass up an opportunity to remove a man from office who has committed impeachable offenses.  Yet Democrats, at least as a rhetorical matter, seem to be setting themselves up for failure by claiming piously that "only the most serious" offenses are impeachable, which could quickly come to mean that no offense (or set of offenses) is serious enough.

In that column, I nodded to the political reality that, at least for now, Trump is in no danger of being impeached -- and certainly not convicted -- because of Republicans' decision to ignore everything that he has done.  Further exploring that reality, my new Verdict column this week explains why Democrats' congenital timidity is a problem even outside of the impeachment context.

The now-standard claim among anti-impeachment Democrats is that impeachment would be "too divisive," so the better move would be to beat Trump at the polls, indirectly in the midterms this year and directly in 2020.

The primary reason to worry about this new conventional wisdom is that it would be far too cute to pass up a viable impeachment opportunity (should it ever arise, which seems more than doubtful), because one never knows what might happen that could turn the political tide.  What if Melania Trump's illness were unfortunately to turn out to be more serious?  What if the Democratic nominee in 2020 has a negative October Surprise (perhaps along the lines of former NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's shocking and horrifying crimes)?  Anything could, at the right time, swing large numbers of votes Trump's way, even though he is widely despised.

But the more important point is simply that the "one option is less divisive than the other option" argument -- which, I fully admit, has more than a dollop of plausibility to it -- assumes counterfactually that Republicans and the Foxiverse would be any less on the warpath after an electoral loss than after an impeachment.  Sure, they would say that impeachment was uniquely bad, should that be how things play out; but they would just as vociferously say that election fraud (or any other excuse they can invent) is uniquely bad.

Usually, I am the first one to say that degree matters.  Two things being bad does not make them equally bad.  In this case, however, I have become convinced that the right-wing outrage machine would turn anything that it does not like into The Worst Thing Ever.  If the goal is to find the least-bad option, there might not be one.

Here, I want to add to that depressing analysis by offering some examples and thoughts about how right-wing media whip up maximum outrage in the United States these days.  (It is also worth thinking about whether there are ways to blunt that outrage, even a little bit, but I am currently at a loss on that score.)

At some point in the 1980's, after Ronald Reagan had turned up the volume on the Cold War, a U.S. television talk show was allowed to produce an episode with a Russian audience in Moscow.  (I think it was Phil Donahue's show, which younger readers might not know was the prototype from which Oprah Winfrey and other imitators built their successful careers.)  The idea was to have a standard show with the U.S. host but with an audience of Russian middle-class housewives, mirroring the type of audience that was standard in Donahue's Chicago studio.

The admirable idea was that there must be a way for non-politicians -- especially "mothers who worry for their children's future in a nuke-threatened world" -- to connect and lead the way toward peace.  What was most fascinating about the experiment, however, was that the Russian women rejected the factual premises of most of the host's questions.

For example, in a moment designed to allow both sides to admit that everyone had made mistakes and had engaged in provocations that understandably worried the other side, the host mentioned the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.  (What turned out to be a quagmire ultimately lasting more than nine years seemed at the time to be a cautionary tale.  Now, of course, the U.S. is entering its sixteenth year of military presence in that same country.)  "I'm not saying that the U.S. hasn't done some things that the Soviet Union might object to," I recall the host saying, "but do Russian citizens understand why this is worrisome to us?"

Good question.  What followed, however, can only be described as spontaneous and mirthful giggling from the Russian audience.  They were not rejecting the theory behind the question, but they simply thought that the factual premise was hilarious.  Why did this crazy American think that Soviet troops had "invaded" Afghanistan?  They had been pulled into it, and there was no reason for anyone to think that it was a hostile act by the U.S.S.R.  How could this be viewed as an example of something that Russians should admit could be worrisome to the West?

We have, I fear, reached the point in the United States where consumers of right-wing media are as walled off from all other news sources as were those Soviet citizens in Donahue's temporary studio.  They simply do not know, for example, that the Republicans repeatedly investigated the Benghazi tragedy but could find nothing to make a case against Hillary Clinton.  The facts about Trump's many outrages are either not allowed on the air or are presented in a way that makes them seem bland.  ("The president is allowed to fire the FBI director, and he did, but liberals are trying to make a big deal out of nothing due to their hatred of Real Americans and their dear leader.")

And as I reminded the readers of my Verdict column, this problem long pre-dates Trump's emergence on the scene.  (If anything, this kind of hermetically sealed environment is what made Trump all but inevitable in the first place.)  Even if Trump loses the next election (and actually agrees to leave after losing, which is no sure thing), we will see the right-wing attack dogs going after Democrats with even more intensity than they did during the Clinton and Obama presidencies.

Consider a less politically explosive, but still deeply troubling example.  Frequent readers of my columns know that I have reluctantly but dutifully written column after column over the last five years about the non-scandal relating to supposed "targeting" of right-wing groups by the Internal Revenue Service.  (My most recent summary of the non-scandal appeared here last October.)

