In this week’s MRN we (1) summarize a week that included the completion, at last, of Robert Mueller’s investigation; (2) list some reasons that expectations about the Mueller report should have all along been lower than they’ve been; (3) offer some thoughts about when outrage is and isn’t productive; (4) offer links to background readings on things ranging from Beto O’Rourke to the abolition of the electoral college to the apparent destruction of 50 million songs on MySpace. [Note: There’s a chance that we’ll skip next week’s issue; details below in Notes from Bob.]
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The Mueller Report: Special Counsel Robert Mueller finished his report and gave it to Attorney General William Barr, who will decide how much of it to disclose to Congressional leaders and to the public. Mueller brought no further indictments, which was taken as good news for various relatives and associates of Trump’s but has less clear implications for Trump himself; the indictment of a sitting president is discouraged by Department of Justice guidelines, so it’s possible Mueller found evidence of criminal wrongdoing but will leave it for Congress to weigh the evidence and decide whether to impeach Trump.
More than thoughts and prayers: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a ban on military-style semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity magazines in the wake of last week’s massacre at two mosques in Christchurch.
The Golan tweets: Trump signalled via Twitter that the US will recognize Israeli sovereignty over the part of the Golan Heights that it captured from Syria in 1967 (which is not considered Israeli territory under international law). The move, which comes weeks before Israeli elections, was welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been requesting such a move.
Believe me: The State Department barred all but “faith-based media” from a briefing call with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday and is refusing to release a transcript of the call or a list of attendees. (Three days later, when Pompeo was asked during a Christian Broadcasting Network interview if he believed Trump was ordained by God to “save the Jewish people from the Iranian menace,” he replied, “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible.”)
Not about the Benjamins: After the progressive group moveon.org launched a #SkipAIPAC campaign, seven Democratic presidential candidates said they will not attend this year’s conference of the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC. Their absence from the conference isn’t inherently surprising—lots of politicians don’t go to the conference—but it’s unprecedented for numerous mainstream presidential candidates to explicitly distance themselves from AIPAC.
Moore or less? Trump announced that he would nominate conservative writer Stephen Moore to serve on the Federal Reserve Board, reportedly after reading an op-ed co-authored by Moore that criticized Fed Chair Jerome Powell. Journalist Jonathan Chait, who has been writing critically about Moore for two decades, wrote that Moore “should not be permitted any position of serious responsibility, in government or anything else.”
Mutual admiration: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro made his first official visit to Washington and joined Trump for an extremely congenial White House press conference. Bolsonaro—whose brand of right-wing populism has gotten him dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics”—said Brazil and the US share respect for “traditional and family lifestyles” and stand against “the gender ideology of the politically correct attitudes and fake news.”
Speaking of authoritarians and fake news: Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a bill making it a crime to disseminate “fake news” and another bill making it a crime to “disrespect” the state, state symbols, and state officials.
Free speech or else: Trump signed an executive order that makes some federal funding for higher education contingent on a college’s protection of “free inquiry.” Trump said the order was aimed at “professors and power structures” who try to keep conservatives from challenging “rigid, far-left ideology.”
Brextension (cont’d): The European Union granted Britain a two-week extension of its March 29 deadline for leaving the EU, and said a two-month extension would be granted if Parliament approves the Brexit deal Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with the EU (which Parliament has already rejected twice). This left the situation roughly as confusing as it was before.
NOTES FROM BOB
by Robert Wright
The Mueller Report: As I write this—a few hours after getting the news that Mueller has finished his report—we’re still waiting to find out what’s in the report. Still, there is a sense of disappointment among some Trump ill-wishers. That Mueller didn’t add to his list of indictments dashed hopes that Jared and Don Jr. might soon be reminiscing in some prison yard about their rides on Air Force One. Some Russiagate skeptics are already declaring vindication.
This doesn’t mean Trump is out of the woods. Few people expected Mueller to indict him even if he committed a crime; impeachment, not indictment, is the go-to remedy for presidential lawbreaking. For that matter, in the current political climate Mueller could well be wary of indicting a Trump family member, and so might have erred on the side of restraint when it comes to Jared and Don Jr. Still, for the moment, it seems, there’s a sense that maybe the Resistance spent a bit too much of the last two years emoting about developments in Russiagate.
As it happens, I wrote a piece suggesting as much this week, before I learned of the Mueller report’s completion. You’ll find the piece immediately below. It isn’t a Russiagate piece per se. It started out as a discussion of when online outrage is productive and when it’s not. But all the examples of when it’s not productive were taken from Russiagate. And the piece does suggest that maybe it has all along been a tactical error for Resistance elites to spend so much emotional energy on Russiagate.
