Did Mick Mulvaney Just Step Into Quicksand?

The problem with trying to make every story about Donald Trump.

Dear Reader (including those of you still plowing your way through my endless essay on Bellamy’s Children), 

It’s been a rough couple days—more on that below—so as the idiot said when told he was standing in front of quicksand: Let’s jump right in. 

Actually, hold on. Speaking of quicksand, if you’re around my age or maybe slightly older, quicksand was a major concern. When I was, say, 5 or 6 years old, I think I would have listed quicksand as one of the chief causes of death for explorers, Tarzan’s entourage, and even railroad crews in the Old West. It came up in movies and TV shows all the time. Gilligan’s Island, Abbott and Costello, Jonny Quest and so many others had to contend with it. 

My friends and I would regularly discuss how to survive quicksand and run drills pretending that the living room floor was quicksand (when it wasn’t lava, duh).   

 It turns out it’s not even really a thing. I mean it exists, but it’s closer to the sludge that makes you pull your foot out of your shoe than it is to the Great Pit of Carkoon.

Anyway, I thought it was important that I get on the record about this.

Mulvaney’s Crazy Theory

Since we’re on the topic of things aren’t really a thing, let’s take a minute to discuss Mick Mulvaney’s monumental-if-true claim at CPAC: 

“The reason you’re seeing so much attention to it today is that they think this is going to be the thing that brings down the president,” he added. “That’s what this is all about it.”

The “it” here isn’t a sewer-dwelling clown or Gomez Addams’ cousin. It’s the coronavirus. And this is a very dumb claim from a guy who is definitely not dumb. Japan just announced its closing all of its schools for a month to prevent the spread of the virus. Did the Japanese government make this call because bureaucrats have been watching too much MSNBC? Switzerland has canceled all events, public and private, with 1,000 or more people. Who knew Don Lemon’s diatribes were such an international force?

A slew of major corporations have revised their earnings estimates down and the stock market has been on the verge of bowel-stewing panic for a week now because of it. 

I could give you more examples of why this is a big story, but if I have to offer them in the first place, you haven’t been paying attention. But since I brought up stewed bowels, in 2013, a nasty gastrointestinal bug took over a cruise ship. Passengers were racing to the crappers like old-style gambling addicts with a hot tip sprinting to a payphone. 

CNN covered the “Poop Cruise” story almost non-stop. I’m focusing on this for a couple reasons. First, and most obviously, because I’m really immature and stories about people with runaway diarrhea are like catnip for me. 

A more important reason:  because there are lots of different forms of media bias. Of course, ideological bias is one. Closely related—but not the same thing—is partisan bias. So Mulvaney had a plausible point when, earlier in his remarks, the press under-covered steps taken by the administration weeks ago to help head-off the coronavirus contagion. “Why didn’t you hear about it?” he asked. “What was still going on four or five weeks ago? Impeachment, that’s all the press wanted to talk about.”

Yeah okay. Though it wasn’t exactly like there was a news blackout on the travel restrictions imposed by the administration. Nor was it a bizarre and partisan outrage for the media to cover an impeachment trial. But fine. Mulvaney has a small point in his favor here. 

But the idea that the media is paying so much attention to the coronavirus story now only because they want to hurt Trump is really astoundingly stupid. The coronavirus story is a legitimately big story. Which is why, by the way, Fox is covering it too. 

Which brings me back to the other kinds of media bias. Human interest stories are a thing because they’re of interest to this demographic called “humans.” The British royal family doesn’t deserve 1/1,00th of the attention it gets, save for the fact that people are fascinated by the royal family, and that fascination translates into ad sales. 

A cruise ship full of people crapping their brains out doesn’t deserve wall-to-wall coverage except for the fact that viewers enjoy the schadenfreude of imagining other people trading their wedding rings for a roll of toilet paper. If the royal family had been on the poop cruise, CNN wouldn’t have broken coverage for an alien invasion. They would move through other stories faster than a bean burrito through a poop cruiser.  

Maintaining ideological discipline.

So why is Mulvaney saying this stupid thing? He’s not a stupid man. There are only two possibilities: A) he believes it, or B) he doesn’t. If it’s A, it means he’s so deep in the bunker he wouldn’t be able to hear the Dresden bombing if it were on top of him. To believe this, you have to be so drunk on the White House Kool-Aid that virtually every and any inconvenient fact is really a conspiracy against you.

 If it’s B, there are two possible motivations. The first is that he knows the boss is watching and this is what the boss wants to hear. This dynamic explains a vast swath of the ridiculous things GOP politicians say in front of cameras these days. 

