We Are Sansa Stark: Martin’s Bleak View of Rights

Content Note: Spoilers for the book and first season of Game of Thrones.


The first book of a Song of Ice and Fire, the series that has been adopted into Game of Thrones on HBO, follows virtuous Ned Stark to the capital of a tenuous confederacy of Medieval kingdoms. It is a generation after a Civil War where Stark himself helped to put the current king on the throne. Though his friend was an excellent warrior and general—and we learn their cause was against a king who was cruel by even the brutal standard of Martin’s Westeros—he is a terrible ruler. He would rather whore, drink, and hunt than “count coppers” and see to the justice of the land. By contrast, Ned Stark is virtuous, judicious, and concerned with ensuring the safety and security of his people.

It is a nod to the dynamic that emerges in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Return of the King. In it, Aragorn, the distant descendant of the last king of Gondor, at last returns to his ancestral home with the intent of taking the throne. He finds the descendants of the Stewards, who have been on the throne for 3000 years, unwilling to let go. Aragorn’s personal virtue and noble blood (yes, there is some racism involved) allow him to retake the thrown when the corruption of the Stewards is laid bare. Whatever you think of it as an allegory, it has little resemblance to our own history.

Another character in the book Game of Thrones who grapples with these ideas of honor is Sansa. The show is criticized for its sexism, but Martin built a sexist world and then showed us the thoughts of women navigating it*. Sansa is thrown into the capital with her father and must reconcile her education about chivalry, the right way for a man of status to act, with the actions of the men she is surrounded by. She wants Joffery to be her kind and gentle protector, but his budding sadism manifests in tormenting her. She witnesses one knight murder another with an underhanded trick. Her father’s friend, the King, is transparently lecherous and lazy. Again and again she sees the men she was taught to idolize break their chivalrous oaths.

Chivalry was the human rights of the middle ages—the latter is indeed a descendant of the former. There are critical differences, particularly in how common people were treated. The expectation was that the nobility would act, well, nobly to protect them. But they had an enormous amount of power and protection that meant if those ideals were not met, there was little recourse. except war between nobles and the king. (And this happened! The way Italian principalities turned on Caterina Sforza for murdering children is instructive.) If it was not expedient, horrors could unfold. But this is not so different than our own time, where some human rights violations are dealt with swiftly and other breaches are tolerated, albeit with condemnations.

As Martin moves towards the final act of Game of Thrones, he has a potent cocktail of themes. He has set up both a formidable cast of villains and the expectation that Ned Stark’s virtue can overcome them a la Tolkien. His daughter is trying to find a way to cling to her beliefs about the men in the capital. The king dies in an “accident” orchestrated by his wife. Ned Stark accurately accuses the queen of treason and is imprisoned for his efforts. To save his family, he confesses to the crime and agrees to go into exile.

And then King Joffery has him executed because he could.

Martin is in conversation with both Tolkien and human rights here. He is saying that ultimately, he (or she!) with the power decides what rights are. At the dawn of the 21st century, we are not used to thinking of human rights as a construct, something that exists simply because the powerful allow them to. But for years, a show essentially premised on that conceit (albeit, through chivalry) has captivated American audiences. Likewise, he is saying virtue is a frail and fickle answer to the vilest whims of the powerful; Aragorn would have been beheaded and the Stewards would have consolidated power.

Importantly, we are Sansa Stark. We believe in Human Rights with all the intensity Sansa believed in the chivalry of her world. Sansa is often criticized for being naive and willfully ignorant at the start of the series, but for me she hit close to home. I buy into the ideals of Human Rights, though I’ve soured to any idea they are literally real. Like Sansa, I’ve seen them ignored too many times for reasons that were too self-serving to believe that we have those rights in any intrinsic way. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that the man I idolize did not always rise to the full heights of those ideals. Sansa feels essential to me because she shows me something about myself I do not like.

So, as you watch the new season of Game of Thrones, keep in mind Martin’s point: Human Rights exist only as long as we are willing to defend the lie.

