We’re less than two weeks into the presidency of Donald Trump but it’s already clear that his opponents are digging in for a long fight. We’ve had pussy protests and airport protests, both drenched in mainstream media coverage and amplification.
From the tenor of these protests and much attendant news coverage, you’d think the country was in constitutional chaos, and that the people were rising up in unity from sea to shining sea to fight the orange scourge.
There’s a structural bias in the news that is fairly obvious: journalists favor covering flashy exciting things while not covering people going about their day normally. So it might have been something of a surprise, given the media coverage of widespread anxiety on the Left in the first 10 days, to see a new poll showing that Donald Trump isn’t underwater on favorability. (It would have been less of a surprise, of course, if media outlets had attempted to rectify their echo chamber problem that was so undeniable with Trump’s election.)
According to Politico, 49 percent of voters approve of how Trump is handling his job, while 41 percent disapprove. A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 49 percent of Americans agreed with his executive order instituting a pause on entry to the United States from seven troubled countries while 41 percent disagreed!
But from the mean streets of Facebook to the fabled Terminal 4 of JFK airport to the airwaves and pixels of the media outlets, the mood is extremely different. It’s like a whole other country.
These rioters and social media activists are trying to make the same case they tried to make throughout 2016, only louder and with more signs featuring uterine walls and calling for the abolition of borders. They say Trump is a unique threat to humanity, a fascist whose rhetorical style is intolerable. Okay, do what you feel the need to do. But here are some tips if they want to be more effective at taking on the current administration.
1) Don’t Be Worse On Free Speech Than He Is
Even though he was running against a woman who wanted to overturn the First Amendment-protecting Citizens United ruling, many people were particularly concerned about Trump’s rhetoric against the media. Once elected, he went to the CIA, announced he was in a war with the media, and spent much of the next few days at his battle station.
He argues the media have acted more like a hyper-partisan propaganda machine than a free press interested in doing their jobs fairly from one administration to the next. But when it’s the president saying such harsh things about the media, it’s reasonable for people to be concerned. So if the argument is that Trump poses a unique threat to civil liberties and the culture of free speech, don’t do stuff like this.
Chaotic scenes at the University of California in Berkeley after protest against Milo Yiannopoulos turns violent pic.twitter.com/45g4HRiIbb
— BNO News (@BNONews) February 2, 2017
That’s where the Free Speech movement began, y’all.
It’s really hard to argue that someone telling you you’re really bad at your job is worse than a nationwide culture of shutting down your speaking engagement unless you toe a narrow liberal line, even if that person who is being mean is the president.
2) Don’t Follow Procedures Less than Trump Does
On Friday, the Trump administration issued an executive order that pauses the admission of some refugees and immigrants, then caps the number of refugee admissions at 50,000 per year. The order was issued without much warning to or input from the agencies tasked with implementing it. Public protest was fierce, as concerned citizens went to airports to demand entry for citizens of the listed countries.
The best argument to make against the order, apart from reasonable policy differences about how to protect citizens of the United States from the threat of Islamist terrorism, was the manner in which it was executed. The rollout was arbitrary and capricious, and therefore a threat to the rule of law. The best way to restrain people who engage in such behavior is by insisting on the rule of law, not turning lawless yourself.
Instead, the acting Attorney General Sally Yates loudly protested that she would refuse to do her job, but failed to give a good reason for that. What’s more, she forbade her employees from doing their jobs. That creates a kind of fourth branch of government, one completely outside the constitutional separation of powers, that could in fact lead to constitutional chaos.
As a smart liberal attorney friend of mine put it on Facebook:
I’m seeing a lot of misunderstanding about Yates in my feed. I’m as against the immigration EO as any of you, but Yates’ action was totally inappropriate. DOJ is not independent from the president, and its political appointees serve at his pleasure. DOJ officials do have an independent duty to uphold the constitution and laws of the United States, which can be justification for defying the president when he orders you to violate them. But on its face (not arguing the merits here), Yates’ letter did not justify an order to her subordinates not to defend the EO. She acknowledged that the EO had been reviewed by OLC, which had concluded the EO was lawful on its face. She did not say that the EO violates the constitution or any particular statute, or that DOJ attorneys would not be able to offer good faith arguments to defend the EO in court. Instead, she said she personally felt that the EO is not ‘wise or just.’ In such a situation the appropriate action is to resign. You don’t order your subordinates to defy the president based on your policy preferences. It puts your attorneys in an impossible situation and you should be fired.
