Plus, a question about biased media.
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that’s dedicated to helping you understand the best arguments from across the political spectrum. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to subscribe. You can try it for free, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email.
Today’s read: 11 minutes.
The Lincoln Project and never-Trump Republicans, a question about Breitbart News and Fox, the best interview of Trump I’ve ever seen and a major milestone.
Axios reporter Jonathan Swan reacting to President Trump during an HBO interview that aired last night.
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- The Manhattan district attorney’s office suggested Monday that it was investigating President Trump and his company for “possible bank and insurance fraud,” a far broader inquiry than previously known. A new federal filing revealed the extent of the investigation, which many thought was focused on hush-money payments the president allegedly paid to two women who said they had affairs with him. A subpoena for 8 years of Trump’s tax returns cited reports of “extensive and protracted criminal conduct at the Trump Organization.”
- It’s former President Barack Obama’s birthday today. He celebrated yesterday by endorsing 118 Democratic candidates in his first wave of endorsements for 2020. Obama still polls as one of the most popular living Democrats, so his endorsements carry a lot of weight. 27 of the endorsements were in Texas, which some pollsters have as a swing state for the very first time.
- President Trump and his campaign are registering far more new voters in key states than Democrats, according to Axios. The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee have registered 100,000 new voters, doubling their numbers from 2016 and closing the gap with Democrats in key swing states. Democrats still have more active registered voters in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida, but the new numbers illustrate a growing enthusiasm for Trump and a tightening of the registration battle leading up to 2020.
- Kanye West is trying to get on the ballot in Wisconsin. The megastar rapper and former Trump supporter has been entertaining a run for president — first announcing his candidacy then seemingly backing away after realizing he missed some ballot registration deadlines. Now, though, West has begun petitioning voters in Wisconsin to get on the ballot. He only needs 2,000 signatures, and he has 45 people on the ground working to make it happen. Wisconsin was decided by 23,000 votes in 2016 and could swing the election in 2020. West is already being accused of fraud in New Jersey, where an election lawyer said 700 of his 1,327 signatures “look the same” and represented the “most egregious” case of fraud he’s ever seen.
- President Trump gave Microsoft (or any other interested company) until September 15th to strike a deal with TikTok. Otherwise, the president said he will shut TikTok down in the U.S. He also suggested that the U.S. Treasury Department should get "a very substantial portion" of the deal if it goes through. Tangle covered the controversy over TikTok yesterday.
What D.C. is talking about.
Never-Trump Republicans. For the last few weeks, a group of Republicans who oppose Donald Trump’s presidency have reasserted themselves into the 2020 campaign. These more traditional, establishment Republicans include advisors to past Republican presidents, former Republican politicians themselves and even some Republicans operating in D.C. right now.
During the 2016 election, these anti-Trump Republicans were deemed “never-Trumpers” or “never-Trump Republicans.” But now, they are formally organized under a group called The Lincoln Project (named after former Republican president Abraham Lincoln) and running ads against Trump and Republicans in Congress who support him. “The 2020 election, by every indication, will be about persuasion,” The Lincoln Project group said about its mission. “Our efforts are aimed at persuading disaffected conservatives, Republicans, and Republican-leaning independents in swing states and districts.”
Predictably, these Republicans have caused quite a bit of controversy. Many Trump supporters loathe them and view them as disloyal to the president and the party. Even some Republicans who have negative views of Trump hate them because they are hurting Republicans’ chances in down ballot elections in 2020 (local, state and Congressional races).
But as their ads gain more traction, The Lincoln Project has become more of a household name. Their founder sat for an interview with The New Yorker yesterday. Op-ed pages in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal have opined on the group in the last few weeks. “Could this anti-Trump Republican group take down the president?” The Guardian asked. Many are wondering if they will make a real difference in what could be a close and complicated election. We explore both sides’ perspectives in today’s Tangle.
What the right is saying.
On the whole, they oppose the group. Trump likes to say he has a 96% approval rating amongst Republicans — that’s not quite true. It was more like 92% in June, and it could be as low as 84% now. But that’s still high, which means there are very few Republicans who dislike him enough to support a group like The Lincoln Project.
“The Lincoln Project has quickly established itself as the political arm of the ‘Never Trump’ Republicans,” Henry Olsen said in The Washington Post. “It has also shown in word and in deed what many loyal Republicans have always suspected: They’re Democrats in Republican clothing.”
