The Art of Follow-Up Questioning

Being that Donald Trump has been president for more than three and a half years, and a politician for more than five, it’s rather remarkable that two of his most constructive (and talked about) interviews have occurred just within the past month. The first, with Chris Wallace, was aired on Fox News Sunday on July 19th. The second, conducted by Axios’s Jonathan Swan, ran just a couple days ago.

Typically, an interview with Trump falls into one of two categories:

If it’s done by a pro-Trump partisan, like Sean Hannity or Lou Dobbs, you might as well be watching a game of doubles sand volleyball, but with only one team on the court. The “interviewer” repeatedly sets up Trump for easy spikes over the net (at the names of his critics and opponents written in the sand) without Trump having to worry about the ball ever being returned.

Then there are his more challenging (but less frequent) ones, usually with mainstream journalists, who do push back against certain statements by the president, but are also inclined to let him go in any direction he wants to with his answers. They recognize that Trump’s particular brand of bluster makes for good television, and they’re often more interested in outrageous soundbites, and getting in as many questions as possible in their limited time with the president, than they are securing definitive, qualitative answers.

Both approaches are typically good for ratings, but they often fail to serve one of the key purposes of news journalism, which is to hold people in power accountable. It’s not always the interviewer’s fault. While Trump is rarely at a loss of words, he’s a tough interview in the sense that he’s overbearing, difficult to keep focused, and has no qualms with saying lots of dishonest and contradictory things (to the point that they’re hard to keep up with).

Wallace and Swan, however, seem to have figured out the right way to question this president. In fact, I’d say their interviews were more productive, and effective at holding him accountable to the American people, than probably any since Trump took office. The formula they used wasn’t even all that complex: they came extremely well prepared with the data surrounding the topics they would be raising, they studied up on Trump’s recent rhetoric on those topics, and then they fact-checked and drilled down into dubious assertions made by the president at the precise moment he made them.

In the Wallace interview, the most notable instance of this came when Trump claimed that his general election opponent, Joe Biden, wants to defund and abolish the police, and that he had said so in a “charter” he’d written with Bernie Sanders. This was a talking point that Trump and his team had already been using in press conferences and campaign ads. Wallace immediately pushed back on the claim, pointing out that Biden has, in fact, stated opposition to defunding the police. This led to Trump asking for a copy of the document in question, and after thumbing through it for a while, Wallace was proven right.

It was also in the Wallace interview that viewers were finally given a better understanding of the “very hard” (Trump’s words) cognitive test that our president had been bragging for weeks about “acing.” Trump had apparently asked to take the test (at Walter Reed) to shoot down concerns from his critics that he was mentally ill-equipped for the presidency. Some may even remember Trump saying that the doctors who administered the test were blown away by how well he’d done.

While most in the media had just kind of dismissed the crowing (perhaps believing the test didn’t even exist), Wallace actually did some research and found the type that Trump had taken. When Trump bragged again in the interview about passing it, and challenged Biden to do the same, Wallace revealed the test to be a handful of easy exercises that assess very basic human reasoning. In fact, the point of the test is to identify whether or not someone has dementia. In other words, it should have been “aced” by anyone not suffering from the disease.

The Swan interview was a more aggressive, with the Axios reporter not giving Trump an inch on just about any answer or assertion that didn’t pass the smell test.

When Trump, who strangely said back in June that he told his administration to slow down coronavirus testing, stated that “there are those who say you can test too much,” Swan called him out on it:

Swan: “Who says that?”

Trump: “Just read the manuals, read the books.”

Swan: “What manuals?”

Trump: “Read the books.”

Swan: “What books?”

Trump had no answers.

When Trump insisted that the U.S. government’s handling of the health crisis, when compared to other countries, should be judged by COVID-19 deaths as a proportion of cases, instead of as a proportion of population, Swan immediately challenged the narrative. As well he should have, being that Trump’s figure is reflective of the work of the doctors and nurses treating the infected… not the government’s mitigation efforts.