Russiagate and Pirrogate (or: When is outrage in order?): In last week’s MRN, writing about the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, I complained that the norm against anti-Muslim hate speech isn’t as strong as the norm against some other kinds of hate speech. I cited as evidence the fact that Jeanine Pirro “still has a job at Fox News after what she recently said about Rep. Ilhan Omar.” A week before the New Zealand massacre, Pirro had suggested that Omar, because she wears a hijab, can’t faithfully serve the US Constitution; and had suggested, by extension, that the patriotism of all hijab-wearing American Muslims, or even all American Muslims, is in doubt.
The newsletter went out on Saturday; that evening at 9 p.m., when Pirro’s weekly show was scheduled to air on Fox News, it didn’t. The show isn’t airing this weekend either. Though Pirro probably hasn’t lost her job (sigh), she does seem to have been suspended for her off-the-charts-Islamophobic comments.
It’s good news that the blowback Fox got over this eventually had some impact. Granted, it took the Christchurch tragedy—and another round of blowback in the wake of the tragedy—to make Fox take serious action. And even Fox’s milder pre-tragedy sanction—a public rebuke of Pirro that carried no penalty—probably wouldn’t have happened had advertisers not gotten skittish about Pirro. Still, a key ingredient in all of this was a drumbeat of online indignation about Pirro, so one moral of the story is: Sometimes outrage works!
Sorry. Didn’t mean to shout. It’s just that people sometimes mistake MRN’s intended function as being a kind of sedative. They think the basic question the newsletter is asking is: Why are people getting so worked up about this Trump thing? But in fact the question the newsletter is asking is: Why are people getting so worked up so undiscerningly? Why are they freaking out in unproductive if not counterproductive ways when they could be freaking out in productive ways?
Of course, that raises the question of how we distinguish the former from the latter. How do we know productive outrage when we see it? Let’s take the Jeanine Pirro case and compare it with another common source of outrage—Russiagate. In both cases, let’s look at the likely consequences of a low-outrage reaction and of a high-outrage reaction.
The Pirro Case:
1. What happens if there’s a low-outrage or no-outrage reaction? Pirro would have gotten no punishment for pushing the boundaries of acceptable bigotry outward, and the norm against anti-Muslim hate speech would have been in some measure weakened.
2. What happens if there’s a high-outrage reaction? We’ve seen what happened: Pirro’s show was suspended. So the norm against anti-Muslim hate speech wasn’t further weakened, and maybe it was even strengthened. Outrage vindicated!
Now consider a typical Russiagate development—maybe reports that Trump was pursuing a Moscow real estate deal during much of his presidential campaign, or reports that he directed Michael Cohen to lie about that to Congress, or reports about campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s financial entanglements with oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin. Whichever one you pick, you get these two scenarios:
1. What happens if there’s a low-outrage or no-outrage reaction? There’s no damage to Trump in the short term, but in the long term the Mueller report will still come out, and will include an examination of these issues, and will either implicate Trump in crimes and other grave deeds or won’t. The political system—including everything from the machinery of impeachment to the opinion of voters—will then respond to the report.
2. What happens if there’s a high-outrage reaction? Pretty much the same thing. There’s little if any damage to Trump in the short run—his base seems impervious to Resistance outrage (except when his base is energized by the outrage)—but eventually the Mueller report will come out, and its implications will play out.
OK, maybe that’s a bit too simple. Maybe outrage over some reported Russiagate misdeed could pave the way for future sanction—drive home that the misdeed is grave indeed, and that therefore Trump should suffer accordingly if the Mueller report confirms that he committed it.
But it seems to me there’s at least as high a chance of the outrage backfiring by raising expectations for wrongdoing so high that even someone as amoral and corrupt as Trump won’t meet them.
In fact, we’ve already seen an example of how raised Russiagate expectations can work. In January, Buzzfeed broke a huge story: It said that, according to testimony given to investigators by Cohen, Trump had explicitly told Cohen to lie about the Moscow real estate deal in his testimony before Congress (a lie that wound up getting Cohen some jail time). This report generated Mardi Gras–level Resistance celebration. But festivities wound down quickly after Mueller’s office issued a statement saying that the Buzzfeed story wasn’t entirely accurate. Then, weeks later, Cohen delivered public congressional testimony that, under other circumstances, might have been seen as a bombshell: though Trump hadn’t explicitly told him to lie under oath, Trump had implicitly encouraged him to lie.
But this wasn’t treated as a bombshell, because it wasn’t as big a bombshell as BuzzFeed had promised. In fact, a reporter for the Washington Post opined that Cohen’s testimony was in some ways “the opposite” of the BuzzFeed piece, even though it corroborated important parts of the piece (especially if, in this video clip of Cohen’s testimony, the ambiguous word “deal” refers to the Moscow real estate deal).
