The cryptic letter James Comey, the FBI director, sent to Congress on Friday looked bizarre at the time – seeming to hint at a major new Clinton scandal, but offering no substance. Given what we know now, however, it was worse than bizarre, it was outrageous. Comey apparently had no evidence suggesting any wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton; he violated long-standing rules about commenting on politically sensitive investigations close to an election; and he did so despite being warned by other officials that he was doing something terribly wrong.
So what happened? We may never know the full story, but the best guess is that Comey, like many others – media organizations, would-be nonpartisan advocacy groups, and more – let himself be bullied by the usual suspects. Working the refs – screaming about bias and unfair treatment, no matter how favorable the treatment actually is – has been a consistent, long-term political strategy on the right. And the reason it keeps happening is because it so often works.
You see this most obviously in news coverage. Reporters who find themselves shut up in pens at Donald Trump rallies while the crowd shouts abuse shouldn’t be surprised: constant accusations of liberal media bias have been a staple of Republican rhetoric for decades. And why not? The pressure has been effective.
Part of this effectiveness comes through false equivalence: news organizations, afraid of being attacked for bias, give evenhanded treatment to lies and truth. Way back in 2000 I suggested that if a Republican candidate said that the earth was flat, headlines would read, “Views differ on shape of planet.” That still happens.
The desire to get right-wing critics off one’s back may also explain why the news media keep falling for fake scandals. There’s a straight line from the Whitewater investigation – which ran for seven years, was endlessly hyped in the press, but never found any wrongdoing on the part of the Clintons – to the catastrophically bad coverage of the Clinton Foundation a couple of months ago. Remember when The Associated Press suggested scandalous undue influence based on a meeting between Hillary Clinton and a donor who just happened to be both a Nobel Prize winner and an old personal friend?
Sure enough, much of the initial coverage of the Comey letter was based not on what the letter said, which was very little, but on a false, malicious characterization of the letter by Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. You might think reporters would have learned by now not to take what people like Chaffetz say at face value. Apparently not.
Nor is it just the news media. A few years ago, during the peak of deficit-scold influence, it was striking to see the various organizations demanding deficit reduction pretend that Democrats who were willing to compromise and Republicans who insisted on slashing taxes for the wealthy were equally at fault. They even gave a “fiscal responsibility” award to Paul Ryan, whose budget proposals gave smoke and mirrors a bad name.
And as someone who still keeps a foot in the academic world, I’ve been watching pressure build on universities to hire more conservatives. Never mind the way climate denial, attacks on the theory of evolution, and all that may have pushed academics out of the GOP. The fact that relatively few conservatives teach, say, physics, is supposed to be grossly unfair. And you know some schools will start hiring less qualified people in response.
Which brings us back to Comey. It seemed obvious from the start that Clinton’s decision to follow Colin Powell’s advice and bypass State Department email was a mistake, but nothing remotely approaching a crime. But Comey was subjected to a constant barrage of demands that he prosecute her for … something. He should simply have said no. Instead, even while announcing back in July that no charges would be filed, he editorialized about her conduct – a wholly inappropriate thing to do, but probably an attempt to appease the right.
It didn’t work, of course. They just demanded more. And it looks as if he tried to buy them off by throwing them a bone just a few days before the election. Whether it will matter politically remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: he destroyed his own reputation.
The moral of the story is that appeasing the modern American right is a losing proposition. Nothing you do convinces them that you’re being fair, because fairness has nothing to do with it. The right long ago ran out of good ideas that can be sold on their own merits, so the goal now is to remove merit from the picture.
Or to put it another way, they’re trying to create bias, not end it, and weakness – the kind of weakness Comey has so spectacularly displayed – only encourages them to do more.