A discussion of Hawley’s bill, Trump’s rally, and much more.
This is the transcript from Episode 152 of The Editors.
Rich: The Trump reelect launch, and his endless George Stephanopoulos interview. Wait a minute. Sarah, did you hear that? Do you hear, he coughed. He coughed right in my introduction. Sarah, can we do that from the top, please? Let’s do that from the top. No, I don’t like coughing, no. If you need to cough, exit the podcast studio. Sarah, we’re ready? Three, two, one. The Trump reelection launch, and his endless George Stephanopoulos interview. The ghost of Herman Talmadge. What good is Section 230 anyway? And what exactly is a concentration camp? We’ll discuss all this and more on this week’s edition of The Editors.
I’m Rich Lowry, and I’m joined as always, or most of the time, by the right honorable Charles C. W. Cooke, the notorious MBD, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and Alexandra “Xan” DeSanctis. You’re listening a National Review podcast. If you’re listening to this podcast at NationalReview.com, we’re delighted to have you, but it would be easier for you and better for us if you made us part of your feed at Google Play, Stitcher, TuneIn, or iTunes. And if you like what you hear here, please consider giving us a glowing five-star review on iTunes. If you don’t like what you hear here, please forget I said anything.
So MBD, we had the big reelect launch in an arena in Orlando, which was about a 50-minute rehearsal of the greatest hits of 2016. I am not sure really anything changed except for some of the villains, because the investigations unspooled in the ensuing two or three years. And then the last ten minutes or so, you had a real case for his reelection made from prompter. What did you think about it?
Michael: It was interesting. I thought the last ten minutes was some of the strongest stuff, and it was some of his best prompter reading in his career. But the feeling of it being a little stale, at least, for me, was there. I sort of judged these events in 2015 and 2016 by the kind of . . . it was a performance, it was a kind of a happening. It had to have this kind of crackle to it. And this felt a little bit too much like a reprise of the greatest hits to generate the kind of participatory excitement that I think was part of his election in the first place.
So I’m a little worried about that. However, the pattern with Trump rallies in his previous campaign was that he just kept trying new material, almost like a standup comic and gradually found what resonated, and what improved, and what bits people liked participating in. And I think as it becomes clear which candidates are at the top of the Democratic party, I expect these to improve a bit.
Rich: So what did you think, Xan? Did you think it is too much of the same old, or is this the same old just works for him?
Alexandra: Well, I wasn’t sure quite what to make of it until I read this Time magazine interview that just came out this morning with Trump in which he said, “I don’t need to court swing voters because my base is strong the way it is.” And so, he clearly thinks he’s just going to roll right through 2020 talking about Hillary Clinton until there’s somebody at the top of the Democratic ticket. And whether that’s Joe Biden, it seemed like probably they’re thinking it will be Biden because that’s who Don Jr. attacked and his remarks at the rally. But I think Trump is just kind of figuring his base is going to keep eating up whatever he has to say the same way they always have. He doesn’t really have to talk about what he’s done or didn’t do. He’s going to talk about immigration as if he’s done a lot more than he actually has, and fingers crossed, people continue to like it.
Rich: What’d you make of it, Charlie?
Charlie: Well, Donald Trump is an anti-candidate as much as he’s a candidate. People find this creepy because they think that it makes him in some way hateful. But politics is geared this way at the moment. You tend to motivate people to vote more by scaring them into what their opponents might do than by telling them what you’re going to do. The myth is that what people really want is to be inspired, but they don’t. What they really want to do is be scared, and Trump’s pretty good at that.
I’m not sure he was at his best the other night because he focused too much on a candidate who’s not going to run again. And he was reliving the greatest hits. So that will be a temptation for him. It was probably a great surprise to him that he won, and it was probably the greatest night of his life, but he’s not gonna lack opportunities to play the anti-candidate. He’s going to be running against a candidate from a party that has moved dramatically to the left, that has adopted in some quarters a preference for late-term, if not post-birth, abortion that thinks that running camps to detain illegal immigrants temporarily is akin to replaying the Holocaust, that is so obsessed with identity politics as to switch a lot of people off, that’s talking about 70 percent tax rates and wealth taxes, and openly boasting about socialism, canceling debts, and so on and so forth, some talking about reparations.
So the style of it worked for him before and may work for him again. If he can build a coalition of people who don’t especially like him but just don’t want the other person, then he may do well, and what he did the other night may do well, but he will have to adapt from Hillary Clinton because she’s not going to be that person this time around.
Rich: So, Michael, I wrote a column about this today where I think Trump, the way he conducts himself, the constant controversies, the high-wire threats he’s always making, and he doesn’t necessarily follow through on all of them, kind of obscure what’s basically been kind of an incrementalist center-right government, some risks — pulling out of the Iran deal when it’s not clear what they’re hoping to get from it is a risk. The trade war with China is a risk, although I think he has off-ramps if he wants a fake deal. But then you look at it, and it’s basically kind of expansionary fiscal policy all about preserving the recovery and then no new major foreign wars. So peace and prosperity.