What is amazing and frustrating, as I have written over and over again, is that Republicans refuse to stop pretending that Obama used the IRS as a political weapon, even though (as with Benghazi) their own congressional investigations have turned up zero evidence to support their conspiracy theory.

Despite everything, the people who believe in the IRS non-scandal truly believe in the IRS non-scandal.  Last week, to mark the fifth anniversary of this contrived controversy, the TaxProf blog linked to an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal that was a study in how to ignore inconvenient facts and offer dark conspiracy theories.  There were several notable aspects of this otherwise unremarkable event.

First, it is no accident that it was the editorial page of The Journal that published this piece.  Long before Rupert Murdoch bought that newspaper, the editorial side of the operation had become an early example of full-throated right wing vitriol.  This is what the pre-Trump conservative media world had turned into, and Trump is simply in a particularly damaging mutually reinforcing relationship with that longstanding cancerous media model.

Second, it is not at all surprising that TaxProf picked this up.  As I have recently discussed, the proprietor of that blog (Paul Caron, who is now a dean at Pepperdine's law school) has offered a major assist to the tireless mongers of that non-scandal by re-posting anything he could find about it as well as publishing just-for-his-blog articles when none were being published elsewhere.  (Caron himself is on record as saying that he believes in the conspiracy theory.)

Third, in keeping with TaxProf's faux-neutral approach (where publishing anything about the non-scandal serves to keep it alive, even when what is being published is written by debunkers), former New York Times Pulitzer-winning reporter David Cay Johnston wrote an absolutely brutal response to the re-posted WSJ piece.  This led to responses from the original author and another true believer, followed by even more devastating responses from Johnston.  (I am not providing links to any of this, because interested readers can find them if they must, and frankly because I do not want to assist Caron in what is quite obviously a search for clicks.)

The most important aspect of this, however, is that David Cay Johnston's food fight with his two opponents looked an awful lot (in substance, not style) like Phil Donahue's awkward attempt to engage with Russian citizens.  The two right-wingers who responded to him were absolutely certain that the lack of evidence of political wrongdoing by Obama was itself evidence of a coverup.  Johnston demanded over and over again that his opponents put up or shut up, but they were operating in a universe in which that demand made no sense.

The author of the WSJ piece is a former Republican appointee to the Federal Election Commission.  (He was nominated by Bill Clinton in 2000, but that was because the FEC is one of the commissions that is required to have partisan balance.)  Republicans have long used the FEC to block electoral reform, and it is hardly surprising that this guy would be fully immersed in right-wing dogma and committed to Republican partisanship.  Johnston's other interlocutor is a lawyer from South Dakota.

Reading their words, one can practically hear them giggling and tittering like those nervous Russian housewives: Of course there is no evidence.  The woman at the IRS who had the evidence took the Fifth and then was allowed to retire on a FULL PENSION.  And then the evidence was conveniently destroyed because of a "computer error."  Don't you get it?!

Both of Johnston's opponents are relatively highly educated people and presumably have access to the facts -- not just from the mainstream media, but especially the Treasury inspector general's reports from which they quote selectively but that (as Johnston notes) they apparently have not read all the way through.  Even so, one cannot read what these men wrote without having the feeling that they are from a different factual universe.  Yes, a big part of it must surely be conscious and strategic, but they might actually believe what they are saying, and they might not be aware that Republicans have turned up nothing at all to turn the non-scandal into the political explosion that they wish it to be.

But again, none of the real facts matter.  What matters is that there are sources of misinformation that, whether they are trying to maximize clicks or to sell adult diapers and little blue pills, will continue to tell completely false stories about what happened at the IRS and any of the other fever dreams that are being promoted on the right.  Once the idea of a conspiracy has been launched, there are plenty of people who will gleefully keep it going.

In my Verdict column, I discuss a recent column by Paul Waldman in The Washington Post, who makes this point about the relentless fact-free business model of conservative media more broadly.  He warns Democrats not to take the bait of trying to win back Trump supporters by somehow showing them "respect," not only because Democrats never disrespected or ignored them in the first place (or certainly not as much as Republicans have) but because everything that Democrats say is going to be filtered through the Fox-led media that turns everything into a reason for Trump supporters to feel even more aggrieved.

That is why there are so many stories about supposedly out-of-it students and professors at universities, with right-wing commentators using lies and distortions to send the message: "They hate you."  There is no way that the truth about Benghazi, or the IRS non-scandal, or the actual content and context of Hillary Clinton's "deplorables" remark or (as Waldman reminds us) Obama's "cling to their guns and religion" remark will ever be allowed through.

The business model of those hyper-conservative media outlets is to make people angry, and business is good.  The depressing part of this story is that that business model works even better when Democrats are in power.  If and when Trump is gone, Democrats will need to figure out a way to accept that fact, not to pretend the they can "respect" their way back into Trump supporter's hearts.  Divisiveness is, unfortunately, only going to get worse.