Olsen pointed out that the Lincoln Project is now running ads against 15 Republicans in the Senate, including 13 who are up for re-election. The stated reason is those Republicans backed Trump on issues like impeachment, even though almost all Republican voters approve of Trump’s job performance and opposed his impeachment.
“Nor does what these senators vote for in the Senate seem to matter, either,” Olsen said. “These men and women have voted to confirm hundreds of conservative judges, once known as a core Republican value. They voted for a standard Republican supply-side tax cut, another core GOP belief. Apparently voting for Republican ideas and backing a Republican president no longer qualifies one as a good Republican in the Lincoln Project’s eyes.”
Richard Lowry decried the group in Politico for its “burn it down” attitude. Lowry offered a middle-ground in his argument, saying he would “stipulate” that “Republicans have often excused or looked past the inexcusable” during Trump’s presidency, and almost every Republican has a “dimmer view of Trump” than they let on publicly. Still, Lowry argues, burning it all down isn’t the solution — nor is going after anti-Trump Republicans.
“Politics isn’t a business that rewards complication, so none of them want to acknowledge the moral costs of supporting Trump even while arguing the political and cultural downsides of a Biden presidency would be worse,” Lowry wrote.
“Their hoped-for GOP electoral apocalypse doesn’t make sense on its own terms, and their advocacy for one bears all the hallmarks of this perfervid time in our politics—it, too, is rageful and extreme, but satisfyingly emotive,” Lowry added, dubbing the group “Never Republicans”... “The Never Republicans refuse to account for the practical calculations of practical politicians hoping, in difficult circumstances, to achieve practical results.”
In The National Review, Steven Stampley called the Lincoln Project a “grift” even for conservatives who oppose Trump, and “little more than the most brazen election-season grift in recent memory. And it is working.” Stampley points out that the group has raised millions of dollars and spent a good chunk of its time focusing on vulnerable Senate Republicans instead of the man they claim to be after.
What the left is saying.
There’s quite a bit of division. On the one hand, the Lincoln Project is helping attack Trump — and most Democrats and liberals are motivated more by an effort to get him out of office than enthusiasm for Biden. On the other hand, there are a lot of liberals asking “why are we taking cues from a bunch of Bush-era Republicans?” Some even view the Lincoln Project tactics as the exact kind of indecent politics they loathe in Trump.
“If you believe (as I certainly do) that defeating President Trump is the prerequisite for anything good happening again in American politics, you should welcome everyone willing to help get the job done,” E.J. Dionne Jr. said in The Washington Post. Roxanne Roberts took a similar stance in The Post: “Your house is on fire. Do you care who the firemen are?” she asked. “Their viral videos and tweets mocking his leadership, his intelligence and his patriotism — aimed both at Republican voters who are wavering and Trump himself — have attracted millions of dollars, via donors from both parties.”
In The Guardian, Richard Wolffe noted that the Lincoln Project is actually organizing on the ground.
“Alongside the top-tier surrogates and ads, there is a grassroots effort to organize women, veterans and evangelicals to reach out to persuade Republicans to abandon the president who dominates their party,” he wrote. The group has raised $20 million and is targeting disaffected Republicans in swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Remember: Hillary lost those states by less than a percentage point.
But not everyone is sold. In The Atlantic, Andrew Ferguson called the ads “personally abusive, overwrought, pointlessly salacious, and trip-wired with non sequitur,” all things that make him think of Trump himself. “This is an old story: We become what we behold,” Ferguson wrote. “The project partakes of the spirit of a famous Republican president, all right. But he’s not Lincoln.”
On Twitter, Glenn Greenwald noted that an OpenSecrets report on the Project showed $1.4 million of spending in March, almost all of which went to the group’s board members and firms run by them — with very little actual political activity. “The people liberals have enriched,” Greenwald quipped.
In The New Republic, Alex Shephard said that there is very little evidence “dunking on Trump” accomplishes much of anything, and political scientists have long been skeptical of advertisements’ abilities to persuade voters of anything. Even worse, the group is getting increasingly petty.
“Recent ads have mocked the turnout for the president’s recent campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and suggested he was not physically well, airing footage of him struggling to walk down a ramp and drink water,” he said. “In an ad released on Wednesday, a veteran of Afghanistan rips into the president for not ‘stomping the shit out of some Russians right now, diplomatically or economically, or, if necessary, with the same sort of asymmetric warfare they’re using to send our kids home in body bags.’”