Michael: Yeah, it is. So there are a couple of aspects to the pitch. One is the strongest thing he can point to is the continued recovery, the growing labor participation rate, I think, is actually the biggest selling point on that. I thought some of his lines, like he was just barely starting to gesture toward a kind of politics I would like to see from a populist Republican, which is reaching out to African-American voters and saying, “Hey, African-American unemployment is really low. We’re making strides. We’re protecting you from Chinese competition, competition from illegal labor pools coming over the border.”
But on the other side, I wonder when I watch these rallies the second time around, if there are not voters who projected onto Trump in the first election and kind of believed his promise of “I’ll change when I’m in office, you won’t believe how presidential I can be.” And he kind of joked about being boring and getting the job done. And I think that there probably is a real subset of normally Republican voters who wanted him to make good on that promise and are disappointed that the administration has felt chaotic and out of control at times.
Charlie: That’s why it’s smart for him to play the anti-politics card and say, “Whatever I am, whatever my flaws, yes, the economy is good, yes, there are no foreign wars, but the other people will destroy you,” which is something he said literally.
Michael: Yeah, and that is the thing is like how many . . . My theory of Republican electoral success is partly that the party has gotten away with a more astringent fiscal policy in the past, more austerity, more costs are slowing the growth of government. Partly because people elected for the cultural reasons that they want to check on . . . they don’t want a united government between media and the presidency and Congress on cultural issues. And so, Republicans are like a political check on the cultural power of the left.
And we are seeing, because I think Democrats think they have such a good shot at beating him, we’re seeing just a lot of expressiveness about how America is going to be changed in the future, and I think it’s going to freak out larger and larger subsets of voters. So yeah, the Democrats are going to be crucial in making Trump’s reelection case for him.
Rich: So, Xan, let’s look back to the Stephanopoulos interview, which dominated for about four or five days. It was breaking just when we recorded last week. And, for me, it’s a little bit reminiscent of the Katie Couric interview with Sarah Palin, and we’re like, “When is this going to end?” It’s just so there’s all these clips. Okay. Stephanopoulos, and now he’s with them in the Oval Office. Now he’s sitting in the garden with him. Now he’s in the car with him.
And of course, the biggest news to come out of this was Trump defending kind of in a muddled way the way he usually does, defending the idea of getting assistance from a foreign government and not necessarily calling the FBI, although he said, in the course of his back and forth initially with Stephanopoulos about this, “Oh, I would do both. I’d accept it and then I’d call the FBI.” And then he said on Fox and Friends the next day, “Well, I would call the FBI, but I’d have to look at the information first, make sure it was bad. And if this was bad, I’d hand it over to the FBI.” What did you make of it?
Alexandra: Well, it definitely did seem to go on and on, and I think, for Trump, that’s always a problem because the longer he’s talking, the odds just go up, and up, and up that he’s going to say something crazy or something wrong or something off message. And so, you’d kind of see him starting out on his talking points, maybe saying something that sort of made sense about some accomplishments of his administration. And then one sentence later, for some reason, he’s on the witch hunt or talking about no collusion or talking about himself.
And I think Jonah put it really well in his column earlier this week that if Trump’s talking about himself, he’s unpopular, and that’s not how he’s going to win reelection. He has to focus on maybe the top two or three things his administration has done that people are happy about or talk about himself as a stopgap against whatever the lefts going to do in contrast to all these crazy Democrats who are trying to run against him. And so, I think the longer he’s talking, the worse it gets.
Rich: Charlie, what do you make of the question of whether someone should go to the FBI? You have complicated feelings about the FBI. So if Norway approaches you, do you need to go the FBI in your view?
Charlie: Yes, you do. And I think if you’re the president of the United States there is really only one answer here. I saw it being parsed afterwards. I agree, not everybody does. I agree that there’s a double standard here, perhaps around the Steele dossier. I agree that you probably wouldn’t know that information was salient, or not unless you looked at it in some way. But that’s not really the point. I think what happened here is partly that Trump doesn’t have much experience still of public life and is prone to saying what he instinctively thinks.
And the other thing is I think he sees every single question like this and all discussion of this as an attempt to discredit his presidency. I think he thinks that if he acknowledges that there was any attempt to disrupt the election or to help him in some way or to discredit Hillary Clinton, that he’s endorsing the idea that that’s why he won. And therefore he’s undermining his own mandate. It’s a bit odd and somewhat dangerous that he thinks like that because it’s prevented him from being able to draw an entirely reasonable distinction between what was attempted, how politics always works, and what was achieved.
He doesn’t have to concede that he won the election because Russia did this or that, I don’t think he did, in order to accept that Russia is a bad actor and that foreign powers try to intervene. But he does seem to see them as inextricable. That said, the freakout is a little boring now. We know this is who he is. He said as much during the last election when he, whether you like it or not, joked, half-joked, semi-joked about accepting foreign aid and asking the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton. This is who he is. He has a responsibility as president not to behave like that. He just doesn’t live up to it.
Rich: I think the other thing he obviously considers is that conceding anything on this is undermining legitimacy of his own election. But he also doesn’t want to throw Don Jr. under the bus and doesn’t want to admit implicitly or explicitly that he made a mistake in taking that meeting with the Russians. And this whole exchange started with Trump really expressing his sincere outrage and anger that people were talking about Don Jr. being prosecuted and going to jail potentially for having taken a meeting that nothing ultimately came of. So I’ll ask a question on this, MBD, at this juncture, what percentage odds would you give Donald Trump of getting reelected in 2020?
