Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, last night’s dueling presidential town halls, the Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court hearings, and the New York Post’s part in a likely Russian disinformation campaign.
The Biden and Trump campaigns held simultaneous town halls last night, after Trump had backed out of a scheduled debate and NBC, to the frustration of many employees, agreed to schedule him as counterprogramming to Biden, who appeared on ABC. Did the separate town halls show anything that a combined event would have missed?
I don’t think we learned anything new about either candidate last night, and I doubt we will in next week’s final debate either, when they are scheduled to square off in the same hall. But the split-screen town halls did illustrate an observation made by Rupert Murdoch, of all people. According to a Daily Beast report this week, the owner of Fox News believes Trump will lose by a landslide. “After all that has gone on,” he is quoted as telling an associate, “people are ready for Sleepy Joe.” Though Murdoch’s remark is a slap at Biden, it is also an accurate read of the cultural weather. Most Americans are worn out by their president’s nonstop histrionics and governmental chaos. They wouldn’t mind a bit of a nap. Anyone who surfed between the two town halls would see that choice writ large: an incessantly ranting and untethered reality-show television “personality” versus a calm, plain-spoken legislator who promises not to frighten the children. As if to vindicate Murdoch’s showbiz instinct, preliminary ratings show that Biden outdrew Trump by 22 percent in the hour they overlapped on broadcast networks; Biden was still slightly ahead when the cable viewership on MSNBC and CNBC was added to Trump’s total.
Then again, Trump is not really running against Biden. His opponent is the coronavirus. He is flailing against a pandemic that is now surging as it hasn’t since late July, and especially so in regions (the South, the upper Midwest) considered his electoral strongholds. The Biden campaign has wisely never lost its focus on Trump’s cataclysmic failure to address the crisis. But even if it had, the morbid facts speak for themselves. The ever-replayed video of the White House gleefully playing host to a super-spreader event is our era’s Zapruder film.
Trump wants to change the subject, but he can’t. The NBC town hall was top-heavy with questions about his COVID response, from both Savannah Guthrie, who moderated, and the public questioners. Even now, Trump continues to denigrate the usefulness of masks, still leaning on a nonsensical anecdote involving a waiter, and pushes the quack nostrum of “herd immunity” as his latest miracle cure. The source he cited last night for his junk science is “Dr. Scott.” That would be the radiologist and Fox News talking head Scott Atlas. This week Atlas was implicated in a Times report about how elites connected to Stanford’s Hoover Institution were dumping and shorting stocks in February after receiving private warnings about the pandemic’s severity from Trump economic advisers. This was at the same time Trump was telling the 401(k)-holding public that the coronavirus was “very much under control” and Larry Kudlow, the director of his economic council, was describing that control as “pretty close to airtight.”
Guthrie did a good job, with tough prosecutorial follow-up questions in her quiver for Trump’s rat-a-tat lies. And she had to; NBC’s journalistic malpractice had put her career on the line. The network’s decision to reward Trump for blowing up the night’s planned virtual debate by giving him an hour of free airtime opposite Biden on ABC was a scandal. Maybe not as big a scandal as NBC News’ failures to broadcast the Trump Access Hollywood tape and Ronan Farrow’s Me Too reporting — scoops they had in-house but then let migrate to other news organizations — but bad enough.
Among other things, Guthrie got Trump to implicitly confirm that he is more than $400 million in debt to unidentified lenders and that he paid income tax bills of $750. He also made it clear that he violated the rules of the first debate by not getting a COVID test. But the most remarkable moment was his refusal to disavow the QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits that satanic Democrats led by Hillary Clinton are running a child-trafficking pedophilia ring. “They are very much against pedophilia,” he said in praising the batshit-crazy QAnon followers who are now metastasizing within the Republican Party. This is like saying that armed white-supremacist vigilantes are very much in favor of law and order — but, of course, he’s said that too.