In many ways, I very much support the ethos of The Lincoln Project. There is an essence of Tangle in them: they’re breaking from the party, rejecting group-think, moving beyond the social pressure to fall in line. I do not support President Trump; I think he lacks the character, moral compass, experience, temperament and intelligence to hold federal office of any kind — let alone be the president. I’ll save that full argument for another day, though. That doesn’t mean everything he does is bad or he has zero redeeming qualities, it just means I don’t think he’s fit for this gig.
In that sense, I like to think that if I were a Republican my whole life and Trump came along, I’d do what The Lincoln Project folks are doing: I’d stand up and say “no.” I don’t have any real party loyalty these days, but if Trump were running as a Democrat I’m certain that I would turn his kind of politics away. I wouldn’t just get in line and keep my mouth shut — and I respect The Lincoln Project for their willingness to follow their own moral compasses and not simply abide by the party’s new direction when they don’t agree with it.
But to what end? What happens post-Trump if The Lincoln Project furthers his brand of politics?
If destroying Trump is the heartbeat of American politics, then I suppose it makes sense to get in the mud and try to dynamite him without a plan for the future. I don’t view him that way, though. There is far more to the political make-up of our country than pro-Trump and anti-Trump, and there’s plenty to dislike about The Lincoln Project regardless of where you stand on that question.
If you’re a Republican, the calculation is rather simple: love Trump or hate him, you could vote for more traditional or moderate Republicans down the ballot and go either way on Trump. But that’s not what The Lincoln Project is doing: they’re going after everyone from Susan Collins (R-ME) to Josh Hawley (R-MO), candidates who embody everything from moderate conservatism to new-age Republicanism. With good reason, Republicans, even ones who dislike Trump, are questioning the strategy here.
If you’re a Democrat, you’re in the midst of a progressive revolution in the party. Barack Obama was elected partly as a repudiation of George Bush-era conservatism. Democrats (both liberal and moderate) just dominated in 2018 and have fared well so far in midterm elections for 2020. Polls show Joe Biden is handling Trump in every swing state that matters. Now, you begin celebrating a group led by the pre-Trump Republicans? The same ones who advocated the War in Iraq and the destruction of the social safety net and are now mocking the size of Trump’s genitalia?
It’s an ugly time in politics. I think The Lincoln Project folks are right that we have better options than Trump, I’m just not sure their plan to get us there looks much different from what Trump himself has ushered in. As Andrew Ferguson said, “We become what we behold.”
Last night, Axios’s Jonathan Swan conducted the best interview of President Donald Trump that I’ve watched at any point in his presidency. When people ask me about my favorite reporters in politics, Swan is always one of my first responses — this interview is a good reason why. There were several moments where I literally said “wow” out loud. It’s worth your time if you want to see what happens when someone comes well-prepared for an interview:
Your questions, answered.
Asking a question is easy. All you have to do to reach me is reply to this email and write in. I answer a reader question in almost every newsletter. Give it a try!
Q: Why are Fox, Breitbart and extremist media outlets allowed to be called news and have no consequence for reporting/circulating false information. Why is it a bigger problem in the U.S. than other similar western countries? What types of oversight would be helpful? In other words, how did this start and how does it end?
— Summer, Los Angeles, California
Tangle: The story of our media polarization is a long and winding one. For the purpose of this newsletter I’ll cut to the chase: our media polarization is driven in large part by the advent of 24 hour news cycles and the way digital media exploded in popularity. I’ve written about it in the mission statement of Tangle, but the short story is: Traffic drives money, and traffic is often easiest to get via outrage and fear. This formula is not new. The old adage in newspapers and local television was “if it bleeds it leads,” precisely because people seemed to read those stories more.
On TV, the story is similar. Fox News, MSNBC and CNN all exist the way they do today because they are struggling to fill 24 hours of news. The first 24 hour news channel was CNN in 1980. It took decades before 24 hour news was popular or even prolific. Many Americans simply leave these channels on throughout the day — watching the same re-packaged stories and partisanship on repeat until a giant ‘BREAKING’ banner splashes across the screen for the next hit of the news opiates.
But this is not a problem unique to America — and I don’t think it’s something that will be solved by regulation (or should be).
