‘Alternative Facts’ and the Media Crisis of Legitimacy

by Alex Knepper

President Donald Trump and his legion of lackeys rolled the dice on the theory that left and right now live in totally different realities: that we no longer agree on what constitutes a legitimate source of information, that motives and intentions now count for more than diligence in ‘getting the facts right,’ and that a forceful Republican candidate can bypass the mainstream media altogether as long as he steadfastly refuses to cater to their standards. To a large extent, this is true, and is one of the major truths Trump accurately perceived that caught Washington by surprise. Rather than seeing polarization as a problem to be overcome, Trump sees it it as an opportunity to be embraced. There have been occasions in which Trump has been shown a tape of him saying something, after which he denies having said it. But rather than abandoning him over such a blatant act of charlatanism, his supporters love it: he is their liar, engaged in combat against the other liars — and his lies drive those other liars up the wall. He lies for them, and against Obama, the Clintons, and progressives — and that perceived loyalty means more than any factual account: motive trumps all.

Not surprisingly, a campaign based on this attitude became a magnet for grifters, media-whores, trolls, has-beens, and malcontents — an army of the alienated: everyone from Sarah Palin to Martin Shkreli to Milo Yiannopoulos — excuse me: MILO — to Richard Spencer to 4chan to Alex Jones eagerly hopped on the Trump Train, perceiving that this opportunity to help usher in a world where everyone has their own — liar-for-hire Kellyanne Conway’s words, not mine — ‘alternative facts‘ — would be a boon to them. An environment like this is something of a free-for-all, and every niche figure can be included and validated in it. There is no umpire, no referee — every man and woman can be their own final arbiter of what counts as true.

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Farewell to Eight Years of Adriftness

by Alex Knepper

Except in comparison to Donald Trump, I can’t say I’ll miss President Barack Obama. From the very beginning of his first presidential campaign, I was deeply suspicious of what I viewed as a cult of personality: the slick, too-cool cultural phantasmagoria eliciting orgiastic joy from my peers: I was a freshman at American University in 2008, after all. I supported the moderate-but-hawkish Rudy Giuliani in the Republican primary contest (and Hillary Clinton against Obama) and eventually voted in the general election for John McCain, despite serious reservations over his temperament and the Palin pick, simply because I did not trust that someone such as Obama, with so little experience, could really have a successful presidency. Unlike my frightened conservative colleagues, I did not fear he would be a radically anti-war president, a wild-eyed socialist, or what-have-you, once he actually stepped into office and surveyed the tasks at hand. I merely believed that, despite being an intelligent, charismatic, capable man, the scope of the office and its responsibilities are overwhelming, and he had never been in charge of anything other than his campaign. You can have all the potential in the world, but experience counts — it takes more than a vision to force an idea to life. Moreover, hailing from safely blue Illinois and waltzing to his Senate victory, Obama never had to endure the full force of conservative opposition, and had no clue what he was in for.

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Memo to Trump Opponents for the Next Four Years

by Alex Knepper

As the dawn of the Trump era tiptoes ever-closer, many Democrats and skeptical Republicans have still not figured out what makes the president-elect ‘tick.’ It is fair to say that we have never known so little about the motives and core beliefs of an incoming president. Nonetheless, we know enough about him to cut through the noise and sketch an outline of what the opposition must note as it prepares for battle. If Trump’s opponents want to effectively combat him, we will need to re-learn a lot of what we thought we already knew:

1. Remember: Trump Is Not an Ideologue, and He Has No Master Plan

Many vain attempts have been made to make sense of Trump by gathering the president-elect’s various statements and attempting to discern a systemized ideology from them. But Trump has no ideology: he is more like former Chinese autocrat Deng Xiaoping, who declared that ‘it does not matter what color a cat is, as long as it catches mice’ — which is not to say that there are not discernible patterns in Trump’s thought, but rather that they are informed more by ‘gut,’ instinct, or prejudice than by a coherent system of abstract principles.

This is a major part of his appeal. He boldly declared earlier in the year that, while he is a conservative, ‘it’s called the Republican Party, not the Conservative Party.’ He does not attempt to justify his beliefs by appealing to time-honored principles: he defines what is politically good by its immediate practical effect — which is always hand-in-hand with increasing his power — and if existing theories conflict with Trump getting his way, then Trump insists on a new theory, rather than on accommodating his desires to pre-existing principles.

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Kerry and the Two-State Solution Hallucination

by Alex Knepper

John Kerry has let loose against Israel, hot on the heels of American abstention from a United Nations vote condemning its settlements:

The US secretary of state sounded the warning on Wednesday in a final plea outlining the outgoing Obama administration’s vision for peace between Israel and Palestine.

“The settler agenda is defining the future in Israel. And their stated purpose is clear: They believe in one state: Greater Israel,” Kerry said.