When asked about the intelligence on Russia paying (or offering to pay) the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers, and whether Trump has brought up the matter with Vladimir Putin, Trump said he hadn’t because “many people” believed it to be fake news. When Swan asked him who, specifically, Trump had no names. When Trump said the intelligence had never even made it to his desk, Swan quickly pointed out that it was indeed included in one of the president’s daily intelligence briefings.

Swan used the same drill-drown approach on many more issues, including health-crisis messaging, the Tulsa rally, the possible contesting of November’s election results, conflicting views on mail-in ballots, the controversial comment about Ghislaine Maxwell, the violence in Portland (and the federal response), Black Lives Matter, the legacy of John Lewis, and more. The result was a sharper focus on the context and topics at hand (rather than a swirling stream of the president’s consciousness), and a proper accounting of Trump’s spin and falsehoods.

As far as I’m concerned, it was a public service.

That said, a journalist friend of mine did express a problem he had with Swan’s style. While he has no objection to tough interviews, he felt there was a lack of respect (which he sees from other young journalists) in the way Swan spoke to the president. Swan, many times throughout the interview, treated Trump more like a peer than our nation’s commander-in-chief, repeatedly talking over the president and reacting to his words with animated facial expressions. It’s a fair criticism, though I wasn’t particularly bothered by what Swan did, especially considering that Trump himself doesn’t place a lot of value in political decorum. Regardless, it’s definitely an element that distinguished Swan’s approach from Wallace’s.

The consensus among those who watched both interviews is that they were pretty brutal for Trump, not in the sense that they’ll necessarily change anyone’s mind when it comes time to vote, but in the sense that the president was made to answer for — in a way he rarely is — his efforts to mislead Americans on some rather significant issues. That’s a win not just for journalism, but also for the public.

I also think Trump should be given credit for talking to both men, who he knew to be much tougher questioners than the cheerleaders on Fox News prime-time, whose company he much prefers. When Trump and his supporters point out how Joe Biden hasn’t been talking to tough interrogators like Wallace and Swan, they’re making a valid point.

Ideally, with just a few months left until the election, both presidential candidates would be fielding hard, uncomfortable questions for the benefit of the American people. Let’s hope it happens, and happens soon.

Order John A. Daly’s novel “Safeguard” today!




Off the Cuff: Is Trump Trying to Lose?

Is President Trump trying to lose this election? Sometimes I wonder.

That’s the topic of my Off the Cuff audio commentary this week. You can listen to it by clicking on the play (arrow) button below.

 

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Bernie’s Q&A: Weiss, West, Wojnarowski, Trump TV, and more! (7/17) — Premium Interactive ($4 members)

Welcome to this week’s Premium Q&A session for Premium Interactive members. I appreciate you all signing up and joining me. Thank you.

Editor’s note: If you enjoy these sessions (along with the weekly columns and audio commentaries), please use the Facebook and Twitter buttons to share this page with your friends and family. Thank you! 

Now, let’s get to your questions (and my answers):


What’s your take on Kanye West? He obviously has no chance of winning the election (for one thing, too many filing dates have passed), but if he got on the ballot in a few key battleground states, could he peel JUST enough votes away from Biden to give Trump the win? — Joel E.

I refuse to take Kanye West seriously, Joel. He’s not running for president no matter how many times he says it. He won’t get on any ballots. A Kanye endorsement might help one candidate or another — but that would require his fans to actually go out and vote. Something else I wouldn’t bet on.

Bernie, Senator Hawley (R-MO) sent out a press release today last Friday asking NBA Commissioner Adam Silver if he would allow players to wear slogans on their jerseys that said, “Free Hong Kong, God Bless America, Back the Blue, or Support Our Troops.” When Hawley’s staff e-mailed the release, members of the media were copied on the e-mail, one of whom was ESPN’s “Senior NBA Insider” Adrian Wojnarowski, who responded to Hawley’s e-mail with “#uck You”. His e-mail did not include the #.

How in the world is that acceptable from anyone, let alone a journalist? How in the world can ESPN still retain a journalist who responds in that manner? Should we just give up on our media and assume it is nothing more than a mouth piece for the radical left? At every level, the media is a total clown show. — Joe M.

