There was only one side of the dais at Tuesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing that mentioned impeachment — and it wasn’t the Democratic side.
There was only one side that hollered and sputtered, one side that lobbed insults at the other and impugned colleagues’ motives — and it wasn’t the majority.
Indeed, Tuesday’s hearing was a study in the asymmetric combat that defines our politics in the Trump era. Some on the left see this asymmetry as a sign of Democratic weakness. I see it as the nation’s best hope for recovery.
At Tuesday’s session, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), spoke in a calm, steady voice about the absence of former White House counsel Donald McGahn, a no-show after President Trump ordered him not to comply with a subpoena. “Mr. McGahn has a legal obligation to be here for this scheduled appearance. If he does not immediately correct his mistake, this committee will have no choice but to enforce the subpoena against him,” Nadler intoned.
Nadler mentioned neither impeachment nor contempt, and he managed to keep the Democratic side — including the gadfly who brought fried chicken to a previous hearing as a prop — quiet.
Then came Nadler’s Republican counterpart, Rep. Douglas Collins of Georgia, who practically yelled out his statement and fired off taunts so quickly that those of us in the room struggled to understand him, and the transcript designated several sections as unintelligible. The words that did come through were mostly caustic and personal. Nadler “rushed to maximize headlines,” was “politically expedient,” issued an “illegal subpoena,” “orchestrated” a “spectacle” and a “drama,” and is “more interested in the fight than fact-finding.” Collins further accused Nadler and the Democrats of “harangues,” “innuendo” and warned of“running roughshod over the Constitution.”
“The theater is open,” Collins said of the sedate proceedings. Because Democrats can’t find anything to “hang their I-word, impeachment, on. . . . We’re here again, with the circus in full force.”
Though accusing Democrats of theatrics by having the empty-seat hearing, Republicans attempted to continue bickering by voting against adjournment. “This is disgraceful!” cried out Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio).
Watching this disparity in demeanor, I tried to imagine how things might look if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, and, two years later:
• Five of her campaign advisers had been convicted of crimes — one of them implicating her — and a sixth indicted.
• A prosecutor documented numerous instances in which Clinton had interfered with investigators.
• Clinton refused to let aides cooperate with subpoenas and dismissed an unfavorable court ruling as “crazy” and partisan.
• She directed the Justice Department to investigate the front-runner for the Republicans’ 2020 nomination.
• She directed the White House counsel to lie about her deceit, then ordered him not to testify.
Can anybody imagine, in those circumstances, a Republican speaker of the House and the Republican presidential front-runner (the one Clinton ordered investigated) steadfastly resisting calls for impeachment?
There is long-standing tension among Democratic lawmakers and 2020 presidential candidates about whether to answer Trump’s aggression and insults in kind (Republican lawmakers long ago internalized his style) or whether to be the grown-ups in the room. On the campaign trail, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Kamala Harris(Calif.) have called for impeachment, and a growing number of Democrats in Congress, from fiery Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) to Rep. David Cicilline (R.I.), a member of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (Calif.) leadership team, have joined the cause. Liberal activists rage against Pelosi “meeting fire with fecklessness,” as New York magazine’s Eric Levitz put it.
But the mass of voters side with restraint, and even anti-establishment Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has said impeachment “works to Trump’s advantage.” Certainly, Trump has earned impeachment; Republican Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.) has said as much. But with no chance of removing Trump, Democrats can instead show the country that our problem isn’t polarization; it’s that one side has gone bonkers, and the other side is trying to restore adult supervision.
Americans, even reluctant Trump supporters, hunger to end the madness. This is likely why former vice president Joe Biden holds a commanding lead, even though he’s out of sync with the party base ideologically and demographically. And generally, the 2020 Democrats seem to grasp the country’s need for normal. I had feared that, after Trump, Democrats would conclude there’s no penalty for lying. Instead, “anecdotally, I think they are trying to harder to be more factually accurate,” The Post’s Fact Checker, Glenn Kessler, tells me.
This is an encouraging sign, as is party leadership’s efforts to resist an impeachment stampede. Impeachment may be inevitable if Trump continues to stiff-arm all inquiries. But Democrats are right not to emulate Trump’s insults, falsehoods and extreme partisanship as they go about their legitimate inquiries.
Maybe such restraint will be proved wrong in 2020, and voters will reward the insult hurlers. But if Americans don’t desire a return to stability, honesty and decency, our democracy is already lost.
President Trump reportedly chose Stephen Moore for one of the vacancies at the Federal Reserve Board after reading a Wall Street Journal op-ed Moore wrote attacking the Fed. The piece, co-authored with Louis Woodhill, made two central claims: (1) we’re experiencing deflation, and (2) the way to address it is to follow a rule adopted by Paul Volcker in the 1980s.
Slight problem though: Both of those claims are flat-out false. There is no deflation, and Volcker never created the imaginary “rule” Moore is now attributing to him. I know, because I asked Volcker — as Moore once suggested I do.
Deflation, for those unfamiliar, means prices are falling. There are three major measures of price changes: the consumer price index, the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, and the “core” PCE price index (which excludes energy and food, which can be volatile). All three show modest but positive year-over-year price increases.
