Monday, January 30, 2017

Yes, Sanders Would Have Won: Exploding False Clintonite Narratives

Clintonites in the press and the Democratic party, sometimes aided and abetted by Hillary Clinton herself, have spun a number of narratives to explain--or, more to the point, to explain away--the failure of the Clinton campaign in the 2016 presidential race and continue to labor to generate from them, by mere repetition, an artificial Conventional Wisdom about the outcome of the election. These narratives tend toward the self-serving and self-exculpatory--Clinton and her people are never said to have done anything wrong--and for the most part, range from grossly misleading to entirely false. The campaign generated a great deal of data and collectively, they stand as a bulwark against these misrepresentations. If, that is, anyone bothers to consult them.

"It's Bernie Sanders' fault Trump won," runs a popular one. "He fatally weakened Clinton by putting her through such a grueling primary contest."

Baked into this is a rather irritating sense of entitlement on the part of the Clintonites, one that turns up through many of their narratives. In this case, they're rejecting the notion that the party nomination should be conducted via a vigorously contested democratic process and asserting, instead, the view that their candidate was entitled to a coronation, free of serious challenge. During the campaign itself, there had already appeared a variation on this, when members of the party Establishment began posing as Noble Statesmen thoughtfully looking out for the greater good by insisting, from fairly early in the race, that Sanders should drop out, endorse Clinton and try to "unify the party" so that it may better face the Republican nominee in the fall. All of these insiders had, of course, endorsed Clinton and were, in this, merely doing their part for their candidate by trying to create the impression that there was something wrong with Sanders contesting the nomination. Toward the end of the race, this became so intense that it temporarily affected Sanders' favorability ratings. For anyone who accepts the basic premise of a party primary system, the sense of entitlement that underlies these notions is a non-starter. During the 2008 Democratic contest, Hillary Clinton herself had, by the end of February, virtually no statistical chance of winning yet continued to battle Barack Obama right into June, reluctantly dropping out only a few days after the last round of state contests.

Clinton had turned that earlier contest into a bitter, ugly fight--at one point, she'd openly fantasized about her (more popular) opponent being murdered--which added more and more baggage to the substantial pile she'd already accumulated (and would continue to accumulate). Even in 2008, she'd been an anachronism, a tired throwback to 1990s conservative "New Democrats" trying to sell herself to an increasingly liberal electorate that wanted "hope and change." Entering the 2016 race, she was the weathered face of a way of doing business most people thought they'd finally rejected and buried nearly a decade earlier. This is a chart of Clinton's favorability rating averages from 31 Jan., 2013--as far back as Real Clear Politics allows one to make these interactive charts--to 31 Jan., 2016, the day before the Iowa caucus:


HuffPost Pollster uses a lot of the same polls as RCP but includes some that RCP doesn't and its database goes back farther and thus offers both a slightly different and a longer-running look at the matter. But the story is the same:


Clinton's favorability ratings were in long-term decline. That Huffpost cart begins in Sept. 2010 because that's when they began dropping (and it runs through to the present). By mid-March 2015, they'd fallen below 50%, never to return.[1] By mid-April--the same week, in fact, Clinton officially entered the presidential race--it was underwater, with more people telling pollsters they disliked her than liked her. And it stayed underwater. It's still there today.

The unpopularity that proved Clinton's undoing wasn't brought on by Bernie Sanders. Rather, it was just a continuation of a very long-running trend. When, in the Spring of 2015, Clinton's average finally fell below 50% then went underwater, Sanders wasn't yet even a factor. In a March 2015 "people in the news" poll by Gallup, 62% of respondents said they'd never even heard of him. For a long time, he was one of American politics' best-kept secrets in the press (I'll return to that later). In a YouGov poll conducted at the end of April--the period when Sanders entered the presidential race--53% of adult respondents had never heard of him and only 9% of registered voters were then supporting his bid to become the Democratic nominee. And so on.

One of Clinton's major weaknesses was, of course, that voters didn't find her honest and trustworthy. As with her approval ratings, these numbers, too, had been disintegrating over an extended period before Sanders came on the scene. The data recording this are a bit more spotty. Clinton had left the State Department and was a private citizen for over 2 years before announcing her presidential run; pollsters tend not to systematically track such things until election season rolls around. CNN/Opinion Research offers the following through a series of polls:


During the campaign season, the ABC News/Washington Post poll proved to be a pro-Clinton poll, meaning it tended to yield results slightly more favorable to Clinton than her polling average,[2] but it told the same story. In May, 2014, it had asked, "Do you think Hillary Clinton is or is not honest and trustworthy?" At the time, 59% of registered voters said she was. By May, 2015 though, this was the chart included with the poll results on this question:


A Quinnipiac poll from mid-April: "American voters say 54–38 percent that Clinton is not honest and trustworthy, a lower score than top Republicans." And so on. When Sanders entered the presidential race on 30 April 2015, Clinton was already in trouble.[3]

The Democratic primary campaign did Clinton's numbers no favors, to be sure, but as pollsters and commentators have noted, campaigns never do. Clinton's poll numbers have only ever been good when she's not seen as a partisan political figure. Whenever she is perceived as one, they sink. This isn't a Bernie Sanders-induced phenomenon either; it's a pattern that has been present throughout the whole of her time in the national spotlight. Nate Silver of 538 was writing about--and charting--it as far back as 2012. Silver revisited this theme in 2013. In Sept. 2015, as Clinton's polling continued to crash, Greg Sargent at the Washington Post's Plum Line covered it as well. Though none of these commentators offer the thought, it's also entirely reasonable to assume that all of those crashes would eventually have a cumulative effect, with each new occurrence reminding people why they'd come to dislike her in the past.

This writer covered most of this ground in real time in various internet venues during the long 2015-'16 campaign season. For anyone who bothered to look, the seeds of Clinton's eventual destruction were right there in the often-brutal data. A few items from my notes:

--A Fox News poll, conducted in May 2015 (only days after Sanders threw his hat in the ring):


--An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from October 2015 asked,

"Now, which of the following best describes how you would feel if Hillary Clinton were elected president--optimistic and confident that she would do a good job, satisfied and hopeful that she would do a good job, uncertain and wondering whether she would do a good job, or pessimistic and worried that she would do a bad job?"

A plurality--a whopping 43%--chose "pessimistic and worried," with another 13% choosing "uncertain and wondering." Only 24% chose "optimistic and confident," with 19% opting for "satisfied and hopeful." That same poll asked respondents to rank, on a scale of 1 to 5, how "honest and straightforward" they saw Clinton: 40% chose 1--the lowest rating--with another 10% choosing 2 (only 13% chose 5, with another 13% choosing 4).

--When a CNN/ORC poll in mid-December 2015 asked if Clinton was "someone you would be proud to have as president," 56% answered in the negative. Asked in that same poll if Clinton "shares your values," 58% answered in the negative.

--In the head-to-head polling, Clinton's initially-commanding double-digit leads over Donald Trump had disappeared by August 2015. Here are the Clinton-vs.-Trump polls in the RealClearPolitics database from December 2015 and January 2016, the months leading into the first contest of the primary season:


When one takes into account the margin of error (listed in the column marked "MoE"), Clinton was in a statistical tie with Trump in five of the 11 polls, is only leading by one point in a sixth, two in a seventh and only beats Trump by a significant margin in the four that remain. Additionally, a Zogby poll, a CNN/ORC poll and two Morning Consult polls from January (here and here), not included in the RCP collection, also showed the two in a tie (a third Morning Consult poll that month gave Clinton a 4-point-over-MoE lead over Trump).[4]

All of this before a single vote in the primary season had been cast.

For this writer, Clinton's weakness as a candidate seemed obvious all along and I'd shared that thought (and the considerable supporting data behind it) throughout the campaign, most often on various Facebook groups. By the end of February 2016, I assembled my accumulated thoughts into an article that handicapped Clinton and her candidacy. The present article is very much a companion piece and sequel to it. Interested readers can check it out--I've tried not spend too much time recovering the same ground. Briefly, Clinton, laden with more baggage than anyone else in American politics, was running as a Democrat in the shadow of a two-term Democratic administration, which is always a hard sell, but instead of trying to differentiate herself from the incumbent or blaze any sort of new course (which voters want), she tried to present herself as Obama's Siamese twin for short-term gain. The ultimate Establishment figure in a screamingly anti-Establishment election, she was an opportunistic flip-flopper whose instincts, in a liberal party, were conservative, who positively oozes insincerity and who ran a demoralizing and utterly defeatist "No, We Can't" primary campaign peddling diminished expectations and aimed at crushing, by whatever means necessary, the energizing "hope" candidate who had sprang up as an alternative. The myth of her inevitability, carefully nurtured by Clinton and her surrogates in the press, appeared to have been depressing interest in the Democratic contest. She ran a horrible campaign, making all the wrong calls, pointlessly antagonizing the Sanders voters she was going to need to win and wasting time and resources trying to recruit "moderate" Republicans and flip red states that obviously weren't going to flip while ignoring states she was going to need to win. Throughout all of this, the Democratic party Establishment seemed to be under some sort of suicidal spell, closing its eyes, plugging its ears and chanting to drown out reality while, come Hell or high water, it pushed ahead with a campaign that seemed not only doomed but obviously doomed (I certainly predicted, early on, that Clinton would probably lose any general-election match-up against Trump). Clintonites, whose machinations have now saddled the U.S. with the Trump regime, are constructing these false narratives with the aim of absolving themselves but the hard, inescapable truth, now born out by the predictable election outcome itself, is that Clinton was always a weak, loser candidate and if the goal was to beat the Republican nominee, it was never responsible to back her in the first place. In a sane world, the Clintonites have now been as utterly discredited as anyone in American politics can be with their pants still on.

