Grok Around the Clock

#17: Caution: contains buried anti-Trump scheme

Sorry, we already grokked: Now that we're in the middle of a Historic Impeachment Crisis, doesn't this seem like ... well, the slowest news environment of recent memory?. The impeachment story is, at bottom, boring AF. Tedious legal issues, strained arguments, raked and re-raked. Everybody knows what happened. Everyone knows what they think about it. Nobody's changing anyone's mind. Meanwhile the impeachment story has been deemed so important by the Trump-hostile media that it crowds out all the other stories (and there are some) that might be more interesting. I'm getting a lot done around the house!

Impeachment may be rushing forward at what we're told is breakneck speed, but the process seems ponderous. ("Democrats to unveil 2 counts ...") The polls are petrified, basically split down the middle. Frustrated impeachers have developed a comprehensive package of familiar excuses for their failure to persuade a clear majority: The “Trump mob” is living in an alternative reality. The small sliver of "persuadable" Republicans just isn't paying attention. Journalists are falling down on their job (which is to turn the public in favor of removal)--so maybe short "movie trailer" videos will help! The assumption, of course, is that if you don't agree that Trump's questionable Ukraine machinations are enough to remove an elected president, there must be something very wrong -- with the process, or with you.

That's fine.  I'm used to Trump sympathizers getting called deluded bigots doing Putin's work. That’s standard operating procedure. But now the anti-Trumpers have gone a step too far — they are questioning the Feiler Faster Thesis (FFT), a foundational doctrine of this site. This is an existential threat.

In case you've forgotten, the FFT holds that not only does news move at a faster pace these days, but contemporary voters are comfortable processing this news faster.  The original insight, by Bruce Feiler, was that the primary schedule wasn't too compressed (a perennial complaint back in the day) but that it could actually be speeded up with little loss of voter cognition. We grok each story quickly, we're ready for the next story. Momentum fades rapidly. Primaries seem endlessly dramatic, exhausting.**

Comes now Charlie Sykes, veteran Never Trumper, to question the grokking part. Sykes is looking for a way out of an impeachment process he admits is going badly for his team:

[T]he current sprint looks more like panic than confidence. Some Democrats worry that the hearings so far have failed to move public opinion and seem anxious to put it behind them.

How could this be, given what Sykes sees as "the overwhelming evidence in the report"? It can't be that this evidence … well, you already know the end of that thought. It must be ... that voters have not had enough time to fully understand the facts! That's the ticket:

"[T]he rush to a vote ignores the fact that speed is Donald Trump’s friend.

Trump counts on a dizzying, vertiginous cycle of news, outrage and disinformation to move past damaging stories before they are fully absorbed or placed into context. [Emphasis added]

Blink and you will miss it: kids in cages, “human scum,” the G-7 and Doral, “send her back,” his fraudulent foundation. Remember when Trump was planning to invite the Taliban to Camp David on the eve of 9/11? And how many weeks has it been since he gave Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the green light to invade Syria?

Sykes' solution?  Don't go so fast!

So there is value in slowing down and letting key pieces of evidence sink in for the public. Let the public catch up. Let the stories marinate a while. Tell them over and over again. Pause and focus on the key elements. Repetition, amplification and context are your friends.

Does anyone (even Sykes) think this will work? That there hasn't been enough repetition of the facts of the Ukraine story? If only we hammer at them some more --"over and over again" -- the public will come to its senses! The technical term for this strategic logic is More Cowbell. Absorb, dammit!

The simpler, and more plausible explantion for the polls, of course, is that voters have "fully absorbed" the Ukraine story. As predicted by the FFT, they made up their minds quickly, and haven't changed them (hence the plateaued poll lines). Hammering them with anti-Trump talking points, at this point, is simply a form of torture. They will tune out, or switch channels. ***

And yet -- here's the complication -- Sykes is surely right that Trump relies on a rapid succession of stories to minimize the damage a president would normally suffer if subjected to Trump’s negative press. The technical name for this is Dense Pack -- a reference to a never-implemented plan to station nuclear missiles close together, on the theory that if the Russians launched a first strike its incoming missiles would knock each other out. For Trump, the potential damage of each scandal is minimized by the publicity given the next, incoming scandal. Doesn't that suggest there's some process, in voters minds, that is being cut short -- given more time, each individual scandal might play out differently. Do voters need more time to "process" information after all? That’s not what the FFT would predict.