That’s the way the expectations game works. All the emotional energy that went into spreading the BuzzFeed story—the indignation, the outrage, the festive declarations of victory—wound up reducing the impact of Cohen’s subsequent testimony about Trump’s wrongdoing.
Resistance outrage over Manafort’s oligarch entanglements has, in a somewhat different way, paved the way for disappointment. If you stop and think about the implication of Manafort owing some oligarch lots of money, you may come to this somewhat deflating realization: If Manafort had a personal financial incentive to do favors for these oligarchs and/or the Kremlin, then maybe some of the favors the Trump campaign is alleged to have done for Russia had little if anything to do with Trump himself; maybe Manafort was behind them for reasons of financial self-interest.
Of course, Trump’s hopes for a Moscow real estate deal could in principle explain some of these favors. But even that scenario doesn’t seem so damning when compared to two more cinematic scenarios: that Trump explicitly promised Russia things in exchange for its illicit help in winning the campaign, or that Trump was blackmailed by Russia into doing its bidding. (Cue pee-tape.) And the reason these two cinematic scenarios will hover in the background, framing the reaction to whatever Mueller does find, is because the Resistance spent so much time getting outraged about every piece of circumstantial evidence, no matter how weak, that seemed to corroborate them.
I’m not saying Mueller won’t find a smoking gun—such as ironclad evidence that Trump did suborn Cohen’s perjury, or even ironclad evidence that Trump promised Russia favors in exchange for illicit help during the campaign. I’m just saying that if Mueller doesn’t unveil such a thing, then all the outraged Resistance anticipation of a revelation this big will have hurt the Resistance’s cause; and if Mueller does find something this big, all the outraged anticipation won’t have particularly helped.
One critical distinction between the Pirro case and Russiagate is this: In Pirro’s case, we’re talking entirely about upholding a norm, not a law. And the key to upholding norms is to impose non-governmental sanctions on transgressors. These sanctions can range from stigmatizing to firing, but a critical driver of the sanctions is the expression of indignation, of outrage.
In the case of Russiagate, we’re largely talking about the question of whether laws, not norms, were violated. And there is governmental machinery for enforcing laws, machinery that the Mueller investigation is now exercising. If the entire Resistance had stayed offline for the last month, that machinery would still be grinding away, more or less as it is now.
To be sure, norms do sometimes enter the Mueller case in various ways. For example: The attorney general is not compelled by law to make the Mueller report public. If he fails to make at least the report’s key findings and their supporting evidence public, and we want to uphold the norm of transparency in investigations of public officials, it will be time for outrage, big time—complete with demonstrations in the streets. I’ll see you there. But, meanwhile, I won’t be doing a lot of high-energy tweeting about Russiagate. [Note: In the letter from Attorney General William Barr to Congress that was released late Friday, after I’d written this piece, Barr said he is “committed to as much transparency as possible”]
Positive feedback: Thanks to the many readers—well over a dozen—who wrote in about my piece, two weeks ago, on the Ilhan Omar controversy. I was truly gratified that almost all of these emails were in basic agreement with my analysis (and gratified to find that one of the emailers is on the board of J Street; if we had advertisers I’d brag to them about how influential our readership is!). But I’m also grateful for the one reader (yes, I’m talking to you, Zachary) who was harder on me (and Omar) than the others. He laid out his position civilly and cogently and convinced me that… well, convinced me that he laid out his position civilly and cogently. But that’s something!
Shaming by not naming: Two MRN readers—Jan and Alison—wrote in to complain that in last week’s piece about the New Zealand massacre, I had used the name of the mass murderer. Their point was that people like him often crave recognition, and giving it to them will tempt other people like them to commit such crimes in the future. I agree with the basic logic behind this argument (as does the prime minister of New Zealand). In fact, years ago I wrote a piece advocating a norm (not a law) against publishing the photos of mass shooters. I’m more ambivalent about advocating a norm against naming shooters, because (a) I think a name has less incentivizing impact on other would-be murderers than a photo; and (b) I think if the name of such killers became genuinely hard to find, that could impede useful crowdsourced reporting about their backgrounds. (The premise of my piece last week was that such background information can be instructive.) On the other hand, there’s probably no real chance of a norm against naming becoming so widely observed that the names of mass shooters become genuinely hard to find. So next time around—and what a sad comment on our predicament it is that we know there will be a next time—I’ll skip the name unless there’s some compelling unforeseen reason not to. (Added incentive to do that: In my piece I at one point got the killer’s name wrong, mindlessly substituting another name for it. Sorry about the mistake.)
Unplanned vacation: There will be no newsletter next week (unless, maybe, the contents of the Mueller report are made public, and something about them or their consequences compels me to comment). It’s a long story as to why, but the upshot isn’t that the number of issues we publish this year will be reduced; the upshot is that our cherished late-summer vacation will be one week shorter than planned. The commitment we make on our Patreon page about how many issues we’ll publish each year is inviolable! (Did you really think that, for once, I was going to make it all the way to the end of this section without crassly promoting our Patreon page, and linking to it once or twice? If so I’m flattered. But you’re too kind.)
