Its three months from the election, a couple of weeks since the inauguration. It seems like a whole four year cycle of events in that limited time span.
What have we learned in these three months? What are the patterns emerging? I have no coherent narrative, just some observations that are speculative.
New Disruption Owing to Cognitive Dissonance
The mainstream media (MSM) seem to have gone off the deep end (does Trump own a bathrobe? Really, that's the gotcha question of the moment?). There have been a number of listicles of the most blatant forms of peddling fake news as the basis for political criticism, fake news which quickly (usually within hours) crumbles: Fake News So Far in 2017, After Decrying Fake News, Journalists Are Still Binging On Fake News, 16 Fake News Stories Reporters Have Run Since Trump Won.
Part of this is of course simply partisan behavior. Part of this is responding to market demand - the paper's readers are demanding news that confirms their biases. There are likely other dynamics in play as well.
I wonder if part of the reason for the mainstream media bias is not really bias at all but cognitive dissonance. In this reading, the MSM are accustomed to traditional politicians doing the traditional risk mitigation strategy of never making any statement without focus grouping it first. With Trump we have moved from a Consumer Product approach to electioneering and policy making to a Real Estate and Silicon Valley approach. Real Estate in terms of hardball negotiating, expansive opening gambits followed by retreats to what is really wanted. Silicon Valley in terms of real time development, a focus on failing fast, rapid A/B testing, etc.
None of this is like anything the MSM have seen before and it is alien to their experience. Business, brass tacks businessmen, real estate/venture capital risk taking, high velocity decision-making - these are all outside their kin. For them Trump is not an experienced person choosing among time tested strategies, he is a wild man doing things they cannot comprehend. I think they genuinely see him as dangerous because they have lived genuinely sheltered lives.
Inside the OODA Loop
Trump is getting inside the MSM's OODA Loop. As discussed in It's a mystifying spectacle, the MSM are a guild whose business model has been badly disrupted by the internet and who are struggling to maintain financial viability. Like a guild, they have a collective interest in establishing a single authoritative narrative which they can all support - lending the patina of truth to what is actually simply a shared consensus whose foundation is social and subjective, not empirical.
They are under threat from citizen journalists with their blogs, from emergent right-leaning news organizations, from the intellectual heft of conservative think-tanks with their research and talking points, and even from encroaching foreign news organizations such as Daily Mail. The mainstream media with their Democratic Establishment ideology are being flanked and undermined already.
Now there is Trump eating their lunch.
As a guild, they need a shared narrative which they can all get behind. That narrative is solidly Democratic Party Establishment. It takes a week or ten days from an event to there being a settled narrative. They work hard and fast but facts get in the way and everything ultimately has to be seamless and smooth. It takes time.
Along comes Trump who gets inside their OODA Loop and disrupts the process. He starts more squirrels than they can keep track of. Because they are 100% oppositional, all they have time for is to express emotional outrage before he has done, said or tweeted the next thing for them to bewail. They never have time to settle on a narrative, to craft it, to buttress it, to erase or diminish the counterfactuals, to erase the inconsistent history.
We saw this with the election which was such an upset. I posted here the list I captured in the space of ten or fifteen days a couple of weeks after the election, of all the root causes that were being put forward by the MSM as to why Clinton lost. The MSM needed one, at most two, plausible candidate causes which did not entail acknowledging poor performance on their part or poor performance on the part of their candidate.
But Trump was out of the gates faster than they were. Can you now recall what emerged as the settled reason for the upset? If you are a Republican or Independent, the answer is easy. Clinton was a corrupt, incompetent politician who lacked any sort of common touch or empathy for the people of America. She was simply a bad candidate (though bad in many ways). Few people in the Republican camp, and even fewer independents, were happy voting for Trump but they were adamant in their opposition to Clinton.
Why don't we have a settled MSM narrative explaining the loss? Because they never got a chance to settle on one or two key positions from the several dozen they were looking at. Trump didn't give them a chance. He started saying things and doing things which they found so alien that they had to chase the balls he was throwing.
And he is still throwing balls and they are still chasing them since the inauguration. They simply can't coalesce fast enough on the guild narrative before the next outrage bursts. In the nineties we had bimbo eruptions, now we have outrage eruptions. All the public can see are a continuing stream of emotional and vituperative media responses that lack any journalistic integrity and are usually retracted or debunked. How long can the MSM keep issuing stories that turn out to be untrue before they draw down the last of their reputational bank account?
It is not that Trump is building a following or enhancing his brand, though his approval ratings do seem to be rising and many on the right and the center, seeing the hysteria of the MSM and the left are beginning to feel better about their vote than they might have at the time. He has started from a low base and is demolishing his opponents before he starts to build his own outcomes.
Signaling Over Substance
Because so far, all he has done is signal to his broad-tent base. All these Executive Orders? Signals of intent. Very few of them are substantive changes in already existing policy, just a change of emphasis and a signal of intent. The material work to establish a legislative base for new policy will be with Congress later on.
He has been throwing treats to the various tribes in the Republican base. Constitutional conservatives got a high profile Supreme Court nominee. Defense conservatives got some stellar generals. Libertarians got an endorsement of LGBT rights. Religious conservatives got the defunding of Planned Parenthood. Social conservatives had the pleasure of seeing dilettante thespians, left wing journalists, and social justice warriors stood up to and rebuked. Blue collar conservatives saw trade actions they see as supportive of their economic way of life. Good governance conservatives like the EO regarding revolving-door careers. Business conservatives see several businessmen among the cabinet picks. The only tribe that hasn't yet gotten much in terms of assurance are the Fiscal conservatives.
