The Trump virus

One of my many fears about The Orange One’s election was the effect it would have on conservatives here in Canada.  Andrew Coyne’s dispatch from the Manning Conference suggests that the infection is spreading:

Consider what items might have been on the agenda. A forward-looking conference intended to help shape conservative responses to pressing national issues might have had sessions on how to address the sudden challenge to the international order, not to say the national interest, posed by Trump’s ascent.

It might have talked about how to preserve a world of open markets, and open societies, in the face of the populist-nationalist resurgence. It might have spent much time on the urgent problem of population aging, and the twin pressures — higher social costs, fewer workers to pay them — to which we will inevitably be exposed.

[…]

What, in fact, is on the agenda? There’s a session on Islamist extremism; another session on Islamist extremism; a session asking whether Trumpism can be exported to Canada, featuring a Trump campaign adviser; a session on how campus conservatives are being censored; another session on campus censorship; a session on the media; a session on the CBC (“Time to pull the plug?”).

It isn’t that these aren’t legitimate, even pressing issues in themselves — I’m hawkish on security myself, also hate political correctness, and have long called for the CBC to be defunded — or that the proposals under discussion are not valid.

But it cannot fail to be noticed that they are all pitched to a certain corner of the conservative tent, reflecting the particular obsessions of the populist right. Indeed, there’s also a session entitled “Down with the Elites? Understanding the rise in anti-establishment sentiment,”
featuring inter alia that voice of introspection and understanding, Doug Ford.

In France, Marine Le Pen is almost certainly going to make it yo the second round of the Presidential election.  Geert Wilders is set to lead the largest party in the Dutch Parliament.   Even in Sweden, the far-right Sweden Democrats are tied for the lead in recent opinion polls, suggesting that even many Swedes agree with Donald Trump’s gloomy (and much-maligned) assessment of their country.

What makes Canadians think their country is immune?

See what happens when you don’t listen to your lawyer?

 

President Trump’s venal and stupid executive order on immigration, which caused total chaos and mass protests at American airports yesterday, was issued without any guidance from legal counsel:

The policy team at the White House developed the executive order on refugees and visas, and largely avoided the traditional interagency process that would have allowed the Justice Department and homeland security agencies to provide operational guidance, according to numerous officials who spoke to CNN on Saturday.
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Department of Homeland Security leadership saw the final details shortly before the order was finalized, government officials said.
Friday night, DHS arrived at the legal interpretation that the executive order restrictions applying to seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen — did not apply to people with lawful permanent residence, generally referred to as green card holders.
The White House overruled that guidance overnight, according to officials familiar with the rollout. That order came from the President’s inner circle, led by Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon. Their decision held that, on a case by case basis, DHS could allow green card holders to enter the US.
[…]
Before the President issued the order, the White House did not seek the legal guidance of the Office of Legal Counsel, the Justice Department office that interprets the law for the executive branch. A source said the executive order did not follow the standard agency review process that’s typically overseen by the National Security Council, though the source couldn’t specifically say if that included the decision to not have the order go through the Office of Legal Counsel.
Separately, a person familiar with the matter said career officials in charge of enforcing the executive order were not fully briefed on the specifics until Friday. The officials were caught off guard by some of the specifics and raised questions about how to handle the new banned passengers on US-bound planes.
I was shocked and devastated by Trump’s election, but I tried to stay positive by reminding myself that no one can predict the future with certainty, and that many Presidents have grown in office and taken their Administrations in unexpected directions.
With this vindictive, incompetent man-child, I think we’ve seen enough after nine days.  The question is, what will make Republicans (who have remained silent about this mess, with a few honourable exceptions) realize the wreckage wrought by Trump outweighs the power they’ve been given?

When everything is a hate crime

An incident from Wisconsin’s Edgewood College illustrates the potential problem with enshrining the concept of “hate crimes” into law.  The term, it turns out, is no longer being applied to just your garden-variety Nazi:

Administrators and staff at Edgewood College were recently called together to discuss a troubling note placed on the door to the diversity office after the election of Donald Trump. The note, which included a smiley face, stated “Suck it up, pussies.” In the hours after the note was found, the diversity office had coordinated with the Title IX office, human resources, the office of student conduct, and the Vice President for Student Development to determine an appropriate course of action. In their joint email to the Edgewood campus, the ad hoc committee said that the note “was hateful and harmful,” and that “it violated every value that this institution considers to be at its core.” If such a condemnation wasn’t enough, they added that “Covert micro-aggressions and overt macro-aggressions appear to have taken on a new fervor” since the election.

They promptly determined that the note constituted a hate crime and called the Madison, Wisconsin Police Department.

