Dear Bipedal Humanoids,
First, as the serial killer said while taking out his blacklight and bottles of bleach: a little light housekeeping. It’s been well over a decade since I wrote more than one Goldberg File per week, and so, as the Sheriff of Nottingham said to the Cardinal, I ask for your indulgence.
Some of you may not know this, but I was one of the Ur-bloggers, pre-dating some of the giants of that bygone era: Glenn Reynolds, Mickey Kaus, Andrew Sullivan, et al. In fact, when I started, not only did people still use fax machines, but the word “blog” also really didn’t exist yet. But the original G-File was sort of a running diary on all sorts of things, particularly the impeachment brouhaha with Bill Clinton.
So there’s a fun symmetry to my starting this new chapter of my career going back to how I began, writing a bloggy-style thing—now in “news”letter form—on all manner of topics, including the latest impeachment brouhaha. I don’t know if I’ll return to all of the other topics I covered back then. For instance, I’ve lost my fluency in the women’s prison movie genre. But who knows? Maybe it’s like riding a bicycle.
The Friday G-File, the sprawling movable feast that it is, has a long tradition of existence, so I think that will remain unchanged. But I think the mid-week ones (exact schedule TBD), will need to be tighter—“tighter than a clam’s ass at high tide” as Dan Rather might say—than the Friday affair, which many people read at a leisurely pace over the weekend or when the batteries in the TV remote give out and the nurse doesn’t answer the call button.
So I’ll be kicking it blog-style, which sounds like perhaps the least effective school of Kung-Fu, save perhaps for Stamp Collector Style (so much gratuitous licking!).
The Kingsman Video
Part of the editorial mission of The Dispatch is to offer some of the nuance that often gets lost in the abattoir of social media and MSM feeding frenzies. That’s tough to do without being boring, scolding, or shouty (“Listen to my nuanced take, you rat-bastard! Appreciate my shades of gray, damn it!”).
So here goes: I think the Kingsman parody showing Donald Trump slaughtering a bunch of journalists is gross. But I also think the media are making too big a deal about it. The video has been around for over a year. It wasn’t really a major feature of the conference, nor apparently part of its official programming. And thanks to the media’s hyping of it, millions more people have now seen it than otherwise would have. The White House condemned it and the organizers have disavowed it.
Still, you might ask after watching it: WTF?
Here’s the thing: If you’ve ever been to CPAC or similar confabs, you’d know that just as there are many rooms in the mansion of conservativism, there are many booths in the exhibition halls of Right-wing, Inc. Some groups are just weird. Others are weird and idealistic. Others are weird, idealistic, and nuts. There are grifter outfits and there are straight-up noble or charming ones. But they all try to make money from people like them—i.e., folks who geek out over politics the way other people geek out at comic book and Star Trek conventions, Renaissance fairs, etc. You can get into shouting matches with Birchers about fluoridated water, or with gold bugs who believe paper currency is unconstitutional. I once had a great conversation with a guy who was obsessed with restoring not just the good name of the Kingdom of Poland, but its rightful borders. By no means are they all sleazy, but you can certainly have your unpopular opinions affirmed, particularly after you swipe your credit card. The problem for even the best organizations that offer “big tents” to these kinds of groups who by their nature are “outsiders” and oppositional to the mainstream GOP, never mind the culture more broadly, is that it’s very hard to know where to draw lines.
Reason’s C.J. Ciaramella has an excellent report on what the conference was actually like. And the gist seems to be that this was Comic-Con for Trumpists. And in that world, it doesn’t shock me that nobody flagged this video.
I tend to agree with Jonathan Last that there’s something about the video that speaks to the id of a certain kind of Very Online Trump supporter. They don’t love Trump for his foreign policy, or for cutting regulations and taxes. To the extent they like that stuff, it’s because the libs hate it. They love Trump because he hurts the libs. It doesn’t mean that they all—or even that any—want Trump to murder journalists. But they love that Trump can make it rain liberal tears, and they love standing in that downpour like Andy Dufresne after exiting Shawshank’s sewer pipe.
You can’t blame Trump for the video in any literal sense. But you can blame him for helping to expand the market for such things. Just as TrumpCon didn’t know how to draw the lines, Trump himself has always struggled to draw lines in a way that turns away supporters and flatterers. The market for that video is the same market for things like this:
And that’s bad enough
The Just-Joking Presidency
On Sunday, I appeared on ABC’s This Week. I got to hang out with Steven Mnuchin in the green room, which was pleasant enough, though not exactly a bucket-list moment.
On air, Jonathan Karl asked him about Trump’s saying China and Ukraine should investigate the Bidens:
KARL: Could you just settle something for me, because some of the president's allies have suggested he was joking there, that he wasn't being serious. Was he serious? Does he think that China should investigate the Bidens?