Michael: 48 percent. I think he’s just under the halfway mark. Yeah, I think he should be higher given the state of the economy and the multiplicity of candidates on the other side. But a few undelivered promises, especially at the border.
Alexandra: I’d say 60 percent mostly because —
Alexandra: . . . even the most —
Alexandra: . . . popular Democrat is not too impressive. And so, yeah, I think he’ll be helped out a lot by whoever he runs against.
Charlie: I think it’s about 45. And I think whether that changes, is ceteris paribus as regards to the economy, and his foreign policy up to him.
Rich: I’d say 50.1. The 0.1 is the power of incumbency. The 50 is basically, we don’t know who the nominee is going to be. If it’s Biden, I would go down, probably lower than even Charlie is. But if it’s Sanders or Buttigieg, I probably won’t go as high as 60, but I’d go high 50s. So speaking of Joe Biden, Xan, he’s been embroiled in another woke controversy. At a fundraiser he said, “We all need to get along.” And let me tell you how this used to work 50 years ago when I was in the Senate, in 1992 when I got a Senate committee assignment, and there were the segregationists and I didn’t agree with the segregationists, but we all got along. We got things done.
And yeah, I think he’s right that civility is really an important value in its own right. I think if you traveled back in time, 40 years, there were segregationists in the Senate, and they were part of Joe Biden’s own party, which is sort of — the bizarre point of this also is that he’s trying to make a point about bipartisanship, but this was really unit partisanship. All the segregationists were in the Democratic party, or the lion’s share of them, almost all of them. But anyway, there are many other ways to get this point across, though without talking about segregationists, which is obviously going to be triggering to a lot of people on your own side, and Cory Booker made a lot of hay out of this by calling on Biden to apologize. And Biden sort of Trump-style said, “No, Cory should apologize.” What did you make of it?
Alexandra: I think it shows Biden is really an incredibly weak candidate. And if you look at polls, even at the start of this month, he was ahead of Sanders, the next closest guy by 20 points. Now, that’s down to a single digit, even the latest poll I saw. So I think he’s clearly faltering here. And even if he hadn’t been touting his work with segregationists, the fact is he’s talking about what he was doing in the Senate multiple decades ago, and I’m not sure that’s really the best pitch you want to be making as probably the oldest or one of the oldest candidates in the race, you are already kind of weak.
He’s been flip-flopping every which way on the Hyde Amendment. That’s pretty much the biggest news he’s made this month for switching a decades-old position without really any explanation, looking like he was bullied into it by the ACLU, saying that he misheard the question about it. And then finally coming out that his staffers, Alyssa Milano,,are the ones who talked to him into switching his position on this issue.
So even if you kind of think that as a Democrat he should be upholding taxpayer-funded abortion at this point, and it was a good move to make, he didn’t look like a strong candidate doing it. And so, I think kind of every step so far, every big news he’s been making, he looks weak. And that’s why Booker and Kamala Harris are starting to hit him on it.
Rich: Charlie, I think another thing at play here is just kind of old dog can’t learn new tricks. I’m sure he’s been saying this literally for 40 years since it happened, and it didn’t occur to him that it’s kind of tone-deaf in the contemporary context.
Charlie: I think his problem here, aside from whether one thinks it’s substantively moral to praise segregationists on any front, is that in 2019 there’s just not much of an audience for this on either side and that many people on the left believe that civility, the entire concept of civility is a cover for racism and bigotry, is a means by which people who should be expelled from society, who should be marginalized, who should be deplatformed are treated with respect and therefore normalized. You see this a great deal in opinion columns from progressive writers that civility is a carapace under which the people on the wrong side of history tend to hide. And it’s not good for Joe Biden that the vast majority of the people who believe that are in his party, and a lot of them vote in primaries.
It’s also not a view that is going to win him many plaudits on the right, because he doesn’t live up to it in a bipartisan fashion. Now, there are many people on the right who argue that indeed we should be civil and indeed we should accept pretty much everyone even if we don’t like them. Ross Douthat, for example, has asked in the New York Times, “Well, what if there is a sizable portion of the electorate that’s racist? What if there are people who are xenophobic? What do we do?” And he concluded that, “Well, we still have to work with them. We still have to debate with them. We still have to compromise with them because they vote too. And they have the right to vote too. And we live in a country that has to take stock of all opinions,” and that’s fine.
But Ross Douthat is prepared to live with the consequences of his views. Joe Biden is a man who said in 2012 that Mitt Romney, of all people, would put you all back in chains, and that “you all” in the sentence referred to African Americans. He was addressing primarily African Americans. He’s a guy who has not shied away from condemning people for mistakes that they have made, or if they’ve ever shown any modicum of interest in white supremacy. Now, that’s fine. But to then praise actual segregationists, people who voted against the Civil Rights Act, just looks to, I think most conservatives, as opportunism and hypocrisy. They’re not going to give a pass to somebody on principled grounds who accused Mitt Romney of wanting to put African Americans back in chains, whether literally or figuratively.