A post-it note message stating “Suck it up, pussies” was deemed a hate crime by intelligent, articulate, and highly credentialed campus officials. Let that sink in. …

You wouldn’t have seen the rise of Trump without this kind of thing, and now you’ll see much more of this kind of thing as The Orange One takes office.

A fake news case study (Washington Post edition)

You probably read or heard about last week’s Washington Post story about Russian hackers penetrating a Vermont utility and potentially gaining access to the American electrical grid.

You probably haven’t heard that the story has completely fallen apart.  Forbes surveys the damage:

…it was not until almost a full hour after the utility’s official press release (at around 10:30PM EST) that the Post finally updated its article, changing the headline to the more muted “Russian operation hacked a Vermont utility, showing risk to U.S. electrical grid security, officials say” and changed the body of the article to note “Burlington Electric said in a statement that the company detected a malware code used in the Grizzly Steppe operation in a laptop that was not connected to the organization’s grid systems. The firm said it took immediate action to isolate the laptop and alert federal authorities.” Yet, other parts of the article, including a later sentence claiming that multiple computers at the utility had been breached, remained intact.

The following morning, nearly 11 hours after changing the headline and rewriting the article to indicate that the grid itself was never breached and the “hack” was only an isolated laptop with malware, the Post still had not appended any kind of editorial note to indicate that it had significantly changed the focus of the article.

This is significant, as one driving force of fake news is that as much of 60% of the links shared on social media are shared based on the title alone, with the sharer not actually reading the article itself. Thus, the title assigned to an article becomes the story itself and the Post’s incorrect title meant that the story that spread virally through the national echo chamber was that the Russians had hacked into the US power grid.

Only after numerous outlets called out the Post’s changes did the newspaper finally append an editorial note at the very bottom of the article more than half a day later saying “An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Russian hackers had penetrated the U.S. electric grid. Authorities say there is no indication of that so far. The computer at Burlington Electric that was hacked was not attached to the grid.”

Yet, even this correction is not a true reflection of public facts as known. The utility indicated only that a laptop was found to contain malware that has previously been associated with Russian hackers. As many pointed out, the malware in question is actually available for purchase online, meaning anyone could have used it and its mere presence is not a guarantee of Russian government involvement. Moreover, a malware infection can come from many sources, including visiting malicious websites and thus the mere presence of malware on a laptop computer does not necessarily indicate that Russian government hackers launched a coordinated hacking campaign to penetrate that machine – the infection could have come from something as simple as an employee visiting an infected website on a work computer.

After Trump’s shocking victory in the Presidential election, a narrative has quickly formed: Trump only won with Vladmir Putin’s assistance, and an increasingly assertive and expansionist Russia will soon have a patsy in the Oval Office who will turn a blind eye to Putin’s crimes and provocations.

There is certainly some truth to this – note how Trump (and, increasingly, his fellow Republicans) bend over backwards to absolve Russia of any involvement in anti-American cyber-espionage.  The problem is, when the media is so committed to a narrative that it falls for dubious stories like this, it only hurts their own credibility.  When they break a story about actual Russian wrongdoing, how many will dismiss it because they got the Vermont story so wrong?

How Merrick Garland can still be appointed to the Supreme Court. (Maybe)

The Republican-controlled Senate refused to consider Merrick Garland to take the late Antonin Scalia’s place on the Supreme Court of the United States, gambling that a GOP successor could appoint a Justice more to their liking.  But the outgoing President can still gamble on appointing Garland during the brief – very  brief – recess between two sessions of Congress:

President Obama will have one last chance to force Judge Merrick Garland onto the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday — but it’s a legal gamble and one that has so many pitfalls that even those who say he could get away with it believe it isn’t worth the fight.

Mr. Obama’s moment will come just before noon, in the five minutes that the Senate gavels the 114th Congress out of session and the time the 115th Congress begins.

In those few moments the Senate will go into what’s known as an “intersession recess,” creating one golden moment when the president could test his recess-appointment powers by sending Judge Garland to the high court.

A smattering of activists has asked him to give it a try, but Mr. Obama has given no indication that he’s thinking about it. The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.

[…]

William G. Ross, a law professor at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, said Mr. Obama would have the power to elevate Judge Garland. But he said it would be “politically unwise and damaging to the prestige of the court.”

“It would exacerbate acute political tensions that have roiled the transition process and promise turbulence from the very start of the Trump administration, and it would contribute to the growing public perception that the court is unduly political,” Mr. Ross said.

President Teddy Roosevelt was perhaps the most “aggressive” practitioner of the intersession gambit, using what The New York Times in 1903 dubbed the “infinitesimal recess” — the split second between the end of one session and the beginning of another — to appoint 168 officers.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing the controlling opinion in that 2014 case, acknowledged Roosevelt’s move, though he called it an anomaly.

