• Saturday Q&A
Undoubtedly, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) is going to be enormously popular with his colleagues from here on out. He hustled back to Washington from his home state, in hopes of...who knows what, exactly? There was absolutely no doubt that the $2.2 trillion COVID-19 bill was going to pass the House; all that Massie could plausibly have done is delayed it by a day or two. In the end, he even failed at that. Enough House members made their way back to Washington to form a quorum, and that was enough to kill Massie's attempt to force a roll-call vote, since there was a quorum (thus derailing the representative's "no quorum" point of order), and since there wasn't a second for his motion to hold a roll-call vote. The measure then passed by a voice vote.
One wonders if this will bring an end to Massie's political career. His district is R+18, so it's certainly not a Democratic pickup opportunity. However, though the date to file for office has passed in the Bluegrass State, Massie does have a primary challenger, an unknown named Todd McMurtry. The Republican establishment has already started to rally around McMurtry, up to and including the fellow in the Oval Office:
By empowering the Radical Left Democrats, do nothing Kentucky politician @RepThomasMassie is making their War on the 2nd Amendment more and more difficult to win (But don’t worry, we will win anyway!). He is a disaster for America, and for the Great State of Kentucky!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 27, 2020
Trump has also called for Massie to be thrown out of the Republican Party. So, there's every chance the Congressman is going to get Rankined.
As his response suggests, the President was entirely on board with the stimulus package. As soon as the bill arrived on his desk, he got out his sharpie and signed it into law. And now we all sit back and see how much it helps. (Z)
We got a lot of COVID-19/relief bill questions this week, plus a lot of history questions inspired by our new series, plus a few folks remembered that there's a presidential election going on. We are going to get to the behind-the-scenes questions eventually, but it's not this week.
Q: The U.S. Government is committing $2 trillion toward disaster relief/stimulus related to COVID-19. Where does that money come from? Typically, the U.S. Treasury sells bonds to raise money. Who is going to buy those bonds now? I can't see other countries or sovereignties as investors since they have their own disasters to fix. Independent investors? Maybe, but are there enough of those? They'll have their pick of countries to support. And the Treasury is talking like there will be more sizable stimuli ahead. Alternatively, the U.S. could print money, but that creates a host of other issues including massive inflation (which may be coming no matter what since money supply under any scenario is going to dramatically increase), among others. I haven't seen position papers among economists on how this could play out. Thoughts? J.K., Roseland, VA
A: We are not experts in macroeconomics, but we have some readers who are, so if we miss anything, hopefully they will write in. Anyhow, let us begin by pointing out that there was a time when the government's financial transactions had to be backed by some amount of specie. That is no longer the case; to a large extent, the government's bank balance is an abstraction. It's a product of ones and zeroes on a government computer somewhere. And so, the feds can take on virtually any liability, as long as there is some established "plan" for paying that liability back eventually.
The way in which the $2.2 trillion will be financed, then, is through the sales of bonds. The Federal Reserve will sell $2.2 trillion in bonds to private banks, and the private banks will make money reselling them at a modest profit. What if banks don't have $2.2 trillion to spend right now? No problem, the Fed will loan them the money to buy the bonds. That's right, the Fed is going to make a second loan (money to banks) until enough money is raised to cover the initial loan (the bond issue). Since both loans have an ostensible mechanism by which they will be paid back (the first will be paid pack when the bonds are redeemed, the second when the bonds are sold), then it's all good.
It is not entirely clear what impact this will have on the economy, since there's never been this kind of outlay under these kinds of circumstances (adjusted for inflation, the bailouts from a decade ago cost only half as much as this one). However, since the government is not creating new money (it's only creating new liabilities), an inflationary effect is not inevitable.
Q: Are people paid as independent contractors (like Uber drivers) eligible for unemployment? If not, is it possible that the unemployment numbers are missing vast numbers of people who can no longer earn money? How will they cope if no unemployment is available to them? C.F., Merrimack, NH
A: Customarily, people who are a part of the "gig" economy are not eligible for unemployment benefits, or some of the other things that working people generally get (like workman's comp insurance). However, COVID-19 relief bill v3.0 has specific language that extends such benefits to gig employees, as well as small business owners (who are also not generally eligible for unemployment).