The second possibility, which doesn’t exclude the first, is that he wants the folks at CPAC to believe it. Perhaps they think things are going to get really bad and they don’t want those in the base to believe their own lying eyes. Or maybe they just want to keep outrage at the media going now that the story that lent itself to anti-media outrage—impeachment—has faded away. This administration feeds on anger at the media and its anti-Trump coverage. That makes the coronavirus story a problem for the White House because it is primarily not an anti-Trump story. 

So, if you can successfully turn wall-to-wall coverage of a story that isn’t about Trump into yet more proof the media is out to get Trump, that’s a win. 

I doubt it will work because—again—it’s really stupid spin. The people inclined to believe it are already in Trump’s column. But this is a wildly irresponsible and dangerous bit of propaganda. First, as a matter of public policy, it’s not good for the White House chief of staff to go around saying this pandemic is really just another example of “fake news.”

But as a matter of politics it’s nuts too. By saying public concern over the disease is just hysteria whipped up by a partisan press, Mulvaney is conceding that the White House sees this not as a public health crisis but a public relations crisis. That is a great way to piss away public confidence in the administration, confidence they might desperately need if this goes bad. 

Various & Sundry

Omnibus update: On the good side of the ledger the rollout of paid subscriptions to The Dispatch has gone better than we had any right to hope, and certainly better than we had planned in our business plan. As we suspected, the folks who said there isn’t a market for what we’re trying to do were simply wrong. But we’re not resting on our laurels. It would be fantastic if more folks on the free list signed up to be full members (If you do, you’ll start getting, among other things, my Wednesday “news”letter). And if you have friends who aren’t on the free list, please share our stuff with them and maybe that will change.

On the downside, where to begin? Well, we had to bring Pippa to the vet on Tuesday for her orthopedic consultation. She was so stressed, they prescribed tranquilizers for her next visit. The vet’s best guess is that Pippa has some torn or sprained ligaments in her front ankle or wrist (choose your human anatomical analogue). The problem is that, unlike a human who knows how to rest a sprained ankle, spaniels lack all such understanding. Moreover, dogs are built differently than humans. The ligaments you sprain in your ankle aren’t used as much or in the same way as they are in dogs. So if the diagnosis is right, she will probably need to use a brace for serious exercise. Not terrible, but kind of sad. But we’re not sure that this is what’s wrong. X-rays can rule out other possible problems, but they can’t confirm this one. So the doctor gave her a steroid shot basically for diagnostic purposes. If her limp improves that would suggest he’s right. So far it’s unclear. The day she got it, she was a hot mess. She couldn’t put any weight on it at all and held it up like she expected me to take a thorn out of her paw. The doctor warned that the limp would get worse before it got better. And, as of today, it looks like he was right. 

Oh, and then there was the incident. So Pippa had to stay at the vet for a while. I left for the office for a bit and came back in my decidedly non-dog car. When I got there, she was more eager to get out of the abattoir than a germophobe trying to disembark the poop cruise. She ran straight for my car—again, not our beat up Honda Element but my fairly presentable Audi. She alternated between hiding half-under it and jumping up to see if she could go through the driver window. I let her in the second I could. This was a mistake. I should have taken her for a quick walk.  On the drive home, she was bouncing all over the place, as she does. Then, she stood up on her hind legs, with her front paws on the top of the front passenger seat like she was about to be frisked by a cop. She then peed. A lot. I screamed. She hid in the footwell. And before I could grab anything that might soak it up, I watched as the pee receded into the vented leather seat like water into sand. The vet visit cost over $1,000, B.P. (Before Pee).  

I left for a speech in Florida Wednesday morning, and I took the girls out at 5 a.m. Pippa was still a mess and wouldn’t leave the front lawn. When we got back, I had to bring the treats to her. When I returned home today (leaving my hotel at 3:45 in the morning so I could make a meeting at AEI), she was moving much better. She even got to go out with the squad today for the first time in a while.

 The speech went very well, but everything else was rough. I had a pile of work to do before the speech, which was made all the harder because the “B” key on my laptop doesn’t work. All of the B’s in this “news”letter were cut-and-pasted in after I was done. I use the V key when I type and then fix the “Vernie Sanders” and “Casrto’s Cuva” afterward. Not annoying at all. 

While in Florida we also got some terrible family news, which I won’t share now. But it’s thrown everything off kilter even more. I wouldn’t be writing this “news”letter today, except for the fact that hitting deadlines at The Dispatch is hugely important and it takes my mind off other things. (My mom is fine, for those of you wondering.) 

I also wanted to file today to say thank you. Not just to all the new paid subscribers, but also to express how truly grateful I am for the outpouring of concern for Pippa, particularly on Twitter. I know my dog tweeting is sometimes a bit on the silly side. But I do love these critters and it really does warm my heart to hear from folks pulling for thegal. I just wish I could explain to her how many of you are pulling for her. 

Anyway, that’s it. 

Photograph of Mick Mulvaney at CPAC by Samuel Corum/Getty Images.