Live by the Binary, Die by the Binary

As anyone who’s read my columns over the past few years probably could have guessed, I won’t be voting for Donald Trump this year (nor did I last time). He has proven himself glaringly unfit for his job at just about every opportunity, and I’m not interested in helping him retain power to continue to disgrace the office.

That said, I have liked some of the things he has done over the past four years, specifically with initiatives that any Republican president would have pursued (including on the judiciary, tax reform, and regulation relief). But he has been a disastrously incompetent and destructive force in other areas. Beyond his narcissism, pettiness, chronic dishonesty, and complete disinterest in growing into one of our nation’s most important roles, he has treated the presidency as a reality-show spectacle that has worsened our divisions and grievances, and caused perhaps insurmountable damage to important institutions and the conservative movement.

I also won’t be voting for Joe Biden. As a conservative, I think he has had the wrong ideas, and been wrong on policy after policy (domestic, fiscal, foreign… you name it), over his long, largely unimpressive career in government. Prior to Donald Trump entering the political scene, Biden was perhaps the most gaffe-prone, confidently-spoken furnisher of rhetorical b.s. in all of American politics. I think he has very poor judgement, and I do worry about his mental fitness and capacity for the job.

Rather than choosing to vote for the lesser of two evils, I’ll be choosing not to vote for evil. Instead, I’ll be writing in a candidate — a conservative with integrity, competence, and admittedly zero chance of winning.

Still, I sincerely understand and respect the belief of a lot of my fellow conservatives (and an overwhelming majority of voters of all persuasions) that this election, and every general election for that matter, is a binary choice between two viable (aka major-party) candidates. It’s the argument both sides resoundingly use to garnish support for their preferred candidate. I don’t personally subscribe to the doctrine, but the position is absolutely defensible.

And because I respect the methodology (like I did in 2016), I’m not going to think any less of those who choose to vote for Trump… or for his 2020 Democratic opponent, Joe Biden. That includes conservatives.

The mere notion that conservatives would choose to vote for Biden seems to mystify a lot of righties, including one conservative writer in particular who’s near and dear to me. But it shouldn’t be all that confusing to anyone who subscribes to elections being a binary choice. If you believe that’s how voters should approach these contests, there is indeed a legitimate case for genuine conservatives choosing to support the Democratic nominee, at least on election day.

I’m using the word “genuine” to clarify that I’m not talking about people like the Washington Post’s “conservative” columnist, Jennifer Rubin, or some of the folks affiliated with The Lincoln Project. Their Trump Derangement Syndrome has compelled them to reverse long-held political and ideological positions to align with the Democratic Party’s… purely for the purpose of opening up more angles from which to assail Trump, and impress his liberal detractors.

No, I’m talking about individuals with strongly held conservative principles: fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, constitutional conservatives, etc., who haven’t abandoned those principles for the sake of either supporting or opposing Trump.

I know a number of these people. Their choice does not stem from TDS, but rather an earnest belief that more harm will come to this country from four more years of Trumpism than four new years of a Democrat of Biden’s ilk in the Oval Office.

It’s a nuanced position for sure, and reasonable people can of course disagree, but there are some compelling arguments that bolster their stance.

Let’s take things from a fiscally conservative point of view…

When looking at the national debt accumulated under President Trump, fiscal conservatives see a dollar figure that nearly matches, in just four years, what they saw (and protested from the high heavens) under President Obama in eight years! Trump-era spending was made possible by a GOP majority in the House for Trump’s first two years in office, and a GOP majority in the Senate for Trump’s full, four-year term… most of it at a time when the economy was very strong and tax revenue was very high.

It’s an observation that has led many to justifiably conclude that the only time Republicans in Congress are interested in even trying to reduce (or even reduce the rate of) government spending is when a Democratic president is in power.

Think about that for a second. Had things gone differently in 2016, would the GOP House and Senate have ever allowed our national debt to surpass $27 trillion before the end of President Hillary Clinton’s first term in office? I don’t think anyone believes they would have. Yet, it happened under Trump because our president has never cared about fiscal responsibility (he was on pace to outspend Obama even before a single cent was allocated for COVID-19 relief), and the Republican base, in their intoxication over Trump’s charisma and propensity to “fight” anyone and everyone, has refused to hold him accountable on the issue.