Q: I recently saw someone complaining about the size of the relief bill. Not the dollar amount,
but the number of pages. I appreciated your inclusion on Wednesday stating that each page of the $2 trillion bill
averages out to more than a billion dollars per page.
But how does a bill get written so quickly? Who does the writing? I'm assuming many staffers take a portion and it get split up that way? Or maybe lobbyists take a few sections and hand over the wording to legislators? W.B., St. Louis, MO
A: You've got the right of it. A bill like this is generally apportioned out to the individual members, based on their expertise and committee memberships. To take an example, in their capacity as members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Susan Collins (R-ME) prepared the original verbiage covering loans to small businesses. Undoubtedly, they in turn farmed out some significant portion of that work (maybe all of it) to their staff members.
It is not unheard of for lobbyists to prepare legislation, and to get their contributions adopted unchanged, or with only nominal changes. There's no public evidence that happened here, but given the length of the bill and the amount of money involved, it is likely it did. However, those who would know for certain have every reason to keep that information to themselves.
We will also add, in the event that it is of interest, that because of formatting and spacing the bill actually checks in at about 160,000 words. That's the equivalent of about two full-length novels. It's also about the same amount of words that we write for this site each month. When it's just one person or two, it does take a while to come up with that much verbiage. When it's dozens and dozens of people, however, and when much of the verbiage is pro forma, then the word count (and page count) can rise very quickly.
Q: What of the theories that COVID-19 was artificially manufactured? I am not a big conspiracy theorist (although, really, the Warren Commission was a joke), but this virus seems to be just a little "too perfect." J.R., San Francisco, CA
A: We reject this theory categorically. As chance would have it, (Z) has taught courses about conspiracy theories, and so has a bit of relevant expertise. Here are four specific reasons we are confident the conspiracy theory does not hold water:
- "It Makes Sense" Is Not Evidence: One of the first things you learn if you study
conspiracy theories is that just because something seems to "make sense," that doesn't make it true. For example, it's
true that Lyndon B. Johnson stood to benefit from the death of John F. Kennedy. So did the Russians, and the Mafia, and
the Republican Party, and the Cubans. That does not constitute evidence, however, that any of those beneficiaries were
actually a part of the assassination.
- It's Not That Perfect: Generally speaking, the notion behind the COVID-19 conspiracy
theories is that the Chinese manufactured the virus as payback for Donald Trump's trade wars. However, the virus has
infected tens of thousands of Chinese citizens, has killed over 3,000 of them, and has been a PR disaster for the Xi
administration. A "perfect" conspiracy would have done none of these things.
- The Scientists Say "No": If the virus had been cooked up in a lab, there would be telltale
signs in the virus' genetic coding. A number of scientists in a number of labs around the world have taken a careful
look under a microscope, and have universally
that COVID-19's origin is natural, and not artificial.
- The Conspiracy Theory Was Predictable: On the last day of in-person class meetings, before
(Z)'s courses switched to online-only, he warned his students that the conspiracy theories were going to be coming, and
they should be disregarded. Whenever big and shocking things happen, they invariably give rise to conspiracy theories.
That includes terrorist attacks, presidential assassinations, untimely deaths of celebrities, outbreaks of disease, and
the like. This is because, to some people, the conspiracy theory makes the world seem more rational, more predictable,
and more under human control. This is the same instinct that is causing some people to stock up on toilet paper, bottled water, and
pasta sauce; it gives them a sense of control and certainty.
And actually, not only was it predictable that there would be conspiracy theories; the specific contours were also highly predictable. Obviously, the bioengineering element was necessary for a virus to be a conspiracy. Further, a conspiracy theory needs an "other," a bad guy who is "not us" and who is responsible for the harm being done. The only real question was whether the "other" who would be scapegoated would be the Chinese (since that is apparently where the virus started) or the Jews (who are the all-purpose "other" for conspiracy theorists). In the end, the majority of conspiratorial thinkers chose the Chinese, but there is a vocal minority of anti-Semites who insist that Jews are to blame (this one's particularly popular among Turkish politicians). Oh, and incidentally, in China, there is a conspiracy theory that the virus was bioengineered by...the United States.