So I’m not quite sure who this was aimed at. And I think we just have to accept here that if a Republican had said this, every opinion column in the New York Times and the Washington Post and The Atlantic for a week would characterize it as a dog whistle intended to bolster an inbuilt advantage in the South. They would point out that the comments were made on Juneteenth. It would be a real problem. So Joe Biden, I think, has managed to annoy people on the left who think that civility is a sort of false consciousness. He’s managed to annoy people on the right who say, “Well, hold on a moment. If you’re going to say that we need to be civil to those people, why weren’t you civil to Mitt Romney in 2012, why aren’t you more civil to Republicans that you dislike?”
And I also think that he’s got a slight problem here, and that the response was somewhat Trumpy. He said “Apologize for what? Cory Booker should apologize.” But there are different imperatives in Republican and Democratic primaries. The Republicans have felt for a long time that their candidates don’t fight. They felt for a long time that you can’t speak up on any topic of controversy lest you be accused of racism, lest political correctness rear its head.
Trump came along, he smashed right through that. He smashed through it in a good way and he smashed through it in a bad way, but he smashed through it, nevertheless. There is a contingent within the Democratic party that believes its candidates don’t fight. There’s also a contingent within the Democratic party, and I think it’s larger, that thinks that its candidates don’t apologize enough, that we don’t see enough struggle sessions, that we don’t see enough learning, that we don’t see enough people educating themselves. And the site of an older white man telling a younger black man to apologize to him for criticizing him for praising segregationists and men who voted against the Civil Rights Act is just not going to play especially well in that context. So if Joe Biden thinks that he can win this primary by behaving in a Trump-like way, like a bull in a china shop and just saying, “I don’t care,” he might in some ways be right, but he’s going to have to pick his battles a lot more carefully than he did this week.
Michael: I thought saying that Booker should apologize was a step too far. I think I agree with almost everything that’s been said so far, but I would say those criticisms applied to him in the primary, that the primary electorate for Democrats is not anxious to hear about compromise, and civility, and certainly not with segregationists. But I think it is wrong. I think a lot of liberal commentators have been wrong when they say that Democrats as a whole have internalized the premise that Republicans are hard-headed obstructionists and wicked and just need to be defeated. And that’s the rhetoric Democrats want from their general-election candidate. Maybe the primary electorate feels that way.
But I think the premise of Joe Biden’s campaign, which is that the Trump moment is an aberration in American history plays into something that I think is very powerful and dormant in American political life, which is a sense that politics seems more anxiety-inducing and fraught now than it did in the past. And that one of the geniuses of America’s democratic system is compromise, and that we haven’t seen big compromises in a long time in politics, and there’s a nostalgic longing for it.
I think this is a powerful sentiment among the least engaged partisans and voters. And I think Biden is right to keep that card in his hand. I think he’s playing it at the wrong time. But his instinct, I think, is sound. I think it also shows a willingness on his part to not campaign exclusively to Twitter, which is a problem with other Democratic campaigns.
Rich: I don’t think he is praising segregationists. By the way, Charlie, I think you’re saying you work with people you disagree with, but I think calling on Cory to apologize went too far. And also, I think Cory kind of nails on, maybe there’s some other interpretation, but it just seems like the most readily available interpretation is that he’s kind of joking about these guys calling African Americans “boy,” because he said Talmadge or Eastland, I forget which, called me “son” instead of “boy.” And I can see that really rubbing people the wrong way. So exit question to you, Charlie, are you more or less bullish on Joe Biden’s chances of winning the Democratic nomination than you were the day he announced?
Charlie: I am less bullish. I think if you add up everything we’ve seen over the last two or three weeks, he is a weaker candidate than he seemed when he announced.
Michael: I mean, this is the Joe Biden verbal meltdown.
Rich: Yeah. It’s never a good sign when they got to keep you on prompter, and then they all talk about what you did wrong and why they are right, and all your advisers, why they are right and which celebrities were calling to lobby the candidate. It’s not a great look. Xan, more or less?
Alexandra: Definitely much less bullish. I think he started out with a lot of capital, and he’s just been finding a bunch of different ways to squander it.
Rich: So I’m going to say more because I was not very bullish at the outset, so I got more bullish based on his polling strength than I was. But that’s not a very high standard because I’ve always been a bit of a Biden skeptic, and he just seems soft. I don’t think he’s a great political performer. We’ll see the proof is in the pudding in the debates and the months we have left until Iowa.
Rich: And I think when your campaign is based by and large, almost entirely on electability, it’s really vulnerable. There’s no floor for you. And if you have some really horrific thermonuclear gaffe, if you seem to lose some exchange with Trump or you lose an early contest, and he’s only ahead by eight. And in Iowa, you can just sink to nothing really quickly.
Rich: So it’s that time of the podcast for a fierce Charlie Cooke–MBD internal conservative debate, which I assume we’ll at least get some of, and a discussion over the legislation introduced by Josh Hawley to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. He wants Big Social Media, Internet platforms, Charlie, to have to prove basically to an FTC board or commission that their algorithms and other standards for monitoring their content and deciding what’s on the right side of the line and the wrong side of the line doesn’t have any political bias, if they’re going to maintain what Hawley characterizes as this exemption or as he puts it sometimes, a sweetheart deal that holds them harmless for content that is published on their platforms. What do you make of it?