“If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic, it cannot be both, and it won’t ever really be at peace,” he added.

It is as if the events of the last 25 years never occurred. From the days of the original UN partition, Israel has tried again and again to meet the Arabs halfway — two-thirds of the way — and constantly receives nothing but blame in return, ostensibly for not trying hard enough; for not being really serious about peace. The Arabs, meanwhile, are met with the soft bigotry of low expectations — as if everyone just knows that we cannot expect them to be reasonable; that Israel is the adult in the room who has to maturely hold its tongue so as not to inflame the child constantly on the verge of a tantrum.

Let us remember that at the 2000 Camp David summit, Israel variously offered the overwhelming majority of the West Bank and Gaza, the dismantling of existing settlements, a shared capital in Jerusalem, and tens of billions of dollars in aid money to what would be the nascent Palestinian state — and was repeatedly turned down by Yasser Arafat, who refused to put forward a single counter-offer, and launched a new intifada just months later. Today, Gaza is run by a literal jihadist organization — but Netanyahu is held to be the extremist right-winger.

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Peace with people who hold your annihilation as an indispensable goal is neither possible nor desirable — and even those Americans most craving peace must face up to the utter futility of all past attempts at brokering a deal. We really cannot be all that surprised that Israel should finally grow impatient with thousand-times-disproved Western fantasies that it holds the power to make jihadists stop hating Jews so much, if only they would swallow their pride and be magnanimous: nobody wants to forever play Charlie Brown to Lucy with the football. The Jews are hated for who they are, not the particulars of what they do. It is no wonder so many Israelis have come to believe that, since they are going to be hated and held to impossible double-standards anyway, they might as well pursue their own interests with little regard to what the rest of the world might think.

Nothing has changed: it is always easier to blame the Jews — a tiny minority — for their inconvenience than it is to face the depravity of their numerous, relentless antagonists who were equally devoted to the destruction of Israel before, during, and after the rise of the new settler movement. Arab rejection of the legitimacy of any Jewish state is the essential problem, and there will be no chance at peace until this changes.

Reporters’ Russia Remorse Rings Hollow

by Alex Knepper

Although I am glad to finally see the topic receive the acknowledgement it deserved two months ago, I must confess that I find media hyperventilating over the not-news that Russia meddled in our presidential election to be a bit perplexing. Little new information has come to light: it was clear in the fall that Putin was working to disrupt our electoral process — to weaken a likely President Clinton, and to exploit the crisis of faith in our institutions. Both candidates thought the specter of Russian interference was important enough to at least mention — although — alas — predictably, one of them thought it was actually a wonderful thing that Putin’s lackeys could be willing to hack into the private communications of Clinton associates. So it is no great shock that Russia is likely behind the WikiLeaks e-mail leaks.

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It is clear that some would like to take advantage of these non-revelations to promote the belief that Trump’s victory was somehow illegitimate. In my mind there is little doubt that Clinton received a raw deal during the general election, with the e-mail leaks being among the most unfair obstacles she faced.  But our Constitution stipulates when elections are held and how they are conducted, and Trump won — fair and square. Nobody — not the FBI or CIA, not the president, not the press, not the people — can guarantee that the timing of events and fortune will always be simply fair to the nominees. Clinton is embarrassing herself by endorsing the imprudent and unprecedented idea of delivering intelligence briefings to presidential electors regarding Russia in advance of the official presidential vote. Her frustration is palpable. But if the so-called mainstream press is feeling a bit of remorse, they should blame themselves twice for every time they blame Putin: if reporters had treated the WikiLeaks saga as intolerable criminal foreign meddling in the first place rather than as an opportunity to engage in scurrilous gossip about the woman they thought would be the next president, we might not be having the kind of conversation we are having right now.

Final Predictions, Final Thoughts

by Alex Knepper

Here we are! It has been an exhausting campaign season, but I am proud of the work we have done at New American Perspective. Cinzia and I have had some spirited debates, and I think we have gotten a lot more right than we have gotten wrong. Here is my final prediction:

Clinton 50 Trump 45 Johnson 4 Stein/Others 1

prediction

VA: Clinton +8 – WI: Clinton +7 – MI: Clinton +6
CO: Clinton +6 – NH: Clinton +5 – NV: Clinton +5
PA: Clinton +5 – FL: Clinton +2 – NC: Clinton +1
OH: Trump +1 – IA: Trump +2 – AZ: Trump +2
GA: Trump +3 – UT: Trump +8

Like many of the pundits at whom I rolled my eyes during the primary season, I badly misread the mood of the country. A comprehensive postmortem is forthcoming…