Gah. No. And cheering on federal bureaucrats who use social media accounts or other means to join the “resistance,” as more and more are putting it, is also not a great approach to convey concern about proper procedures. A “resistance” against a democratically elected leader of the republic is a resistance against the people. Openly lawless resistance should be used if it is morally required. And tweeting about crowd size is not a moral requirement. Such posturing will only push the idea among Trump supporters that they are disdained by a cultural elite and therefore will backfire against the opposition’s goals, and strengthen the executive’s power. Don’t do it.
Also, if you want to make the case that Trump is flouting tradition and all rules and norms, consider what it looks like when you take the unprecedented action of boycotting committee hearings to keep nominees from being passed out of committee. You can do it — and Republicans can easily change the rules so it doesn’t matter if you do it — but is it the best way to make the case that Trump is reckless?
3) Don’t Be Worse With the Facts Than He Is
Another great argument to deploy against Trump is that he plays fast and loose with the facts. This is an easy argument to make because not only does everyone know this, they’ve known it for decades. There are hundreds of examples of his imprecision, from claiming without evidence millions of fraudulent votes cast to a larger crowd size at his inauguration, to give two recent examples. He’s an excellent, if underrated, communicator but his relationship with facts is casual at best.
This drives the media wild, and not just because we’re a words-based industry. But to make the case that he is dangerously playing fast and loose with the facts, we need a media establishment that isn’t messing up its bed day after day after day after day. I know, I know, and I guess it’s important to make sure you say this or they get really upset: there are good reporters. But industry-wide we have a credibility problem, and it’s not improved by the daily litany of stories that turn out not to be true in whole or part.
To take just one recent example, the general media framing of the Trump executive order regarding the seven troubled countries was continuously hostile. One story published by a Fox affiliate in Detroit and spread throughout social media by reporters was perfect for the narrative. A green card holder had died and Trump had something to do with it. Here’s a New York Times reporter spreading this story:
The Fox affiliate made a major update to the story early the next afternoon: “Man who claimed mom died in Iraq after Trump’s ban lied, Imam confirms.”
Oh. That’s a bit of a change. How did the story get published without verifying the claim that was made to begin with? At least reporters are trying to rectify the damage they did by spreading bad information, right? Well, people spent hours asking Liam Stack to pull his tweets on the matter and issue a correction. He hadn’t done so after hours of such requests. He also spread false information about Trump trying to invade Mexico. The White House denied it.
I gave four other recent examples of why people have trouble believing media coverage of Trump. There are multiple incidences of fake information being spread by the media each day. In big newspapers, small newspapers, online sites, and TV stations, it’s an epidemic and one that we can’t afford in an era of already historic lows on media credibility.
Put simply, if you want to go after Trump for playing fast and loose with his information, stop playing fast and loose with your information 24-7 on social media and in your published reports. Capisce?
4) Don’t Be More Vulgar than He Is
One of the better arguments against Trump during the 2016 election was that he was vulgar. It worked because it’s true. By the time the hot mic recording of him talking in a sexually aggressive and objectifying manner leaked, things were bad. Of course, anyone who listened to the decades of interviews on Howard Stern were completely unsurprised by his rhetoric.
Listen, you can think that the nasty signs, as Slate puts it, are awesome. But the coarse rhetoric and reduction of women to violently empty reproductive organs isn’t a great way to argue against Trump’s vulgarity.
You Don’t Make Someone Look Crazy by Being Crazier
The unhinged rhetoric, violent anti-speech street protests, and hysteria currently on display don’t make Trump look like he’s a unique threat. They make him look like a reasonable alternative. The goal in the fight against Trump shouldn’t be to strengthen him.