.. Moore and Woodhill explain this away by saying that in fact we shouldn’t be looking at overall price changes — instead we should be looking at just a small subset of prices, specifically commodities. Commodities refer to goods that are interchangeable with one another, such as metals, oil, soybeans, wheat, etc.
Now, there’s a reason why when people talk about inflation or deflation they usually focus on the overall index rather than some cherry-picked subset of products. Some products see prices go up (doctor visits); others see them go down (TVs); what we want to know is the big-picture trend. Sure, it’s possible that changes in commodity prices might eventually flow through to elsewhere in the economy. It’s also possible that commodities have weird, anomalous price changes driven by sudden shocks — a crop failure, say, or discovery of gold, or an oil embargo. These supply or demand shocks tell us little about whether there is too much money chasing too few goods, which is really what the Fed is trying to track.
Moore historically has had trouble distinguishing whether price changes in commodities are driven by monetary policy (that is, the Fed allowing too much or too little money to slosh around) or market-specific shocks. For instance, when I’ve appeared with him on CNN before, he has cited as evidence of “deflation” the fact that U.S. soybean prices have fallen. And hey, soybean prices are down! But as everyone in America except apparently Moore is aware, soybean prices have fallen primarily because China stopped buying U.S. soybeans in retaliation for Trump’s trade war, not because of changes in the money supply.
Nonetheless, Moore claimed in this op-ed, as well as in that CNN appearance, that his confused understanding of inflation and Fed policy was endorsed by none other than the godfather of sound Fed policy: former Fed chairman Paul Volcker.
.. On CNN, Moore said that we should follow the “Volcker Rule,” which he claimed was a rule Volcker set when he was chair in the 1980s that required linking interest rates according to movements in commodity prices. That is not actually anything close to what the Volcker Rule is about. It’s actually a regulation that prohibits banks from conducting certain investment activities with their own accounts, and has nothing to do with commodity prices or interest rates. I figured he’d misspoken, or gotten confused (this was around 7 a.m., after all), and moved on.
I was then surprised to see that Moore resuscitated this claim again in his recent Journal op-ed — you know, the one that earned him his Fed nomination. This time he didn’t foolishly refer to it the “Volcker Rule”; he said it was Volcker’s “commodity-price rule”:
The solution is obvious. The Fed should stabilize the value of the dollar by adopting the commodity-price rule used successfully by former Fed chief Paul Volcker. To break the crippling inflation of the 1970s, Mr. Volcker linked Fed monetary policy to real-time changes in commodity prices. When commodity prices rose, Mr. Volcker saw inflation coming and increased interest rates. When commodities fell in price, he lowered rates.
.. On Monday, I wrote to Moore to ask him where I could find more information about this rule, explaining that I had consulted Fed transcripts and other documents to no avail. He replied to say that Arthur Laffer, his longtime business partner and frequent co-author, had written “two very famous pieces” for the Wall Street Journal about the subject in the 1980s.
He eventually sent me one Journal op-ed from 1982, by Laffer and Charles Kadlec. It does not in fact say that Volcker adopted a price rule; rather, it says that Laffer and Kadlec speculated that such a relationship might be able to explain interest rate movements over the previous four months, and proposed how to test their theory. The headline, ending in a telltale question mark: “Has the Fed Already Put Itself on a Price Rule?”
Turns out Cato Institute senior fellow and economic historian George Selgin was also looking into Moore’s claim, and dug up another Laffer essay from this era. In this one (in Reason), Laffer explicitly says Volcker replied to that 1982 Journal op-ed to explain to Laffer why the Fed was not targeting commodity prices. Selgin also found a paper by another Fed official — written just after Volcker stepped down, in 1987 — arguing (apparently unsuccessfully) that the Fed should start adopting a rule such as the one Moore describes. Which, of course, implies that the Fed had not had any such rule when Volcker was in charge.
.. When I first, shall we say, expressed skepticism about Moore’s claim in that CNN debate, he suggested I get things from the horse’s mouth.
MOORE: Do you know what the Volcker Rule was? You know how he killed inflation? He followed commodity prices. Every time commodity prices went up, he — he raised interest rates, and every time —
RAMPELL: That’s not what the Volcker Rule is.
MOORE: Yes, it was. That’s what he did, and that’s how we conquered inflation, and that’s why —
RAMPELL: Google the Volcker Rule, people. That’s not what the Volcker Rule is.
MOORE: Yes, it was. Ask him. Ask him.
So I figured, why not ask Volcker? I sent an inquiry through his book publicist, who passed it along to Volcker’s assistant. The assistant replied: “I showed this to Mr. Volcker and he says that he does not remember ever establishing a commodity-price rule.”
There you have it. Trump has nominated to the world’s most powerful central bank a guy who has trouble telling whether prices are going up or down, and struggles to remember how the most famous Fed chair in history successfully stamped out inflation. But hey, Republican senators still seem keen on him because “the establishment” keeps pointing out how inept he is.
It is easier to spread misinformation on social media than to correct it, and easier to inflame social divisions than to mend them. The very nature of how we engage with Facebook and the rest now helps far-right, authoritarian factions weaken the foundations of democratic systems — and even give themselves an easier pathway to seizing power.
