Legacy of Lies — Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker on Sean Spicer’s record at the White House podium.
Sean Spicer’s resignation, on Friday morning, after six months of routinely lying from the White House lectern and then ending on-camera briefings altogether, once again raises one of the most important questions of the Trump era: What is the red line that Trump must cross for his aides to quit on principle? For Spicer, the answer was a new boss he didn’t like. Trump, over the objections of Spicer and Spicer’s closest White House ally, Reince Priebus, the President’s chief of staff, hired Anthony Scaramucci, a New York financier and frequent Trump surrogate on TV, as his new White House communications director.
The hire is unusual for several reasons. The role of communications director, a job that has been vacant since May, when Michael Dubke, a low-key Republican strategist, resigned from the position, is traditionally reserved for campaign operatives. Scaramucci is a Wall Street guy—he started at Goldman Sachs and later founded his own investment firms—and a former host on the Fox Business channel. Before the Trump campaign, his experience in politics was more on the fund-raising side than on the strategy side. In the Trump campaign, which was small, he took on a broader role as an adviser to the candidate and appeared frequently on TV, where he stood out because he was less ideological than the usual pro-Trump pundits.
More unusual is the way Scaramucci was hired. In a normal White House, the chief of staff is in charge of hiring. For the President to overrule his chief of staff on such an important position is an enormous embarrassment for Priebus. During a briefing on Friday afternoon, Scaramucci tried to downplay the friction between him and Priebus, but for months he has been telling people of his frustrations with the chief of staff. Scaramucci was originally asked to run the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, but Priebus blocked Scaramucci from taking the job, even after Scaramucci sold his investment firm to take it.
Scaramucci then appealed directly to Trump to find him another position. He had three meetings scheduled with the President, and they were all cancelled. Scaramucci believed that Priebus, who is in charge of Trump’s schedule, worked to keep him away from Trump. Scaramucci “had to go over the top and directly to the President,” a source familiar with the episode said. “The problem is that Trump is in such a bubble now, he doesn’t know what the hell is going on.” Scaramucci was offered the ambassadorship to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in Europe.
If Priebus thought he had rid the White House of Scaramucci, he was wrong. In recent weeks, Scaramucci was a familiar figure at the Trump Hotel in Washington, meeting with reporters and Trump advisers. Ostensibly, he was there because he was working as an official at the D.C.-based Export-Import Bank. But, clearly, something else was in the works.
For Spicer, Trump’s decision to install Scaramucci above him—the press secretary reports to the communications director—was too much to take. Given the highs and lows of Spicer’s time at the White House, this was an unusual choice of hills to die on. Spicer began his tenure as press secretary with a bizarre rant about how Trump’s Inauguration audience “was the largest audience to ever witness an Inauguration, period.” (It wasn’t.) For someone who was never fully inside the Trump circle of trust, the performance had the ring of an eager gang initiate committing a crime to please the boss. Trump, who regularly watched the briefings, which were broadcast live on cable news, reportedly complained about Spicer’s pale suits and later seemed to become aggravated that Spicer was becoming famous, or at least infamous. Spicer’s temper tantrums, ill-fitting suits, and mispronunciations turned him into a pop-culture sensation.
But it was Spicer’s lies and defense of lies that he will be remembered for. Spicer defended Trump’s lie about how there were three million fraudulent votes in the 2016 election. He spent weeks using shifting stories to defend Trump’s lie about President Barack Obama wiretapping Trump Tower. In trying to explain the urgency of the attack on Syria, Spicer explained, “You had someone as despicable as Hitler, who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”
Last week, he lied about the nature of the meeting at Trump Tower in June, 2016, between senior Trump-campaign officials and several people claiming to have information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government. “There was nothing, as far as we know, that would lead anyone to believe that there was anything except for discussion about adoption,” Spicer claimed, bizarrely, because Donald Trump, Jr., had already admitted that the meeting was about Russian dirt on Clinton. On March 10th, Spicer came to the lectern wearing an upside-down American flag, which is a signal of dire distress.
Despite the repeated humiliations of standing before reporters and saying things he had to know were untrue, what finally made working at the White House intolerable for Spicer was a minor staffing issue. Scaramucci comes to his new job with a good reputation. He is not a conservative ideologue—he is pro-choice, a moderate on gun control, and anti-death penalty—and he is well-liked by reporters. But working for Trump can have a corrosive effect on good people. Scaramucci’s task is to, without sacrificing his own reputation, communicate on behalf of a President who routinely lies. Scaramucci has his work cut out for him.
Saving Planned Parenthood — Becca Andrews in Mother Jones on how an obscure Senate rule may have saved Planned Parenthood.
Planed Parenthood received good news late Friday afternoon: Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough released a determination that says certain provisions in the Republican’s latest Obamacare replacement bill, the “Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA),” violate the 1985 Byrd Rule. That means some of the bill’s provisions—including the one to defund Planned Parenthood for one year—cannot pass without a full 60 votes in the Senate. Republicans currently only hold 52 of the Senate’s seats.