MNUCHIN: I can't comment on whether he was serious or not, but…
Mnuchin then went on to explain that the issue of the Bidens hasn’t come up in any of the trade negotiations with China, which is nice.
But. Wait. A. Second. It’s a sign of how normalized weirdness has become that this seemed like a reasonable answer. In any other time, Trump’s public overture to China would have been a huge story. And in fairness, it did get a good deal of coverage, since it seemed to complement the thing he’s probably going to be impeached for.
My point isn’t that this story should get more coverage or to scold people for not being sufficiently outraged. My point is just to note that the Treasury Secretary can’t confirm or deny whether the president was “serious” when he called on China to go after a political opponent—two weeks later.
Why can’t he ask? Is it because he knows the answer, or because he doesn’t want to know the answer? I mean, it’s nifty no one has brought up the Bidens during trade negotiations, but you’d think Mnuchin might ask his boss if he wants him to.
It’s all so weird.
Cut the Schiff
Adam Schiff has a kind of superpower. He can say wildly partisan, often flatly dishonest, things, but sound like a sober statesman with very grave concerns. He reminds me of that old Vick’s ad:
Schiff is not a non-partisan statesman, but he plays one on TV.
Last month, when he opened a House Intelligence Committee hearing with DNI Joseph Maguire by reading a bogus version of Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Zelensky, Trump had good reason to be pissed off. Of course, Trump’s response went to 11:
Schiff’s statement wasn’t illegal or treasonous, but it was cheap and gratuitous.
What I find fascinating is how Trump seems to believe—or wants us to believe—Schiff’s bogus script was extremely effective:
I honestly don’t know if Trump believes that everyone who doesn’t think the conversation was “perfect” was misled by Schiff, or if he’s just gaslighting here on purpose.
In either case, it should be noted that it’s nonsense.
Here’s the relevant timeline:
May 1: The NYT reports that Rudy Giuliani has been lobbying the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens on Trump’s behalf.
July 18: Trump orders the Pentagon to freeze military aid to Ukraine.
July 25: Trump talks to Zelensky
August 12: the whistleblower files his/her complaint.
September 13: Schiff subpoenas the complaint
September 19: Giuliani is asked on CNN whether he lobbied the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens. He denies it. And then when asked again 30 seconds later, the super-lawyer shouts “Of course I did!”
September 24: Pelosi says it’s an impeachment inquiry after all.
September 25: The White House releases the “transcript” of the phone call and everyone starts screaming at each other about whether it shows a “quid pro quo.”
September 26: The whistleblower complaint is released. And Schiff reads his dumb “parody” version of it.
In other words, how could Nancy Pelosi announce her impeachment inquiry because of the bogus Schiff dialogue if the bogus Schiff dialogue came out 48 hours after she announced it?
Again, I’m torn on whether the president is delusional on this, or whether he merely wants to delude others. But whatever the truth, it strikes me as a flawed strategy go around everywhere begging people to read the text of the “perfect phone call” themselves.
Soon-to-be Dispatch senior editor David French pointed me to some interesting polling from Monmouth:
Just over 6-in-10 Americans (62%) believe it is likely that Trump mentioned the possibility of an investigation into Biden during his call with Zelenskiy, while 15% say he probably did not do this and 23% are unsure. Among those who have heard a lot about the incident, 76% say this conversation probably occurred, 12% say it probably did not, and 12% are unsure. Among all Democrats, 85% believe that Trump mentioned the investigation during the call, a number that goes up to 97% among Democrats who have heard a lot about it. Among all independents, 61% believe that Trump mentioned the investigation during the call, a number that goes up to 73% among independents who have heard a lot. Among all Republicans, though, just 40% believe that Trump mentioned the investigation during the call. This number goes up only to 50% among Republicans who have heard a lot about the call. Nearly 3-in-10 of all Republicans (29%) as well as the subset of Republicans who have heard a lot about the call (29%) say the investigation into Biden was probably not mentioned by Trump.
Put more simply: Nearly 40 percent of Americans believe a version of events that is better for Trump than reality. Trump did mention Biden in the call. He did ask for a “favor” as part of a “reciprocal” relationship. People can interpret all of that as they like. But if there are a large bloc of voters out there – Republicans and independents – who currently think Trump didn’t even mention the Bidens or ask for an investigation as part of a favor, the last thing you want them to do is read the transcript themselves. And yet, every day Trump is screaming that everyone should read the transcript.
It’s not like reading the transcript would turn all those voters into impeachment supporters. But it’s hard to see how it would actually help Trump, given that he’s the only person who thinks Schiff’s made up version needs to be rebutted.
Various & Sundry
So normally this is where I would include the “canine update” and all of my weird links and whatnot. I think I’ll keep all of that as a feature of the Friday G-File. I have some ideas for some fun features for this space, but right now I’d be delighted to get some suggestions from you folks. Cool charts? Trivia quizzes? Reading suggestions? Random lists of reasons why the world would be better with more basset hounds?