*I will leave it to other commentators to discuss Martin’s obligation to build a world that transcends sexism, but I find his exploration within those constraints to be at least adequate. Lady Stark, Circe Lannister, and Brienne of Tarth are also perspective characters in the book and each shows a different facet of living with the sexism of the world.

The Nicest Thing I’ll Say about Mike Pence

A lot of ink is being spilled about how Pence has hired outside counsel. In particular, there is a theory going around that this proves Mike Pence is in some way guilty or hiding something.

Okay, this might be true! Pence was head of the transition and therefore could have known about whatever wrongdoing Flynn, Manafort, Carter, Sessions, and Page are working hard to hide. So the read that Pence has hired a lawyer and could well be worried about the investigation isn’t off the wall. It’s definitely how I read Trump’s decision to hire outside counsel, after all.

That said, hiring outside counsel is a matter of course in these situations for three reasons. First, when an investigation gets close, you should hire a lawyer just to keep things on the up-and-up. You want to quickly, accurately, and forthrightly respond through a competent professional especially if you have nothing to hide. Second of all, White House counsel is supposed to defend the White House; they do not explicitly defend Trump and Pence. Even Mike Pence is smart enough to know he might want his own lawyer. Finally, Trump has hired outside counsel whose job is to show that Trump is plausibly innocent. You know who makes a great fall guy? Head of the transition. Hiring a lawyer to defend against that is sensible.

So, yeah, the lawyer is mostly proof of swirling scandal. Nothing new about it.

Two Impeachment Timelines, for No Reason in Particular

Because you might find it interesting—FOR COMPLETELY ACADEMIC REASONS—here is the timeline of the Watergate scandal:

  • May 28th, 1972: Operatives under the direction of the President’s reelection campaign, broke into Watergate Hotel to tap opposition phone lines.
  • June 17th, 1972: Operatives reentered Watergate to repair the tap. Because a security guard noticed doors had been taped so that they would not lock, he called the police. Five men were arrested for burglary.
  • June 19th, 1972: A check meant for Nixon’s campaign was found in a one of the burglar’s accounts. This would implicate the reelection campaign. (I’m not sure this was, in and of itself, illegal in 1972; campaign finance has come a long way. Either way, paying for burglars was.)
  • Around this time, Nixon used presidential power to block the FBI investigation.
  • September 27th, 1972: News broke that the Attorney General controlled the finances for Nixon’s illegal spying ring.
  • February 7th, 1973: Senate investigation begins.
  • March 23rd, 1973: Court proceedings revealed that perjury—lying under oath—had been committed in the initial Watergate trial.
  • April 30th, 1973: Nixon demands the resignation of top aids.
  • July 16th, 1973: The bombshell revelation that Nixon had recorded everything in the West Wing. The special prosecutor subpoenaed the President, which was controversial at the time.
  • October 20th, 1973: The President fired the special prosecutor.
  • November 17th, 1973: Nixon famously declared at a press conference, “I am not a crook”.
  • March 7th to April 18th, 1974: A wave of indictments against former high-level Nixon aides.
  • April 29th, 1974: Nixon releases partial transcripts of his tapes, to mixed reviews.
  • July 24th, 1974: SCOTUS orders the full tapes be given to the special prosecutor.
  • July 27th, 1974: The House Judiciary Committee passed Articles of Impeachment for consideration on the Floor of the House; they were considered likely to pass after debate.
  • August 5th, 1974: The White House releases the “smoking gun” tape that proved that the President was, in fact, a crook.
  • August 7th,  1974: Nixon resigns facing imminent and near certain impeachment.

So yeah, from discovery to resignation took 2 years, 2 months, and 10 days. In case anyone is, you know, counting. If someone were drawing lessons from this, it seems it takes awhile to move against the sitting president.