Incidentally, we also reject JFK-related conspiracy theories. It's true that the Warren commission left some questions unexplored or under-explored, in part because they couldn't go down every rabbit hole, and in part because the nation needed closure. And we are willing to accept that there may be small pieces of the narrative that got mangled. But there simply isn't evidence to support the conclusion that the whole narrative is a tissue of lies.
Q: In times of critical shortness, who makes the call as to which of three patients gets the only ventilator available? How is utility judged between an older mother of many and a young brilliant person? Who bears the burden of choosing? Are there ethical guidelines? I lay in bed unable to sleep thinking of the choices that are falling on some among us. J.H., Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
A: At such point that hospitals are forced to make such decisions—and we spoke with a physician to confirm this—there are two considerations. The first is "who is sickest?" The worse your condition is, the higher you are on the list. Assuming that people are equally sick, then the second consideration is "who has the best chance of recovering?" That is the end of the list. It would be illegal, unethical, and impractical for hospitals to consider other factors, and to put themselves in the position of deciding whose life is more valuable or worthy. Oh, and the judgment calls are made by the attending physician or physicians assigned to the department or ward.
Q: Why can't they just shut down the stock market for 2 weeks? J.G., San Diego, CA
A: That is certainly possible, and can be done on the orders of the president. And it's happened many times in the past. The most recent examples are the four days it was closed after the 9/11 attacks and the two days it was closed after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It is obviously not a coincidence that those two incidents both hit New York hard; a brief closure was mandated by pragmatic reasons more than financial ones. That said, the market has also closed down for much longer periods, in hopes of stabilizing it. In fact, at the start of World War I, it was shuttered for about four months (July-Oct. 1914).
With that said, closing the market down for a couple of weeks right now would have some significant downsides, beyond the specific-to-Trump concern that such action would be tantamount to admitting that this crisis is more serious than he's been letting on. Here are several obvious concerns/consequences:
- Reputation: The U.S. stock market is the strongest and most active in the world, and that
depends a great deal on its reputation for: (1) being a place where investors can always trade, and (2) where the
government is not interfering in service of its own goals. If the U.S. market is closed for two weeks, it would
undermine its reputation on both fronts.
- The Dam Breaks: The whole point of closing the market would be to give investors time to
take a breath and calm down. And maybe that would happen. But what if, instead of calming, their anxiety grows and grows
with no real outlet? In that scenario, the day the market reopened could be disastrous. Imagine the headline: "After two
weeks of 'cooling off,' investors send the Dow Jones into a 4,000-point tailspin." That would be a disaster.
- Global Economy: When the market closed for four months back in 1914, there weren't that many foreign markets in operation. And certainly, there was no way for folks in the U.S. to get up-to-the-second financial information from, say, China. But now, everything is interconnected. There are plenty of markets for investors to act on their instincts, and for economic upturns and downturns to play out, even if the U.S. stock market is closed. And so, shutting things down would risk the two downsides listed above without actually creating a meaningful "cooling off" period.
And so, we doubt the NYSE will be shut down, unless COVID-19 gets so bad in New York City that it is literally dangerous to open it. And since the exchange has already instituted anti-COVID measures, and since most transactions are done electronically, it's not likely to get to that point.