The Byrd Rule, named after Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, states that any legislation that directly affects the federal budget by decreasing spending or increasing revenue can be passed through reconciliation, the process that Republicans are using to try and pass their latest health care law. But some of the bill’s provisions don’t appear to qualify: As my colleague Kevin Drum points out, the provision that would prohibit Planned Parenthood from receiving Medicaid funds probably “doesn’t pass muster because it doesn’t affect total spending, only where money can be spent.” “This means that, should the Senate proceed to the bill, these provisions may be struck from the legislation absent 60 votes,” the parliamentarian’s decision explains.
“Targeting Planned Parenthood because we provide abortion is an obvious violation of the Byrd Rule because the provision’s primary intent is clearly political, and the budgetary impact is ‘merely incidental’ to that purpose,” said Dana Singiser, vice president of public policy and government affairs for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Other casualties of the bill include the replacement to Obamacare’s individual mandate, which under the BCRA would have meant that anyone who had a lapse in coverage for more than a month and then signed up on the exchange would have had to wait six months for full coverage to take effect. The parliamentarian also stated that the measure in the BCRA to restrict federal tax credits from being used for abortion violates the Byrd Rule.
It’s possible that Republicans will try to overturn the parliamentarian’s decision, but doing so would violate decades of precedent in the Senate.
Sky Faerie — Clay Routledge in the New York Times on defining religion.
Are Americans becoming less religious? It depends on what you mean by “religious.”
Polls certainly indicate a decline in religious affiliation, practice and belief. Just a couple of decades ago, about 95 percent of Americans reported belonging to a religious group. This number is now around 75 percent. And far fewer are actively religious: The percentage of regular churchgoers may be as low as 15 to 20 percent. As for religious belief, the Pew Research Center found that from 2007 to 2014 the percentage of Americans who reported being absolutely confident God exists dropped from 71 percent to 63 percent.
Nonetheless, there is reason to doubt the death of religion, or at least the death of what you might call the “religious mind” — our concern with existential questions and our search for meaning. A growing body of research suggests that the evidence for a decline in traditional religious belief, identity and practice does not reflect a decline in this underlying spiritual inclination.
Ask yourself: Why are people religious to begin with? One view is that religion is an ancient way of understanding and organizing the world that persists largely because societies pass it down from generation to generation. This view is related to the idea that the rise of science entails the fall of religion. It also assumes that the strength of religion is best measured by how much doctrine people accept and how observant they are.
This view, however, does not capture the fundamental nature of the religious mind — our awareness of, and need to reckon with, the transience and fragility of our existence, and how small and unimportant we seem to be in the grand scheme of things. In short: our quest for significance.
Dozens of studies show a strong link between religiosity and existential concerns about death and meaning. For example, when research participants are presented with stimuli that bring death to mind or challenge a sense of meaning in life, they exhibit increased religiosity and interest in religious or spiritual ideas. Another body of research shows that religious beliefs provide and protect meaning.
Furthermore, evidence suggests that the religious mind persists even when we lose faith in traditional religious beliefs and institutions. Consider that roughly 30 percent of Americans report they have felt in contact with someone who has died. Nearly 20 percent believe they have been in the presence of a ghost. About one-third of Americans believe that ghosts exist and can interact with and harm humans; around two-thirds hold supernatural or paranormal beliefs of some kind, including beliefs in reincarnation, spiritual energy and psychic powers.
These numbers are much higher than they were in previous decades, when more people reported being highly religious. People who do not frequently attend church are twice as likely to believe in ghosts as those who are regular churchgoers. The less religious people are, the more likely they are to endorse empirically unsupported ideas about U.F.O.s, intelligent aliens monitoring the lives of humans and related conspiracies about a government cover-up of these phenomena.
An emerging body of research supports the thesis that these interests in nontraditional supernatural and paranormal phenomena are driven by the same cognitive processes and motives that inspire religion. For instance, my colleagues and I recently published a series of studies in the journal Motivation and Emotion demonstrating that the link between low religiosity and belief in advanced alien visitors is at least partly explained by the pursuit of meaning. The less religious participants were, we found, the less they perceived their lives as meaningful. This lack of meaning was associated with a desire to find meaning, which in turn was associated with belief in U.F.O.s and alien visitors.
When people are searching for meaning, their minds seem to gravitate toward thoughts of things like aliens that do not fall within our current scientific inventory of the world. Why? I suspect part of the answer is that such ideas imply that humans are not alone in the universe, that we might be part of a larger cosmic drama. As with traditional religious beliefs, many of these paranormal beliefs involve powerful beings watching over humans and the hope that they will rescue us from death and extinction.
A great many atheists and agnostics, of course, do not think U.F.O.s exist. I’m not suggesting that if you reject traditional religious belief, you will necessarily find yourself believing in alien visitors. But because beliefs about U.F.O.s and aliens do not explicitly invoke the supernatural and are couched in scientific and technological jargon, they may be more palatable to those who reject the metaphysics of more traditional religious systems.
It is important to note that thus far, research indicates only that the need for meaning inspires these types of paranormal beliefs, not that such beliefs actually do a good job of providing meaning. There are reasons to suspect they are poor substitutes for religion: They are not part of a well-established social and institutional support system and they lack a deeper and historically rich philosophy of meaning. Seeking meaning does not always equal finding meaning.
The Western world is, in theory, becoming increasingly secular — but the religious mind remains active. The question now is, how can society satisfactorily meet people’s religious and spiritual needs?
Doonesbury — House hunt.