And to finally tackle the other of the big, false Clintonite narrative, yes, Bernie Sanders probably would have beaten Donald Trump. Not only that, there's significant evidence he may have rolled right over Trump in a complete rout the likes of which the American presidency hasn't seen in a few decades.

Sen. Bernie Sanders was much beloved in his home sate of Vermont but when he launched his presidential campaign, he was virtually unknown on the national stage. For most of 2015, much of the corporate press tried to keep it that way, carrying out what became known as the "Bernie Blackout." Even basic name-recognition was pretty long in coming. What little coverage Sanders received in 2015 often had a dismissive and/or mocking tone and this mingled with the general lack of coverage to negatively impact the candidate's numbers for some time. When he eventually started to break through this effort to ignore him to death and became a genuine threat to Clinton's candidacy, much of the press switched to the usual Rabid Attack-Dog Mode always reserved for left candidates who become popular, buttressed, in this case, by the slanderous assaults of the Clintonites, both in the press and in the Democratic party. Despite these prolonged efforts to bury he and his candidacy, Sanders persevered and and when people finally began to get to know him, they found they liked him. A lot. Most of the public's good will toward Clinton was already history when Huffpost Pollster started keeping track of Sanders' favorability ratings and while hers steadily sank into oblivion, here's the arc of Sanders' own over the course of the last 21 months:


One of the manifestations of that press Blackout is that, when it came time to sanction head-to-head polls, news organizations frequently matched Republican hopefuls against only Clinton, pretending as if Sanders didn't exist. There is, as a consequence, less data in this area than with Clinton but there's still more than enough to tell the story. The RealClearPolitics database contains 46 head-to-head polls matching Sanders against Trump between 20 July, 2015 and 5 June, 2016. Of that, Trump only managed to beat Sanders above the margin of error 3 times, the most recent of these happening way back in mid-November 2015. In another 4, they were in a statistical tie. The last of the latter happened in mid-February; from there forward, the chart below tells the story: Sanders won every poll, all but three of them by commanding, double-digit leads[5]:


To the 46 polls at RCP, we can add 18 Morning Consult polls:


In all but two of these, Sanders is beating Trump by double digits above the margin of error. Ipsos/Reuters also conducted 7 Sanders-vs.-Trump polls from late January to mid-March; Sanders won all of them.[6]

Clinton lost the election in the Rust Belt. That is the correct characterization. Trump didn't win those critical states, the ones that gave him the election; she lost them. Writing in Slate last month, Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr provide an invaluable analysis:
"Commentators in charge of explaining Donald Trump’s surprise victory seem to have settled on the idea that the white working class in the Rust Belt played a decisive role. In the New York Times, for example, Thomas Edsall notes that Trump won 14 percent more noncollege whites than Mitt Romney, and that those working-class voters Trump carried by 'huge margins' were heavily concentrated in the Rust Belt states of Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (which we will call the Rust Belt 5).
"But this emerging consensus around a Rust Belt revolt is wrong. People like Edsall have missed the real story: Relative to the 2012 election, Democratic support in the Rust Belt collapsed as a huge number of Democrats stayed home or (to a lesser extent) voted for a third party. Trump did not really flip white working-class voters in the Rust Belt. Mostly, Democrats lost them.

