|Refusal to admit error is now a bipartisan plague in our political life.
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|Dear Reader (particularly the storm-ravaged residents of Alabama),
To borrow a term from social science, this Sharpie story is amazeballs.
Even more amazeballs: My spellchecker accepts “amazeballs” as a word, a fact so amazeballs I had to look up the word to discover that Perez Hilton coined it, which means I can never use it again. You might ask, “If you don’t want to use a Perez Hilton portmanteau, why not just rewrite your first sentence?” Well, in the spirit of Sharpie Week, I feel like I should embrace the mumpsimusistic spirit of our times. Mumpsimustic isn’t a word, but a “mumpsimus” is a person who makes a mistake and stubbornly refuses to stop making an error even after the error has been called to their attention (and if lexicological legerdemain or neologistic novelty with the word mumpsimus is wrong, I mumpsimustically refuse to acknowledge my error).
The president is of course the most prominent mumpsimus in American life today, but he’s hardly alone. More on that in a moment. But we should take a moment to flesh out this Sharpie thing, for defecations and guffaws. His refusal to let go of the Alabama hurricane-warning-that-wasn’t is such a perfect encapsulation of Trump’s Trumpiness that it approached the Platonic ideal. The only thing that would have been better is if he’d taken a fine-tip Sharpie to the dictionary and written in a definition of “Covfefe” somewhere between covets and Covic and then tweeted a picture of it.
I’ve never thought of Trump as a Seinfeld character before, but there is something so quintessentially Seinfeldian about his refusal to let little things go. Jerry Seinfeld (and Larry David) reinvented an old plot device about how the inability to admit a mistake or obsession—the lie that George was a marine biologist, Jerry’s refusal to admit he didn’t know Delores’ name, the fun of making voices with your belly button, the theft of a marble rye, etc.— could drive an entire show.
Something similar has been the through-line of so much of the Trump Show. The doubling down on bogus claims of millions of illegal immigrants stealing the popular vote from him, his inaugural crowd size obsession, his claims that China pays the tariffs, his insistence that he met Vladimir Putin because his 60 Minutes interview appeared alongside one with Putin, the refusal to fully and finally admit Russia interfered in the election, and of course his own version of a man-hands controversy: The list is endless. He can’t admit error because he thinks it would show weakness, which is a deeper form of weakness.
Remember Trump’s bonkers press conference responding to Mitt Romney’s stop-Trump speech, which cataloged all of Trump’s failed businesses? Romney said:
Look, his bankruptcies have crushed small businesses and the men and women who work for them. He inherited his business, he didn’t create it. And whatever happened to Trump Airlines? How about Trump University? And then there’s Trump Magazine and Trump Vodka and Trump Steaks and Trump Mortgage. A business genius he is not.
Trump held a press conference showing off a slew of products he claimed proved Romney wrong. It was all bogus. His steak line, sold through Sharper Image (where I buy all my perishable food products), was dead. But he grabbed some Bush Bros. steaks from the Mar-a-Lago freezer and pretended they were Trump Steaks. He grabbed the in-house “magazine” of Mar-a-Lago—which he doesn’t own—and pretended it was the defunct Trump magazine. As for Trump Vodka, he laid out some “Trump Wine”—which isn’t vodka and isn’t owned by Donald Trump—and passed it off as proof of…something. Romney never mentioned Trump Water, but Trump did, claiming that he owned a water company. The proof? The Mar-a-Lago-branded water bottles on offer at the hotel. He didn’t own the company that made them and it wasn’t “Trump Water” anyway.
But hey, it worked for him. And this stuff usually works for him because, as any great con man will tell you, the mark wants to believe.
Story Trumps Fact
Longtime readers may recall that for years I’ve used a certain analogy to explain my view of liberal media bias. For the newbies, I’ll set it up. I honestly believe, deep in my heart, that every reasonable person knows there is such a thing as liberal media bias. It’s as real as cancer and Newark, New Jersey. Therefore, the only legitimate disagreements on the subject aren’t over its existence, but on its scope, significance, and magnitude. That’s why when conservatives hear liberals, particularly liberal journalists, pretend it doesn’t exist, it can drive us a little bonkers.
So here’s the analogy: It’s like the college roommate who takes your last beer. It’s not a big deal, really. But it is annoying.
