Saturday, March 11, 2017

The crusade against credibility is an attack on America

If nothing is credible, then who and what can we trust? That seems to be the ultimate goal of the Trump administration and the Republicans who trust a demagogue more than hard facts. If they achieve that goal, we lose our American democracy.

Republicans are trying to destroy the very idea of neutral judgment reports Greg Sargent in the Washington Post/Plum Line.

The CBO is a nonpartisan office of professional analysts whose job it is to provide Congress with information and research on budgetary matters. They’re not always right when they’re called on to make predictions of the future, because many of the questions they deal with are inherently complex and uncertain. So it’s perfectly legitimate to take issue with any particular report they produce, to say, “Their analysis is problematic for the following reasons.”

But that’s not what Republicans are doing right now. Before the CBO even releases its score (which is expected to happen next week), they’ve launched a preemptive strike on the agency. “If you’re looking at the CBO for accuracy, you’re looking in the wrong place,” said Sean Spicer. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise called the CBO “unelected bureaucrats in Washington.”

“If you have sound economic logic in place then that’s more important” than what the CBO says, said Rep. Dave Brat. “CBO has scored everything wrong forever so they’re a minor concern.” In case you’re wondering, “sound economic logic” is code for free-market orthodoxy.

What’s the larger context here? This is straight out of President Trump’s playbook, one that tries to convince everyone that there’s no such thing as a neutral authority on anything. If the CBO might say your bill will have problematic effects, then the answer is not to rebut its particular critique, but to attack the institution itself as fundamentally illegitimate. If the news media report things that don’t reflect well on you, then they’re “the enemy of the American People.” If polls show you with a low approval rating, then “any negative polls are fake news.” If a court issues a ruling you don’t like, then it’s a “so-called judge” who has no right to constrain you.

To Trump and increasingly to his Republican allies, there are only two kinds of people in the world: the ones who agree with them (who are the best people, fantastic, believe me) and the ones who don’t (who are losers and haters). There is no in-between and no such thing as neutrality.

… When the CBO score of the Republican health-care bill finally arrives, Republicans will turn up the volume on their attack, barely bothering to deal with the score’s specifics but just saying that the CBO is a bunch of dishonest Washington bureaucrats who can’t be trusted. The message will be reinforced on Fox News, conservative talk radio and right-wing websites. The GOP’s base will adopt that position as its own.

Republicans might not persuade most people to go along with them. But they’ll probably have some measure of success in their larger project of undermining the basic idea that there is such a thing as nonpartisan information we as a country can use when we decide what direction we want to move in.

Beyond attempts to discredit a bipartisan office whose mission is to provide evidence for congressional decisions, here is How President Trump has already hurt American democracy — in just 50 days. (Excerpts follow.)

Democracy is bigger than partisanship. Therefore, this is not a critique of Trump’s policy proposals. Rather, it’s a sober assessment of American democracy at a pivotal moment — and a call for Americans of all political stripes to press all politicians to agree, at minimum, on preserving the bedrock principles that make the United States a democracy.

The call is urgent. In just 50 days, Trump’s presidency has already threatened American democracy in six fundamental ways:

  1. Trump has attacked the integrity of voting, the foundation of all democratic systems. Without any evidence, Trump has repeatedly claimed that millions of people voted illegally in 2016. This claim is not true. Every serious study that has assessed voter fraud, including studies conducted by Republican presidents, has concluded that the scale of the problem is negligible.

  2. After attacking the integrity of his own election, Trump has also undermined the credibility of his own office. Democracy will not function if Americans cannot be sure that the president’s claims are at least grounded in evidence-based reality. And yet, in just 50 days, Trump has made at least 194 false or misleading claims — an average of about four daily. (March 1 was the only day without one, so far.)