***

"Compared with Republicans’ performance in 2012, the GOP in the Rust Belt 5 picked up 335,000 additional voters who earned less than $50,000 (+10.6 percent). But the Republicans’ gain in this area was nothing compared with the Democrats’ loss of 1.17 million (-21.7 percent) voters in the same income category. Likewise, Republicans picked up a measly 26,000 new voters in the $50–$100K bracket (+0.7 percent), but Democrats lost 379,000 voters in the same bracket (-11.7 percent)."
Large portions of these states, which were the industrial heartland of America, have, for decades, been devastated by policies aimed at deindustrializing the U.S. in the name of corporate profits. Ohio is a perpetual swing-state but heading into this election, Pennsylvania and Michigan had been blue states for a quarter-century, Wisconsin had been for even longer and Iowa had backed 6 of the last 7 Democratic presidential campaigns. Clinton, to speak bluntly, is an unprincipled, Wall-Street-backed, tone-deaf "free trader," who, whenever there's an election in front of her, comes out against the latest grant-superpowers-to-the-multinationals proposal--that which is misleadingly sold as "free trade"--then "evolves" back to supporting them as soon as she's in power. Presented with this living embodiment of the policies that had laid waste to their homes, it wouldn't have been at all surprising if a large number of voters in these states, the long-suffering victims of these policies, had cast their lot with Trump, the first general-election candidate who seriously promised to do anything about their situation. Some did, but many others, it seems, wanted, instead, a sane alternative. Someone like Sanders. Something the Democrats, once Clinton was made the nominee, weren't offering anymore. Overall, write Kilibarda and Roithmayr, "Democrats lost 1.35 million voters. Trump picked up less than half, at 590,000. The rest stayed home or voted for someone other than the major party candidates." That's one of the consequences of fielding a candidate as deeply disliked as Clinton, consequences that extend well beyond those key Rust Belt states.[7] Clinton lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by razor-thin margins (0.23%, 0.73% and 0.77%, respectively) while underperforming--often grossly underperforming--Obama's 2012 take among white voters (particularly white males), young voters and independents. She underperformed in many other demographics as well--her campaign did just about as badly as any Democratic campaign would ever do in those states[8]--but those are perhaps particularly worthy of note here because all of them were Sanders strongholds. Throughout the primary season, he'd won huge, lopsided majorities in these categories; repeating that performance again would alone have given him those states and thus the presidency. And, of course, Sanders would have done significantly better in far more demographics than just in those three--those are just some of the headline items. Sanders had, in fact, already defeated Clinton in primary contests in two of these three states.

For obvious reasons, Clintonites who maintain that Sanders would have lost to Trump retreat from the hard data, preferring, instead, to rely on nebulous, unquantifiable assertions. Americans, it's said, would never vote for Sanders because he identifies himself as a "socialist." And, indeed, one can point to polling data wherein people say as much. The only thing such polls really measure, though, is respondents' reaction to a contentious word. This is a phenomenon well-known by pollsters. One of the most remarked-upon examples in recent years occurs in polling on the Obama healthcare law. If pollsters ask about "the Affordable Care Act," the name of the law, it draws much better numbers than if, instead, they refer to it as "Obamacare," a word that causes the numbers to go down, even though it refers to exactly the same policy. For many years, there were few more demonized words in American political discourse than "liberal." As a consequence, the number of people who self-identify to pollsters as "liberal" was anemic. Today, it's difficult to find a single issue of major import on which Americans don't hold to a liberal view by overwhelming margins, yet the overwhelming majority of that same public--76% in Gallup's 2016 survey--identifies as either "moderate" or "conservative" (and "conservative" has significantly outnumbered "liberal" for decades). The one word in our political discourse that has been more demonized than "liberal"--both much more intensely and for much longer--is "socialism." What really matters here isn't in-the-abstract public reaction to a word. What Sanders defines as his "democratic socialism" is a slate of policies, one with, for the most part, immense public support. Last year, co-writer/researcher Mitch Clark and I put together a fairly extensive article about the polling data on Bernie Sanders' major issues and found that most of his top agenda items are supported by huge majorities of the public, often even by majorities of Republicans.

Hold that thought.

Another of these fuzzy Clintonite claims--a sort of corollary to the first, really--is that Sanders never faced any real political attacks and that his campaign would have withered in the face of them. For anyone who lived through the 2016 campaign cycle, the first part of that amounts to a "don't believe your lying eyes" claim--ludicrous on its face. Clinton, who, herself, mercilessly pounded Sanders with constant--and mostly scurrilous--attacks, contributed to it, saying, "I don't think [Bernie Sanders has] had a single negative ad ever run against him," a claim Politifact debunked. Adam Johnson at Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting tackled the wider claim in even more detail, pointing out that it's an empty, unfalsifiable assertion, outlining only a sample of the savage attacks Sanders had weathered and noting the obvious:
"Is there some undiscovered bombshell waiting to blow up about Sanders? Of course, it’s possible he murdered someone with his bare hands in a Calcutta bazaar in 1991—we can’t know for sure. What one has to believe in order to accept the entirely theoretical assumption that a damning piece of news about Sanders awaits to be revealed is that the Clinton team, armed with $186 million dollar warchest, either A) can’t find something the GOP will or B) found something but is just too darn nice to expose it. Neither of these scenarios seems plausible."
Donald Trump's numbers throughout the presidential race were abysmal. His approval ratings were typically even worse than Clinton's. From the day he entered the presidential race, a majority of Americans disliked him. On election day, his average stood at 39.4% favorable, while Clinton's was at 41.6%--a tie. Just as with Clinton, a majority of respondents consistently told pollsters they didn't consider him "honest and trustworthy." In a Quinnipiac poll, for example, only 37% thought he was. But in that same poll, only 30% would say the same of Hillary Clinton. In fact, of the 7 different candidates then in the race about whom that question was asked, Clinton scored the lowest.[9] The highest-scoring candidate, on the other hand, beat everyone else in a rout. Matching a pattern that continued throughout the campaign, a whopping 68% said they found Bernie Sanders honest and trustworthy. Even 54% of Republicans said so. That poll was conducted on Feb. 10-15, 2016, only days after the primary/caucus contests had started.