Q: As long as you're talking history, why do some sources say that John Hanson was the first President (under the Articles of Confederation) and other sources say that honor goes to Samuel Huntington? In the same way I've seen sources that talk about "the 8 Presidents before George Washington" but other sources list 10 (Huntington and McKean before Hanson). As subjective as history can be, this seems like it should be obvious. So what is the controversy between historians? K.F.W., El Dorado Hills, CA
A: Before the Constitution, the United States was governed by a Congress, and the leader of that Congress was given the title of President. Ultimately, there were 12 men who served in that role, including two who served multiple, non-consecutive terms (Peyton Randolph and John Hancock). Depending on how you parse things, there are four fellows who could be plausibly called the first president:
- Peyton Randolph (1774; 1775) was the first person elected president of the Continental Congress
- Samuel Huntington (1779-81) was president when the Articles of Confederation were ratified
- Thomas McKean (1781) succeeded the ill Huntington, and the first president to serve his entire term under the
- John Hanson (1781-82) was the president elected by the first Congress to take office under the terms of the Articles of Confederation, and so the first to be elected by the "Confederation Congress" as opposed to the "Continental Congress"
Randolph's two terms (14 days and 47 days), as well as the term of second president Henry Middleton (4 days) were very brief, and so they are sometimes excluded from consideration. Crossing them off the list is how we get down to 10 presidents (and 11 terms). If you also exclude the additional men who never served a single day under the Articles of Confederation (#4 Henry Laurens and #5 John Jay; #3 John Hancock was also #11 John Hancock), that gets us down to 8 men and 8 terms.
This is not really a "controversy," as the term is generally used among professional historians. Professional scholars tend to concern themselves with "big" questions, and since the office of Continental/Confederation president bore no resemblance to the office of president under the Constitution, this whole question is more of a historical footnote or a bit of historical trivia. Further, historians' debates are centered on evidentiary questions—which evidence is relevant, and what that evidence means. This issue isn't really about evidence, it's about technicalities.
Q: I understand that before parties were expected to be a thing, and VP was the runner-up prize in
the Electoral College, the parties tried to get around this by having one elector "defect," and the failure of this led
to the contingent election in 1800.
So, my question: Was it just a matter of honor that prevented all of Federalist VP candidate Charles Pinckney's electors "defecting" to John Adams in 1800, making Adams the president and returning Jefferson as VP (assuming the Democratic-Republicans didn't get wind of it and do the same thing)? Or were there measures which prevented those sorts of shenanigans? J.C., Oxford, England
A: Let us start by noting that there was never an election conducted with the expectation that one elector would defect. In 1788 and 1792, George Washington ran unopposed. In 1796, party organization and discipline was still lax enough, and commitment to the original vision of the Founders was strong enough, that the system worked as designed. In 1800, after Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr finished tied in the electoral vote, it occurred to the Democratic-Republicans that they should have picked one person to defect, and they kicked themselves for not thinking of it until it was too late. By 1804, the loophole in the system had been closed by the 12th Amendment.
Anyhow, what stopped the Federalists from gaming the system in 1800 was that the electors each submitted one ballot with two names on it. There would have been no way to convert Pinckney votes into Adams votes without submitting a ballot that listed Adams twice. Such a ballot would have been easily identifiable as an illegal ballot and would have been disallowed. So, that is what prevented such shenanigans.
Q: In your articles on US crises, you twice mentioned the Democratic-Republican Party. Can you explain how this party split into the two parties of today? Or is the name a misnomer and there is no connection to either party, or just to one? G.S., New Plymouth, New Zealand
A: As we noted in the third item in that series, on the Chesapeake affair, the Federalist Party was placed on the road to extinction by its opposition to the War of 1812. They ceased to be a factor on the national level thereafter, and did not field a presidential candidate after 1816. What began, at that point, was the second and final era of one-party rule in U.S. history, which is known as the Era of Good Feelings. The next few presidential elections featured Democratic-Republicans running against Democratic-Republicans.
The status quo began to break down in the mid-1820s. The key event was the election of 1824, when Andrew Jackson won the popular vote by a large margin, but did not take an Electoral College majority because there were four people running in that election. That threw the election to the House, and they chose John Quincy Adams, who promptly appointed Speaker of the House Henry Clay as Secretary of State (which was then regarded as the main steppingstone to the presidency). Outraged, Jackson and his close ally Martin Van Buren whipped the Democratic-Republican party (which had gotten a little flabby and disorganized) back into shape, and rechristened it the Democratic Party. Those two men combined to win three presidential elections in a row, in 1828, 1832, and 1836.
