Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Wolff is at the door, but is that inside or outside?

Wolf attack. German engraving, 1517, via Wikipedia.

In March 2017, Kellyanne Conway is telling Olivia Nuzzi what she meant by the peculiar term she'd used in January to explain her contention that Donald Trump was right to claim that a million or million and a half people had attended his inaugural address in the National Mall, compared to a million for Barack Obama's first inaugural in 2009, though aerial photos clearly showed a much smaller audience for Trump—the "alternative facts":
“Two plus two is four. Three plus one is four. Partly cloudy, partly sunny. Glass half full, glass half empty. Those are alternative facts,” she said, further defining the infamous phrase as “additional facts and alternative information.”
Which doesn't make a lot of sense. The expressions "3 + 1 = 4" and "2 + 2 = 4" aren't "alternative facts", they're alternative ways of stating a single fact. The numbers Sean Spicer proposed, 250,000 plus 220,000 plus another 250,000 for different regions of the Mall, don't add up to a million or more no matter how many times you calculate it, and the total 250,000 of the Vox estimate based on the photographs isn't an alternative way of saying "one million". It's a different number.

In April, Conway had refined the explanation, in an interview with Molly Ball:

When I asked Conway about the incident, she insisted that it was no big deal in Trumpworld—a blip, a trivial error, virtually a typo. “What I meant to say was alternative information,” she said, giving an example: Three plus one equals four, but so does two plus two. Anyway, she contended, nobody cared about “alternative facts” except the elite, out-of-touch intelligentsia who spend all day winding one another up in the echo chamber of Twitter and cable news.
Now "alternative information" is promoted to the expression she should have used, evidently trying to suggest she didn't mean to assert a "fact", but merely to cite a statement from somebody else, not what she knows but what she has been "informed" of. But she keeps using the 2 + 2 vs. 3 + 1 analogy, showing she's still trying to pass off Trump's false assertion as being somehow different ways of saying the same thing as the media's contradiction of it.

In Michael Wolff's newly issued book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, which a friend just sent me in electronic form, the thing is reported like this:
The next day Kellyanne Conway, her aggressive posture during the campaign turning more and more to petulance and self-pity, asserted the new president’s right to claim “alternative facts.” As it happened, Conway meant to say “alternative information,” which at least would imply there might be additional data. But as uttered, it certainly sounded like the new administration was claiming the right to recast reality. Which, in a sense, it was. Although, in Conway’s view, it was the media doing the recasting, making a mountain (hence “fake news”) out of a molehill (an honest minor exaggeration, albeit of vast proportions).
I've got some problems with this. To begin with, Wolff has no way of knowing how "it happened" other than through her words. What he can say is not "as it happened", it's as Conway herself told him, or as he read it in the Ball interview, and that's just one account, alternative, so to speak, to at least one more immediate source, which is also Conway herself, in the Nuzzi interview; which was just Conway double talk offering support to a simple Trump falsehood, as we know from those half-full/half-empty examples, which Wolff omits.

By the same token, "it was the media doing the recasting" isn't "in Conway's view", which Wolff also has no way of knowing, except through Conway's words, which aren't reliable; it's Conway's projection of her own falsehood on her enemy (like the Trumpian "No puppet, no puppet, you're the puppet!"), and a minor exaggeration doesn't have vast proportions, that's a contradiction. Maybe it's making an important mountain out of an insignificant mountain, because after all nobody paying any attention is going to believe that Trump's crowd estimate is actually true, and indeed the evidence scattered through Wolff's book is that nobody on Trump's staff is fooled by any of his prevarications, and Conway knows perfectly well that it's not true, and doesn't expect Wolff or anyone else to believe her.