It seems we have to admit a somewhat uncomfortable truth: Social media, in the way that it’s used now, is an authoritarian medium.
.. “It seems undeniable,” Deibert writes, “that social media must bear some of the blame for the descent into neo-fascism.”
Ten years ago, Deibert’s view — now widely shared among journalists and scholars — would have sounded absurd.
In 2009, Iranians rose up to protest against a rigged election, the so-called “Green Movement” using Facebook and YouTube clips of protests to spread their message globally. Two years later, the Arab Spring protests showed the true power of these mediums, as protest movements that made skillful use of social media for coordination and messaging toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.
At the time, the consensus among observers was that social media was, by its very nature, democratizing. Social media facilitates the swift spread of information, allowing citizens to easily get around government censors. Social media allows rapid communication among large groups of disparate people, giving citizen activists new tools for organizing actions. The spread of social media would necessarily weaken authoritarian states and strengthen democracies — or, at least, that’s how the argument went.
There were some dissenters, like the acerbic writer Evgeny Morosov, but they were largely brushed aside in an Arab Spring-induced high. More representative was the 2013 issue of the MIT Technology Review titled “Big Data Will Save Politics,” featuring an interview with the singer Bono declaring that new technologies would be “deadly to dictators.”
.. This theory turned out to be partly true: It can be difficult to simply repress the spread of information on social media. But as we’ve come to discover, it’s equally difficult to repress the spread of disinformation. The core feature of social media that gives it democratic promise, the rapid spread of information, can be used against democracy via information overload.
A savvy person or political party looking to discredit online critics doesn’t need to ban their speech to hamstring it. Instead, they can respond with a deluge of false or misleading information, making it very hard for ordinary citizens to figure out what’s actually going on.
.. The WhatsApp propaganda in Brazil is one example of the effect Deibert is talking about. A well-funded campaign to spread false information was extremely difficult for Bolsonaro’s opponents and Brazil’s independent press to expose or discredit. The falsehoods these messages spread likely became truth in the eyes of a significant percentage of people who encountered them, many of whom would never see rebuttals and wouldn’t believe them if they did.
.. A recent study found that conservatives were more than four times as likely to share fake news on Facebook as liberals. Another study, from researchers at the University of Oxford, found that conservative users were overwhelmingly more likely to spread “junk news” (defined as outlets that “deliberately publish misleading, deceptive or incorrect information”).
“On Twitter, a network of Trump supporters consumes the largest volume of junk news, and junk news is the largest proportion of news links they share,” the Oxford researchers write. “Extreme hard right [Facebook] pages — distinct from Republican pages — share more junk news than all the other audiences put together.”
.. We’re seeing the same phenomenon beyond the US and Brazil. The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte has cultivated an online fan base — even bringing popular social media influencers into the government — that’s known for “patriotic trolling”: sending hate messages to his critics and spreading smears about them. The Philippine news site Rappler has identified a network of more than 12 million pro-Duterte propaganda accounts on various platforms, reporting that led to a concerted smear campaign against the site from Duterte’s fans. An #UnfollowRappler social media campaign cost the site tens of thousands of Facebook followers, a huge hit for an online publication that depends on clicks to stay profitable.
Social media isn’t the only — or even the primary — reason far-right populists have been able to win elections. There are all sorts of more fundamental reasons, ranging from ethnic divisionsto anxiety about crime to the weakness of the political opposition that these leaders have exploited in their rise to power. It would be absurd to blame technology for a phenomenon that has much deeper political roots.
But while the global challenge to democracy from within isn’t social media’s fault, the major platforms do seem to be making this crisis worse. The platforms by their nature allow far-right politicians to marginalize opponents, consolidate their base, and exacerbate the social divisions that helped them rise to power. It helps them act like authoritarians even inside the confines of a democratic political system.
“Social media [outlets] not only are compatible with authoritarianism; they may be one of the main reasons why authoritarian practices are now spreading worldwide,” as Deibert puts it.
President Trump’s remarks on Afghanistan at his Cabinet meeting Wednesday were a notable event. They will be criticized heavily, and deservedly so. The full text is available on the White House website.
Mr. Trump ridiculed other nations’ commitment of troops to fight alongside America’s in Afghanistan. He said, “They tell me a hundred times, ‘Oh, we sent you soldiers. We sent you soldiers.’”
This mockery is a slander against every ally that has supported the U.S. effort in Afghanistan with troops who fought and often died. The United Kingdom has had more than 450 killed fighting in Afghanistan.
As reprehensible was Mr. Trump’s utterly false narrative of the Soviet Union’s involvement there in the 1980s. He said: “The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there.”
Right to be there? We cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan with three divisions in December 1979 to prop up a fellow communist government.
The invasion was condemned throughout the non-communist world. The Soviets justified the invasion as an extension of the Brezhnev Doctrine, asserting their right to prevent countries from leaving the communist sphere. They stayed until 1989.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a defining event in the Cold War, making clear to all serious people the reality of the communist Kremlin’s threat. Mr. Trump’s cracked history can’t alter that reality.