In Lawfare Benjamin Wittes reacted to news that the Mueller investigation had been completed. Though the absence of further indictments could be good news for Trump, says Wittes, that’s not guaranteed. “The end of the Mueller probe could well prove tomorrow to be merely the creation of a factual record for the next act of this drama.” In January MRN’s Robert Wright had a conversation on bloggingheads.tv with Russiagate skeptic Michael Tracey about underappreciated grounds for skepticism.
In January, Jen Kirby of Vox detailed similarities in rhetoric and ideology between Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
A reporter for the Times of Israel speaks with various experts who say that US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights would be bad for Israel. A piece in JTA provides background on the Golan Heights.
Trump tweeted on Friday that he was withdrawing sanctions against North Korea that had been announced only the day before by the Treasury Department. “President Trump likes Chairman Kim, and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
The Washington Post explores the emerging debate over abolishing the electoral college, and how the debate is playing out in the presidential campaign.
In the Atlantic, sociologist Joan Donovan explains how white supremacists exploit weaknesses in the social-media ecosystem to keep extreme content in circulation. Donovan explains how the New Zealand mosque shooterstreamed video of his massacre in a way that ensured its proliferation in spite of attempts by Facebook and other platforms to suppress it.
Behavioral scientist Caroline Orr explores billionaire Robert Mercer’s promotion of Islamophobia through the funding of videos, data mining companies, and content platforms, including Breitbart.
MySpace, once the most visited website in the US and the main online home for musicians, says it may have lost all music uploaded during its first twelve years of existence—more than 50 million songs from over 14 million artists.
In the Washington Post, Lavanya Ramanathan writes about fans of alleged sexual abusers Michael Jackson and R. Kelly who remain convinced of their idols’ innocence.
In the New York Times, Thomas B. Edsall argues that Beto O’Rourke is in direct competition with Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris for the votes of liberals, young people, women, and African Americans—all of which leaves O’Rourke with a “daunting but not insuperable challenge.”
Trump used to be able to pressure businesses into opening plants and hiring workers, but increasingly companies are inclined to ignore him, according to the New York Times.
In the New York Times, Asne Seierstad, author of a book on Anders Breivik, the Norwegian white nationalist who killed 77 people in 2011, asks whether the New Zealand mosque shooter had narcissistic personality disorder, which Breivik was diagnosed as having.
Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s 47-year-old son, has taken control of Fox Corp. following the sale of 21st Century Fox to Disney. In the Washington Post, Sarah Ellison raises the question of whether Lachlan’s management of Fox News will differ from that of his father, who regularly takes calls from Trump.
The Miami Herald digs deeper into the strange story of Cindy Yang, the Miami day-spa owner who is a major donor to Trump and the GOP. She brought two Chinese nationals to a $50,000 per head fundraiser to have their photos taken with the president, but neither man seems to have paid for the privilege himself.
Vox’s David Roberts writes about state and local governments that are seeking “net-zero” carbon emissions in residential and commercial buildings and thus, Roberts suggests, illustrating the plausibility of an important plank in the Green New Deal.
In Aeon, Clifton Mark writes that people who believe that merit, more than luck, accounts for individual success are less self-critical and more likely to discriminate based on gender and other factors.
Nautilus interviews researchers James Evans and Misha Teplitskiy about their paper “The Wisdom of Polarized Crowds,” which finds that politically diverse Wikipedia editorial teams produce more accurate and complete entries than more homogenous teams.
The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz details how Instagram has joined YouTube and other platforms as a place where far-right conspiracy theories spread, especially among young people.
A two-minute data visualization captures 500 years of change in the relative sizes of the world’s largest cities.
New York Times tech columnist Brian X. Chen writes about how his life has changed since he deleted his Facebook account five months ago. For example: he sees fewer ads that are based on detailed knowledge about him and so spends less money on clothes and cooking utensils.
According to the UN World Happiness Report released on Wednesday, Americans have fallen in rank for the third year in a row and are now the 19th happiest nationality in the world. The three highest ranked countries—Finland, Denmark, and Norway—have highly unionized workforces and expansive social welfare programs.
In Lion’s Roar, psychologist Karen Kissel Wegela offers a meditative approach to understanding difficult people—by “becoming” them.
NEWS YOU CAN USE
In response to the mosque shootings in New Zealand, Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Congregation, which was attacked by a white nationalist gunman in October, created a GoFundMe page to support the victims and their families.
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade, Brian Degenhart,
Nikita Petrov, Mark Sussman, & Colleen Smith
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