The only post-War impeachment to actually go down involved Bill Clinton:

  • November 1995: Clinton begins affair with Lewinsky.
  • March 1997: The affair ends.
  • January 13th, 1998: The Drudge Report, of all places, breaks the scandal.
  • January 17th,1998: Clinton is deposed in his other sex scandal, a sexual harrasment case brought by Paula Jones. He is asked about Lewinsky and denies ever having sex with her. The definition of “sex”, which he is shown, will later become an issue.
  • July 28th, 1998: Lewinsky received immunity and handed over the “blue dress” that had DNA evidence of Clinton’s infidelity and, more saliently to what was to come, he had perjured himself in the Jones case.
  • December 19th, 1998: Clinton formally impeached by the House.
  • January 8th, 1999: The Senate trial begins.
  • February 12the, 1999: The trial concludes and Clinton is acquitted.

This one was at least simpler! But it took about a year and a month from the initial perjury to get to a trial, and another month to conclude it.

The common ingredients, again, provided as a total hypothetical, seem to be specific illegal activity combined with sustained controversy.

Media Bias, Dissected

There has been a lot of discussion about media bias and fake news. For the most part, I think the term “fake news” is getting overused, but its a real problem. Fake news is when an outlet simply makes up things and tries to pass them off as reporting and journalism. Its not a new problem—yellow journalism in the late 1800s looked like this, except on paper.

Beyond that, though, the internet has allowed news to decentralize. That has its benefits, but it also has encouraged “boutique” news which is written to capture a certain audience. This is not all bad—boutique newspapers have long been a staple in Europe. They allow more activist editorial points and more competing ideas. However, they can be caustic when people mistake them for a neutral source, poisoning discourse. One example of a boutique source is Vox. Now, I broadly like Ezra Klein’s media 2.0 news experiment, but I’ll be the first to say a health news diet is not founded on them. In fact, most of this post is about a particular piece Vox ran a week and a half  ago.

I’ve not chosen Vox to treat it as a punching bag. Rather, Vox’s streangths and weaknesses are very emblematic of the bigger problems in political journalism in the internet age. Vox has transparently taken a stance of aggressively fact-checking Trump and being uncharitable to his lack of clarity. The reason they give is that Trump is, knowingly or not, exploiting traditions of deferring to controversy and letting the reader decide. The problem is that Trump’s lies are so aggressive that less activist outlets often give the impression that there is some sort of uncertainty about whether or not Trump is wrong. Vox broke with tradition to combat this—its one of the reasons they are still in my media diet.

I’ve marked up the text of the piece below. Green indicates that the piece is giving a clear, reliable account of what happened in the ballpark of normal journalistic standards. Orange indicates an active editorial voice. This is not necessarily bad, as outlined above, but it means that the journalist is nudging you. Red indicates that I think the piece has crossed into full analysis or editorializing. Again, this would not be bad, except Vox contends that it offers news—a different product. I’ve footnoted some of my decisions, especially those where the reader might differ.

The first White House press conference of the Trump administration was supposed to happen on Monday. But on Saturday afternoon, after a little more than 24 hours in office, the administration called an impromptu press briefing for the purpose of yelling at the press1.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer, visibly agitated1, gave a statement that made the following claims:

  • Spicer called Zeke Miller of Time magazine (whom Spicer identified as “one reporter,” but whom President Trump called out by name earlier today in a speech to the CIA) “irresponsible and reckless” for reporting erroneously that a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office. Spicer strongly implied that Miller had lied about why he hadn’t seen the bust, saying Miller “tried to claim” the bust had been blocked by a Secret Service agent.2
  • Spicer accused media images of being “intentionally framed” to make the crowd at President Trump’s inauguration look smaller than it actually was (in part by arguing this was the first time ground coverings had been used on the Mall, which wasn’t true).
  • Spicer claimed that it would be irresponsible to cite any estimates of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration (or of Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington) because the National Park Service, as a rule, doesn’t release official estimates of crowd sizes.
  • Spicer then claimed that President Trump drew the “largest audience to witness an inauguration period, both in person and around the world.” He did not offer any evidence for this claim, nor did he square it with the idea that it was impossible to estimate crowd size.3
  • Spicer gave a glowing report of the president’s speech to CIA staff Saturday, then cried, “That’s what you guys should be” covering.
  • Spicer warned that while journalists talk about holding the president accountable, “I’m gonna tell you that it goes two ways. We’re gonna hold the press accountable as well.”

