Nikki Haley and the Banality of Awfulness
We're so easily distracted.
A bonfire of sleaze. Nearly 200 names linked to Jeffrey Epstein expected to be made public -The Guardian; Sen. Bob Menendez took luxury watches, gold bars to help pal cut deal with Qatari investors, say feds — NY Daily News.
War is Hell. Senior Hamas leader Saleh Arouri killed in blast in Beirut - The Washington Post
The shrinking GOP majority. The latest resignation reduces Mike Johnson’s House majority to just 219, “meaning Republicans will only be able to lose two votes.”
Harvard Agonistes. “Harvard President Claudine Gay Resigns, Shortest Tenure in University History — The Harvard Crimson
And, lest we forget, Donald J. Trump is still a dangerous ranting authoritarian lunatic, bent on torching the Constitution in his rage for power and retribution.
I mention this last item because it’s so easy to get distracted by the latest squirrel, and to forget about the festering orange wildebeest in the room.
Consider the Nikki-slavery-word-salad-gaffe, which is now entering its (checks notes) seventh day of punditry. You can watch the video of her response to the Civil War question here. As Will Saletan writes in today’s Bulwark: “She bobbed, weaved, and asked the questioner what he wanted to hear. ‘What do you think the cause of the Civil War was?’ she inquired. When he noted that she had failed to mention slavery, she asked—in a perfect encapsulation of her pandering style—’What do you want me to say about slavery?’”
How bad was her answer?
Unfortunately, it’s not just the stupid that burns. It’s the cowardice and the contempt.
Over at National Review, Jeff Blehar identified Nikki’s real sin: “holding her voters either in such contempt, or fear, that she can’t confidently state a simple truth.”
The real gaffe Haley committed on Wednesday was that, when she froze up under an unpredicted question and defaulted to her factory settings in answering, those answers demonstrated such contempt for the intelligence of her voters. We can be told the Civil War was about slavery, Nikki—we’re all adults here. Few politicians look good when caught nakedly pandering in public, but Nikki Haley wears the look witheringly poorly—it knocks out one of the key underlying struts currently upholding her fragile public brand. That’s why this little gaffe, however minor, memorably reveals something about Haley; we rarely get such accidental insight into how little politicians think of their own voters.
(Discuss among yourselves whether some of that contempt/fear might actually reflect the reality of the GOP electorate circa 2024.)
So, all of this was bad. But meanwhile…
The Mad King in Exile continued to rave even as his poll numbers surged. His Christmas message — in which he wished that his opponents would “ROT IN HELL” — merited little more than a shrug.
He greeted the New Year with absurdist claims that Democrats were “scrambling to sign up as many of those millions of people they are illegally allowing into sour [sic] Country, in order that they will be ready to VOTE IN THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION OF 2024.”
That has become a new Trump talking point.
“It’s becoming more and more obvious to me why the “Crazed” Democrats are allowing millions and millions of totally unvetted migrants into our once great Country. IT’S SO THEY CAN VOTE, VOTE, VOTE.”
He continued to rewrite the history of the Insurrection, with yet another lie about destruction of evidence.
And while we were deconstructing Haley’s goat-rope, the former president was pushing out more election lies and demanding “Total Immunity.” He “shared” a report that can be charitably described as pure bullshit to make his case. He then followed with a claim that it was his sworn duty to attempt a coup:
Page Two: Remember, I was not campaigning—The 2020 Election was LONG OVER. What I was doing is bringing to light the fact that the Election was, without question, Rigged and Stolen. As President, and Commander-in-Chief, it was my duty to do so! If I did not do this, I would have been in violation of my Oath of Office, and the Take Care Clause, which requires the President to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” Therefore I am entitled to Total Immunity, because that is exactly what I was doing, Taking Care of our Country, and Guarding it from Rigged and Stolen Elections. Democrats are willing to play a far different game. They are willing to Cheat at levels never seen before.
There was, of course, a lot more. But we’ve gotten used to that, haven’t we? It’s old news.
The Nikki gaffe was irresistibly newsworthy because it was… new. But there was more to it: chewing over her pathetic evasion felt like a refreshing return to the Before Times — that halcyon era pre-2016 when a politician’s words actually had consequences; when a lapsus linguae, or lie, or indiscretion would have consequences.
Once, in the distant mists of time, a stupid comment about rape would end a political career; insulting POWS or joking about grabbing women by the pussy would have been disqualifying.
Younger readers will simply have to take my word for this: Once upon a time, a presidential candidate who called for terminating the Constitution and executing American generals would have set the news cycle on fire. Now it’s just another Wednesday.
This is what Brian Klaas calls the “banality of crazy.”