Under these circumstances, does supporting Biden, in order to compel Republicans in the House and Senate to wake up and return to their regularly scheduled programming, seem all that deranged from a fiscally-conservative point of view?

How about on trade? Free-trade conservatives have watched Trump start completely unnecessary trade wars that have raised taxes on Americans, closed off foreign markets, sent U.S. farm subsidies through the roof, shut down a number of U.S. manufacturing plants and family-owned farms, increased U.S. trade deficits, and earned approval from the likes of Democratic Socialist, Bernie Sanders. Furthermore, they’ve seen the president threaten and even impose tariffs over mere personal slights, burning through the good will of our allies.

Under these circumstances, and out of fear of another four years of self-harming trade conflicts, do free-trade conservatives, and U.S. industries that rely on cheap foreign materials, see the situation getting worse under Biden? I kind of doubt it.

Let’s look at things from a socially conservative point of view…

Many social conservatives certainly feel as though they’ve been getting some wins under President Trump, most notably in the form of three conservative Supreme Court nominations that they hope will produce rulings favorable to them and the country for years to come. Though that assumption has proven somewhat faulty in the past (a number of “conservative” justices over the years ended up not being reliably conservative, even in the constitutional sense), many conservatives feel validated by their vote for Trump in 2016, based on his judicial picks.

Their reasoning makes sense. However, one could also make the argument that now that conservatives have gotten three of their own on the Supreme Court (with the safe assumption that Amy Coney Barrett will be confirmed), and they’re comfortable with the perceived balance it has brought, Trump is less useful to them now than he was four years ago.

A lot of people who consider themselves social conservatives have had to make incredible allowances for Trump, routinely exempting him from even the most minimum standards of morality and basic decency that they continue to apply to others. While some have performed this duty without shame or apparent regret, and have even adopted some of Trump’s poorest character traits for themselves, others are tired of all the dishonesty, cruelty, bigotry, and callousness that make a mockery of their belief system. They’re tired of looking like hypocrites for dismissing and even defending our president’s worst instincts.

In Biden, they see a man who is wrong on abortion. They see a man whose coyness on court-packing and certain far-left themes brings them concern, even if they suspect there wouldn’t be follow-through. They see a blowhard with a history of getting too handsy with women.

But unlike with Trump, they also see someone who is dedicated to his family, cordial and kind to others, even in temperament, and has a seemingly genuine relationship with God.

Under these circumstances, under the binary choice philosophy and the current make-up of the Supreme Court, is Biden an acceptable alternative? I don’t think it’s a deranged to believe so.

Here’s a personal story to assist with one last point:

Last week, I joked on Facebook that there’s “a disproportionately high number of anti-maskers in steakhouse lobbies.” This came from some personal observations, as my family has done a lot of carry-out ordering from restaurants during the health crisis.

At most restaurants, at least in my town, everyone in the lobby wears a mask (per state guidelines). This includes the employees, and patrons entering the building (they can take off their masks once they are seated at their table). But in steakhouse lobbies, when I walk in to pick up my order, it’s pretty clear that the other patrons no longer care about wearing masks (despite the sign on the door still stating that they’re required). Fewer and fewer people have been wearing them, and when I went in to pick up an order last week, the lobby was overflowing with mask-less individuals, standing and sitting just inches apart, laughing and talking while waiting to be seated.

It was as if the pandemic was over.

I haven’t seen that level of disregard at Asian restaurants, or fast-food restaurants, or pizza places. Just steakhouses. Hence, I presented my anecdote on Facebook… which I figured would be good for a couple of laughs.

Well, this struck a few people I know as some kind of political statement (apparently “steak” is a dog whistle in some circles), in which they made the point that “conservatives” like them are tired of this “mask b.s.”

After reminding them that I too am a conservative, that conservatives have traditionally stood for the protection of innocent life, and that nearly a quarter of a million Americans have already died from COVID-19, I was met with laughter emojis, and the insistence that those deaths were statistically insignificant, and that people’s immune systems were doing just fine in resolving the situation.