After four days of hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, even Democrats recognize that her confirmation is all but assured. Will Republicans or the Court face any consequences for rushing her confirmation so close to the election?
Weirdly, Trump and congressional Republicans went into the hearings thinking that the confirmation fight would help them on Election Day. This would seem counterintuitive, given that most Americans were opposed to the speed and timing of the confirmation process, and that most Americans are in favor of upholding both the Affordable Care Act and Roe v. Wade, both of which Barrett has maligned on the record. What the GOP was hoping for, it seems, was a replay of the Brett Kavanaugh culture war — a spittle-flecked 24/7 commotion that would dominate the news and somehow take voters’ minds off the existential scourge of COVID. To try to provoke such a circus, Republican politicians and Fox pundits incessantly accused Democrats of “attacking somebody for their faith and suggesting that that disqualifies them from holding public office,” as the Texas senator John Cornyn put it. But the conflagration never came. As Aaron Blake of the Washington Post calculated, there were about 80 invocations of “religion,” “Catholic,” “Christian,” and “faith” during the two days of questioning, all but 5 of them from either Republican questioners or Barrett herself.
The Barrett confirmation rush may have some effect on boosting Democratic turnout. But its main political gift may be to the cash-poor campaign of Lindsey Graham, the Judiciary Committee chairman: The hearings gave him a week of free media exposure in the final stretch of his tough reelection battle against Jaime Harrison in the very red state of South Carolina.
The most important consequences of the likely Barrett confirmation are those that will befall Americans subject to her power. The daughter of a retired Shell Oil potentate, she refused even to acknowledge the existence of climate change in her testimony. She characterized LGBTQ Americans as exercising a “sexual preference,” and seemed surprised (and offered a pro forma apology) when Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii pointed out that this is a long-standing homophobic construct. Barrett couldn’t even endorse the legality of in vitro fertilization.
Given her relentless stonewalling, many have noted that overall the hearings ratified the judgment of Elena Kagan, who, prior to her own ascent to the Supreme Court, called the whole Senate ritual a “vapid, hollow charade.” But by speaking in hollow vapidities, the evasive Barrett told us plenty. If she tilts American jurisprudence as she is likely to, the progressive push to pack the Supreme Court may have more adherents than anyone imagines now.
When the New York Post published a story about Hunter Biden that was quickly suspected to be part of a disinformation campaign, social-media companies moved to restrict access to the story or block it entirely, some traditional publications amplified it, and the controversy nonetheless dominated online headlines. What does this tell us about how the media — both news and social — learned to deal with disinformation since 2016?
The Hunter Biden story itself — even today given four more full pages in the New York Post under the grave rubric “The Biden Files” — is laughable. It features a “smoking gun” email that cannot be verified as real, a laptop that mysteriously sat for months in a Delaware repair shop, and Rudy Giuliani, a Russian stooge. About the only element it’s missing is pedophilia. Even if its central accusation could be proved — that Hunter Biden was trying to exploit his father’s vice-presidency by dragging him into a get-rich-quick scheme in the Ukraine — it would pale next to the full-scale shakedown racket that the Trump family en masse has operated from the White House for four years. What the GOP embrace of this aspiring “October surprise” mainly tells us is that it is desperate for anything, anything, that might stanch what even Republican senators like Ted Cruz and Ben Sasse now publicly fear as a November bloodbath at the polls.
Did Twitter and Facebook make the story more prominent by their (ineffectual) efforts to squelch it? Yes. But it’s hard to imagine this alleged scandal swaying anyone at this point in an election already underway and with so few undecided voters. What the fracas does call attention to yet again is the failure of any of the world’s social-media moguls to reckon with the responsibilities that come with their raw and unregulated power over the dissemination of all information. It was not until this week, to take one handy example, that Mark Zuckerberg finally had the guts to take a firm stand against the spread of Holocaust denialism on Facebook. Maybe he’ll lower the boom on climate-change denialism in 2050.