Charlie: Well, it’s not a sweetheart deal. It’s not. And I think David French is correct about this. There is really no way of reconciling the statute. There’s no way of reconciling Section 230 with the idea that Facebook or Twitter are publishers in the way that National Review is or in which Random House is. Moderation is not the same thing as publication. My book was not moderated. Michael’s columns are not moderated. They’re edited and published. There is some moderation and some removal of posts on Facebook, but the vast majority are not. And indeed when they are moderated and removed, it is after the fact.
The idea that Section 230 can be neatly characterized here is wrong, I think. And I think David’s also right when he says that complying with rules on a website, on a social-media platform, does not render his speech the speech of the rule makers or of the moderators. There’s a big jump being made, and I understand why because I find it frustrating too, the way these companies choose to exercise their power, but that doesn’t change the fact that the jump is too big.
The second thing is, well, what are we going to do about it then, if we are so upset with Facebook and Twitter that we want to involve the government? It looks to me as if we’re going to turn the government into the censor. Censorship will always be capricious. It’s just too much activity for it not to be true of social media, but it was also true 100 years ago when the Espionage Act was being used. How many people stood out there in the square in Washington D.C., the 1916, ’17, ’18 argument against the American involvement in the war, and then went home that night. A lot. It’s capricious, and it’s going to be inconsistent, and it’s going to be subjective.
It is that at the moment, that’s frustrating. It will be that if we enable this board to look at the content on social media and to try to ensure that there is no political bias, it will add yet another feather to the bow of the executive branch and the administrative state. It will probably become an election issue. We’ll see differences between Republican administrations and Democratic administrations. I do not think that the solution to misbehaving or uncivil big business is to empower misbehaving or uncivil government, and that is what this law would do. I think it’s all conceived. I think it’s premised upon a big jump in logic, and I hope it is defeated as a result.
Michael: [inaudible 00:33:30]. So Hawley’s bill, the problem with it, I take some of the criticism Charlie has that Hawley in some ways has mischaracterized section 230. In one way, the bill doesn’t go far enough. The government’s appropriate response to an enormous unaccountable spy agency that’s launching a currency that it wants to compete with the U.S. dollar is to nuke it from space, and the fallout should land wherever it does across California, I don’t care anymore.
My cards on the table, I think Facebook is extremely harmful and dangerous. I think it’s dangerous in the way it collects information. I think it’s dangerous in the way it concentrates that information in a way that makes the data pile almost like nuclear waste that has to be regulated. As far as the rules under which it publishes, I would argue that Hawley’s solution here is not exactly right, but his instincts that there is a conservative instinct that would be suspicious of Facebook’s power over the public square over which it’s taken so much of the space, which is that 230 effectively gives a business model on the Internet the ability to publish and compete on different rules than other media with which it’s competing.
It’s kind of perfect regulatory arbitrage by Facebook to have speech for which it is not responsible, but from which it is licensed to profit forever. And of course, it’s great too that they’re not legally responsible, so they can effectively republish on their news feeds through their algorithms, making these decisions, all the gossip tattles, slander or whatever that would be illegal to publish in National Review.
Charlie: Do they publish it or do they host it passively?
Michael: I mean, that is the other good question, right? Is that —
Charlie: But if I go out into the town square, and I live with somebody, that’s not the town’s fault. If there would be any lawsuit that arose from that it would be against me.
Michael: But there is a decision being made to not only . . . See, what is interesting here is there are a bunch of debates, like is it republishing, right? So if I take the libels and slanders that someone says in the town square, I photograph and videotape it and then mash it up into my own collage, video collage and then publish that, am I just a host of what has happened? I mean —
Charlie: You’re the one in that circumstance, Michael, who would be liable, not the social-media platform on which you were presumably posted. What I’m saying is that the town’s square analogy is important because if you go out into the town square where you live and start rambling, maybe even start libeling, slandering somebody, and then I call up the town and say, “There’s a guy in your square that’s saying the most outrageous things. He knows they’re not true. They’re determined only to hurt and to damage.” The town might credibly say to me, “Well, we don’t know anything about this guy. We didn’t know that he was there. We don’t have policemen standing all the time. We don’t have lawyers standing in the square,” which is, of course, what Facebook would correctly say because there is not anybody sitting there reading every Facebook post. That can’t happen.
Michael: I agree.
Charlie: They can still go after you if you film it and give it to a lawyer.
Michael: I agree. However, there is this . . . I mean, my objection, I think David may be totally right on the law, but my objection is kind of almost a primordial conservative objection to power without responsibility or accountability. Facebook effectively now has a license in the media business have published and profit off of every bit of gossip, tattle, personal drama in your social circle —
Charlie: But this is the —
Michael: . . . which naturally it shows eyeballs, right, cause it’s kind of degrading content that a normal institution wouldn’t publish, and it profits from this, sells advertising against this, the newspaper industry is destroyed. All the traditional institutions that grew up with democracies are being eaten away by this, and there’s nothing we can do about it. And further —
Charlie: What do you mean by license? Because I look at it and I see it doing some of those things, albeit not actively. I’m not sure what you mean by license, and I think that matters.
Michael: How do you mean? I mean, these regulations —
Charlie: Well, at least, it’s licensed. When you license something, you endorse it. If you give somebody a concealed-carry license, you’re saying that you as the state agree that they fulfill the necessary preconditions to carry a gun. What do you mean by a license?
