Twitter isn’t Real Life

In 1985, media critic Neil Postman wrote, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” in which he argued that the ascendancy of television was destroying public discourse in America. The primary support for this claim was that television is so structurally biased toward entertainment, triviality, and spectacle that it is incapable of fostering serious, sustained, and rational deliberation.

It seems in 2019 that an equally seismic cultural shift occurring, one that is moving us even further away from healthy public dialogue.

Just as the Age of Typography gave way to the Age of Television, the Age of Television is now giving way to the Age of Twitter. Nowhere is this shift more evident than in Donald Trump’s obsessive use of the platform. But Lord Dampnut is far from alone, as the popularity of congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter feed suggests. Given Twitter’s growing centrality in our politics, it seems prudent to highlight the defining traits of this platform and the dangers it poses.

Twitter is defined by three main characteristics: simplicity, impulsivity, and incivility. Thanks to its 280-character limitation, Twitter structurally disallows communication that is sophisticated and complex. While people can say things that are smart and witty on Twitter, they cannot convey complex ideas.

This is significant because the issues and concerns confronting us today, from climate change and healthcare to terrorism and immigration, are exceedingly complex, and talking about them 280 characters at a time ensures that we will never develop workable solutions. You cannot fix a problem that you do not actually understand.

Also, Twitter does not invite serious contemplation and thoughtful consideration. Generally speaking, people do not spend hours carefully crafting 280-character messages. They fire them off in the “heat” in the moment. This is due to the structural properties of the platform, whose simplicity of use invites impulsivity. People can tweet from virtually anywhere at any time. Tweets are, well, tweeted usually with no forethought and reflection. As such, Twitter frequently contributes to misunderstanding and escalates sensitive situations.

While there are positive and civil messages on Twitter, research concerning the platform points to three interrelated findings that privilege incivility.

First, Twitter usage is positively correlated to the personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.

Second, people are more likely to communicate in uncivil ways when the target of their message is not immediately present.

Third, negatively-toned messages travel both farther and faster on Twitter. Consequently, while it is certainly possible to be civil on Twitter, the medium is biased toward incivility. So, is it any wonder that our politics have become so divisive and mean-spirited?

These traits ensure that we are not having thoughtful and civil conversations on Twitter. To be clear, I am not anti-Twitter. The structural biases of any medium make it ill-suited for some types of communication and well suited for others. For example, Twitter may be the most effective emergency alert system ever created. It is ideal for conveying simple messages quickly and widely. But it is exceptionally ineffective at fostering meaningful and mature public deliberation.

Choosing the right tool is essential to successfully performing any task. You would not use a screwdriver to dig a ditch, and you should not use Twitter to conduct national and international politics.

Other social media platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, do not serve us much better. They overwhelmingly expose us to information we already agree with, leading to confirmation bias. Much of the information they spread is unreliable (and even propagandistic). Also, social media are designed to elicit emotional rather than rational responses from us.

As we enter the 2020 campaign season in earnest, it’s important that we look outside social media for our news and information. We should actively seek out serious and sustained discussions of public issues, and we should remember social media was never designed to inform us or conduct our politics.

This Cowardice Cannot Stand

There is no better encapsulation of the difference between the two American political parties than this: Republicans start from the presumption that “treason” and “spying” will be prosecuted without evidence, while Democrats start from the presumption that only once they have seen all the evidence of everything ever, they might conclude that some further investigation is warranted.

Donald Trump leads deranged stadium rallies in chanting “lock them up” without even specifying who committed what crime. Democrats, faced with a case of what would be felony obstruction of justice but for a legal guidance against prosecuting a sitting president, insist that they cannot initiate impeachment proceedings because they need to gather more information.

This isn’t a new problem. Those who feared that the Mueller Report would never be the smoking gun Democrats were dreaming of warned that limiting the scope to criminal obstruction and illegal “collusion” needlessly blocked out a massive range of criminal and impeachable offenses committed by Trump and his confederates.

For House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, political calculus continues to take precedence over the rule of law. That position is becoming more and more untenable, as cracks appear in the Democratic front and even a Republican member of Congress is able to point out what is right in front of us. “Mueller’s report reveals that President Trump engaged in specific actions and a pattern of behavior that meet the threshold for impeachment,” GOP Rep. Justin Amash understands what is obvious to anyone who has read the Mueller report in good faith: We have more than enough data to name and investigate the crime. Amash has been joined by a fistful of renegade Democrats who are finally content to say “we know enough.” If not enough to impeach, then at least enough to initiate an inquiry.

The problem is that if congressional Democrats refuse to see the big picture, after the staggering proof put forth in the Mueller report, the daily reports of gross financial misconduct and corruption, and the administration’s growing refusal to accede to any form of congressional oversight, one has to wonder what hypothetical evidence might persuade them that, um, CRIMES.