Two points, Joe. First: Wojnarowski apologized just hours later with this public statement: “I was disrespectful and I made a regrettable mistake. I’m sorry for the way I handled myself and I am reaching out immediately to Senator Hawley to apologize directly. I also need to apologize to my ESPN colleagues because I know my actions were unacceptable and should not reflect on any of them.”

ESPN suspended him without pay.

Second, his firsts reaction tells me all I need to know. The apology is BS as far as I’m concerned. It’s not just CNN, MSNBC, and big newspapers that have become mouthpieces for the hard left. Sports “journalism” is guilty too.

So I see where the Governor of Minnesota requested funds from the Federal Government to assist in rebuilding the “war-torn” city of Minneapolis. Apparently he was turned down, as he should have been IMO. I have a suggestion, why doesn’t he reach out to the Hollywood types who had no problem donating a lot of money to a fund to be used to bail out those responsible for the burning and the looting? Maybe they’ll fire up a gofundme account. While he’s at it, reach out to the Biden campaign, it too donated money to a bail fund. The chutzpah of this guy. — John M.

John, I’m not adding a word to what you’ve written.  I totally agree!

This excerpt is from the July 9th NYT Coronavirus Briefing, regarding a ranking system for the hopefully soon potential release of a vaccine:

“But the most contentious debate has been over whether to put Black and Latino people — who have disproportionately fallen victim to Covid-19 — ahead of others in the population [to be first in line to receive the vaccine]. The idea was supported by many of the health experts, who viewed it as medically sound and an act of racial justice. But others worried it could create a negative impression of the vaccine for some Americans.”

So are we at the point now where The CDC & the media believes that the virus unfairly attacks minorities because of their skin color and not by their inability to remain virus diligent? — ScottyG

Everything these days is about race. To be fair, some would argue that people of color are not coming down with the virus in disproportionate numbers because they’re not “virus diligent” but rather because they suffer from underlying medical conditions that make them more vulnerable. But it would be a bad idea to put people in the front of the line because of their skin color. It would just add to the already existing tensions surrounding race in this country.

I disagree with your conclusion [in Monday’s column] that Donald Trump is in trouble. To quote the Bard “What’s past is prologue”. Since 1900, with only two exceptions, every incumbent running in a two person race has been re-elected. The exceptions were of course Herbert Hoover in 1932 to FDR and Jimmy Carter in 1980 to Ronald Reagan. In both cases, economic forces were the deciding factor in their loss. Even given the current plague, the one thing Donald Trump is good at is managing the economy. He will have a growing economy and increased jobs by October. He will be re-elected by a large margin. — James V.

You may be right, James … but unlike just about any president who came before him, Donald Trump is widely disliked by just about every demographic group. And even the ones who still support him, like white evangelical Christians, don’t back him to the extent they did in 2016. And his noxious personality might make the difference this time around. In any event, I’m amused by your absolute certainty. No doubts for you, James. But if he loses — again, I say “IF” he loses — his most passionate supporters, the ones who never held him accountable for his dishonesty and his nastiness, will have contributed to his defeat. Donald Trump needs his friends to say, “Enough.”  They never do. So if he loses, it won’t be the “fake news” media that’s to blame. It’ll be Donald J. Trump himself — and his friends who will tolerate just about anything.

Yes, you have said numerous times you won’t write another book. But…you are faced with the biggest “Bias” story of this century on the reporting of COVID-19 (from both sides). How do you submit to this position from your loyal readers? — Tim H.

No more books. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. But thanks for asking, Tim.

In the wake of the Bari Weiss resignation this week (not to mention the scores of other similar events occurring weekly if not daily), it seems to me that the lines have been drawn as to the stakes presented for this year’s elections . There are millions of people who do not like Trump the man but who fear what will happen if the Democrats get complete power (their signals as to what they would do with such power seems very clear). Your faithful readers like me know exactly where you stand as to the character traits of Trump (or lack thereof). The question that is begged is whether Trump’s character failings are being trumped (pun intended) by the dangers posed by those who despise this country and wish to fundamentally change America forever. Put another way, is sitting on the sidelines come November a viable option this time around? One last thought: buy the beans (Goya) and sell the Times. — Michael F.