Spicer also delivered quick reviews of Trump’s schedule for over the weekend, but since this wasn’t a prescheduled press briefing it clearly wasn’t the point. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Trump administration believes the most important thing that happened in its first day in office — something so important that it was worth calling an unscheduled, weekend press briefing — was snapping at the press, and attempting to replace relatively well-documented estimates of the relatively paltry attendance at Friday’s inauguration with a wholly undocumented claim that this was the biggest inauguration ever.4

Defenders of Donald Trump’s candidacy and his presidential transition have often dismissed the more capricious and unpresidential aspects of his personality — his thin-skinnedness; his grudge holding; his obsession with media coverage, popularity, and ratings — as things that wouldn’t affect his administration. Either they’ve argued that the Donald Trump America has seen so far is an act that would be dropped once he assumed the burden of leading the federal government or they’ve hinted that Trump would be a figurehead who kept doing his thing while the “real” work of government went on around him.5

Saturday’s press conference put a stake through both of those rationalizations. Donald Trump didn’t appear in that briefing room; Sean Spicer and the rest of the White House communications staff bore his message forward on his behalf. Trump’s staff will represent Trump, not cage him.

Donald Trump is not becoming more presidential. The presidency, and the administration, is becoming more Trump-like.6

1These first two orange parts show a clear emotional bias that (no pun intended) colors the factual text. It is worth pointing out here that such decisions can absolutely be the product of good journalistic judgement. The “visibly agitated” especially tells us how the journalist perceived the act she is describing—and that is a part of a journalist’s job.

2Two things here. First, the reporter has unambiguously inserted her judgement in rendering implication explicitly. This is, again, part of her prerogative as a journalist. Second, I made the scare quotes green because they are truthful and accurate summaries of what the press secretary said, but the passage is lightly editorial. By breaking up his quotes you get the impression of being mocked.

3Accurately pointing out a contradiction is tricky territory. A more neutral rendering of the secretary’s remarks would suggest less to the audience about the journalist’s judgment and more about what was literally said, but highlighting such an obvious contradiction explicitly has the benefit of making the (lack of) connection between arguments clear.

4The sentiment here could be defended as a strong editorial voice at Vox; after all, they explicitly have a policy of pressing the Trump Administration’s statements hard and they have justified it. This analysis, however, makes complex assertions about motive and effect that go well beyond mere framing. I want to note, in my own editorial voice, that I agree with the assertions and analysis put forward here, but still note they pass beyond even actively editorial reporting.

5This is an unsourced, generalized argument. Even when true at a charitable standard (like this one), they are a warning that something might be amiss…

6And there it is. This is now full-blown opinion, putting forward the argument that Trump is not going to act “Presidential”. There is nothing wrong with the argument, but it does not qualify as informative news.

The actual problem with Vox—and a lot of other popular internet sites—is that they are blurring the line between information and opinion. Vox’s decision to inform the reader that Donald Trump’s statements don’t pass a certain evidentiary muster is one thing; we rely on journalists to shape our views of the world. When journalists tell us that there is no evidence for the White House’s claims (provided there aren’t), they are arming us. But when they veer into making predictions about the future or broad generalizations about behavior, they are no longer in the business of news, fake or real.

Finally, I hope you read news in this way, critically engaging with the subtext and choices the writer has made. More than any choice journalists have made, it is is the best way to ensure you are insulated against media bias.

This one Weird Trick Won’t Win Every Election

As I am wont to, I will respond to part of Ben Studebaker’s strategizing on the behalf of “the left”. His economic assertions in this piece simply do not match up with reality.

