Monday, December 23, 2019

Trolling Liberals, Spewing Nonsense, and Trump's Windmill Speech to Turning Point USA

Do conservatives want to get the facts right, or do they think it is more important to irritate liberals? I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard conservatives say that they enjoy “making liberals heads explode.” The fastest, easiest, most efficient way for a conservative speaker to irritate liberals is to say stupid things. This drives liberals nuts. Liberals can't stand it.

This mentality led Donald Trump to give the Green New Deal an interesting twist. In his recent speech to Turning Point USA, a group of conservative young adults, Trump spent several minutes attacking wind power. His criticisms were seriously idiotic. The crowd loved them. The more ridiculous Trump’s comments became, the more the crowd cheered. Why? What was his point? Because I guarantee you that he had a point, even though his point evaded reality. The Green New Deal and alternative energy irritate conservatives, and President Donald Trump was happy to troll the liberals about them.

Trump began his attack against the Green New Deal by insulting a senator from Hawaii, presumably Mazie Hirono, claiming that the Green New Deal would prevent her from traveling on airplanes. This is, of course, not true, since the Green New Deal only calls for using alternative energy sources for transportation “as much as is technologically feasible,” not for getting rid of airplanes.

But let’s move on to Trump and wind power. In a rambling, incoherent paragraph, Trump said:

“We’ll have an economy based on wind.  I never understood wind.  You know, I know windmills very much.  I’ve studied it better than anybody I know.  It’s very expensive.  They’re made in China and Germany mostly — very few made here, almost none.  But they’re manufactured tremendous — if you’re into this — tremendous fumes.  Gases are spewing into the atmosphere.  You know we have a world, right?  So the world is tiny compared to the universe.  So tremendous, tremendous amount of fumes and everything.  You talk about the carbon footprint — fumes are spewing into the air.  Right?  Spewing.  Whether it’s in China, Germany, it’s going into the air.  It’s our air, their air, everything — right?”

Trump was wrong that wind turbines are mostly manufactured overseas; the United States Geological Survey reports that “Wind turbine towers are 70-90% domestically sourced, blade and hub components are 50-70% domestic, and nacelle assemblies are over 85% domestically sourced. However, many internal parts such as pitch and yaw systems, bearings, bolts, and controllers are typically imported.” Furthermore, it’s hard to say what Trump was talking about when he said that the manufacturing process was “spewing” pollution into the air.

Trump complained that he had seen ugly windmill farms. (I live in South Texas, which is a center for both wind energy and oil, and there are several large wind farms not far from my home. Most of them are in isolated areas of mesquite tree fields. I did once see some ugly windmills in the Pennsylvania mountains.)

At one point in his discussion of windmills, Trump asked, “But why is it okay for these windmills to destroy the bird population?  And that’s what they’re doing.”

An audience member yelled out: “Because they’re idiots!” 

Trolling liberals!

Trump laughed and responded, “This is a conservative group, Dan.  (Applause.)  No, but it’s true.  Am I right?  (Applause.)”

Trolling liberals!

So, why does Trump say such ridiculous things? Is his whole point to irritate liberals? For Trump then said: 

“On every front, the extreme leftists — and they are leftists —

“AUDIENCE:  Four more years!  Four more years!  Four more years!

“THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Now, if you want to drive them crazy go, ‘16 more years.’  (Applause.)  ‘Sixteen more years.’”

It was not Trump’s point that he could really serve for 16 years. No, it was his point that he could “drive them crazy.” That, not sound national policy, seems like the true goal.

Think of it this way. The basic response that liberals, professors, and mainstream media pundits make to Trump and his supporters is to point out that they have their facts wrong, that they are uninformed, and that they are vulnerable to conspiracy theories. Conservatives could respond by getting get in touch with reality. But if they don’t want to do that, trolling liberals gives them a much easier tactic. Learning about scientific facts takes a few minutes of research. In contrast, it’s so easy to make nonsense up out of thin air. So, Trump uttered a bunch of rambling falsehoods about wind power and the Green New Deal, and his audience, overjoyed, played along. It worked, of course. Mainstream media outlets, even the conservative The Hill, highlighted Trump's absurd comments. Mission accomplished!

