This weekend witnessed perhaps the dumbest political debate I’ve ever seen. It started with an act of bad-faith media trolling. Reporters noticed that Trump’s inauguration crowd was much smaller than one for Obama’s historically huge first inaugural and began tweeting pictures like this:
— PBS NewsHour (@NewsHour) January 20, 2017
The pictures filled Twitter, leaked into longer news stories, and became something like a liberal security blanket on a tough day. They wrapped themselves in memories of Obama’s glory to ease their pain.
But who cares, really? Obama was the first black president. Washington is a deep-blue city. Of course he was going to have a huge crowd at his inaugural. Democrats generally pull the bigger crowds, especially when they end eight or more years of Republican rule. Given D.C.’s politics, holding a GOP inauguration there is comparable to the Chicago Cubs trying to hold their victory parade in downtown Cleveland.
By now, however, we all know that Trump will respond to every attack, so he sent Sean Spicer out into the press room, where Spicer proceeded to utter a string of demonstrably false statements. On Day One in office. In a short press conference at which he refused to take questions, Spicer made false claims about crowd size, grass coverings, subway use, and security measures. Kellyanne Conway then defended Spicer, using an instantly unfortunate (and memorable) phrase, calling his claims “alternative facts.”
The press was apoplectic. They were appalled that a press secretary would stand in front of the White House press corps and “lie.” He violated “norms.” His actions constituted a “breach of trust.” And these critiques were right. The entire press conference was ridiculous. It’s possible to defend against silly media attacks without lying. Spicer can do better, and he did do better in a generally uneventful press conference Monday afternoon.
But here’s another thing that’s also true: Many of the same people who were appalled at Sean Spicer were at the same time trumpeting the allegedly “scandal-free” Obama administration, a presidency that featured “If you like your health-care plan you can keep it,” a scheme targeting tea-party groups that itself rested on an avalanche of lies and deceptions, serial lies about Benghazi, and deliberate lies to sell the Iran deal to a skeptical public. And that’s hardly a complete list.
While there were certainly good reporters who did their best to hold the administration to account, outside conservative media there was nothing like the breathless, apocalyptic tweeting, writing, and speaking you see today. The cycle is so familiar, and the cynicism is breathtaking. In the Bush years, dissent was the highest form of patriotism. When Obama was president, dissent became “obstructionism.” Now that Trump is president, obstructionism is romanticized as the “resistance.”
There are those who wave away callbacks to Obama-administration lies and media kid-glove treatments as “what-about-ism.” In other words, they say it’s no answer to our critiques of Trump’s misdeeds to note that other people have lied at other times. In a narrow sense, they’re correct. One administration’s lies don’t justify the next administration’s falsehoods.
Partisan means winning every encounter, every news cycle, and every argument. Truth be damned. Fairness be damned. Law be damned.
The larger truth, however, is that those with no credibility make poor critics. Given the recent past, media outrage at Spicer’s press conference starts to seem less like a principled stand for the truth than an attempt to manufacture outrage. Thus, we see the wearying pattern of the modern Trump media debate. The media call out his falsehoods and decry the erosion of norms. His defenders call out media hypocrisy but then are themselves often incapable of telling the truth. After all, to speak the truth means “giving in.” It means “not fighting.”
Our politics is devolving into the pathetic spectacle of liars indignantly calling out liars for lying. Rule-breakers are outraged that other rule-breakers break rules. Norms that could be violated with impunity for “social justice” can’t be violated for “nationalism.” We stick with our tribe, through thick and thin — through truth and lies.
This conduct has a high cost. It leaves the public with no one to trust. For several weeks I’ve been one of many voices calling for an independent, bipartisan investigation into the totality of Russian efforts to influence the American presidential election. In response, my friend Glenn Reynolds raised a fair question: “Who do you trust to investigate? The news media? The national security bureaucracy? Congress? All of them have gone out of their way to prove themselves untrustworthy.”
Increasingly, we are reaching a point where we can “trust” political actors (and, make no mistake, the press is a political actor) only to be partisan. And to be partisan means trying to win every encounter, every news cycle, and every argument. Truth be damned. Fairness be damned. Law be damned. Partisans determine the “rules” only after they determine the desired outcome and then apply those rules if and only if they help the “good guys” win.
This weekend, I overheard a small group of Republicans trying to reassure themselves after Spicer’s press conference. “Yes, it was terrible,” one said, “but at least we’ve got Mattis and DeVos, so on balance we’re still ahead.” Here’s the thing — it’s possible (and it’s not asking too much) to have the truth and to have General Mattis at the Pentagon and Betsy DeVos in the Department of Education. It’s possible to defend a man and a movement without lying. And it’s possible to refuse to lie for a man or for a movement.
Until a critical mass of the public reaches that rather simple cultural and moral understanding, expect more of the same. Partisans will win some. They’ll lose some. But they’ll always sacrifice their integrity when the chips are down.