I’m with you, Michael, on “buy the beans (Goya) and sell the Times. Nicely put.

As for the rest:  I understand your point. My friends hit me with that every day. I do not want the Democrats to win. I don’t think Joe Biden will be a moderate for long if he wins. I believe he’ll continue to be pulled to the left. So, you’re probably saying, “Hold your nose, Bernie and vote for Trump.” I want Republicans to win. But Donald Trump will have to do it without me.

The University of Texas announced this week that it was renaming its field from that of a large benefactor (Joe Jamail) to two African-American players and Heisman Trophy winners (Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams). I’m a classic capitalist, but I always cringed whenever the rich guys could just come in and buy their way onto buildings and sports fields/arenas. I thought the baseball field in Atlanta should have been named after Hank Aaron rather than stroke the enormous ego of Ted Turner in calling it Turner Field. I also hate these generic corporate names attached to fields of play. This begat the ridiculous display of a few years ago when the NBA Finals rotated between American Airlines Arena (Dallas Mavericks) and American Airlines Center (Miami Heat). If there’s one good thing coming out of these social changes, maybe it’s a return to honoring individuals who are tied to fans and their communities. What are your thoughts? — Steve R.

I haven’t given it much thought, Steve, but you make sense. However … Boone Pickens, the late Texas oilman gave about $500 million to his alma mater, Oklahoma State University. Guess what the name of the football field is. Can you blame the folks at OSU?

We have been hearing about infrastructure spending by our politicians now since 2008 and the great recession. Now both Biden and Trump are beating this same drum. It seems to me that when we talk about infrastructure, the predominant ownership of the assets is either at the state and local level or in private hands in the case of the electrical grid. The federal highway system, the nation’s air control system, and selective dams and bridges being the exception. It seems to me that all of this talk about Federal intervention has just provided an excuse for the responsible parties to postpone necessary improvements waiting for the taxpayers to foot the bill for their crumbling assets. With the ridiculously low-interest rates evident over the past decade this seems malfeasant for those in charge. What is your take on this? — Douglas C.

Any time a local politician can lay off his expenses on the federal government … he or she will do just that. But the reason both parties love infrastructure is because they can claim credit for creating JOBS. The idea that it’s any president’s responsibility for a pothole on my street is ridiculous. But the reality is in an election year Dems and the GOP will talk a good game about infrastructure — even if it’s just talk.

The woke scolds now want to cancel the hit musical “Hamilton” because it glorifies a racist slave owner. The creator of this extravaganza has actually apologized to the woke crowd for not being “woke enough” and he wants to do better. I take great schadenfreude in the fact that during the curtain call, the entire cast and crew of the show felt the need to lecture the Pence family for being politically incorrect (that is, Conservative Christians), and now the creator and star Lin-Manuel Garcia and his cast now find THEMSELVES on the receiving end of the woke scolds. Nonetheless I fear that more people (whether I agree with their political positions or not) will be shut down, and the First Amendment will go by the wayside.

What is your feelings about what is happening to Hamilton? Do ya think the woke scolds would approve of Lin-Manuel Garcia producing an all black cast in a musical inspired by the life of Jeffrey Dahmer? Your thoughts are always appreciated. — “Jeffrey Dahmer—The Musical!” Regards, From The Emperor

I don’t know if you know this, Emperor. But at Jeffrey Dahmer’s trial, there was an unexpected commotion involving some of the people watching the trial from the gallery. The judge banged his gavel and shouted, “Order.” Dahmer stood up and said, “I’ll have juror number 7.”

As for Hamilton:  This is what happens in revolutions.  The purists take over — and then nobody’s safe, not even liberal icons like Mr. Garcia.

I live in a relatively small town where the local newspaper is now nearly all just local news. Because of that I want to subscribe to a newspaper online that will give me relatively unbiased information. After reading your article about Bari Weiss today I read her resignation letter. And I canceled my New York Times online subscription. I knew they were biased but felt I could still get a fair amount of factual news from them. Now I don’t like what they did , I don’t trust them and don’t want to support them financially. Can you recommend another online news source? — Beth R.