Meanwhile, after a few years of flailing around under the name "National Republicans," the anti-Jacksonian folks coalesced into the Whig Party. As their British-inspired name implies, they generally embraced the pro-British stance of the Federalists. And they were generally big fans of commerce and of promoting trade, as the Federalists were. That said, the real unifying element of the Whig Party was hatred of Jackson, which meant that the Whigs were home to believers in very different, and often mutually-contradictory political positions. For example, Abraham Lincoln loved banks and government investment in the economy, both things that Jackson opposed. Future Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens favored states rights and a vigorous interstate slave trade, which were also things that Jackson opposed. And so, Lincoln and Stephens were both Whigs, and were even friends, despite having rather different political agendas. They differed, in particular, on the future of slavery. And when the future of slavery became a major source of contention nationally, that was the end for the Whigs. They were a minority party anyhow, and could not navigate the slavery debate. And so, the party fielded presidential candidates for only 20 years (1832-52).
Anyhow, the short answer to your question is that the Democrats are the direct descendant of the Democratic-Republican Party. The Whigs were a coalition of unhappy former Democrats, the few remaining Federalists, and some independent types. Eventually, the Republicans emerged as a coalition of former Whigs and disaffected Northern Democrats. If you would like to see this in visual form, we direct your attention to this remarkable chart created in the late 19th century, a copy of which happens to be hanging on the wall of (Z)'s office.
Q: How does the current response of manufacturers, with respect to ventilators and test kits, compare to their response when the U.S. entered World War II? J.R.R., Sarasota, FL
A: In World War II, nearly all manufacturers devoted their capacity to producing war materiel. They did so with gusto, for at least three reasons: (1) there was much patriotism in the air, (2) they were pretty happy to be back at full capacity after the lean years of the Great Depression, and (3) the Roosevelt administration gave them no other choice.
At this point, comparing that to the current response of manufacturers is something of apples and oranges. It took time and government pressure/assistance for manufacturers to ramp up during WW II, whereas we haven't had either the time or the government pressure/assistance in 2020, at least not so far. Further, machines were much simpler back in the 1940s than they are today, so it was easier and more plausible to convert, say, a washing machine factory into a machine gun factory. Finally, we have no clear, direct evidence as to how manufacturers feel today. Are they enthusiastic to step up and do their part? Or are they concerned about being forcibly conscripted? We have suspicions that the latter is the case, but they are only suspicions, not proof.
Q: You wrote:
Sometimes, people will pooh-pooh [George] Washington's record as a general because he didn't win very many battles. And it's true that he was often a so-so tactical general. However, he was an excellent strategic general who understood well that his job was not to win battles, it was to keep the war going until Britain decided it was no longer worth the trouble (had Washington's grandson-in-law, Robert E. Lee, more fully embraced that view, the Civil War might have turned out differently).
Would you mind going down the Civil War might have turned out differently rabbit hole? I thought after Gettysburg, the South was "sunk." Would Abraham Lincoln and the U.S. really have let the South go? K.H., Maryville, TN
A: The key date, when it comes to the Civil War, is November 8, 1864. That is the date of that year's presidential election. And the Confederacy's endgame was exactly the same as Washington's endgame: They didn't actually need to win the war, they just needed the North to decide it wasn't worth fighting anymore. Lincoln most certainly would not have allowed the South to leave the union. However, if he was defeated at the polls, and replaced by an anti-war Democrat, that Democrat might well have allowed the South to go. At very least, that person would almost certainly have left slavery intact, and would not have successfully pushed for the 13th Amendment (as Lincoln did in January of 1865).
Anyhow, in view of the Confederacy's endgame, Robert E. Lee and President Jefferson Davis developed what was known as the offensive-defensive strategy. The general idea (no pun intended) is that Lee and other Confederate commanders would spend most of their time playing defense (which is much easier than playing offense). However, in times when things were going really well for the South, Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia would take the war to the North, in hopes of undermining their morale and weakening civilian support for the war. Since the Northern army relied almost exclusively on civilian volunteer soldiers, and since the Northern war effort depended on civilian purchases of war bonds, and since war materiel was made by civilians, the morale of the home front was an important concern. Low morale meant fewer Union soldiers, less money to fight the war, and less materiel.