Something to keep in mind while you're sitting in front of the evening news tonight watching the protofascist buffoon in the White House trying to dismantle the liberal society with strokes of the pen. It didn't have to be this way. It turned out like this because of those Clintonites who now tell you Sanders couldn't have beaten Trump.

Consider what goes into that claim. Those offering it insist we ignore all the actual accumulated data (all of which suggests there would have been a significant Sanders win) and accept the proposition that, by the end of a Sanders-vs.-Trump contest, most voters would have decided to vote against a candidate they like and whose policies they love because of a word that candidate uses to describe those policies and would, instead, cast their ballots for the most disliked candidate in the history of polling, against whom Sanders would somehow do worse than did the 2nd-most-disliked candidate in the history of polling.

Yeah.[10]

I'm sure this will be argued--and fulminated over--endlessly but history's final word on the subject comes from a privately-commissioned Gravis poll that was conducted in November only two days prior to the general election. It asked likely voters for whom they would vote if the looming presidential contest were between Sanders and Trump. Readers will no doubt be shocked to learn that it, too, showed Sanders destroying Trump. Margin of victory: 12%.

The election is now a few months in the past and many would prefer to stop talking about Hillary Clinton, put aside the divisions of that ugly campaign and focus on the problem the U.S. has inherited as a result of it. It's a legitimate perspective. Whether or not his reactionary fanbase yet recognizes it, Trump is a threat to every American, to American society and to the entire world. Not just an embarrassment or the butt of a joke: a threat. A protofascist Twitter troll running the most powerful nation in the world is dangerous. This business of how he go there, however, is a matter that needs to be hashed out and it's not a distraction from dealing with Trump, it's a critical part of it, because if any of these false Clintonite narratives are allowed to harden into a Conventional Wisdom, nothing will have been learned. The Clintonites who brought about this calamity won't be held accountable for their part in it, won't be pushed aside in disgrace and will only try to do it again. And again. And there's an unreformed system still in place that would allow them to do it. Trump doesn't present an ordinary political situation that can afford to tolerate that.

--j.

---

 [1] Huffpost Pollster uses some different polls and had Clinton's approval average going below 50% even earlier, in July 2014.

 [2] And to cut off the knee-jerk implication, that's not necessarily because of any unfair bias; much more likely just a quirk in the methodology.

 [3] Clinton favorability ratings bottomed out at just a hair about 36% in late May 2016 before stabilizing in the low 40-percentile, where it remained for the rest of the campaign. Her "honest and trustworthy" ratings bottomed out around 27%, though some anomalous polls put it even lower.

 [4] The polls at RCP matching Clinton against other GOP contenders during that same time period were even worse. Of the 9 Clinton-vs.-Ted Cruz polls, one had Cruz winning by 3 points over MoE, one had Clinton winning by 0.5% and the rest were ties. Of the 9 polls matching Clinton against Marco Rubio, Rubio beat Clinton by 6 points in one and was tied with her in the other 8.

 [5] In the last month in which Sanders was included in the head-to-heads, he was still rolling right over Trump, while the Clinton vs. Trump polling was already showing what would eventually happen in the general: Clinton was tied with Trump in 6 of that month's 10 polls and losing to him above the MoE in a seventh:


 [6] The Morning Consult and Ipsos/Reuters material is archived, with details and links, at HuffPost Pollster.

 [7] On top of the class of regular Democratic voters who stayed home because they weren't willing to cast a ballot for Clinton, there are also an additional group who supported Sanders in the primary but wouldn't support Clinton. Sanders was the energizing candidate in the Democratic race and drew large numbers of people to his campaign who wouldn't have ordinarily voted Democratic and, in fact, wouldn't ordinarily have voted at all. Harry Enten of 538 (among others) has written about these "nontraditional" voters. Relatively speaking, they, like the regular Democrats who were anti-Clinton, are probably a rather small group--polling suggested that 85-90+% of Sanders voters at least said they would vote for Clinton--but as Enten notes, in a close election, every little bit helps. Or, with Clinton as the candidate, doesn't.