First, good for you Beth. It’s the Times’ loss, not yours. I checked around and my good friend John Daly tells me he is very happy with The Dispatch (a subscription website, owned in part by Stephen Hayes and Jonah Goldberg). “Their daily reporting (sent to members every morning via email) is very strong, thorough, and fair. Great commentary too,” he says. Good luck!

There were times in 2015 and 2016 when I was convinced that Trump was trying to sabotage his own campaign to assure that, after generating the publicity he definitely wanted from running and staying in the race so long, he wouldn’t actually become president and have to do the job. I’m believing that again now, with the latest evidence being his commutation of the thoroughly corrupt and fairly convicted (even A.G. Barr said so) Roger Stone. What do you think the probability is that I’m right? — Ben G.

I’ve thought the same thing, Ben. I even thought about writing a column that begins: Sometimes I think Donald Trump wants to lose in November.

If that’s not it, he’s just the dumbest guy to ever set foot in the Oval Office. No one has ever put his foot in his mouth, has stepped on his own good news, more than this man.

Bernie, I have a different take on the upcoming election. President Trump, is doing (and has done) a lot of strange things if we assume he is trying to get reelected. I don’t really think he cares. It’s not fun anymore, with “Tell All” books, scores of former White House associates’ candidly dumping on him, on and on. He loves his base. Loves ’em. Binden is elected. Trump starts up cable “Trump TV”, and slashes and burns to the sea, every day, 24/7. Doesn’t get better than that, for ‘Disinfectant Donny”. I kinda agree with him. His highest, best, and fun use of his talents … many, people have said; many many people — Aloha, Mike S.

Hey Mike … I think “Trump TV” is what he had in mind from the jump. He’d run for president, lose, then start a network featuring the narcissist himself. And if he loses in November, there’s an excellent chance that he’ll do just that.  Here’s the question that lingers: What will become of Fox? Will he bring the bootlickers over to Trump TV? If he does, Fox is in big trouble. It might be smart for Fox to offer him almost anything he wants. Just when you think it can’t get any crazier, it gets crazier.  Aloha, Mike.

 


Thanks, everyone! You can send me questions for next week using the form below! You can also read previous Q&A sessions by clicking here.




Four Years Later, Could “Trump TV” Be the End Game?

In the final months of the 2016 election, when Hillary Clinton was consistently leading in the polls and just about everyone believed she would become our next president, rumors were swirling that Donald Trump was already making post-election plans. Those plans didn’t include the White House, but rather the creation of a new cable-news network called “Trump TV.”

It wasn’t just baseless Internet gossip. Jared Kushner was quite vocal about the idea, having recognized the huge ratings and crowd sizes his father-in-law was drawing. Kushner reportedly went as far as discussing the venture with serious players in the media business. Fox News commentators, including some who were pretty tight with Trump, even mused about the premise on-air, coyly suggesting that Trump himself had approached them about it.

While it’s highly doubtful that Trump TV was the plan from the start, a number of Trump associates (including some involved with his campaign) later claimed that the presidential run began as an elaborate publicity stunt for the Trump brand — a stunt that got carried away when the media circus that surrounded it led to very real political momentum.

Had Trump lost in 2016, that momentum could have laid the foundation for the network he had in mind. Famously obsessed with attention and ratings, he had already proven that there was a huge, sustainable appetite for his particular political brand of grievance-stoking, identity-driven bravado. From a competitive standpoint, he had also demonstrated that he could turn loyal, longtime Fox News viewers against popular on-air figures at the network, including Megyn Kelly and Charles Krauthammer.

Monetizing the movement he created would have made perfect sense, especially for a businessman of Trump’s ilk.

But Trump didn’t lose. To the surprise of many (including himself), he became president. And Fox News took best advantage of the audience he’d forged by increasingly catering to it, and largely morphing into what was likely the vision for Trump TV.