Consistent with the offensive-defensive strategy, Lee and his army twice invaded the North. The first was in fall of 1862, and culminated in the Battle of Antietam. That battle, which was actually more consequential than Gettysburg, concluded in a nominal Northern victory. Still, even a nominal victory is a victory, and it was enough to allow Lincoln to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. This, in turn, laid the groundwork for the enlistment of nearly 200,000 black soldiers, while at the same time guaranteeing that France and England would stay out of the war, and would not recognize (or trade with) the Confederacy. In short, Antietam, though a narrow loss, proved to be a disaster for Lee and the Confederacy.
The second invasion of the North was the Gettysburg campaign, in June and July of 1863. Lee and his army ultimately lost that battle, too. That cost him men and materiel that he could not spare; about a third of the Confederate army was killed, captured, or wounded. And that was the end of the "offensive" part of the offensive-defensive strategy.
In spring of 1864, Lincoln eventually decided to promote a fellow who was doing very well in the western theater of the war—a guy named Ulysses S. Grant—to take command of all Union armies. Grant had two insights that, while perhaps obvious to us, had escaped his predecessors. The first of these was that the Union armies in the two main theaters of the war (the east, which was basically Virginia, and the west, which was basically the Deep South) should be working together. So, when Grant departed the west, he put his good friend William Tecumseh Sherman in charge there, and they coordinated strategy for the rest of the war. The second insight Grant had was that the thing to do after a loss was to attack again. And again. And again. He knew that the South could not sustain the losses, while the North could. This ultimately earned Grant a reputation as a "butcher," but from a tactical and strategic perspective, he was absolutely correct. And Lee actually lost a greater percentage of his forces in these battles than Grant did, despite fighting from the (much easier) defensive position.
The point here is that maybe the Confederacy could not have survived the elevation of Grant to overall command. On the other hand, victory (and thus Lincoln's reelection) were in doubt for the North as late as August 1864, less than 10 weeks before the election. Lee did not gain any particular benefits from invading the North on the two occasions he did so. At the same time, he gave Lincoln cover for emancipation, and lost a lot of soldiers. It's certainly possible that if Lee had assumed an entirely defensive posture, the Confederacy would have remained viable for a longer time, and that an anti-war Democrat would have been nominated and elected to the presidency.
Q: Whenever I see a ranking of Presidents from best to worst the most frequently cited "worst" is James Buchanan. The Confederacy seceded with little or no intervention on his part, and upon leaving office a bitterly divided country began the Civil War, wiping out 3% of the US population and costing almost $100 billion in today's dollars. Do you see parallels in our current situation? At what point does Trump's inability to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, and the toll in lives and treasure, exceed that of Buchanan? T.J.C., St. Louis, MO
A: Well, Trump is already sinking like a rock. There have been a handful of serious polls since he took office, the most recent being the one done by Siena last year. And the Donald has consistently ranked in the bottom three.
That said, we're not going to know for a long time exactly where Trump will settle. These ratings are based on long-term impact, for good or for bad. When George W. Bush left office, he consistently was near the bottom of these rankings. Since then, however, he has risen to "solidly below average" (mid-30s). He's benefiting, in part, from the perception (correct or not) that the worst aspects of his administration (say, an irresponsible fiscal policy or a highly partisan DoJ) did not do substantive damage much beyond his term. He's also benefiting from the fact that, for many respondents, he's not nearly as bad as Donald Trump.
If you made us bet money, we would guess that in 10 or 20 years' time, Trump will give Buchanan a run for his money. That said, it's possible that some of Trump's policies pay long term dividends (say, adjusting the balance of trade with China). Or, the next president could have an easier time than we expect fixing some of the damage Trump has done. Or, we could end up with a president in the next two or three who is seen as even worse than the Donald (President Kanye West? President Trump Jr.?) There's no way to know until it happens.