Furthermore, at least a couple of the individuals weren’t even familiar with the basic science behind mask-wearing, believing, as one of them stated, that the “decision to not wear a mask doesn’t affect anyone else.”

In reality, if someone is unknowingly infected with COVID-19, their decision not to wear a mask absolutely affects others… potentially in some very bad ways. And based on some of the other comments I read, I’m not convinced these people — friends of mine — even understand that one can be asymptomatic and still infect people.

How is such denseness even possible eight months into this health crisis, and why is there a political stigma overshadowing it? The answer is failed messaging and failed leadership.

When the leader of the free world — a man who carries a tremendous amount of weight with his political base — regularly disseminates misinformation about a deadly virus, stokes baseless doubt in the best tools and simple practices available to mitigate that virus, and actually facilitates additional spread of that virus by organizing big social events, those who’ve placed trust and faith in him will do the same.

This is the most consequential failure of the Trump administration, on an extraordinarily important issue that should (and would, in normal times) transcend politics. For all of Biden’s faults (and there are plenty), virtually no one believes he would be spending his time in office, during the current health crisis, pretending the virus isn’t dangerous, stoking COVID-19 conspiracy theories, ridiculing mask wearing, undermining and mocking his medical professionals and scientists, calling on states to “liberate,” and holding huge in-person events in his honor.

On that difference alone, it’s not deranged or even unreasonable for conservatives subscribing to the binary choice belief to view crisis management as a transcending issue for the foreseeable future, and deciding that a Biden administration would be far better equipped to deal with it.

As the old saying goes, live by the sword, die by the sword. If the insistence is that a voter must choose a candidate from a pool of exactly two, then that voter’s decision must be respected, accepted, and not held against them on grounds of moral or ideological principle.

Again, I don’t subscribe to the binary choice. But those who do need to own it, regardless of the results.

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A Repulsive and Pointless Debate

“Biden came to win a debate, and Trump came to win WrestleMania.” Those were the thoughts of National Review’s Jim Geraghty, after watching last night’s contemptuous presidential debate in Cleveland.

As someone who’s watched more than his fair share of professional wrestling over the years (mostly in my youth, but still on occasion), my initial thought was that Jim nailed it. After all, Wrestlemania is a loud, outlandish spectacle of the absurd… which is exactly what Trump worked hard to assure last night’s event would be.

But here’s where I’ll quibble just a bit with the metaphor. From a scripted story-line perspective, “winning” Wrestemania ultimately means winning a wrestling match. It’s about achieving a hard-fought victory over your opponent, and taking home the prize. That’s the choreographed payoff that wrestling fans put down big bucks to see.

That’s not the kind of thing we saw from Trump at the debate. Instead, we watched the equivalent of a pro wrestler running out the clock on a 90-minute match by trying to keep his opponent from so much as entering the ring (while blowing off and shouting over the referee’s repeated warnings). If last night were the main event of Wrestlemania, wrestling fans in attendance and watching on pay-per-view would have booed in unison and demanded their money back.

Heck, I wanted my money back, and I watched the thing for free.

Now, to be fair, the debate wasn’t a total disaster. For example, I was pleasantly surprised during that first question about Trump and the Republicans moving, just a few weeks prior to the election, to fill Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s old Supreme Court seat. Trump seemed well prepared, and answered with what I thought was the winning, constitutionally-sound argument. Biden’s answer wasn’t bad either, approaching the issue with a referendum argument.

For about 15 minutes or so, I was hopeful that Americans might actually hear a productive, perhaps even enlightening, debate over competing visions, from two men vying for the honor of leading our country for the next four years.

Boy, was I wrong.

Trump quickly fell back into his much more comfortable role as heckler-in-chief, constantly breaking into Biden’s allotted time, changing the subject, tossing out overly personal insults, assigning false positions and rhetoric, and making it virtually impossible for the former vice president to lay out any kind of substantive argument. In that regard, it may have been an effective strategy, at least at times. A good example was when Trump cut off Biden’s attack-line on Russia placing bounties on U.S. troops, and the president remaining silent about it. With Biden’s train of thought ruined by Trump’s interruption, the point was never returned to.

That’s, of course, assuming that what Trump did was even part of strategy.