That most of Sanders voters went for Clinton also presents an obvious problem for some of the Clintonite "blame Bernie" narratives. Sanders drew in people who weren't ordinarily part of the process and at least some of them--maybe even most of them--voted for Clinton. While some Clintonites advance the notion that Sanders caused Clinton to lose votes, the reality is that Clinton's vote-count is padded with a number of these voters. In short, if, as those particular Clintonites had preferred, Sanders hadn't been in the race to recruit those irregulars, Clinton would have received even fewer votes.

 [8] CNN maintains a handy archive of exit poll data from the 2012 race, the 2016 primaries and the 2016 general.

 [9] Pollsters sometimes directly pitted Clinton against Trump on this question. CNN did so in September and found that by a 50-35% split, respondents said Trump was more honest and trustworthy than Clinton.

[10] Trump certainly knew better. He said repeatedly he'd rather face Clinton than Sanders. Reince Priebus, then the head of the Republican party and now Trump's chief-of-staff and right hand, did as well.


Post-Credits Scene - The obvious caveat. Campaigns ain't static--it's are always about how you get there. Probabilities are just that.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Journalism in the Era of the Alt-Facts Administration [UPDATE BELOW]

It's entirely expected that the newly-sworn-in protofascist regime in the capitol is likely to have significant problems adjusting to holding power within a liberal democracy wherein it can't entirely control the press, the internet, the other branches of government--the other power-centers that are theoretically there to keep such a regime in check. The corporate press is going to have some problems adjusting as well.

After aerial photos of Donald Trump's Friday inauguration suggested a smaller audience for the event compared to those of the past, Trump dispatched his minions to wage war on this notion. On Saturday, Sean Spicer used his first official appearance as White House Press Secretary to offer up a demagogic tirade against the press, calling it dishonest, saying it was "sewing division" and in particular raging against any reporting that the inauguration was anything less than heavily attended. "No one. Had. Numbers," he huffed, "Because the National Park Service, which controls the National Mall, does not put any out." Embarrassingly, an anti-Trump march on the capitol Saturday appeared to draw several times the crowd as the inauguration; Spicer was on that case too, adding, "By the way, this [the lack of any numbers] applies to any attempts to try to count the number of protesters today in the same fashion." Get it folks? No numbers! And then, only moments later, No Numbers Spicer boldly asserted that

"This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe."

After ranting and raving for a little over five minutes, Spicer then stomped out of the room without taking a single question from the assembled reporters. Ladies and gentlemen, your new White House Press Secretary!

Politifact tackled Spicer's claims on this subject and found nearly every one either entirely false or grossly misleading--rating: Pants On Fire.

For NBC's Chuck Todd, this crowd-size thing was completely ridiculous, Spicer's fiction appearing to have been advanced for no real reason at all. Mainstream press commentators like Todd still haven't quite figured out that whole protofascist thing. They never figured it out during the campaign either, and their failure was, in fact, a not-insignificant factor in how this regime was inflicted upon the U.S. Fortunately, Chuck had Kellyanne Conway, the Counselor to the new President, to explain it to him. The two engaged in a rather comical rhetorical dance on Meet the Press Sunday morning.

"The presidency is about choices," said Todd, "so I'm curious why President Trump chose yesterday to send out his press secretary to essentially litigate a provable falsehood when it comes to a small and petty thing like inaugural crowd-size. I guess my question to you is, why do that?"

Conway tried to deflect on to other issues, went into a long, irrelevant commentary that tried to make Trump's performance in the election sound like some sort of major popular win--I'll come back to that in a moment--then said of reports of the relatively small size of the inaugural crowd, "I think it is, I think it is a symbol for the unfair and incomplete treatment that this president often receives." She went on about how the Nielsen ratings showed that more people watched Trump's inauguration on television than watched Obama's 2013 inauguration.[1]

Todd persisted; Conway's response was to threaten to cut off access to the White House for those questioning the administration:

"If [you're] going to keep referring to our press secretary in those types of terms, I think that we're going to have to rethink our relationship here. I want to have a great, open relationship with our press."

Dynamite. Todd continued to seek an answer to his question and Conway gave him another headline item:

"You're saying it's a falsehood and they're giving-- Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that."

That phrase "alternative facts" is likely to get a lot of play in the press.[2] Todd, to to his credit, clearly couldn't believe his ears. "Alternative facts are not facts," he noted. "They're falsehoods."