Q: Maybe it is just me, but every time I interact with Donald Trump supporters (live or online) they all seem to recite the exact same lines. It amazes me how coordinated they are, and how completely out of touch with reality. In the past week or so, apparently the Trump-approved reply to anyone talking about the President's completely incompetent and deadly response to COVID-19 is that he tried to ban travel from China and was called a racist for it. That is pretty much the extent of their comments on the subject. They can't even discuss that issue beyond that statement, as if that was the only option available. Is there any research into how this mind control is accomplished and why can't Democrats do the same to get their voters so well herded? Are Trump supporters modern-day zombies? M.D., Monroe County, PA
A: A large number of analyses of the dynamics of the Trump movement have been written, with some describing it as a mob, others as a cult, and still others as a classic case of pack mentality. Note that this is not all Trump supporters, just many of them (who often tend to be outspoken). And it's certainly not all Republicans, many of whom are mystified/repulsed by Trumpism.
Anyhow, one reason that the phenomenon exists is that the RNC (which is now a wholly-owned Trump subsidiary) and Team Trump are very good at getting their talking points out there. For years, the RNC has sent out a weekly e-mail that goes to members of Congress, key media figures, etc. that advises them what the "talking points of the week" are. The Trump administration supplements this with Twitter, and also with a barrage of e-mails from the White House, the Trump campaign, and affiliated PACs. Also of enormous value is Fox News, which is generally happy to parrot Trump's and the RNC's messaging. That's particularly true of face-of-Fox Sean Hannity, who should really be on the RNC payroll, if he isn't already.
It's also quite clear that Trump's base is particularly suited to being "herded" in this way. Many of them, as regular churchgoers, are used to being told what to think by powerful, charismatic men, and to accept it without critical analysis. They are also more likely to respond to things that make them feel fearful or angry (sometimes both), and they tend to gravitate toward certainty and anyone who says they can provide that certainty. This is not true of all Trump supporters, but it's true of a sizable number of them. There will be many books written about this over the next few decades, and there have already been a few good ones. You might be interested, for example, in Angela Denker's Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump. Or in Chris Mooney's The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, though that predates Trump, and is a bit more...provocative.
Many Democrats, of course, wish their party could achieve the same level of unity. After all, since the Democratic Party is larger, then a high level of unity would put them in a dominant electoral position. However, the size of the Party is one of the things that argues against that. It's much harder to get 45% of the populace on the same page than it is 35%, as evidenced by the Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton/Joe Biden schisms we've seen in the past two presidential cycles. Further, Democrats tend to be less motivated by fear, less persuaded that "certainly" is possible, and less likely to have an "accept things on faith and don't ask questions" upbringing. There is also no left-wing equivalent to Fox News. There are definitely left-leaning outlets that are popular with Democrats (MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post) and there are definitely left-leaning outlets that are willing to push left-wing propaganda (Daily Kos, Palmer Report, AlterNet), but there is no left-leaning source that is both popular and willing to spend most of its time propagandizing.
Q: I was wondering if you might comment on the recent failed anti-Biden propaganda push related to sexual assault. Whoever is pushing the story is currently failing to get oxygen because of COVID-19 news, but they do successfully inundate Twitter and Reddit and Facebook every night. Do you think this indicates a pre-scheduled propaganda schedule? If so, did they have to go through with it, even though they knew they wouldn't get traction? Or are Republicans just trying to get this into the news so they can start pretending it's real? Is the current failure an instruction that the best way to deal with obvious Republican propaganda is to just ignore it? I would love to hear your thoughts. M.A., Washington, DC
A: Just so everyone is on the same page, the story being referenced is Tara Reade's claim that she was sexually assaulted by Joe Biden back in 1993, while she was working for him. Here is the key portion of her narrative:
He just had me up against the wall. I was wearing like a skirt, a business skirt. I wasn't wearing stockings. It was kind of a hot day that day, and I was wearing heels...I remember I was wearing a blouse, and he just had me up against the wall. And the wall was cold. It happened all at once...his hands were on me and underneath my clothes. Yeah, and he went down my skirt but then up inside it, and he penetrated me with his fingers, and he was kissing me at the same time, and he was saying something to me. He said several things. I can't remember everything he said.