Let’s start with the core thing I’d like to pick apart. Studebaker offers this chart to show that FDR had mad growth:


But no. However he calculated growth rates, he made an error. A 31% annual growth rate implies that the economy was 33 times bigger when FDR died than when he took office—the data says that it did not quite triple. There are competing ways of calculating average growth so there will be differences between any given method, but they should never be off by a factor of 11. The numbers look off for about every president, though not proportionally. I did my own calculations, which differ from some others I found online, but are in about the same ballpark of most. For reasons that will become apparent, I included GDP per capita growth next to his metric. You can compare them here:

*Data for per capita GDP begins in 1947, so FDR is not listed here. **Truman’s per capita growth is inflated against his plain growth because 1946 is included in plain growth but not per capita growth. This is a significant difference because 1946 had a major recession due to normalization following the war.

FDR still does better, but its worth noting a few things:

First, FDR benefits from the exact epoch of economic history he was sworn in during. He reversed the misguided monetary policy of the proceeding administration. He deserves a kudos for this, but he was lobbed a softball. The rapid growth during that period was making up for bad policy; it is hard to suggest that it generalizes. What I’m saying is that a President who enters at such a low point will have an easier time generating high numbers. You can see this over the very long run in growth history:


The huge pulse around the Great Depression illustrates that for the first half of his presidency, FDR was working with economic gravity. Not entirely by coincidence—again, this is not an FDR hitpiece—FDR entered when circumstances were most favorable to economic growth and he succeeded. Since Truman, and especially since LBJ, we see pretty stable growth regardless of who is in the White House. (At the very least, very different presidents and polices have gotten approximately the same results.)

Second, the greater part of the growth came during war mobilization. This too is complicated. This was a period of domestic shortages, rations, and generally tighter belts. (You had to have government issued coupons to buy sugar legally, for example.) To suggest that the wartime production numbers represent some kind of great prosperity for the American people is to read those numbers out of context. To be sure, I’m all for fighting Nazis, but let’s not imagine that workers were “enjoying” all those extra tanks and planes in the way they might enjoy, say, the increase in household appliances following the war.

Here again FDR benefits from the dates of his presidency. He died right before demobilization began in earnest, meaning that he missed the “hangover” that followed. Nonetheless, this saw the end of rations and more production ending up in American homes rather than distant battlefields. So while demobilization counts against Truman’s GDP numbers, Americans directly benefited. For perspective, from FDR being sworn in to Truman leaving, Americans saw 6.1% growth on average—good, but not overwhelmingly incredible. To put none too fine a point on it, the baseline economic conditions gave FDR a huge advantage and mobilization is something of a mirage anyway.

This, I think, shows the bigger problem with Studebaker’s analysis. To a point, the presidents are incomparable. They aren’t giving equal starting points and the same challenges throughout. Truman is probably low because because FDR was high; the economy really had to contract under him. If you zoom out and compare parties post-war, like I did a few weeks ago, you see a different set of patterns emerge:


Most of difference in GDP growth over the years has come in the depth of recessions. Democrats have seen shallower contractions, suggesting—at least at a first pass—that democrats manage recession better. Above the 30th percentile of quarters, democrats and Republicans are effectively interchangeable on the matter of economic growth. This should make some intuitive sense. After all, we have an economic system based around market exchange and not the state and so actions by the state are going to have a secondary effect on economics. The fact that the exception seems to be in recession says that the state has a role to play in managing the health of markets.

The scale of the graph is a touch misleading, however. The median household makes about $50,000 a year, and they can expect their income to rise by $165 more if we elect a Democrat over a Republican; about $13.75 a month. This is…significant but not impressive. Obviously, you are not going to turn down $13.75 a month extra, all else equal. By the same token, you are not going to upend your political ideologies for what works out to be a chunk of change. Note for low income people, the numbers are even smaller. Down at the poverty line for a single person, we are talking $3.24 a month!