Today, I anticipate that America will smash the nationalist personality cult of Donald J. Trump. And when we do, we should not indulge the desire to issue phony, faux-gracious bromides about setting aside our differences after a difficult campaign season. The differences between the two nominees are as stark as they have been in 50 years. This election cycle played out like a war, and those who thought it would be a good idea to put an American Caesar in power should not be simply rewarded. We must consider the prudence of Lincoln and remember that there can be no compromise on the fundamentals. Threatening to disrupt the peaceful transition of power, threatening to imprison the opposition, promising to commit war crimes, using cruelty and humiliation as tools of debate, and scapegoating minorities and foreigners are never permissible in a liberal democracy. After this demoralizing, draining, long, ugly slog, we will be able to exhale. But we will not be able to just make nice and come together. That does not mean that the issues of immigration, trade, and political correctness should be suppressed or ignored — but it does mean that we should not reflexively move in a more populist direction to try to appease a movement that was fueled on anger and resentment.

The Malaise of Conservatism

by Alex Knepper

I have argued elsewhere that liberalism — from its so-called ‘classical’ roots to its modern/progressive outgrowth — is the engine that moves America, and that the role of conservatism is largely to moderate or restrain liberal excesses. In this sense, the right is almost necessarily defined by what it opposes. The great conservative (or, right-liberal) triumph of the 20th century within liberalism was the rise of Ronald Reagan, who decisively repudiated the infinite growth of the welfare state and reinvigorated the power of our civic mythology. But it only took the center-left a couple of election cycles to accept and absorb that new consensus and integrate it into its economic platform. Democrats in the 1990s embraced welfare reform, middle class tax cuts, budgetary prudence, and even American exceptionalism, thereby ensuring a bulwark against greater reaction. Obama has not overtly repudiated this approach, and has embraced a successor set to continue it. So what is the point of conservatism today? Quite simply, Reaganism’s success domestically has left the American right without a unifying cause in the post-Soviet era. Once Trump is defeated, the Republican Party will have lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections — and the one they won was a terribly narrow victory during wartime, three years after the worst attack on the country in our history.

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And why not? Who needs Republicans? The variety of conservatism offered by most of the Republican Party is fundamentally in agreement with the variety of liberalism offered by most of the Democratic Party. They both aim toward maximizing material luxury, coupled with expanded individual choice and social access (prosperity, liberty, equality). The most evocative international threat comes from a sprawling network of paramilitary operations, and Democrats have been at least as successful at confronting it as Republicans — so the idea of a new ‘fusionism’ is useless. (We should note here that ‘fusionism’ was about fusing against something, not for something!) Rates of crime, divorce, abortion, teen pregnancy, and other ‘social indicators’ are better than they have been in decades. The last Republican president has been judged to have been a supreme screw-up economically. Maybe John Kasich could have defeated Hillary Clinton this year, but the populists are right: aside from a few social issues primarily of interest to niche factions, Kasich is not actually terribly different than Clinton.

At most, there are some disagreements between party establishmentarians about how to reach the liberal goal of free and equal prosperity: how high we should aim in what period of time, which entities should oversee the administration and distribution of various goods and services, whose needs are to be prioritized first, etc. Even the nationalist/internationalist divide is something of a chimera, since everyone agrees on the overarching goal — in a vital sense, even the hardcore nationalists think liberalism is actually pretty great, but that too many Muslims and Mexicans will end up ruining it for everyone. If Democrats agreed to limit immigration and insist on assimilation, the right would be robbed of yet another argument.

But isn’t this okay, or even good? Isn’t this how it is supposed to work? The right’s skepticism toward mass immigration and so-called ‘globalism’ is not without merit, after all, and democratic governments must satisfy (or at least pacify) their right-leaning factions. If liberalism is the engine and conservatives are the moderating forces (in a historical sense, not a temperamental one!), then isn’t the theatrical bluster of election season little but noise? We must assume Trump, Brexit, and the German refugee crisis will be sufficient warning signs for ‘elites’ that something has to give. (If not, the impending right-wing reaction will be practically deserved.) But as the liberal project advances and more large-scale questions are decided, the differences in the visions between the two parties is bound to become even smaller, and the purpose of politics is bound to narrow further, and the stakes decrease. We are quite possibly rushing toward what amounts to a virtual consensus. Eventually, the need for high-stakes politics might be eliminated entirely.

What is the point of a center-right party in an era of global liberal hegemony, then, beyond opposition to excessive multiculturalism and social permissiveness? Are there possibilities for liberalism beyond the ideological consensus? Is it possible to forge a vision that goes beyond identity politics and class politics without dismissing the truths of either? The right is running out of things to oppose — it’s time to start innovating. A clever conservative might be elected president if he (or she!) can provide a compelling answer to that question — one that looks beyond merely trying to agitate against the left — and toward a loftier vision of the possibilities afforded by liberal democracy. That might get sucked into the consensus, too — but it will at least serve the noble goal of elevating it beyond mere ‘identity’ and consumption.