Perhaps some belief in Trump’s infamous boast that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot a man without losing support has spooked Democrats to the point of paralysis. The reality is that Democratic Leaders on the Hill know what criminal obstruction looks like, they’re just too terrified to say so. At any rate, I would stay off of Fifth Avenue.

The other problem is that House Democrats want to look like measured and rational adults in the face of the biggest toddler tantrum ever witnessed in presidential history, one in which the Constitution is being re-purposed as a diaper. But as any parent or even uncertified Red Cross babysitter will tell you, every time you decline to impose consequences, you move the line for acceptable behavior a little further.

Mueller is himself trying to look measured and rational by demurring from testifying. Looking adult and rational in the face of abject insanity is not always synonymous with bravery, especially when the other side is shouting TREASON and LOCK THEM UP and INVESTIGATE THE INVESTIGATORS.

“But wait!” Democratic leadership might say. “What’s the downside of these drawn-out court fights brought on by what is itself impeachable conduct?” (See: Article III of the Nixon impeachment articles). The downside is the appearance that there is virtually nothing Trump could do to trigger an impeachment proceeding, something Trump sees, relishes, and will bank on in whatever he does next.

Democrats who say they want to focus on the economy, or the 2020 elections, or other “kitchen table” issues give up more and more authority to the reckless, power-snatching Gröpenführer by the day. By attaching no real consequence, they are essentially telling the country that Steven Mnuchin can keep defying House subpoenas of the president’s tax records and Donald McGahn can keep refusing to testify on obstruction of justice.

In ceding that power to Trump, who already believes himself to be all-powerful, they’re making it so.

Just Do It Already

Every presidential scandal has at least one memorable line that everyone recognizes immediately. Nixon had “I am not a crook,” and Bill Clinton will be forever remembered for “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” The line that will likely be most remembered from the Trump regime is from the Mueller report: when Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Donald Trump that a special counsel had been appointed. He slumped in his chair and said, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.”

The Mueller investigation had Trump in despair from the very beginning. He was so anxious about it that he spent the next year and a half obstructing justice in a dozen different ways, publicly trashing everyone involved in it and attacking the reputations of the FBI and the Department of Justice. Whether that reflected his guilt over his behavior in the Russia matter or concern that the FBI was turning over other rocks he’d rather not be touched is still unknown. These are not the actions of an innocent man.

The debate about impeachment gets hotter wth Lord Dampnut’s every refusal to acknowledge congressional power under the Constitution. On Thursday the Washington Post reported that Nancy Pelosi held a closed-door meeting with the Democratic caucus, telling them to stick to policy issues that people really care about and forget about impeachment. She acknowledged that some Democrats are feeling a little down about the refusal to consider impeachment, but no one in the room objected to her edict. Evidently, they are all convinced that voters are not concerned about whether their president is a criminal or that American democracy is in peril.

Voters are not going to buy that. People understand that getting a conviction in the Senate in an impeachment trial will be nearly impossible, but they also know that passing any Democratic bills in the Senate, and then getting Trump to sign them, is just as unlikely.

Every Democrat knows that Donald Trump deserves impeachment. They just can’t decide whether it’s good strategy to do it. Pelosi obviously doesn’t think so. Others are saying they should.  Many legal observers believe that impeachment proceedings will give the House leadership the clout they need with the courts to force the administration to comply with subpoenas, so in that sense it’s almost a necessity.

Voters didn’t hand Democrats a big majority in the midterms for the purpose of passing a dream agenda only to watch it die in the Senate. There are currently 23 presidential candidates talking about the bread-and-butter issues every single day (the ones that will actually talk about policy anyway), and people will be hearing all about them. They sent the Democrats to Washington in 2018 for one reason: To stop Trump.

It’s becoming more important every day that Democrats focus on doing that. Trump is still the most powerful man in the world and downplaying the threat of impeachment gives him a green light to keep doing everything he’s doing. It’s not just about the 2016 election or even the pattern of obstruction of justice anymore. It’s about what he’s doing right now.

Even if Democrats never actually vote on articles of impeachment, holding hearings, using the power of their congressional mandate, and showing the Gröpenführer that they will turn over every rock whether he likes it or not is the only way to keep him from doing his worst.

Bullies only back down when someone stands up to them.

Drumbeats in the Distance

Has the American media learned anything since George W. Bush drove the country into the Iraq War on false pretenses and warped intelligence? Hopefully it has, but we are be on the verge of a high-stakes test of this hypothesis.

The Trump administration appears to be on the cusp of walking us into a conflict with Iran. And we need to be clear about how this all started: Against the advice of many of his top aides, Trump decided to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal crafted under President Barack Obama. The deal strictly limited Iran’s ability to create a nuclear weapon, a goal nearly everyone in the U.S. shares, but Republicans decided that anything with Obama’s name on it made them sad, so it had to go. Then, last month, the administration announced it was labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, and unprecedented and aggressive move.