No one likes to be criticized. If you don’t want to admit that you’re wrong, and conservatives (like the rest of fallen humanity) often don’t, trolling liberals could be the next best thing. Since conservatives (I apologize for saying so) are wrong most of the time, I’m sure they get tired of being criticized. So . . .

Truth is not the point. Fact-checking is not the point. What is the point? Conservatives don’t like change. That’s why they are conservatives. Which gives them the quicker, easier response: to do some research and admit that they are wrong? Or to troll liberals? I think Trump’s speech gave us the answer.

P. S.: A number of Trump's comments about the Green New Deal echoed equally ridiculous statements from Senator Mike Lee's Green New Deal speech, in which Lee said that Hawaiians would have to ride seahorses to cross the ocean. On the one hand, I'm sure that, deep inside, no one is stupid enough to believe such nonsense. On the other hand, people seem to be proud to say it.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Conspiracy Theories, Impeachment, and What in the World Are People Thinking?

More conspiracy theories! During this week’s impeachment hearings, we heard speeches, questions, comments, and insane rants for and against various conspiracy theories. These included unproven and very implausible claims that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election, that Crowdstrike has secret information about Democrats, and vague comments about the Steele dossier.

So, let’s chat about conspiracy theories in general.

Do people believe their own conspiracy theories?

First, there are conspiracy theorists who believe their own conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists who do not. Many, although not all, conspiracy theories arise when nasty people create and spread false information for evil purposes. A famous example is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This is a fake document that the Russian secret police forged more than 100 years ago to justify an anti-Semitic purge. The Protocols present an imaginary conspiracy of Jewish elders plotting to control the world.

Don’t miss the obvious: the Russian secret police knew perfectly well that The Protocols was a forgery. They knew because they forged it themselves. That didn’t stop a great many other conspiracy theorists from believing it. Hitler believed The Protocols and used the document to justify his heartless oppression of Jews.

So, Dr. Fiona Hill pointed out during yesterday’s impeachment hearings that the Russian government had fabricated a conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 United States election. There is no truth to it, and the Russians who created it obviously knew that it was untrue. Hill said: “Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country—and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.” Some things, history teaches us, never change. And yet Republicans, who belong to what was historically the most anti-Russia political party in American history, embrace this conspiracy theory with both arms.

The Ukraine conspiracy theory is not dying out just because Fiona crushed it like a bug. No! It is alive and well! Back to life like a zombie! South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham has now announced a Senate investigation to look into Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election and maybe implicate former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden. Does Graham believe the nonsense that he is spreading? Probably not. But plenty of Americans will.

Conspiracy theories are not fringe beliefs

Nothing is more wrong than to think that only a tiny fringe of people believe conspiracy theories. So, my second point is that millions of people believe in ridiculous conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories are not fringe beliefs. Something that a great many people believe cannot possibly be a fringe. That is mathematically impossible. A YouGov poll last year found that 25% of Trump voters and 9% of Clinton voters believed that the government was hiding information about the dangers of vaccines. And 47% of Trump voters but only 2% of Clinton voters believed that human-caused global warming was a hoax. Worse, 23% of Trump voters and 13% of Clinton voters thought that an international cabal was controlling the world behind the scenes. (I read a book about the so-called cabal when I was in college called None Dare Call It Conspiracy, written by John Bircher Gary Allen and his co-author Larry Abraham.) Frankly, I am horrified that anyone, whether a Trump voter or a Clinton voter, believes such nonsense. The number of people who believe that kind of rubbish should be zero. What is going to become of us if people think that reality is a communist plot?

Devin Nunes, U.S. Congress
I’m surprised that no one mentioned Bigfoot. Maybe a Republican will read Bigfoot into the Congressional record next week. It would surprise me little.

Conspiracy theorists present mountains of irrelevant evidence

The third point about conspiracy theorists is that they present a mountain of evidence that has nothing to do with the conspiracy. Read, if you have a strong stomach, Allen and Abraham’s book. They give painstaking detail about the Rockefeller family, the Chase Manhattan Bank’s origins, and details about membership on the Council on Foreign Relations. They include photos of American political leaders meeting with Russian political leaders. Their key point, which was that the Chase Manhattan Bank controls the world communist conspiracy, was totally unsupported. What they were hoping, I imagine, is that the reader would be so impressed by all the irrelevant but well-proven details that no one would notice that their key point was completely made-up.