Here are two possibilities that would dissolve the apparent contradiction:

1) How does Dense Pack work? Answer: It doesn't. In this explanation, Trump would do better if only 50% of what Sykes sees as outrages had not happened. The rapid succession of "What did he do now?" moments may be an ego boost for Trump -- it keeps him at the center of the conversation. But he'd be more popular if he wasn't at the center of the conversation because, say, he tried to hold the G-7 summit at his own resort shortly after seemingly abandoning the Kurds.

2)  Dense Pack actually relies on the Faster Thesis. We reach our decisions quickly -- we know what we think of the Kurdish episode. But that's why it's so easy for a new story to push them out of the way, into the back of our memories. There's no more grokking to do. Voters aren’t going to change their minds — sorry, Charlie! But they might forget about their decision — upload it into the cloud, assign it to its place as one factor in their larger assessment of Trump — if another story comes along. In this scenario, there's a difference between the voters' verdict, and the current salience of that verdict. But it won’t do Sykes any good if today’s verdict retains its salience.


**—An exception was 2004, which featured John Kerry’s uneventful post-Iowa death march to the nomination. It seemed endless, but not because of too much drama.

***— Would Sykes’ strategy work if we were still living in a world of limited media choices, when people like Sykes could act as “gatekeepers,” force-feeding Schiff and Nadler to their audiences? Maybe, but mainly because the gatekeeper world of limited media choices was also the pre-Feiler world of slow grokking. The two phenomena seem intimately related. It’s hard to imagine one without the other.


We Steal Ideas: I assume the anti-Trumpers (like Mike Murphy) are right when they say many GOP senators would vote to convict Trump at an impeachment trial if only they could do it in private, free from voter retaliation. They hate Trump, for a mix of good reasons (they’re genuinely horrified by some things he does) and bad reasons (he's disrupted their comfortable, more trade/more immigration/more K St cash lifestyle).

The Senate is unlikely to vote by secret ballot, of course. But that doesn't mean some enterprising MSM reporter couldn't conduct his or her own highly accurate simulacrum of one. Just take around a sealed box and ask each of the 100 senators to put “yes” or “no” onto an unmarked, unsigned slip of paper and put it in the box. At the appropriate time, break the seal and count ‘em up. You could even upload a video of the unsealing to You Tube, or televise it live, Geraldo-style.

If any reporter were trusted enough by the Republicans to pull this off -- Robert Costa? Jake Sherman? Kasie Hunt? -- the result would be revealing, Even if only, say, 90 senators participated. ... (You didn't hear this idea from me, OK? I stole it from a woman — C.L. — I met at a party. )


Can't Wait for the Greta Thunberg Special Edition: Some readers wanted to know what I thought about the new all-electric Mustang,Mach-E (photo below). They argue it’s a cheesy branding ploy -- how dare Ford say that this planet-friendly, regulation-complying, four-passenger SUV is a Mustang?

Kf's line: 1) It's a cheesy branding ploy; 2) But the car itself isn't that unattractive. If you ignore the front, and the guiltily obscured 3-part-tailight Mustang cue at the back, it's a pleasant-looking SUV — a bit bland in the non-zooty versions, like something Mazda might bring out; 3) It's better looking than the current actual Mustang Mustang, which is cursed by the prevailing bloated, cheap-looking, Ford sheet-metal aesthetic; 4) Maybe because they called it a Mustang they had to make it handle a bit better. (No road tests yet.) 5) It reflects Ford's Wall-St.-pleasing lack of imagination that they didn't come up with a new brand. (They've killed off all their old, once-respected car brands — Taurus, Fusion, Focus — to concentrate only on higher-profit SUVs and trucks.) As always, I blame the sainted Alan Mulally