When Joe Biden didn’t trip but nearly tripped last week, it was headline news. How absurd is that? A candidate who didn’t quite fall over is a bigger news story than a candidate calling to execute shoplifters? …
This is what I call the Banality of Crazy—and it’s warping the way that Americans think about politics in the Trump and post-Trump era.
According to the old saying, there’s no headline in the papers for “Dog Bites Man,” but there is for “Man Bites Dog.” The idea is that the press covers the unusual rather than the routine, even if the routine story is more important than the unusual one.
I wrote about this last October, but since it’s a new year, it’s worth revisiting:
The problem is that there has just been so much awfulness — so many outrages, so many lies, so many assaults on decency — that it’s hard keep up. we get numbed to it, so it’s no longer news. Trump calls for more extrajudicial murders? The execution of the nation’s top general? (Yawn.)
Klaas wrote in the Atlantic:
Bombarded by a constant stream of deranged authoritarian extremism from a man who might soon return to the presidency, we’ve lost all sense of scale and perspective. But neither the American press nor the public can afford to be lulled. The man who, as president, incited a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol in order to overturn an election is again openly fomenting political violence while explicitly endorsing authoritarian strategies should he return to power. That is the story of the 2024 election. Everything else is just window dressing.
Klaas challenged the media — and the rest of us — to pay attention and rise to the occasion.
The press has an obligation to convey magnitude, not just novelty. Newspapers and TV channels have limited time and space to discuss political events. In a political world in which an authoritarian contender for the presidency is floating the idea of shoplifting executions and killing generals, maybe, just maybe it’s not worth the space or time to discuss a brief stumble or a dog bite.
Exit take: Don’t count on it.
The Guts to Tell the Truth
Chris Christie makes clear he’s not dropping out, because Nikki Haley is not the one we’ve been waiting for. Plus, with House Republicans signaling they may pull the plug on Ukraine aid, the war there is escalating. Will Saletan is back with me for a new year of Charlie and Will Monday.
You can listen to the whole thing here. Or watch us on YouTube.
BONUS for Bulwark + Members: 2024: Time to Gird Our Loins
1. Academic Accountability at Harvard
Claudine Gay engaged in academic misconduct. Everything else about her case is irrelevant, including the silly claims of her right-wing opponents.
This is exactly the right call. Harvard can't impose lower standards of academic integrity on its president than it imposes on its students. I could not have graduated from the law school with similar levels of plagiarism. She shouldn't lead the institution.
The important question for Harvard was never whether Gay should step down. It was why she was brought on in the first place, after one of the shortest presidential searches in Harvard’s recent history. How did someone with a scholarly record as thin as hers — she has not written a single book, has published only 11 journal articles in the past 26 years and made no seminal contributions to her field — reach the pinnacle of American academia?
The answer, I think, is this: Where there used to be a pinnacle, there’s now a crater. It was created when the social-justice model of higher education, currently centered on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts — and heavily invested in the administrative side of the university — blew up the excellence model, centered on the ideal of intellectual merit and chiefly concerned with knowledge, discovery and the free and vigorous contest of ideas.
2. The End of Extreme Gerrymandering in Wisconsin?
THE WISCONSIN LEGISLATURE INTENDS TO APPEAL the Clarke ruling to the same entity that delivered a big win for its skewed voting maps in the Johnson case. Vowed Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, the legislature’s most prominent Republican, “We will pursue all federal issues arising out of the redistricting litigation at the U.S. Supreme Court.”
But there is no guarantee that the Supreme Court will take the case, and some reason to believe it may not. The Clarke ruling, with its focus on contiguity, is grounded in state and not federal law.
“[The majority] did a really intentional job of sticking to very narrow state constitutional issues, which has the effect of insulating a lot of the decision from U.S. Supreme Court review,” Daniel Suhr, a Republican attorney who served in the administration of former Gov. Scott Walker, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “When a case is decided on only state constitutional grounds, there’s not a U.S. constitutional hook for the Supreme Court to rely on in intervening.”
3. Trump Supporters’ Weak Case Against Kicking Him Off the Ballot
As Charlie Sykes noted yesterday, some commentators have rushed to declare both rulings anti-democratic, as if voters have a “democratic” right to pick whomever they want for president under our system of laws. They don’t: Not only does the Constitution impose age and residency requirements (among others) for anyone seeking the presidency, but each state has its own laws governing ballot eligibility, including feats like securing a minimum number of signatures from registered party members, filing fees, and deadlines. If a Republican nominee for president in California fails to secure the signatures of 1 percent of that state’s registered party members—over 52,000 people—by December 15, for example, that candidate is banned from the presidential ballot. Nobody is howling that it’s somehow anti-democratic to impose such hurdles. This complaint only seems to arise when the candidate is Trump.
Is he finally getting it?