We've had conspiracy theories for centuries

Fourth, conspiracy thinking has a long history in the United States. A wonderful book by Michael William Pfau details how Abraham Lincoln and other Republicans of the mid-19th century sometimes used conspiracy rhetoric.

Not all government conspiracies are false. The Watergate conspiracy was true and well proven. Lincoln’s slave power conspiracy might very well have been true. (I’m still reading the pros and cons of that one.) American military officers really did plan a goofy conspiracy called Operation Northwoods to justify an invasion of Cuba.

But governments often lead us to mistrust them!

Alas, fifth, every time government officials lie to us, manipulate us behind the scenes, or concoct foolish conspiracies for no-good purposes, they cause people to mistrust the United States government. Indeed, people learn to mistrust government in general. So, while the conspiracy theories that Republicans propounded during this week’s impeachment hearings were silly, ludicrous, unproven, self-serving, and stupid, the Republicans use these conspiracy theories to appeal to people who have, not without reason, come to believe that the United States government is not to be trusted. Most people will eventually figure out that the Republicans are lying through their teeth. And the Republicans on the Intelligence Committee are part of the government, are they not? By spreading nonsense, they further spread mistrust in government – and mistrust of themselves. That is an unfortunate side effect of their unsound strategy.

Truth hurts, but there is much to be said in its favor.

Click here to read my other posts about conspiracy theory speeches.

Shep Smith Warns Us to Defend Press Freedom

Just a brief comment here. Television journalist Shep Smith, who had long been a voice of reason in the conspiracy-theory world of Fox News, spoke at the International Press Freedom Awards. He didn’t call out anyone in particular, but he noted that “Intimidation and vilification of the press is now a global phenomenon. We don’t have to look far for evidence of that.”

President Trump calls the press the “enemy of the people” precisely because he fears truth. Indeed, we live in an era where the president of the United States calls any accurate news report about him “fake news.” In his speech, Smith reminded us that fake news is actually something else. As autocrats and dictators spread propaganda to reinforce their quest for illicit power, Smith pointed out that “They flood the world of information with garbage and lies, masquerading as news. There’s a phrase for that.” He explained that accurate and complete reporting is not something that is good just for one political party and it is not just the province of one perspective: “But press freedom is not the preserve of one political group or one political party. It’s a value embedded in our very foundational documents. Journalists need to join hands to defend it.” 

Smith teaches us an important lesson. A free society requires a free flow of information. Corrupt people have come to dominate social media; my own social media feed is full of posts from obvious bots and trolls. And to give a speech at an important event is one good way for Smith to spread his critical message.

Too often, we think that a news report is accurate if it tells us what we want to hear. Good reporters, however, will tell the truth even if the readers don’t want to hear it. If we can’t handle the truth, we can't handle living in a republic. I'll take it a step farther: United States citizens who can’t handle truth have no business calling themselves patriots.

And, to pass on a lesson from my fifth-grade teacher, a conservative Republican named Mrs. Dixon, we need to get our information from more than one source and to seek out different points of view. Otherwise, we just show propaganda artists that we have stuck a target onto our own backs.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Will Nunes' Bizarre Impeachment Talking Points Be Enough to Save Trump?

Devin Nunes, US Congress photo

Devin Nunes, ranking minority member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, gave an opening statement at the impeachment hearing yesterday to set the tone of the Republicans’ defense of President Trump. Unlike Adam Schiff, who asked cogent questions and narrated documentable events, Nunes attacked process and launched personal attacks. The old saying is that if the facts aren’t on your side, attack process. Or, worse, if the facts aren’t on your side, attack the people. 
Logically, Nunes offered an incredibly weak defense. Rhetorically, however, he aligned himself with President Trump’s core supporters. Many Republican voters believe exactly the unsupported conspiracy theories that Nunes offered, and therefore he was addressing the audience he needed to address. Impeachment is in part a political process, and all the Republicans need to do to keep President Trump in office is to make sure that Republican senators hold the line during a Senate trial. Sadly, most politicians only care about getting reelected, so public opinion drives their votes. Keeping core Republican voters together is all Nunes needs. (Similarly, in a criminal trial, all a defense attorney needs to do to protect a guilty criminal is to convince one juror to vote for acquittal.)
Let’s look at a few examples, starting with attacks on the process. Nunes said, for example:
“Anyone familiar with the Democrats’ scorched-earth war against Presiden Trump would not be surprised to see all the typical signs that this is just a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign. For example:
  • ·                     “After vowing publicly that impeachment requires bipartisan support, Democrats are pushing impeachment forward without the backing of a single House Republican.
  • ·                     “The witnesses deemed suitable for television by the Democrats were put through a closed-door audition process in a cult-like atmosphere in the basement of the Capitol, where the Democrats conducted secret depositions, released a flood of misleading and one-sided leaks, and later selectively released transcripts in a highly staged manner.”