That brings us to this month, when officials have been trying to convince the public that there is intelligence suggesting that the threat from Iran is growing even though U.S. Central Command released a report saying the regime had no interest in going on the offense against the United States unless provoked.

So the administration decided to provoke them. National Security Adviser, and talking mustache, John Bolton announced that he would send aircraft carriers and bombers to the Persian Gulf in response to some new information. But Bolton is the quintessential unreliable narrator. He was, after all, a part of the administration that manipulated the intelligence to make the case for the Iraq War under Bush. Even Bush would later sour on his former ambassador to the United Nations, saying, “I don’t consider Bolton credible.”

The Associated Press credulously reported Monday that a U.S. official said that the military has assessed that Iran is likely responsible for a recent attack on oil tankers near the United Arab Emirates over the weekend. But the story was thinly sourced, relying only on one anonymous official citing a military assessment.

Bolton has never seen a regime that he didn’t want to overthrow and he is clearly gunning for Iran. And given how stupid and easy to manipulate Trump is, Bolton may well lead him into war.

Reporters must be particularly skeptical of what administration sources are saying, whether they’re speaking anonymously or before Congress. Who’s agenda are they serving? How reliable is the information they’re citing? We’ve seen how the government can manipulate the media into banging the war drums for them. And there are signs it is making such a mistake again.

The American role in any rising tensions, beginning with Trump’s tearing up of the nuclear deal, is the important context for understanding any emerging conflict. Reporters need to be particularly skeptical of any claims they’re hearing as the Trump administration, with John Bolton at the helm of national security, coalesces around the idea that Iran poses an imminent threat.

Long-Form Worth Certificate

We still haven’t seen Donald Trump’s tax returns, but on Tuesday, the New York Times published a detailed report examining information about his taxes between the years of 1985 and 1994.

The Times didn’t obtain his actual tax returns, but it did receive information about his taxes from a source who had legal access to the returns. And the paper was able to corroborate the validity of the returns by comparing it to publicly available records and information it had previously obtained.

Here are some…interesting findings from the report:

$1.17 billion in losses

The big take away of the piece is astounding: Over the ten years, Trump had more $1.17 billion in business losses. Keep in mind that a lot of this is during the late 80s, at time of strong economic growth. Not a time when rich white men typically lose money. Also, this was when Trump as running casinos, a business that is rigged in favor of the proprietor, which he bankrupted. More than anything, this report should put to rest the myth that Donald Trump is a smart business man.

Much of that was concentrated in 1990 and 1991

In just two years, Trump lost a staggering $250 million annually.

No income taxes for eight out of ten years

Because his businesses were arranged as partnerships, the losses were reported on his personal tax returns rather than through corporate filings. With such massive losses, Trump was able to avoid paying personal income tax for eight out of the ten years the Times reviewed.

No, that is not common

Trump defenders will say he had some tough times and some good times, and that this is just the life of a high-profile businessman. Not so. According to the Times, Trump “appears to have lost more money than nearly any other individual American taxpayer.” Again, this was during the economic boom of the 80s.

Trump’s father, by contrast, made money

One person who appears to have done much better than Donald Trump? His father, Fred Trump, the man who really made the Trump family wealthy and bequeathed the fortune to his children. Keep in mind, Donald was a millionaire before he was out of diapers.

“We now have tax info on Fred Trump & Donald Trump for a number of years,” said reporter Susanne Craig, one of the reporters in the story. “The upshot: Fred always made a lot of money. Donald always lost a lot of money.”

“It’s been good financially.”

One of the most amazing parts of the story is a graph that shows Trump’s accumulated losses as they rack up on his returns. Next to some of the bars, the chart includes quotes from Trump talking about his finances.

In 1990, the Times reported that Trump said, “It’s been good financially” a year in which he had lost $400 million.

Put simply, Lord Dampnut has always been an outrageous liar.

Trump made money in the stock market by lying

As his businesses were tanking in the late 1980s, Trump had to find other ways to rake in cash. One method, the Times found, was to buy stock in a company, claim he was going to take over that company, watch the stock rise, and then sell his shares. He would profit, and never buy the company after all. Eventually, the Times reported, this scam stopped working when investors gave up on taking his boasts seriously.

This is also a pretty strong reason, among many, that Americans should not look to the stock market as an indicator of how well the overall economy is doing.

Focus groups of Trump voters in 2016 thought the fact he was a ‘hugely successful’ businessman would make him an ideal president. The fact he was a loser in business will hurt him. And that is why he’s been doing everything he can to keep his taxes secret.