Four years later, Trump’s in a similar situation. Election night is just a few months away, and as he runs for the presidency (this time as the incumbent), his numbers are looking even worse than the first time around (including in key swing-states). But even as the country struggles through a health crisis (that has killed more than 130,000 Americans) and an economic crisis (with millions out of work), this is the type of stuff our president is still expressing concern about on Twitter:

Stoking pointless culture battles and griping about the media treating him poorly… It’s as if nothing has changed.

While Trump’s rhetorical style and endless list of grievances have long been more exhibitive of a cable-news commentator (or angry call-in listener) than an elected official, there’s something interesting about that second tweet. It includes a narrative that Trump has spent quite a bit of extra time on in recent months: the notion that Fox News has “changed” and that it is becoming part of the “Fake News” media he regularly complains about.

Here are another couple of examples:

In case you haven’t noticed, Trump has a habit of evoking dead individuals (who aren’t around to defend themselves or correct the record) to make certain points about people in the media he doesn’t like. He has repeatedly referenced the legacy of Mike Wallace to attack his son, Chris, and we of course remember him disgracing the memory of Lori Klausutis to go after Joe Scarborough.

Lately, he’s been throwing around the name of Roger Ailes, the late former CEO of Fox News, to suggest that the network (without Ailes’s leadership) has become hostile toward him.

Of course, that’s ridiculous. As accommodating to Trump as Fox News had become by July of 2016 (when Ailes was given the boot), the servility paled in comparison to the slobbering love-fest that followed and continues to this today on the network. It’s not even close.

Under Ailes, there was still a number of prominent conservative commentators at Fox who pushed back against Trumpism on a regular basis (even though a lot of viewers didn’t like it). These days, hardly any do… and that’s because the network responded to what the increasingly tribal base wanted.

So, what’s Trump talking about when he complains about Fox turning on him? Could it be that he became so spoiled by years of cheerleading at the network that he, over time, grew more sensitive to the few dissenting voices that remained?

Maybe. Another theory, that doesn’t necessarily have to be exclusive from the first one, is that he’s seeing some writing on the wall in regard to November. Perhaps he’s burned out on the pressures of the job (who could blame him?), looking at his terrible poll numbers, and already thinking about what he wants to do post-presidency… should he lose.

If so, it would seem that he’d be in a far better position to make Trump TV a reality than he was four years ago. If Biden wins, all Trump would have to do is blame his loss on the “Fake News” (including Fox), and vow to “Make the Media Great Again” with his own network. His loyal fan-base would assuredly follow him.

It’s really not that hard to visualize.

Rather than cover and analyze big news stories, Trump TV hosts and contributors could spend all their time on topics like sports players kneeling for the nation anthem, television ratings, the deep state, the War on Christmas, liberal protests, far-left academia, celebrities saying crazy stuff, and the terribleness of the New York Times, CNN, Jeff Bezos, and Mitt Romney. You know, the cultural and personal conflict-type stuff that Trump really enjoys talking about.

There wouldn’t have to be any hard news at all… Not even breaking news. Just animated bar talk, and people griping about stuff.

And really, I can’t imagine Trump would have a lot of trouble finding individuals to fill those roles, being that so many right-wing pundits have adopted Trumpism as the near totality of their brand over the past four or five years. I’m thinking current Fox News contributors like Dan Bongino and Mollie Hemingway, former Fox News hosts like Eric Bolling and even Bill O’Reilly, and past and present members of Trump’s administration and campaign, like Sarah Sanders, Corey Lewandowski, and Kellyanne Conway.

Maybe Lou Dobbs could even do brief, Andy Rooney style monologues, where he ponders various problems that Trump could have easily solved, had illegal immigrants not conspired to hand Joe Biden an illegitimate electoral victory.

I’m being a bit facetious here, but I’m guessing you catch my drift.

Even if Trump loses in November, his brand will continue on. His voice will remain mega-phone loud, and his base will continue to eat up every word. And if you don’t think Trump has a post-election contingency plan for keeping himself in the limelight, feeding his own ego, and making money off it, I dare say you haven’t paid close enough attention to the man.

Order John A. Daly’s novel “Safeguard” today!