The correct word, of course, is "lies" but applying the "L" word to even the most blatant lies by the president--any president--is a longstanding taboo in the press. The Cult of Objectivity likes to pretend that deploying that particular characterization is some sort of breach of professional ethics, an inappropriate editorial judgment.[3] It's going to be interesting, then, to see how those in the press are going to cover a president who utters massive lies as a matter of daily routine.[4] On this point, Todd at least seems to be heading in the right direction; while he still refuses to call a lie by its proper name, his formulation--a "provable falsehood"--is as strongly worded as anything we ever get from any of his mainstream colleagues and he didn't back down from it, even when threatened.

What Todd doesn't seem to understand is that to this administration--and to its fans--things like the size of the inauguration crowd aren't at all inconsequential. While trying to dodge Chuck Todd's questions, Kellyanne Conway offered this:

"On this matter of crowd size, I mean, for me, I think the most quantifiable points of interest for Americans should be what just happened a few months ago that brought him [Trump] here, the 31 of 50 states he won, the 2600 counties, the 200 counties that went for President Obama that now went to President Trump and the fact that 29, 30 million women voted for Donald Trump for president, they should be respected, somebody should cover their voices as well."

Some "quantifiable points" Conway neglected in her irrelevant spiel: Trump lost the popular vote by 3 million, with 58% of women voting against him. Trump had an explanation for the former back in November:


Though the idea of widespread "voter fraud" is one of those "alternative facts" persistently peddled by the right-wing Rage Machine as rationale for Republican voter suppression efforts, it's a fiction, one that has been debunked by every serious examination of the question. Every scrap of reliable information says this kind of in-person voter fraud is virtually non-existent and the idea that it's not only real but extends to millions of people falls into the same category as Trump's claims about "thousands and thousands" of American Muslims celebrating in the streets of New Jersey when the 9/11 attacks occurred. These were lies that, like so many that emanate from Trump, aim at demonizing powerless minorities (Trump identified those he claimed were voting illegally as illegal immigrants). Trump's politics are protofascist in nature--basically fascism minus the more extreme commitment to violence--and the corporate press is simply going to have to accept this and understand the implications of it. One of those implications is that Trump must, at all times, project an image of a strong and beloved leader, standing up for the people while besieged by an evil Establishment. He can't bear to let stand the fact that he lost the vote or, in the current dust-up, even a hint of anything that can be interpreted as mockery of his small, er, crowd size.

What lurks behind Conway's alt-"facts" is the extraordinary social damage wrought--and nascent fascist movement birthed--by the right-wing Rage Machine. For better or worse, the U.S. is a fundamentally liberal nation. There's simply no significant popular support for conservative policies. To maintain power in the face of this, the American conservative elite have aggressively labored, through their massive media apparatus, to reduce "politics" and the larger social discourse to the level of a simple good-vs.-evil tale, encouraging their followers to side with them not because their policies are more sound or they have any sort of better argument--any serious examination of such things is, in fact, discouraged--but because they've conjured a pleasing narrative in which they've positioned themselves as the virtuous heroes and everyone else as the evil villains. Nearly every major rightist outlet in the United States has spent a few decades making open war on both reason and on reality itself. Because objective facts would equal an agreed-upon yardstick against which claims can be assessed--and because conservative and reactionary claims can't withstand that scrutiny--breaking down confidence in them has been a major project of the Rage Machine, which attempts to indoctrinate its followers in the belief that the truth or falsity of any proposition can be judged entirely by its temporary political utility. "Facts," via this conditioning, become things that can be used as propaganda on the rare occasions when they serve the cause and can be otherwise discarded. The Machine tells its followers they're persecuted, feeds them a steady diet of manufactured outrages and utterly dehumanizes and demonizes liberals, minorities and anyone else who may stand against the hero of the tale. Liberals, in this fantasy, aren't those who may have a legitimate disagreement. They're an evil, lying, cheating, stealing, weak, moronic enemy actively seeking to do you harm, that have control of the levers of power by illegitimate means and that need to be defeated, destroyed, eliminated. When all reason, all serious thinking, all confidence in institutions has been burned away, all that's left are a bunch of fearful, rage-filled reactionaries who have been taught that though they're right, they're good and they represent The People, they're persecuted by this foe, whom they've been taught to despise. The American conservative elite hope those reared in this atmosphere will show up on election day and vote Republican, which is exactly what has, for some years, happened, but this smog has now given rise to something they didn't anticipate and can't control: a Trumpenstein monster, an angry, ambulatory representation of every bad impulse the Rage Machine has ever projected, with the fascist's promise of national renewal by means of the authoritarian dismantling of the liberal society.[5] Trump's hardcore supporters were reared in this environment and it's to them all this fuss over things like crowd-size is directed. For this particular group, there are no facts anymore, just a narrative to which they've been conditioned to respond. Those alt-"facts" are there to feed that narrative and, perhaps more importantly, to try to widen the range of those infected by it.