  3. Trump’s administration has repeatedly flouted ethics guidelines without consequence. When Trump failed to discipline Kellyanne Conway for brazenly giving a “commercial” for Ivanka Trump’s jewelry and clothing line, the Office of Government Ethics had to send an extraordinary letter reminding Trump that ethics rules apply to the executive branch. Trump has also failed to meaningfully separate himself from his business interests. Most recently, Trump received 38 lucrative trademarks from China, not just a likely violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause but also a benefit that will call into question whether Trump’s foreign policy will pursue what is best for the American people or what is best for his profits. That conflict of interest is precisely why democracies set ethics guidelines — and why it threatens democracy to violate them.

  4. Trump has attacked the independent judiciary. When U.S. District Judge James Robart defied Trump’s travel ban, Trump called him a “so-called judge” and insinuated that he would lay blame for a terrorist attack squarely at the feet of the judiciary. Presidents routinely object to individual court decisions, but it threatens democracy to go one step further and demonize any judge that dares cross the president. After all, the judiciary is charged with upholding the law and the Constitution — not blindly affirming the president’s worldview.

  5. Crucially, Trump has accelerated a long-term trend, prodding tens of millions of Americans to further lose faith in basic institutions of American government. Any experts in federal agencies are now the “deep state.” Trump’s team has begun suggesting that the nonpartisan, independent Congressional Budget Office — a trusted authority for Democrats and Republicans since 1974 — is simply a group of hacks. …

  6. Finally, Trump has attacked a cornerstone of every democracy: the free press. He has called legitimate media organizations “fake news” no fewer than 22 times on Twitter in the first 50 days — and many more times in speeches. Worse, Trump called the press the “enemy of the American People,” language that echoes Mao and Stalin rather than Ronald Reagan or John F. Kennedy.

Whether these six attacks are a deliberate long-term strategy to erode American democracy, or simply a political ploy to poison the electorate’s view against any anyone that is willing to defy the president, remains to be seen. Certainly, Trump is not fully to blame; he is capitalizing on long-term divisions and a long-term erosion of American institutions. But he has accelerated those trends.

The Constitution and checks and balances are not magical guardians. Documents don’t save democracy — people do. American democratic institutions are only as strong as those who fight for them in times of duress. This is one of those times, and this is just the beginning. It will be a long fight. To win it, Democrats and Republicans must set aside policy divides and unite in the defense of democracy.

But I have to wonder if Republicans are at all interested in keeping the Republic given to us by Benjamin Franklin (“if you can keep it”) and the other framers of our constitution. When members of the cabinet are in science denial they become complicit in Trump’s attacks on American democracy. Take EPA head Scott Pruitt for example. Amy Davidson at the New Yorker reports that Scott Pruitt rejects climate-change reality.

Scott Pruitt, President Donald Trump’s choice to run the Environmental Protection Agency, was explaining to CNBC’s Joe Kernen that the Paris climate accord was “a bad deal,” with provisions that were “not an America First type of approach,” when Kernen asked him if they could cut to the “nitty-gritty.” Did Pruitt believe that “it’s been proven that CO2 is the primary control knob for climate?”

“No,” Pruitt replied. “No, I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact.” [Scriber: there isn’t.] And then, lest anyone think that he was merely rejecting Kernen’s Spaceship Earth image of a planetary control board with big knobs on it—rather than the observation, validated by decades of data, of the profound effect of the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—Pruitt added, “So, no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

And thus the epitome of the X/antiX appointments to the cabinet trashes his own agency but, worse, trashes science as a way of coming to neutral judgment.

Here’s a second peek into the cognitive world of Trumpists. In a report on Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s press briefings, the NY Times said this:

On Friday, Mr. Spicer tried to deflect the administration’s credibility issues with a joke. Asked about the morning’s positive jobs report, he said that Mr. Trump had told him, “They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.” (This was two days after Mr. Spicer, dead seriously, discredited in advance the expected scoring of the new health bill by the Congressional Budget Office. Maybe he’ll have a zinger ready for that one, too.)

That might be laughable to some, but it illustrates in one line the administration’s treatment of truth as relative in its crusade against credibility.

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