First, countries like Britain basically invented the partisan press. The media there has been split down the middle since 1945 and it’s evolved since then — but today you’ll find vastly different coverage of the same events in The Guardian, The Sun, The Times and The Express. Many observers in the media world could argue convincingly that the state of the British press is far worse than that of the American press.
All across the world, people abhor partisanship in their media and wish news organizations would not show political favor to one party over another.
Second, “oversight” of the press is not something I’d advocate or encourage. America thrives on a free press, even if our political media is — in many ways — failing us now. Breitbart and Fox News do many things I would never do in Tangle. The same goes for far-left outlets like The Daily Kos, Raw Story and Alternet. But they have every right to run those media organizations as they like.
The key, to me, is bringing bad media, bad ideas and bad journalism into the light and illuminating them. Regulation is not the point. That’s why — on the whole — I often oppose “de-platforming” or banning certain people and groups. To be clear: I don’t think it’s a violation of free speech when Alex Jones gets kicked off YouTube for his conspiracy theories. But I wholly and unabashedly oppose the government regulating or criminalizing any form of speech. Speech is not violence. But social media networks and private companies have every right to boot people off who they deem are too extreme or are breaking the rules of their platforms.
Similarly, I would never support the government or the state regulating any kind of press — ever. Far better to me is to have The New York Times fact-checking these news outlets and social media networks like Facebook burying their work than the government performing any kind of oversight.
So, with no regulation, how do we get out of it? At the risk of being self-serving I’ll say you’re off to a good start by subscribing to Tangle. As with reversing climate change, I firmly believe overcoming the cesspool that is our current media landscape requires millions of micro-actions. Turn off the TV when they’re broadcasting crap. Don’t click the obvious clickbait headline. Don’t share a news story that only confirms your priors and makes you outraged, but doesn’t illuminate an issue or story.
Changing their tactics is not something Breitbart or The Daily Kos or any other partisan news outlet will do unless they pay the price in viewership for going on as they are now. Users are in control — we are in control. And until it becomes clear to those outlets that “the people” want something better, they won’t start offering it.
What do you want?
Speaking of “the people”… We are a few months away from one of the biggest elections in American history. We are in the middle of a global pandemic. There is rising tension across the globe, massive civil unrest in America and a fading trust in the news. What do you want from Tangle? What are you hoping to see more or less of? Do you have any questions you want answered in the newsletter? Are there topics you want to see covered in greater detail, or not at all?
Reply to this email and let me know.
A story that matters.
New rural hot spots where coronavirus is spreading are ICU bed deserts. More than half of all rural low-income communities in the U.S. have zero ICU beds, a health care failing that used to only impact Americans who were injured in accidents. Now, though, the bed scarcity means someone who has an advanced case of coronavirus could be miles away from a hospital that can properly treat them — especially if one small town has a major outbreak. “The findings, published in Health Affairs, underscore the economic disparities shaping the nation’s coronavirus response, especially as the virus shifts from wealthier coastal metros to rural communities in the Southeast and West that have historically struggled with access to care,” Politico reported.
- 73%. The percentage of Americans who see too much bias in news reporting as a “major problem,” according to a new study.
- 65%. The percentage of Americans who saw too much bias in news reporting as a “major problem” in 2017.
- 18%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say they primarily get their news through social media.
- 25%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say they primarily get their news through news websites or apps.
- 45%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say they primarily get their news through network, local, or cable T.V.
- 13%. The percentage of U.S. adults who are satisfied with the state of the union, down seven points in the last months.
- 64%. The percentage of Democrats who see in-person voting as very or somewhat risky.
- 29%. The percentage of Republicans who see in-person voting as very or somewhat risky.
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Have a nice day.
A small-scale miner in Tanzania became a millionaire in June after selling two rough Tanzanite stones that were valued at $3.4 million. Yesterday, he sold another gem for $2 million. The gems, discovered by Saniniu Laizer, are two of the rarest gemstones on the planet, found only in Tanzania, and known for their variety of color. One geologist estimates the supply may be entirely depleted within the next twenty years. Lazier was initially praised for selling the stones to the government, which requires a level of transparency and oversight that is celebrated in the rare gemstone community. But he took it a step further when announced he was using the money to build a school and health care facility in the Simanjiro district of northern Manyara. He also said he plans to continue his day-to-day life overseeing his 2,000 cows and living on his farm.