Something that perhaps shouldn't need to be so overtly stated is that governance isn't a game to be played between an authoritarian reality-show star and his admiring viewers. There are real people, both in the U.S. and abroad, who can be hurt by Trump and that will be hurt if he governs as he says, real civil liberties that can be crushed and that will be crushed if he has his way. The government of the most powerful nation in the history of the world is now in the hands of a protofascist Twitter troll. That's a problem. The "evil Establishment" Trump stands against isn't the actual political Establishment; it's the institutions of liberal democracy and ultimately, liberal democracy itself. In this particular matter of news media, the press is, at least in theory, a check on Trump and Trump's goal is to completely destroy public confidence in it as an institution--to get rid of that watchdog. He has the presidency and he can do an incredible amount of damage.

His administration presents journalists with something many of them may initially perceive as a crisis. In reality, it's an opportunity, a chance for the press to clean its own house, a chance to shine. While that idea that there are no facts, only narratives, seems self-evidently stupid and dangerous, it's also exactly how most of the corporate press covers political issues. He said/she said "journalism," reporting competing claims as if they were equal while making no effort to adjudicate which, if either, is true. Mainstream commentators may be horrified by that characterization of lies as "alternative facts" but they've implicitly incorporated that same notion into their own work for decades. That needs to stop. Lazy equivalence only ever privileges the lie and in this age of Trump, that's something journalism--and America itself--can no longer afford. And speaking of that, reporters and commentators need to stop trying to come up with some creative way to call a lie something other than a lie. Talk straight. Grow the fuck up. Become that watchdog you're supposed to be, instead of the lapdog you usually are. Since everything in the corporate press seems to come down to profits and demographics, the good news is that Trump is widely despised. He just entered office with the lowest approval rating of any new president on record and that means there's an audience for serious journalism that challenges this administration, something the press should offer with every administration anyway. That can, of course, have a negative effect as well. In the Confirmation Bias Nation, reporting that is false and inaccurate but that plays to public anxiety about Trump can also draw a big crowd. That kind of irresponsible work would only feed Trump's own narrative though, and help further undermine the institution. These are the paths open to journalism now. Shape up, serve your country and maybe this becomes your finest hour or continue down the road of prevarication and/or click-bait-chasing and be rendered even more irrelevant.

--j.

---

[1] This is entirely dishonest--second-term inaugurations from established administrations are always more sparsely watched than first-term ones. According to Nielsen, Trump's inauguration drew 30.6 million viewers, which puts him well behind Obama's 37.7 million viewers in 2009, Reagan's 41.8 million in 1980 and Jimmy Carter's 34.1 million in 1977. He was even behind Richard Nixon's second inaugural, which drew 33 million in 1972. The good news for Trump is that he did at least manage to barely squeak by both Bill Clinton in 1993 (29.7 million) and George Bush Sr. in 1989 (29 million) but if one adjusted for the population growth in the U.S. over those years, he would be well behind them as well, and probably the lowest on record. 

[2] Or maybe not. It's a silver platter item but if those in the corporate press ignore it, it wouldn't be the first time when it comes to dealing with Trump. Or even the 10,000th.

[3] Earlier just this month, Janine Jackson of Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting wrote about this.

[4] On Saturday, for example, Trump made a rambling speech to CIA employees in which he asserted that reports about tension between himself and the U.S. intelligence community were a fabrication of an out-to-get-him press. "I have a running war with the media," he declared. "They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth. Right? And they sort of made it sound like I have this feud with the intelligence community." In the real world, Trump, only days earlier, had compared that same intel community to Nazi Germany.

[5] Trump's emergence caused a split inside the Rage Machine, with some embracing him as a virtual messiah while others were horrified. It's been particularly amusing to watch the latter. The National Review's Jonah Goldberg just couldn't believe Republicans would embrace a Trump--the Jonah Goldberg who once wrote an entire book on the premise that fascists were "liberals." Glenn Beck, who sat on television for years preaching anti-rational conspiracism, displaying his infamous board on which he labored to visually connect President Obama and any prominent liberal to dictators, evil Jewish plotters, communists, etc., was aghast at Trump's rise. Unlike most prominent anti-Trump rightists, Beck correctly recognized his own responsibility for this development and was even apologetic about it.


UPDATE (24 Jan, 2017) - From the New York Times:

"President Trump used his first official meeting with congressional leaders on Monday to falsely claim that millions of unauthorized immigrants had robbed him of a popular vote majority, a return to his obsession with the election’s results even as he seeks support for his legislative agenda."

The Times' headline for this story: "Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers." Progress, fellahs, progress.