In fact what she's saying is intended to be appreciated by an audience of just one person, the emperor, Donald Trump, watching her on CNN or looking at the newspaper and magazine clippings Hope Hicks brings him at intervals throughout the day. It's to let him know that she's working her ass off and as loyal as they come, in contrast to the view she shows her colleagues—
Conway offered either an eye-rolling pantomime whenever Trump’s name was mentioned, or a dead stare...
I have no doubt that everything in Wolff's book is something somebody did in fact say, but what I think so far is that it would be a much better book if he could have given us a more consistent picture of who said what and helped us put together an idea of what their agenda might be, which I realize would be pretty difficult given the necessary anonymity of much of the sourcing; or if he could have shown up as a more magisterial narrative presence himself, for which I think his understanding of the broad political-historical context just isn't strong enough. A more serious example than Kellyanne's alternative facts comes when Buzzfeed publishes what we would soon learn was the Steele dossier:
On the verge of Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency, the media, with its singular voice on Trump matters, was propounding a conspiracy of vast proportions. The theory, suddenly presented as just this side of a likelihood, was that the Russians had suborned Donald Trump during a trip to Moscow with a crude blackmail scheme involving prostitutes and videotaped sexual acts pushing new boundaries of deviance (including “golden showers”) with prostitutes and videotaped sex acts. The implicit conclusion: a compromised Trump had conspired with the Russians to steal the election and to install him in the White House as Putin’s dupe.
If this was true, then the nation stood at one of the most extraordinary moments in the history of democracy, international relations, and journalism.
If it was not true—and it was hard to fathom a middle ground—then it would seem to support the Trump view (and the Bannon view) that the media, in also quite a dramatic development in the history of democracy, was so blinded by an abhorrence and revulsion, both ideological and personal, for the democratically elected leader that it would pursue any avenue to take him down. Mark Hemingway, in the conservative, but anti-Trump, Weekly Standard, argued the novel paradox of two unreliable narrators dominating American public life: the president-elect spoke with little information and frequently no factual basis, while “the frame the media has chosen to embrace is that everything the man does is, by default, unconstitutional or an abuse of power.”
The media's "singular voice" has to be being seen from inside the White House; outside, the only thing they had a singular voice on was insisting that it was an "unverified dossier" and that Buzzfeed probably shouldn't have published it without a lot of additional reporting to ascertain how true it was. The kompromat-and-blackmail theory wasn't endorsed by any of them, though they weren't exactly keeping it a secret. What was missing wasn't so much a "middle ground" as neglect of elements other than the peepee tape: the stories of Trump's years-long relationship with Russian authorities, of the cooperative work with Russians of Manafort, Page, and Cohen, of the Trump campaign's knowledge of Russian cooperation with WikiLeaks, and of Page's financial dealing with Russians over the Rosneft sale (a new explainer at Vox puts this all together very nicely).

Although Trump himself seemed obsessed with the peepee tape, there were signs in the dossier of possible conspiracy between him and Russians that didn't need it to be convincing: especially his longstanding desire for a hotel project in Moscow, going back at least to 2006, and the possibility that he might stand to profit hugely personally from the Rosneft sale. And plenty on Manafort's and Page's independent relations with Russians—follow the money! But the media wasn't paying much attention at all to these aspects during the transition and the first months, nor to the real constitutional issues that had nothing to do with the dossier, of Trump's failure to divest himself of his conflicting interests, of the violation of nepotism law, of the eager soliciting of foreign emoluments and of profiteering off his new status, and of the encouragement of the billionaires in the new cabinet to be as corrupt, opaque, and conflicted as he was himself. The "singular voice of the media" wasn't examining any of that very carefully either, though eventually they came around to chasing out the vile Tom Price.

What's going on in this passage is, I think, encapsulated in the parentheses in the third paragraph, on "the Trump view (and the Bannon view)"—the whole account of the dossier and the press reaction to it is coming from Bannon, in the middle of his war against the "enemy of the people" (while the usual media suspects, NYTims and Wapo, CNN, and the public broadcasting, were in fact making extraordinary and often ridiculous efforts not to draw any conclusions at all), and Wolff doesn't seem to realize that he can't just lay it out there as an objective summary of the relevant "both sides" with the insufferable reactionary Mark Hemingway, of all people, as some kind of honest broker in the middle between two equally untrustworthy combatants.

So an immensely valuable book, but it needs some intensely critical reading.

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