Rich: In the absence of 230, they couldn’t do this. They just be liable for everything. So that’s how it’s seen by the law —
Charlie: So Michael sees 230 as a government sanction.
Michael: Well, this regulation, the way it was, I’m not sure it was intended to create Facebooks, I think it was intended to protect hosting services, server businesses, and others that host content that has things like this. I don’t think it anticipated what Facebook would become or what Twitter has become. That’s fine. Of course, it hasn’t. I’m not sure that we have a great solution for this consonant with the First Amendment besides the nuclear bomb, of course, which doesn’t violate anything.
But the other argument I want to get rid of or at least want to take a swipe at is an argument some people have made that, okay, well, 230 says the individual users’ speech is the user speech on Facebook and they can be held liable for it, but Facebook can’t. And the algorithms that Facebook uses to republish this in a dynamically created news feed or whenever, the software that governs that is Facebook’s free speech.
Now, there’s some software that’s clearly free speech, right? If you write an HTML page that generates italics around text, that is a kind of speech. But I’m worried that this argument that basically software running on the Internet is free speech is sort of like saying, “Well, you can make a sculpture out of steel, so bridges are artistic and . . .”
Charlie: We do expect the government, for example, to treat printing presses as protected by the First Amendment because they enable speech. You can’t burn ink around the First Amendment.
Michael: I’m not saying being —
Charlie: I know you’re not, I’m just asking quite where that’s going.
Michael: I’m not asking being servers space. But we have had regulations of media spaces that are intended to open up debate, right, and that was 230’s intent, was to keep the Internet open for its own kind of First Amendment space where institutions that grow up on the Internet can set their own rules and the government’s not going to tell them exactly what to do.
Rich: So let me ask you, Charlie, just as a matter of principle, following on from that point from Michael. Let’s say in theory, dispense with any prudential concerns of whether the government would actually do this or whether the government will create its own distortions and biases. But if in theory, the government could say to these big social-media platforms, in order to enjoy 230 protections, you must adopt this standard for policing speech on your platforms, and it’s written by David French. It’s the David French standard that he’s advocated that is drawn directly from the First Amendment jurisprudence. Would you be okay with that or would you consider that just in principle wrong, even though its effect would be to protect and extend free speech on these platforms?
Charlie: Well, I think that still has two problems. One is that it’s built on a misunderstanding of what 230 is supposed to do, which is to make sure that the right person is blamed if they write something libelous or say something slanderous. And I understand the hypothetical, but I’m not sure that one can have a hypothetical around that because I don’t think that there is such a thing as a bill that could achieve those ends even if it were written by David. Even if I’ve got to write it, if I were king for a day, I simply don’t think that you can write —
Rich: But we wrote down the First Amendment. I mean, we wrote down 230, right, which I assume you support, and thanks, actually protection.
Charlie: Well, 230 is different than the First Amendment. And what 230 does is say, you can’t prosecute the forum or you can’t sue the forum. You have to sue the speaker. It doesn’t protect the speaker.
Rich: My point is you seem to be saying on principle, there’s no way for a government to write a law that enables or creates a space for speech. But we obviously have, or we have robust free speech in this country. So I don’t think it’s in principle impossible to be done for anyone to do it.
Charlie: I mean, I suppose if the laws said the First Amendment now applies to Facebook. So Facebook would be unable to remove anything unless it could be reasonably be construed as inciting violence imminently, then that could work. Yes.
Michael: I mean —
Charlie: But it’s still a category mistake because Facebook is not the government.
Michael: I think, my worry is that the fundamental separation we’re making where this law allows a company to profit off of other people doing speech that could be criminally liable. And remember, the speech that is unprotected, this is a very extremely narrow category in American law. This is not like everyone who uses . . . I mean, relatively few people who use Facebook get arrested for what they write on it today, and Facebook wouldn’t . . . I mean, I suppose I just don’t see the social calamity from making Facebook as responsible for what its algorithm republishes across tens of millions of news feeds for profit to sell ads against, to making them as responsible as a normal publisher.
Charlie: But how on earth could they possibly, Michael, enforce that? I don’t know the numbers, but there are billions of tweets. There must be billions of Facebook posts, maybe every day. Well, there must be because it’s more than a billion users.
Michael: I agree.
Charlie: How on earth could it ever police it? You end up with a capricious, probably corrupt, subjective mess. People who are connected would get any speech they didn’t like removed first, people who wrote things that were on the margins would find themselves not only in trouble but possibly then sued.
Michael: I agree that making them responsible for what appears on their site and what they republish across like a bazillion-dollar infrastructure wouldn’t, in fact, be extremely dangerous to their business model. But I’m not sure that their business model should exist.
Charlie: The things that [inaudible 00:46:51] or moderate here is he doesn’t think they —
Michael: I mean, [inaudible 00:46:55], it does exist, but it’s just, like I said, it is based on this fundamental divorce between who is profiting from the speech and who’s generating the speech. It’s like it’s a machine. It’s like a legal hole for the kind of accountability that normal publishers and people have —
Charlie: But there’s a big difference —
Michael: And it’s a hole in which they make a bazillion dollars of profit.
