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Keep Calm and Carry On?

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Keep Calm and Carry On
David Pence, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

For all of its awfulness, the Trump administration did make some good policy decisions. It was right, more or less, to push allies and partners not to outsource their next-generation telecommunications networks to Chinese companies.

But what about political decisions? Is there anything the Biden administration can learn from Trump when it comes to practical politics?

I sometimes entertain the notion that the Trump administration understood the politics of scandal better than their recent predecessors. In its early days, the administration was just as likely to force out a corrupt cabinet official as not. But it eventually settled into a combination of denial, counterattack, and non-acknowledgement.

There are no shortages of theories about why Trump “survived” scandals that – at least as commentators routinely claimed – would’ve devastated other presidencies. Trump understood how to distract voters with “bigger stories.” Strong partisanship mitigates the impact of scandals. FOX and the larger right-wing media ecosystem kept Republicans onboard. The sheer number of Trump scandals numbed and confused voters. You get the idea.

Even this short list makes clear that some theories are specific to Trump, others hold only for Republican officials, and a few apply to members of both parties. Of course, not all “scandals” are created equal. They can be, for example, serious but abstract, trivial in substance but important to voters, anchored in reality, or essentially manufactured out of thin air.

Why am I ruminating on this subjet?

For one thing, we’re headed into an election where structural forces (as of now) overwhelmingly favor Republicans and the GOP has nominated a number of dangerous ideologies and wack jobs. Which raises the question of whether we’re looking at a “wave election” that will look more like 2010 or 2014.

In 2010, Democrats held the Senate – despite losing six seats – because the Republicans fielded some incredibly low-quality candidates. In 2014, Republicans gained nine seats, although it’s hard to determine the comparative importance of candidate quality and structural factors. The Democrats faced second-term fatigue, an economy that didn’t fully recover from a nasty first quarter until it was too late, and a tough map – including states that now look solidly Republican. But the GOP also didn’t field any Christine O’Donnells in winnable races.

(Most of our readers know that the political terrain of the Obama years looked different than it does in 2022. Consider just the Senate. States that currently appear locked down for one of the parties – such as Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois – were widely viewed as competitive. This is a reminder of how much the collapse of support among rural whites has created an uphill “electoral college” fight for Democrats. It’s also a warning about what wave elections can mean for seemingly “solid” seats. Moreover, it underscores that a lot can change in a decade – and why the GOP isn’t satisfied with a “mere” electoral advantage.)

For another, the Biden administration recently botched a manufactured scandal – one with little reach beyond the right-wing media ecosystem. The subject? Its effort to bring some degree of oversight and coordination to ongoing anti-disinformation efforts.

The [Disinformation Governance Board of the Department of Homeland Security] was created to study best practices in combating the harmful effects of disinformation and to help DHS counter viral lies and propaganda that could threaten domestic security. Unlike the “Ministry of Truth” in George Orwell’s “1984” that became a derogatory comparison point, neither the board nor Jankowicz had any power or ability to declare what is true or false, or compel Internet providers, social media platforms or public schools to take action against certain types of speech. In fact, the board itself had no power or authority to make any operational decisions.

“The Board’s purpose has been grossly mischaracterized; it will not police speech,” the DHS spokesperson said. “Quite the opposite, its focus is to ensure that freedom of speech is protected.”

If you’ve had the good luck to miss this “scandal,” it’s a depressing mix of stupidity, bad faith, projection, and misogyny. Which makes it fitting (or maybe ironic) that Taylor Lorenz covered it for the Washington Post.

She continues:

The weekend after her hiring was announced, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas attempted to clarify the board’s mission and defended Jankowicz’s credentials. He did a round of TV news interviews and testified about the board during House and Senate committee hearings. A forceful defense of Jankowicz was noticeably absent online, where the attacks against her were concentrated. White House press secretary Jen Psaki debunked false claims about the board during two news briefings and touted Jankowicz as “an expert on online disinformation,” but it had little effect on the growing campaign against her.

“These smears leveled by bad-faith, right-wing actors against a deeply qualified expert and against efforts to better combat human smuggling and domestic terrorism are disgusting,” deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates told The Post on Tuesday.

As she endured the attacks, Jankowicz herself was told to stay silent. After attempting to defend herself on Twitter April 27, she was told by DHS officials to not issue any further public statements, according to multiple people close to her.

Democratic lawmakers, legislative staff and other administration employees who sought to defend Jankowicz were caught flat-footed. Administration officials did not brief the relevant congressional staff and committees ahead of the board’s launch, and members of Congress who had expressed interest in disinformation weren’t given a detailed explanation about how it would operate. A fact sheet released by DHS on May 2 did nothing to quell the outrage that had been building on the Internet, nor did it clarify much of what the board would actually be doing or Jankowicz’s role in it.

DHS staffers have also grown frustrated. With the department’s suspension of intra-departmental working groups focused on mis-, dis- and mal-information, some officials said it was an overreaction that gave too much credence to bad-faith actors. A 15-year veteran of the department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly, called the DHS response to the controversy “mind-boggling.” “I’ve never seen the department react like this before,” he said.

Anyway, you can read the whole thing. The gist is in the title of the story: “How the Biden administration let right-wing attacks derail its disinformation efforts.”

The story reminds me a bit of the what happened to USDA official Shirley Sherrod in 2010. Andrew Breitbart – who was on the cutting edge of the online-charlatan-to-FOX-to-GOP pipeline now favored by right-wing ratf*****s everywhere – accused Sherrod of “anti-white” racism on the basis of a (wildly) out-of-context video clip. The Obama administration freaked out and pressured her to resign, which she did. When the truth came out, it had to eat crow.

So what should we make of all this?

Let’s be clear that Trump doesn’t actually prove that “scandals” don’t matter. Sure, the Republican Senate failed to convict Trump because of cowardice and venality. But Trump’s steady current of scandals depressed his poll numbers. According to 538, Biden’s composite approval rating is currently about where Trump’s was at the same point in his presidency. However, Trump wasn’t dealing with headwinds from high inflation; his problems were entirely of his own making.

Indeed, it seems likely that a replacement-level Republican president would’ve won reelection in 2020. Thanks to government stimulus, household wealth was in good shape. The politics of the pandemic weren’t straightforward – and a Romney or Rubio administration would’ve likely been less inept. At the end of the day, it’s difficult to defeat an incumbent president.

In other words, Trump wasn’t teflon. He was toxic. He’s not a model for how to handle real or manufactured scandals. There’s a better way. The Biden administration needs to remain calm and deliberate. It makes no sense – none whatsoever – to let right-wing media drive policy decisions.

This advice also, I think, holds for November. It will take months of concerted, unwavering effort to push the election as far it can possibly go toward more favorable terrain for Democrats, such as Roe and January 6.

Similarly, it would be great if Manchin and Sinema agreed to pass a reconciliation bill that made life materially better for voters who’ve drifted away from Biden. Whether or not that happens, it’ll be easier to mobilize disaffected supporters with a steady stream of executive action that delivers on campaign promises, while relentlessly blaming Republicans for filibustering popular policies.

I don’t expect any of this will prevent a bad night, but it could prevent a catastrophic one. Which is kind of a glass half full outcome, I guess.

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