 




A Political Rant About Numbers

One thing that aggravates me about today’s political landscape is the way in which we choose to look at data, specifically numbers. We live in an era where our capacity to collect data, identify trends, and predict likely outcomes has never been better, yet we often tend to latch onto the figures that aren’t particularly important, while ignoring the stuff that is actually a pretty big deal.

I realize that importance is a subjective term, and that a figure that’s important to one person understandably may not be important to someone else. But I do think, from a societal perspective, that some numbers should be widely recognized as being far more important than others.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about, in the context of some current events:

On Twitter the other day, Stefan Rahmstorf posted this chart of new, confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany, India, Brazil, and the United States:

Rahmstorf is a German oceanographer and climatologist, and I believe that the data he posted was accurate. But his “Without words” analysis doesn’t do the information justice, nor does it bolster the full narrative I think he was going for (or at least the narrative than many took from it).

Since comparative health data like this is something the American media pays a lot of attention to, it’s good to understand what it means.

A number that matters: new COVID-19 cases

As our country works to balance the mitigation of COVID-19 with the re-opening of our economy, it’s all the more important that we pay close attention to the number of new cases (including hospitalizations and deaths), and where they’re happening. The more data we have, the more effectively states and other communities can identify hot-spots, warn of increased risks, and address medical capacity issues.

Testing is a crucially important part of this process. The more testing of people, the better the data. The better the data, the safer Americans will ultimately be.

Somewhat conversely, President Trump has described the uptick in testing as a “double-edged sword,” because it adds to the number of confirmed U.S. cases, and therefore reflects poorly on him (from a purely political perspective). He has even claimed that he ordered officials to slow down the testing for that very reason. And despite members of his administration insisting he was just joking, Trump later confirmed that he was being serious.

Of course, the president’s rhetoric here is foolish (and let’s hope rhetoric is all it is). What’s important is that our testing capacity has gotten much better in the U.S. And while that accounts for some of the upward trajectory in that chart above, it doesn’t account for most of it. In other words, Houston, we have a problem.

A number that doesn’t matter: U.S. COVID-19 cases compared to other countries

When gauging how successful the United States has been at combating the coronavirus — in comparison to the rest of the world — the important figure is not the raw number of infections, hospitalizations, or even deaths. There are a few reasons for that, the most important (and simple) one being that more people live in the United States than in most of those other countries.

Many people in the U.S. media don’t seem to get this, or perhaps they’re just pretending not to get it for the purpose of handing the Democrats a perceived political advantage over President Trump. Rather than comparing the raw numbers (which are always going to suggest that we have a disproportionately high number of coronavirus cases here in the United States), they should be comparing the per capita numbers.

There’s good reason to be concerned with how many cases we’re seeing here, but this defeatist narrative that we’ve navigated through this crisis far worse than nearly every other nation on the planet is a bit over the top.

A number that matters: election polling numbers

Contrary to popular belief, the 2016 election did not discredit major polling organizations. In fact, as I’ve written in the past, the national polls four years ago ended up being surprisingly accurate. It was some local polling in a couple of key swing-states that got it wrong.

While national polling doesn’t necessarily reflect the nuances of the electoral college, it’s a pretty darned good indicator of national sentiment. And right now, the Real Clear Politics national average of polls shows Joe Biden with a whopping 10-point lead over Donald Trump. Other polls show Biden leading Trump in six out of seven key battleground states (though again, local polling has proven less reliable).

None of this is good news for President Trump. Does it mean the election is over? No.

Polls are still a snapshot of time. Lots of things can happen between now and November. But the polls do matter, because they tell campaigns how their candidates are doing with the American people. They identify areas of strength and weakness, and help the campaigns decide when it’s time to perhaps try a new strategy or promote a new message. And right now, what Trump and his team are doing simply isn’t working.

A number that doesn’t matter: election rally sizes

Many of President Trump’s critics had fun mocking the low turnout for his much-hyped campaign rally last Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I wasn’t among them.