He said there’s a general presumption that recesses need to be at least 10 days for a president to flex his recess powers, though he left open the chance for an emergency.

Some scholars say the 10-day rule in his opinion is “dicta,” or nonbinding verbiage that doesn’t constrain the courts. Activists suggest Judge Garland could test the boundaries of unusual circumstances that Justice Breyer left open.

The consensus, though, is that Mr. Obama would be making a mistake to test it that theory.

It seems to me that the appointment process is already broken, given the way the Senate refused to even consider Garland for the position while Obama still had almost a year left in office.

The question is whether Obama wants to ensure a smooth transition to a Trump Presidency, or whether he believes the looming Trump administration deserves to be stymied and obstructed at every turn.  I can’t help thinking that if the roles were reversed – if a Democrat-controlled Senate had blocked a Republican President from making an appointment to the Supreme Court – the outgoing President would be waiting for the moment to strike.

Kurt Eichenwald’s fake news

The pro-Trump blog American Mirror catches Newsweek reporter Kurt Eichenwald promoting a false story about Trump supporters on his twitter account:

kurt-eichenwald-tweet-e1481287614188

It turns out that the Trumpsters were actually booing an anti-Trump protestor who started acting up while their hero was talking about John Glenn.

Eichenwald deleted the tweet and has posted a new one acknowledging his error.  Note the number of retweets and likes this one got, compared to his original, inaccurate tweet:

screenshot-from-2016-12-09-101801

Now, there is absolutely no moral equivalence between Eichenwald and people who knowingly make up BS conspiracy theories online, or the obviously unhinged likes of Alex Jones.  At least he corrected his mistake.

But it does show just how easily “fake news” spreads online, because so much of it confirms the reader’s pre-existing biases.  Millions of Americans were convinced that Barack Obama was a secret gay Marxist Muslim, and they spread blatantly false stories and memes about it on Facebook and Twitter.

Likewise, Eichenwald wants to believe that Trump supporters are so universally repellent that they would boo an American icon who had just passed away, and without waiting for any kind of confirmation he spread the story to his thousands of followers.  His subsequent correction, needless to say, hasn’t spread nearly as far.

You know my feelings about the corrupt, incompetent, dishonest creature who will take office in January, 2017.  I hope and pray that the media does its job in holding him accountable.  But they have to be careful and honest about it – not for Trump’s sake, but for theirs.  And ours.

A fake news case study

Imagine if CNN was reporting on the latest ramblings of Iran’s Islamist leaders, and used the chyron “Iranian President Says United States is The Great Satan.”

Most of us, I assume, would realize that the network was reporting on what the Iranian President said, and wasn’t trying to open a debate on whether the United States is indeed the Great Satan.

However, the network is now facing a public-relations nightmare because of a similarly worded chyron, used during a segment about antisemitic comments made by “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer during a speech in Washington:

cnn-alt-right-questions-screenshot-h-2016

Twitter users began screaming their outrage, and other media outlets quickly followed:

esquire

laist

Here’s the problem: CNN was not in fact debating whether Jews are human beings.  On the contrary, the complete segment makes it clear that the network was actually doing its job.

Host Jim Sciutto began the segment by describing Spencer’s comments as antisemitic, hateful garbage, and then interviewed two journalists about how President-elect Trump (a week later, I still can’t believe I have to write that) should respond.

Spencer was not actually interviewed during the segment, nor was any other “alt-right” figure who has enthusiastically welcomed Trump’s shocking election victory.  CNN was not debating Spencer’s proposition, but reporting on it.  That is their job.  In the age of Trump, that is what we need CNN and other media outlets to do.

Some people are attacking CNN for using the term “alt-right” instead of “white supremacist” or “neo-Nazi.”  That’s a fair criticism, though I’d counter that this CNN chyron actually illustrates how the term is just a new wrapping for the same old poison.  But the most serious accusation leveled at CNN – that they’re somehow “legitimizing” a discussion about whether Jews are human beings  – is flat-out wrong.

We’ve heard a lot about “fake news” lately, and how partisan lies spread on Facebook contributed to Trump’s election victory.  It spreads so quickly partly because people want their biases confirmed, and partly because, on some level, people want to be outraged.  We don’t want to believe the other side may have points worth considering or real concerns which should be addressed.  We want to believe the other side are monsters who must be defeated without mercy.

Richard Spencer and his brethren, as it happens, really are monsters who must be defeated without mercy.  But if media outlets are going to be savaged for accurately reporting on them, they may decide it’s just not worth the trouble.  And we will all lose.