Barely Passing Our Attention Test: Whittaker and Khashoggi

America seems to be passing, just barely, the test of our ability to hold a single issue in our collective attention long enough to determine its significance and whether it requires action. There have been a flood of editorials and even a lawsuit from Democratic members of Congress declaring that Matthew Whittaker’s appointment as acting Attorney General is unacceptable and even unconstitutional.

And there has been increasing pressure from Congress and an incensed press for Trump to act on the evidence that Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman ordered the killing of one of his subjects, dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Credit is due to some Republicans for this, Senator Bob Corker, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Bill Kristol, one of the founders of The Weekly Standard. They are the kind of conservatives who know how and when to take a moral stand, even on the shifting sands of Washington’s politics.

And all this amidst some worthy competition for our attention, like catastrophic wildfires, Facebook’s antisemitic lobbying campaigns, Brexit’s endgame, and a tanking stock market, just to name a few.

Some tweets from Corker and Kristol below. Both Republicans, mind you:



What is The Long-Term Price of Tolerating Corruption?

Matthew Whittaker, Trump’s acting attorney general, made a hefty six-figure sum from a non-profit supposedly devoted to public oversight of government, but which spent most of its efforts making partisan attacks on Democrats. He sat on the board of a company that the Federal Trade Commission has labelled a scam. He has also made statements that he doesn’t believe in the full independence of the judiciary branch, something which has been settled in America since the 18th Century, and which we all learn in school to be an unshakable foundation of our democracy. Because of his partisanship and questionable character, past attorneys general have gone so far as to sign a letter asking Mr. Whittaker not to politicize his office.

Is this a person we want running the United States Dept. of Justice? Mr. Trump, who has made no secret of his use of public office for personal gain, seems to think so. It could be tempting to see Mr. Whittaker as just another scandal of the last few years, to be despised but also tossed on the heap with all the others. But that’s an error. To let this pass would be to cross a line and let public confidence in yet another brand of government erode.

What’s the long-term cost when corruption is assumed? We need only look to Brazil, which has recently elected a far right-wing candidate to the presidency who has made public statements in support of dictatorship, rape jokes about his colleagues in government, and who has credibly threatened to put his political opponents in jail. He doesn’t believe in gay rights, and openly supports torture.

Yet it’s not because they agree with him that Brazilians elected Bolsonaro. It was a wave of mistrust in an openly corrupt government that propelled him to the presidency. Most Brazilians don’t even think he’s qualified, but they fear and mistrust the old ruling party so much that they are willing to tolerate his rhetoric. As conditions in Brazil have worsened, with the murder rate hitting 157 homicides per day, and the economy collapsing, trust in government has collapsed in turn. Bolsonaro won trust by making speeches in praise of the only institutions that Brazilians still trust, the army and the church.

We’re not there yet in the U.S. But every time we look the other way at contempt shown for the rule of law or the use of public trust for personal gain, we take a little step in that direction. The public institutions that Americans trust are not so different from the ones Brazilians trust most. We trust our news media more, at least for now.

It won’t be confidence in a demagogue that ends democracy in the U.S., but a long simmering mistrust in all our public institutions, kept going by the constant addition of new scandals.

Trump’s Firing of Sessions: A Test of Our Attention

Remember a week ago, when Trump fired Jeff Sessions, the U.S. Attorney General, in an attempt to impede the Mueller investigation?

Sorry, that was a trick question. Trump fired Sessions fewer than 72 hours ago, but you could be forgiven for having the sense that more time had passed.

A quick check of various digital front pages this morning reveals that the story of Sessions’ firing and the appointment of Trump crony Matthew G. Whittaker as acting Attorney General has already fallen below the fold and off our collective radar.

What has been called Trump’s “slow motion Saturday Night Massacre,” (a reference to Richard Nixon’s firing of multiple Justice Department officials in a single night to impede the Watergate investigation) is on the verge of being ignored, a failure of attention that will weaken our democracy. Nixon’s massacre inspired mass, sustained, bipartisan umbrage, while Trump’s is already being forgotten.

This is an occasion where analog media would help us. The time scarcity of appointment television and the limited space of newsprint had the effect of focusing our collective attention on a single issue long enough to appreciate its significance and organize mind and body to act on it. The promiscuous allocation of attention that digital media spurs us to, both by journalists reporting the news and people consuming it, doesn’t give us enough time even to form thoughts, much less opinions. There are indeed many stories worthy of occupying our attention, not least among them the tragic deaths of 11 people in the most recent mass shooting in California, or the wildfires there. But if we are to combat our promiscuous attention spans, we have to be chaste about what we choose to pay attention to.

In the battle to keep our democracy healthy, what we choose to pay attention to from moment to moment is decisive. And right now, the President’s attempt to corrode the rule of law is what demands our undivided national attention, no matter how worthy other topics may be.