Either way, it’s hard to miss the irony. Trump and his team had been insisting for weeks that “Sleepy Joe’s” debate performance would falter and crumble under the weight of Biden’s own senility. Only, that didn’t happen. It might have, had Trump given Biden more opportunities to make a serious mistake — one that Trump could effectively exploit to rack up some political points. But that’s clearly not the direction Trump’s instincts took him in; the president didn’t even bother to go after some patently false statements and contradictions that Biden did manage to spit out.

Whether it was planned ahead of time, or on the fly, President Trump decided that letting Biden self-destruct wasn’t going to work, and the answer instead was to execute a hostile takeover of the debate stage (format and agreed-upon conditions be damned).

The casualties of that takeover were the American people. I can’t imagine anyone watching the debate came away with anything other than a headache. Heck, I’m guessing a lot of people turned it off about 20 minutes in, just to spare themselves a headache.

If you think a missed opportunity like that is helpful to a candidate who’s a clear underdog at this point in the race, think again. And if you think that Biden losing his cool at times, and saying things like, “Would you shut up, man?” hurt him with voters, it’s probably worth considering how many people watching the debate at home were saying pretty much the same thing.

And then there was — to use another professional wrestling metaphor — the third man in the ring: Chris Wallace. Wallace has taken heat from both sides for his performance last night as the debate’s moderator.

NBC’s Andrea Mitchell complained that Wallace allowed Trump to “bulldoze” Biden.

MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace argued that “Chris Wallace did not act as a moderator,” and added that “he didn’t hold [Trump’s] feet to the fire” in regard to the debate rules.

“He did not have control of the debate stage for much of the evening,” said CNN’s Jake Tapper. “[He] didn’t remind the president he was violating the rules until 1 hour and 13 minutes into the event.”

On the other side of the aisle, media-conservatives (including some of Wallace’s own Fox News colleagues) took aim at him for, in their view, working in concert with Biden.

Fox and Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade tweeted during the debate, “Why is @JoeBiden allowed to interrupt? @realDonaldTrump is not.” He added in a separate tweet (that has since been deleted), “Looks like 2 v 1 at times tonight.”

The Five’s Greg Gutfeld retweeted, and replied in agreement with, criticisms of Wallace from conservative blogger Stephen Miller… including this one:

…and this one:

Mollie Hemingway, a regular on Fox News’s Special Report, complained that the “candidates should have been allowed to debate.”

And Fox News regular, Dana Loesch, tore into Wallace throughout the night:

Wallace’s constant interruptions? Good grief.

It goes without saying that Wallace was in an extraordinarily tough position last night. As Geraghty wrote in his column, “no moderator ever faced a challenge like this before.”

The fact of the matter is that one of the debaters repeatedly violated the rules that both sides had agreed on, prior to the debate. Complaining about Wallace appropriately reining that debater in, and blaming him for the sh*t show we witnessed last night, is absurd.

Was Wallace perfect in the role? No. Throughout the chaos, as incessant cross-talk consumed the stage, I think there were times when he could have blown past Trump’s bluster and pressed Biden to answer certain unanswered questions (like he did with Trump). Of course, that’s easy for me to say, being that I wasn’t entangled in the pandemonium, and trying to restore order (while keeping one eye on the clock).

All in all, I think Wallace did a very good job, and much of the criticism he’s receiving is unreasonable. In fact, I’m not sure anyone else could have done any better under the circumstances.

Regardless of how frustrated one is with our viable choices in this presidential election, and the media’s often disproportional treatment of those choices, the fact of the matter is that last night’s completely unproductive debacle, during a very serious and sensitive time in our nation’s history, was caused by one person. And it wasn’t Biden or Wallace.

If you think what happened in Cleveland was bad for Trump, blame him.

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Off the Cuff: My Election Prediction? Pain.

I don’t even try to predict election outcomes any more; I’ve learned my lesson there. But I am going to go ahead and predict this election’s aftermath…

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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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.

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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.

 

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

Side note: If you’re a Premium Interactive member (the $4 tier), and have a question for this Friday’s Q&A, make sure to get it to me before Wednesday night at midnight. You can use this form on my website.