“Dude, you took my last beer.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did. Just admit it. I don’t really care. But you did.”
“I did not take the last beer.”
“Come on man, I saw you take it out of the fridge.”
“You’re drinking it right now! Just admit it! Say it, damn it! Say you took my last beer!”
And then you turn into Sam Kinison in Back to School screaming “Say it!” into his face. The point is that a lot of us could just move on if the media were honest about itself. But it can’t be, not fully, because it’s too invested in its self-image as somehow above the fray and non-partisan.
The funny thing is this is where we are on Sharpie Week. This is Day 6 of an incandescently stupid story, but the press can’t let it go and neither can Trump, and I’m here for it. Yes, in a sense it’s a morally grotesque collective action problem. The press is obsessed with proving to the world that Trump lies—which he does, constantly. And Trump’s fans and allies know he does, but they refuse to give the media the satisfaction of admitting it (and his political allies are terrified of angering Trump or his fans, so they pretend he doesn’t lie). At some point the press’s obsession with the lie becomes the story instead of the lie itself. Then conservatives do the whataboutist pounce, which the press invites because its daily zeal shows more concern about exposing Trump than about exposing lies by Democrats. And… everything gets even dumber in the process.
Seriously, step out of the ludicrousness of it all and just imagine you’re standing amidst the rubble of your Dorian-devastated home and you turn on the TV (which miraculously survived for the purposes of this hypothetical) to discover that the president is—or is happy to seem—more concerned with defending a really minor and understandable error than with directing relief efforts or expressing sympathy with the victims, and the press is equally obsessed with not letting the president off the hook.
Mumpsimuses All The Way Down
I think Andrew Egger is right that historians will have a field day with what he calls “Sharpiegate.” But for all that this Princess and the Pea story for the media age tells us about Trump, it’s worth moving the camera lens back a bit. Trump’s obsession with his image is just a small example of our society-wide obsession with narrative-maintenance. The refusal to admit error often stems from a deep insecurity about the rightness of your position, of the story you want to tell and have others believe.
In my book, I argue that a civilization is just the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Both politics and what we call the culture war can be boiled down to an argument over whose story will be accepted as reality. This in itself is neither bad nor good; it’s simply the nature of how humans create an ecosystem of collective understanding about who “we”—or “they”—are. We can’t help but invest more significance in some facts over others, because some facts are central to our story and some are distractions from it. For instance, “Drag Queen Story Hours” are real. Whether or not they actually present a “global threat” is a matter of debate.
The problem comes when the narrative becomes more important than the facts, and useful errors become too useful to discard. The examples, large and small, are everywhere:
• The New York Times recently announced that the story of America starts with the original sin of slavery and can’t be understood any other way. To this end, it has revived the “King Cotton” narrative (a storyline near and dear to Karl Marx’s heart: “Without slavery there would be no cotton; without cotton there would be no modern industry…”). The problem is that this story isn’t true.
• I doubt there are many political reporters who honestly believe that Stacey Abrams was robbed of her rightful victory. But you’ll be hard pressed to find many who will say so, never mind say so with the same righteous indignation they reserve for Trump’s aspersions on democratic norms.
• Racism is a real problem, but the problem is nowhere near as big as you’d be led to believe if you just followed the mainstream media. The modest though lamentable P.R. successes of the alt-right notwithstanding, America is still profoundly less racist than it was a generation ago. Hate crimes happen, and some of them are truly horrific. But the press seems more interested in hate crimes that fit the narrative than in hate crimes per se.
• Joe Biden insists he opposed the Iraq war just moments after he voted for it. Trump insists he opposed the war from the beginning, which he didn’t.
• And then there’s the depressingly awful debate over guns. On a recent episode of The Remnant, Charles Cooke goes on a stemwinder about the myth that the Second Amendment wasn’t intended as an individual right. Spoiler: It was. Every day, anti-gun types vent a spleen in Twitter about how no one should point out that the “AR” in AR-15 doesn’t stand for assault rifle. Every day, virtually every Democratic candidate speaks with invincible certainty about the number of mass shootings in this country, using a bogus measurement.