So Trump is assuring the base that he will keep his promises but does so through dramatic signs (Executive Orders) rather than through legislation. Legislation has to be carefully crafted and involves heavy negotiation and hard trade-offs so that everyone gets something and no-one gets everything. It takes time. All Trump is doing now is battlefield prep for the hard negotiations to come.
Meanwhile, the MSM and the Democratic party rump seem increasingly unhinged, sidelined, and irrelevant. It has been six months since the DNC chair resigned in disgrace and three months since the Democrats lost decisively at the Federal, State and local levels. There is no DNC chair, they are still fighting that out. There is no settled spokesman or leader of the party. If Trump keeps prodding them into indefensible, obstructionist positions, by the time he gets around to actually negotiating new legislation and policies with Congress he will effectively have cleared the field of his institutional opponents.
That is not necessarily what is going to happen. I think Trump's real opponents will be in Congress and in his own party. But he has a lifetime of negotiating experience. He might end up doing well there. The unfounded hysteria of the MSM might still land a body blow, but the longer it continues, the more inconsequential it appears, the more retractions they have to make, the less likely it seems that their allegations will taint him. The boy who cried wolf and all that.
Threat to Taxpayer Funded Opposition
The Democrats are as vulnerable as they have ever been; at least in living memory. If Trump actually pulls together a supportive coalition, the Democrats might face an existential crisis that might focus them on reestablishing their party as one of the people. Right now they have lost political power. That's a survivable problem for them given the cyclical nature of elections but that power loss is exacerbated by what is happening to and among their close allies, academia, the mainstream media, the deep state, and the shadow government of community organizations.
Their close allies in academia have been cutting up with impunity for several years but it has been coming to a head with escalating tuition, rising student debt, declining employability, evisceration of due process on campus, rioting, antagonism to free speech, etc. Academia already had a hard future that likely will get harder sooner. From a DNC perspective, academia was not only a source for intellectual covering fire but also a source of money.
Similarly, monolithic and unchallenged MSM has been critical muscle for the DNC and they might now be hobbled.
Even more critically, the cash nexus between government workers and the DNC is under threat. We saw in Wisconsin what happens to government unions when employees are no longer forced to be members and the government ceases to collect union dues on behalf of the union. My recollection is that a third of the unions folded shop and the remaining unions suffered declines of 30-50% in membership. When government unions decline, the money to the DNC declines.
With deep state bureaucrats in Washington now opposing the elected officials of the people, how long will it be before we have a PATCO moment with the dismissal of swathes of highly paid DNC party members who are government bureaucrats?
Finally, there is a web of shadowy community organizations epitomized by Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), Occupy Wall Street (OWS), Black Lives Matter (BLM), MoveOn.org and others which function both as a shadow government and as a disavowable wing of the Democratic Party. They receive taxpayer money directly from the government or indirectly as when DOJ settlements with financial institutions are directed, not into the Treasury, but to these community organizations.
Drain the swamp has usually meant closing the revolving door, reducing the influence of lobbyists, prosecution of elected officials when they are guilty of wrong-doing. With any luck, though slim prospects, we will get at least that.
But there is a second, structural swamp having to do with the fact that the Democratic Party is highly reliant for its well-being on government subsidies of allies. Government Unions, Humanities Academia, PBS/NPR, Planned Parenthood, NEA, NEH, Community Organizations, etc. All these public voices are stolidly Democratic Party and all are paid for by the taxpayer via the government. Even Hollywood, resolutely Democratic with a few stalwart exceptions, depends heavily on subsidies and tax breaks. I suspect that the chances of some material reform in any of these areas has suddenly risen with the 2016 election and that any reform likely poses a major threat to the financial well being of the Democratic Party.
The pressure for reform is not an ideological plank of the Establishment Republican Party. If it were up to them, we would continue with the go-along to get along which has brought us to our current state of deficit and debt. No, most of the pressure for draining the Democratic Swamp comes from the new populists and from the residual spirit of the Tea Party.
Cognitive Disruption, Inside the OODA Loop, Signaling over Substance, and Threat to Taxpayer Funded Opposition. Those are some of the things I speculate are occurring. An accurate description? I am not sure yet but I suspect reasonably close.
Where it goes from here and what it will produce remains to be seen.
UPDATE: ‘Voting against their own interests’ by Kevin D. Williamson provides a further example of the Threat to Taxpayer Funded Opposition.
UPDATE 2: Further evidence of the pervasiveness of Federal funding of Democrats through governmental institutions. Two articles in tandem: Gravy Train Flows Wide And Deep At Elizabeth Warren’s Consumer Agency documents the very large number of CFPB employees earning more than virtually all other governmental employees. For example, 240 CFPB employees earn more than all of the governors of the fifty states. At the same time, what is the split of CFPB employees' political donations between the parties? 100 percent of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's donations went to Democrats. If disruptor Trump were to either reduce CFPB employee headcount (or compensation) or if he were to enforce Civil Service laws so that they were truly non-partisan as they are supposed to be, then that would represent a blow to the financial lifeline of the Democratic Party.