Biden, of course, has denied this.
It does not appear to be centrally coordinated; in fact, it started on one end of the political spectrum and then jumped to the other. You're right that the story definitely did not gain traction, despite the fact that many mainstream outlets took a look at it. Here are some guesses as to why:
- The "#MeToo Moment" Has Passed: There was a period of time there, right after the Harvey
Weinstein and Bill Cosby stories broke, that the mere whiff of sexual impropriety was career-ending. Perhaps the most
obvious person caught up in this was former senator Al Franken, who was compelled to resign his office before an
investigation could be conducted. It is the case that sexual assault claims are taken much more seriously these days
than they used to be, as well they should. But we seem to have exited the time in which a mere accusation was seen as
proof of guilt.
- Is Reade Trustworthy?: The general progression of events does not increase confidence in
Reade's account. The first problem is that she didn't make a report at the time that she was assaulted, and she did not
go public with the story until a quarter-century had passed. Second, she came forward previously, and was one of the
women who accused Biden of inappropriate hugging/touching, but didn't mention anything beyond that. Third, she has been
an outspoken anti-Biden and pro-Sanders voice on social media (and, in fact, when she made the assault allegations, she
did so to a staunchly left-leaning website, The Intercept). None of this proves she is lying, but it certainly does
raise some concerns about her veracity and her motivations.
- Out of Character for Biden: There is no question that Biden grew up with a 1950s/1960s
sense of boundaries, a sense out of step with where we're at today. But, unlike Bill Clinton, Brett Kavanaugh, Anthony
Wiener, and other plausibly accused alleged perpetrators of sexual assault, Biden's never been associated with any misconduct
beyond that. There is a huge chasm between "inappropriate hug" and "violent sexual assault." It's highly unusual for someone
to jump over that chasm with no intermediate/gateway steps. It's even more unusual for it to happen exactly one time. And
thus far, nobody else has come forward with claims like Reade's.
- Right Wing Framing: After The Intercept ran the story, right-wing media grabbed it and ran with
it. Interestingly, most of them had a headline or a lede that included the formulation "Joe Biden Said He Believes All Women. Does He Believe Tara Reade?"
That's a very unusual framing, one that downplays the more serious crime of sexual assault, and plays up Biden's alleged
hypocrisy (which is, of course, not a crime). Framing things in that way certainly makes it seem like even the right-wingers
don't really think Biden assaulted Reade, and instead they're trying to use this as a "gotcha."
- Going to the Well Too Many Times: Shamefully, a number of folks (most commonly hacky right-wing operatives) have tried to use 100% fabricated claims of sexual misconduct to smear political opponents. The most notable case of this is probably the comically inept Jacob Wohl, who tried to smear special counsel Robert Mueller in this manner, and then tried it again with Pete Buttigieg. This has undoubtedly put the idea in people's minds that when a sexual assault claim seems like in might fail the smell test, it might just be a political hit job.
Anyhow, these are our guesses. We think it's instructive that Donald Trump has yet to deploy this against Biden. If there was any chance it could stick, and was going to become an element of the 2020 campaign, surely the President would have tossed it out there already.
And yes, propaganda is best ignored.
Q: It's looking like Stacey Abrams is not on Biden's short list. If that becomes certain, is it too late for her to enter the Senate race in Georgia? K.G., Atlanta, GA
It would not be a good look if Biden and Abrams appear to have made a deal for the Veep slot months ago, so they both have motivation to downplay her candidacy. Point is: Don't believe she's not on the list until he actually makes his pick. As to your question, the deadline for running as a major party candidate in either of Georgia's senate elections has passed. However, Abrams could run as a write-in.
When Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) ran a successful write-in campaign, her team posted rebuses everywhere so people would remember how to fill out their ballots:
Shouldn't be hard for Abrams to come up with something similar, if it comes to that:
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