In fact, I was somewhat relieved to see those images of an arena only a third full. It signified that while Trump himself may not care all that much about his most loyal fans potentially spreading a deadly virus during a global pandemic, a lot of Oklahomans do care. They put public safety before politics by staying home.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand where the mockery is coming from. Few things matter more to Trump than being cheered by large crowds, and boasting about the level of support he has. That’s why his campaign followed through with the reckless, indoor event. Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale bragged earlier in the week that more than one million tickets had been requested for the event.

In the end, just 6,200 people showed up. It was a big blow to Trump’s ego, and everyone knew it. But it means nothing in regard to Trump’s popularity with the base, nor his chances of winning in November.

On a related note, it sure would be nice to see some consistency from some of Trump’s critics. While it was absolutely irresponsible for the president and his campaign to put together an event that defied many of the administration’s own health-crisis guidelines, it was also careless for other politicians, media figures, an even some epidemiologists to give their blessing to the massive, sometimes shoulder-to-shoulder, George Floyd protests across the nation.

Simply put, COVID-19 doesn’t care about anyone’s political or cultural views. Righteous indignation is not an inoculant against the virus

A number that matters: the national debt

Our national debt recently surpassed $26 trillion. That’s nearly $80 thousand per American citizen, and well over $200 thousand per U.S. taxpayer. Like the Democratic Party, the GOP has lost all interest in addressing the issue. The party no longer even pretends to care about the most predictable major crisis in our nation’s history, which is particularly disheartening being that Republicans absolutely hammered President Obama and the Democrats on this issue for eight straight years. And they were right to. After all, a whopping $9 trillion was added to the national debt during that time.

But amazingly, almost $8 trillion is projected to be added to the debt by the end of Trump’s first term alone. Yes, the recession caused by the coronavirus spurred a big spike in spending. But even before the health crisis came along, during a time when we were seeing unprecedented economic growth and unprecedented tax revenue, Trump was already on pace to outspend Obama.

Every American should care about this, but next to no one still does. The fiscal burden being placed on our children and grandchildren is not only astronomical. It’s also immoral.

A number that doesn’t matter: ratings, clicks, and social media followers

Performative politics have been part of our news-media culture for some time, but the situation has never been as bad as it is right now. The format of nearly every political commentary show on television (and on the Internet) directly caters to one political tribe or another. The goal is no longer to inform or broaden the horizons of viewers, nor is it to present a contest of ideas. It’s to piggyback off of people’s political passion, in order to generate the largest audience possible. This is done by satisfying people’s partisan hunger with hours of angry, animated, confirmation bias.

The same is true of news websites — the ones that publish mostly commentary, anyway. The endless pursuit of web-clicks has led to an extraordinary number of outrageous headlines and ridiculously slanted “stories.” The type of junk that used to be confined to fringe blog sites is now published at the top of major web-outlets whose writers regularly appear as guests on the television programs described above.

Far too many members of Congress are also in on the act, seemingly spending more time showboating on cable news and social media — peddling sycophantism, partisan angst, and maybe even a new book — than they do engaging in anything that resembles a legislative process. The goal for some of these folks, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Matt Gaetz, seems not to represent their constituents, but rather to be celebrities.

Purely from a business standpoint, ratings, clicks, and social media followers do matter. They also clearly matter to the egos of people like President Trump.

But to regular folks, none of this stuff amounts to a hill of beans. And if it does, it shouldn’t.

Because political thought-leadership has been effectively replaced with performative politics, people’s minds aren’t being changed. There are next to no voices of influence left on these media platforms to persuade individuals (including elected officials) to venture outside of their comfort zones, and look at an issue differently than how the leader of their political tribe wants them to look at.

Without the influence of independent thought, political viewership, listenership, and readership most often amount to little more than fandom. Having lot of fans doesn’t make an individual credible or wise. It doesn’t even make them particularly smart. It just means that they are, to some extent, famous.

So, when one of these “famous” folks suggests that he or she is of particular political or societal importance because of their popularity, the appropriate response is a chuckle and maybe an eye-roll.

That said, if any of you choose to follow me on social media, I will not object.

Thanks for sticking with me through this inordinately long piece. This concludes my political rant about numbers.

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