Rich: We better move on here. So Charlie, exit question to you, the Hawley legislation, even if it doesn’t pass, and it won’t, will succeed in making these social-media companies more mindful of conservative concerns about their biases, yes or no?
Michael: No. They’re responding to what Merkel and the elite media and other political class, their anger from 2016, Brexit, and Trump, and populism, and they’re going to continue to increase the pace of shadow banning and downgrading content that they think, if it propagates across their platform, will lead to the wrong electoral results.
Rich: Xan, who so patiently waited out this argument?
Alexandra: No, I don’t think it will. And for what it’s worth, I think Charlie and David are right. I have more thoughts, I’ll share some other day.
Rich: I’d say maybe a speck, yes, like the tiniest speck, yes. But what sort of clinched this for me is that here’s Jack Dorsey, has this company that is under fire from really prominent conservatives for allegedly being biased, and goes out of his way to sign on to a extremely pro-abortion, and I’m using that phrase advisedly — it wasn’t pro-abortion rights, it was pro-abortion advertisement in the New York Times, which just goes to the political and social [inaudible 00:48:56], all these guys swimming and can’t get away from even if they wanted to try, and they don’t seem to want to try very hard or at all.
Rich: So let’s hit a couple of topics before we run out of time here. Just exit-question style, and I’ll go to you first, Xan. How long, and the context of this is AOC’s statement about concentration camps at the border, how long will her ignorant and obnoxious statements garner as much attention as they do today? For another year, for another two years, for another three years, forever?
Alexandra: I would say probably for another two years. And I guess that’s just sort of because I think the glow will wear off, and we’ll find some people find something else to pay attention to. But I think for now she’s kind of the rising star on the left. And while the primary, the hustle and bustle, is going on, no one has anything better to talk about.
Rich: Charlie, go.
Charlie: I think it will last until the Democrats win a presidential election.
Michael: I adopt Charlie’s answer.
Rich: Yeah, I think it will wear off at some point here. It’ll get a little old. And especially if once there’s a nominee and especially if there is an actual Democratic president, it will end. In the meantime, it’s entertaining in its way, and at the same time it’s extremely depressing and boring. So let’s hit one other thing. MBD, in your view, we will hit an Iranian ship or other military facilities sometime in the next six weeks. Yes or no?
Rich: I can say yes, I’m sort of sticking to my answer when the last time we talked about Iran, and I would have thought, I don’t know what the intelligence is and what the various risks are and what the real options are. I would’ve thought we would’ve hit them for mining the two tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. But shooting at our drone just seems to be asking for some sort of kinetic, as they say, response and they will probably get it. So before we go, let’s hit a few other things. Charlie, you’ve just visited the Dakotas.
Charlie: I have. I’d never been to either, and I went to both all in one go. I’ve had a friend for a very long time who’s from North Dakota, and for years we’ve been saying, “Oh, we must go out there together.” And we finally did. We went out onto the prairies of both North and South Dakota and cleared some farms of prairie dogs, which are —
Rich: How’d you do that? You just kind of chase them out?
Charlie: Yeah, that’s right. I chased after them with —
Rich: Get out of here. Get out of here little buggies.
Charlie: . . . Ninja stars. No, we shot them with 17’s and 15’s.
Rich: And so what happens to a prairie dog when it’s shot with it?
Charlie: It dies instantly.
Rich: So there are 15 dozen . . . it’s a relatively small arrays that some states banned shooting deer with AR-15 cause —
Charlie: It’s a small round. It moves very fast. So it does a lot of damage, but it doesn’t do noticeably more to a prairie dog than, say, a 17 does. They die instantly when they’re hit. It’s odd looking out. We sit on the hill on the farm, and you look out on along the valley, and it looks like the Somme because they’ve created holes everywhere. [crosstalk 00:52:41]. And this is before . . .
Rich: . . . mow down.
Charlie: Well, right, right. But it is extremely dangerous for the cattle because if they put their feet into the holes, then they’ll be likely to break them. And I should just say, and I’m going to write more about this, but in North and South Dakota, prairie dogs are gassed by the government, or they’re poisoned. Or in some cases, they’re vacuumed up. And this approach to clearing the land is fair, kind of, because you don’t kill them all. And more importantly, perhaps, you don’t kill lots of other animals in the process, whereas poisoning and gassing them, you do. But I did more than that in the Dakotas [crosstalk 00:53:21]-
Rich: . . . went out there I didn’t know, it’s horrible. You’re using a sight or just doing it without, and did you ever feel . . . They seem, when they pop up and they have their arms out, they seem so cute. You didn’t feel no pangs?
Charlie: I’m from the countryside, myself. I think you have to be respectful toward animals, but I did grow up around farmers who had to shoot foxes and other animals that needed culling. And I see the necessity of it. I don’t like any grit shooters or unnecessary violence towards animals but —
Alexandra: It sounds like a video game out there. I don’t know.
Charlie: . . . it’s fairly normal out there.
Rich: So you’re sitting in a rocking chair or something or you’re drinking?
Charlie: No. Not while shooting, well, it’s coming afterwards. No. You lie down on the ground in the prone position, you have a gun with a bipod on the front and a sight and you clear them. Such a city dweller.
Alexandra: I like how you’re pretending that you’re doing some kind of big service instead of just having fun with a gun.