One notices, first, the use of highly-loaded language: “carefully orchestrated media smear campaign,” “carefully staged,” or “cultlike atmosphere in the basement of the Capitol.” That language reinforces the thinking of people who believe in unsupported conspiracy theories: “cultlike,” “closed door,” “basement,” “carefully orchestrated.” Such terminology is familiar to anyone who pays attention to Alex Jones’ or Sean Hannity’s conspiracy theorizing. Also, however, Nunes complained about leaks and a “selectively released transcript.”
Further, Nunes reviewed the history of the Russian investigation, accusing Democrats of pursuing a false narrative in that case. He then said that the Ukraine call investigation was a continuation of what he called the discredited narrative about Russia. For example:
“I’ve noted before that the Democrats have a long habit of accusing Republicans of offences they themselves are committing. Recall that:
  • ·                     “For years they accused the Trump campaign of colluding with Russia when they themselves were colluding with Russia by funding and spreading the Steele dossier, which relied on Russian sources.
  • ·                     “And now they accuse President Trump of malfeasance in Ukraine when they themselves are culpable. The Democrats cooperated in Ukrainian election meddling, and they defend Hunter Biden’s securing of a lavishly paid position with a corrupt Ukrainian company, all while his father served as vice president.”
That passage brought out several themes from conservative media: that the Democrats are just as bad as the Republicans (as if, even if that is true, it could be some sort of excuse), that the Steele dossier was corrupt, and that Ukraine, not Russia, was responsible for interfering in the 2016 election. Nunes didn’t refute the Democrats’ accusations; instead, he attacked their motives.
Repeating a common (but dubious) Republican talking point, Nunes defended Trump’s policy toward Ukraine, saying that Obama only gave blankets. In real life, Obama provided significant aid to Ukraine, although he did fall short of providing live weaponry:
“Despite all their dissatisfaction with President Trump’s Ukraine policy, the President approved the supply of weapons to Ukraine, unlike the previous administration, which provided blankets as defense against invading Russians.
Nunes could have made his point more strongly if he had stuck to the facts, which he might have used to show that Trump was more helpful to Ukraine than Obama, but, instead, he repeated a false talking point. Several of Nunes’ accusations failed elementary fact checking. For example, Nunes accused the whistleblower of coordinating with the Democrats. What seems to have happened in real life is just that the whistleblower contacted Schiff’s committee staff and was told to go to the Inspector General instead. But conspiracy theorists don’t much care about contrary facts, do they?
Schiff’s opening statement narrated the facts and refuted the expected Republican talking points. In contrast, Nunes offered forceful but dubious attacks on process while twisting facts to support bizarre conspiracy theories. Not good, but never underestimate the power of unsupported conspiracy theories. The difference, by the way, between a conspiracy theory and a real conspiracy is evidence. Schiff gave evidence suggesting that Trump is guilty. Nunes presented no evidence to the contrary and gave little evidence to support his accusations.
So, paranoia, diversions, false accusations, and personal attacks. Logically and legally, Nunes offered a pathetic defense. However, if conservative media purvey the same talking points, Nunes’ tactics might be just enough to do save Trump’s presidency.
P.S. I have talked several times about how dangerous it is for speakers to rely on talking points that they don’t really understand. I call this “talking points disease.” Good policy and legal rhetoric depend on research. Nunes’ tactics might work, but, then again, they might fall apart like the house of cards they are.