The statistics over “equal pay” are as real and reliable as the prop-swords in a fifth-grade play of The Three Musketeers. The Bloomberg “reporter” who mistook sarcasm for anti-Semitism won’t admit he was wrong. The woman who called J.D. Vance a racist refuses to concede her error. People still insist Democracy in Chains isn’t a hot mess. Christine Blasey Ford’s lawyer all but admitted—in lawyerly fashion—that the Kavanaugh smear was a political hit job from the outset. I could go on and on.
Now, I recognize that I’m using examples that conservatives generally agree with. I do that for a few reasons. First, I’m a conservative. Second, because I think there’s a real asymmetry between left and right when it comes to shaping the narrative. The left dominates universities, most of the media, including Hollywood and publishing, and uses this position to shape the narrative constantly.
Finally, because I started with Trump, so I figured I should give equal time.
Still, it’s worth noting how Trump has mumpsimized vast swaths of the right. From conservative intellectuals to leaders of the Christian Right to various TV talking heads, the refusal to concede error—Trump’s errors or their own estimations of Trump—has become institutionalized. Stuart Varney’s refusal to concede that Trump lies—at all!—is a perfect example of the phenomenon.
But the refusal to credit the reality of Trump’s character isn’t the whole of the story, because there are policy consequences to the riot of mumpsimuseosity on the right. When Trump refuses to admit his errors, his supporters often happily go right along with him. The Tea Partiers and Freedom Caucusers have abandoned one constitutional and fiscal commitment after another. The inevitable financial crisis coming our way is now a massive example of a bipartisan refusal to admit error. And it’s only getting worse as the fight in Washington is over more tax cuts versus spending tens of trillions on a Green New Deal.
To paraphrase Tracy Morgan, we’re living every week like it’s Sharpie Week, and there’s no end in sight.
Every now and then, I come up with a syndicated column topic that would be better suited for G-File. Today’s is a good example, and it dovetails a bit with today’s “news”letter. I noticed how Democrats and reporters often use the term “existential crisis” as a synonym for an existential threat, when in fact they’re very different things. An existential crisis is when you start asking yourself in the bathroom mirror “Who am I?” or “Is this all there is?” or find yourself making a replica of Devil’s Tower out of your mashed potatoes and musing about abandoning your family for the real thing. To continue the above discussion, it’s when you lose the plot of your own story. An existential threat is when you climb a tree to get away from a hungry grizzly bear only to discover that grizzly bears are excellent tree climbers. But the two things are related. I think the left’s embrace of socialism and the right’s embrace of nationalism or “post-liberal Catholic integralism” are responses to a kind of existential crisis in America today. We’re losing the plot of who we are and we’re grasping for some new story. And key tools for doing just that are existential threats. We are wired to find a great deal of meaning in existential threats. For many on the left, climate change (and white supremacy) are filling the void; for many on the right, it’s immigration, or Drag Queen Story hour, or simply the Left. Flight 93 arguments are born of existential crises, and the claim of existential threats is what gives them binding power.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: There are some strange things afoot (apaw?) at home. Pippa is becoming more aggressive (in a totally non-aggressive way) at getting her fair share of attention. Zoë is getting jealous, but she’s not being mean about it. Instead, she’s trying to steal Pippa’s act. Zoë is also becoming weirdly addicted to scritches and pats. I’m used to this at home. But it’s becoming a bit of a problem in the car. Zoë typically rides shotgun with me in the car, and every now and then at a stoplight I’ll reach over to give her some love. But when the light turns green and I put my right hand back on the wheel, she’ll reach over with her paw and try to pull my arm back. Anyway, they’re happy doggos.
In other news, on Wednesday the Fair Jessica and I took Lucy to Boston to put her on a flight to Spain, where she will be spending her junior year of high school. It was an emotionally brutal day (in an emotionally brutal month). But I did get to come home to a very nice welcome, which helped, a little.
Last week’s G-File
White liberals are taking over the Democratic Party
This week’s first Remnant, with Charlie Cooke
Democratic presidential candidates aren’t taking climate change seriously
This week’s second Remnant, with Ben Howe
And now, the weird stuff.
Debby’s Friday links
Lego droid orchestra
Even better dog
Inside the waffle maker cult
Presidential candidates as chairs
Presidential candidates as people you knew in college
Behold: the flying crowbar
What is bologna made of?
Dog and bird