Rich: You’re on the ground with a bi-, what did you all it, a bipod and a sight?
Rich: Like hunting a prairie, like a squirrel?
Charlie: Well, they’re quite a long way away, maybe 150 yards. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing a service and also enjoying it. I mean, this was the argument in England against fox hunting, “Yes, we need to kill them. Yes, we need to trap them. Yes, we need to poison them.” But if you enjoy getting on a horse and going out to clear the ground of them, you’re, somehow, vindictive. Well, I think that’s odd.
Michael: It’s not only fox hunting too, it was before fox-hunting bans. They were the bans on badgering, right, which is like training dogs to go in and get rid of larger pests.
Charlie: I tell you this —
Michael: And people would enjoy training their dog to kill a badger.
Charlie: If you were to ask any conservation expert in England whether it’s better for a fox to be killed on a hunt, or to be shot at by a farmer, poisoned, or trapped, they will tell you that being killed on a hunt is vastly preferable because it’s pretty much instant.
Michael: It also brings like a lot of economy into these rural areas.
Charlie: Well, sure, it does that, too.
Michael: Anyway —
Rich: Speaking of city dwelling, you’re moving to D.C., Xan?
Alexandra: I am, and I’ve spent this whole week packing, and I should have spent much more than just this week packing. It’s been a nightmare. I still have so much to go and so little time to do, and I’m not sure what’s gonna happen. I may just end up chucking everything I own into the back of a car, but I’m looking forward to being in Washington.
Rich: All right, good luck. And MBD, you have been watching trees of England?
Michael: Nope. Trees of Ireland.
Rich: Oh, Ireland, sorry. So sorry.
Charlie: So we take over everything.
Michael: There’s a show. Viewers can find this on their iPads or whatever. If you download, if you search on the app store for TG4, TG4, there’s an app, it’s for the Irish-language television station in Ireland. There are subtitles, there is this incredible show back on the app reappearing there called Crainn na hÉireann, right, Trees of Ireland. And it should be the most boring thing in the world, but it is so mesmerizing. It’s basically each episode focuses on one type of tree that is in Ireland. And through that tree, they explore social history, geologic history, science. It is just like this portal into so many interesting dimensions of the natural world or European or even American history. It is fascinating, and you get to hear the beautiful Irish language that I’m studying from Mongan Mankin, but you can read the subtitles. It is incredible.
Rich: So I had a great old-school New York City cab driver the other day, you very rarely come across cab drivers that you might’ve had 20 years ago or so. But this was an African-American woman who right away let me know that she’d been driving cabs for 37 years. So she didn’t need any GPS and that she would not under any circumstances let me off in a bus lane, even though I didn’t ask her but she just wanted to make this clear right from the beginning. And what I love most about this conversation, you never know how sensitive someone’s going to be. So I said, “I don’t normally see any African-American cab drivers anymore.” And she’s like, “I’m not an African American. I’m an American. I’m not from Africa.” So she was wonderful. So let’s go to some editors picks before we get out of here. MBD, what’s your pick?
Michael: My pick is a short little piece on Pauline Kael, the film critic who everyone loves and everyone remembers from the apocryphal story that she didn’t know any Nixon voters —
Rich: So it’s not true?
Michael: Didn’t know. She didn’t exactly say, “I don’t know how he got elected.” She merely said that she lived in a world where she didn’t know any Nixon voters, which in ways speaks to the self-awareness and urbanity and insight that she brought to her vocation of criticism and Matt’s essays, very little insight on her.
Rich: Charlie, what’s your pick?
Charlie: My pick is by Craig Trainor, who’s a defense attorney and therefore a man after my own heart, I suppose from the perspective of some conservatives as squish, from the others, a big champion of the Bill of Rights, generally sympathetic to defendants. And he writes about Kamala Harris. He says, she has a dreadful record as the DA of San Francisco, especially on the question of Brady Wright, this is a 1963 case, Brady v. Maryland, about suppression of evidence by the prosecution that’s favorable to the accused. And he runs through, I suppose the way this is put on the Internet in meme form, is Kamala Harris is a cop.
Rich: Xan, what’s your pick?
Alexandra: My pick is John McCormack’s profile of Josh Hawley from the upcoming print issue of the magazine. It’s a great piece, looking at what Hawley’s been up to so far in office. And I’m pretty sympathetic to a lot of Hawley’s underlying arguments, but I often disagree with the way he puts them into practice so far in terms of policy. So it’s kind of good to get a look behind the scenes.
Rich: So my pick is, not surprisingly, a Kevin Williamson piece. And on socialism from the new issue, I know you thinking since we just devoted an entire issue to socialism, why do we need to publish or read anything more about socialism? But once again, this is a Kevin piece just brimming with insight, and the hook is Bernie Sanders socialism speech a week or so ago. So check it out if you can.
That’s it for us. You’ve been listening to a National Review podcast, any rebroadcasting, retransmission, or account of this game without the express, written permission of National Review magazine is strictly prohibited. This podcast has been produced by the incomparable Sarah Schutte who makes us sound better than we deserve. Thank you, Charlie. Thank you, Michael. Thank you, Xan. Thanks all of you for listening. We are the editors, and we’ll see you next time.