Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday, 18 July 2021


Slip Sliding Away From History

Credit... Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — It is a hoary tradition: Outfox history, if you can.

You might call this maneuver: I really wasn’t the horrible person I was. I want to be remembered as the person I want you to think I was.

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Distancing from failure or embarrassment is part of every politico’s skill set. I knew a top Democrat in the Clinton era who distanced himself from his own son during a touch football game after the kid played badly.

James Baker and Dina Powell, advisers to Republican presidents, may have been the all-time masters of this dark art, simply gliding away from their administrations’ catastrophes like black silk.

In a raft of new books about Donald Trump and one about Facebook, there are a panoply of famous people trying to deny and exfoliate their past culpability. Unfortunately for them, it’s in a half-baked, rather than a full-Baker, way. As those who enabled Trump and Mark Zuckerberg to build their reality distortion fields thrash about trying to flip the script, history is being set in amber.


In “An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination,” Times writers Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang describe a deleterious pattern at Facebook: Don’t bring the boss bad news or push back. Exercise willful blindness about the disaster around the corner, and then, once it arrives, manage it badly. Put the syndicate over democracy. Blame others for your mistakes, especially the unfair media. Present yourself as doing good for the world when you’re doing bad.

That perfectly captures the routine inside the Trump White House as well.

Frenkel and Kang write about how Zuckerberg has distanced himself from his consigliere Sheryl Sandberg and diminished her role, even though he needs her and even though she helped him make money hand over fist.

He wanted to stay in his hermetically sealed box playing tech visionary, Kang told me, and blame Sandberg for the fallout over Cambridge Analytica, foreign interference in the 2016 election, disinformation in the 2020 election, misinformation about Covid-19 and the vaccines. This is despite the fact that when it comes to critical issues for Facebook, such as how to handle disinformation complaints and whether to ban Trump, Zuckerberg makes all the decisions.

“He is blaming her basically for bad PR, for allowing the public to have this negative impression of Facebook,” Kang said.


Sandberg was hired to be the adult in the room, but she was too afraid to push back on Zuckerberg in any major way. And she, too, had the bad habits of hearing only what she wanted to hear and surrounding herself with Facebook employees who practiced groupthink.

“Even as they have grown distant and are trying to distance themselves from controversy, they are inextricably entwined to each other and Facebook,” Kang said. “They built a business that is unabated and shows no signs of slowing down.”

But the Biden administration doesn’t operate within a reality distortion field. This past week, with the president at his wit’s end over the continued spread of vaccine misinformation and Facebook’s unwillingness to turn over data on how much information is spreading on its site, tension between the White House and Facebook exploded.

“They’re killing people,’’ President Biden told reporters outside the White House on Friday.

His surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, declared for the first time that the bile on social media was a menace to the health of Americans.


It is also going to be an Augean task for those who encircled Trump to distance themselves and rehab their reputations.

I Alone Can Fix It,” the buzzy new book by Washington Post writers Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, reports that Ivanka Trump “had become increasingly uncomfortable with efforts to overturn the election results” and that, when her father was badgering his vice president to help in the nefarious scheme, she fretted to a national security official, “Mike Pence is a good man.”

Her lived experience is that she only went to her father’s Jan. 6 “Save America Rally” to keep him on an even keel. Never mind the fact that once Daddy’s mob began doing its worst, she addressed the scofflaws on Twitter as “American patriots.”

After breaking creative new ground in the area of sycophancy, Pence said last month in a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library that he was “proud” that he certified the election.

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