Getting away from the hard numbers, I take exception to this characterization:

Since World War II, no presidents have done better. The growth these Democrats delivered for white Americans made them comfortable and happy. This made it easier for more of them to see social justice movements in a non-threatening way. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson ran against a fiery, hard-right conservative–Barry Goldwater. But economic conditions were good, and so white people were much less receptive to Goldwater than they were to Trump. Johnson ended up winning 61% of the vote to Goldwater’s paltry 38%.

This is special pleading. The specifics here are basically correct, but it leaves open some questions. The high growth in Reagan’s presidency happened during a time when welfare was coded black (“welfare queen”) and saw it significantly rolled back. Reagan appointments and policies were hostile to minorities—especially sexual minorities, but also racial ones. This was a high water mark of anti-feminism. High growth ensured 12 years of Republicans in the White House and allowed a good deal of harmful, anti-social-justice policies to become entrenched. Despite Clinton’s high growth, there was not a substantial increase in welfare and he signed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Growth and justice have only a tenuous relationship.

In  this context, his LBJ narrative is stylized. Dr. King and Malcolm X both wrote at length—to different conclusions—that white moderates were too comfortable to demand change. As I just pointed out, this played out again in the 1980s, but for various reasons no one was able to challenge Reagan like they were able to challenge LBJ and Congress. There is something to Studebaker’s analysis that economic comfort helped smooth over the changes to de jur treatment of African Americans when they went through in the 1960s, but it was not sufficient and not even clearly necessary in the 1980s.

These numbers are something of a Rorschach Test. You can see what you want in them. The long term trend of per capita growth suggests the way to get FDR levels of growth is to first have Hoover levels of Recession. We can probably keep it going if we arrange a World War, but eventually, rationing will unwind. Post-war production has largely kept apace of the historical trend regardless of state policy, with the important caveat that Democrats have recovered from recessions faster. His analysis of electoral history is cherry-picked and stylized beyond generalization. He’s probably right that growth under LBJ bought some political capital to affect change; the same was true under Reagan to literally the opposite end. Given that the numbers don’t suggest a huge difference between economic outcomes, this political capital was partially unearned in both cases.

Sadly, there is no magic bullet to win elections.

Bill Nye the Science Guy Takes on Abortion…and Gets it Wrong

In 2014, Bill Nye and Ken Ham debated about…the role of evolution in modern society? I don’t really know; it was a deliberately vague topic. And I surprised a lot of friends by judging that, from a purely rhetorical standpoint, I thought Ham had debated better. This wasn’t to say he changed my mind—I saw the gaping holes in his arguments. I just felt that Nye didn’t really understand them and failed to close the deal while Ham exploited that fact expertly. I felt the same way watching this (old) video of Nye talking about abortion:

Okay, let’s take the key chunks of this.

Sperm get accepted by ova a lot. But that’s not all you need. You have to attach to the uterine wall, the inside of the womb. But if you’re going to hold that as a standard, that is, if you’re going to say that when an egg is fertilized it therefore has the same rights as an idividual, who are you going to sue? Who are you going to imprison? Every woman who has had a fertilized egg pass through them?

Say it with me: The anti-choice and pro-choice positions are not scientifically falsifiable.

The argument that life begins at conception has nothing to do with the uterine wall and everything to do with souls. Because from a scientific standpoint the concept of a soul is meaningless*, science is necessarily silent on the issue. When Nye points to implantation as a necessary ingredient for viability, he is nominally correct. But non-implantation is not, under this schema, murder. It is an act of God, akin to an 8-year-old child dying of heart defect. God works in mysterious ways. Nye is not answering the thornier question of purposeful abortion, nor could he use science to answer it.

I am a vehemently pro-choice atheist. I believe that every woman should be allowed to choose an abortion, especially during the first two trimesters. I also do not believe in any God or Gods or the soul. I therefore untroubled by the theological question of abortion, and indeed all theological questions. I have reasons—non-scientific ones!—for why I don’t think abortion is the same as murder. They obviously do not persuade everyone.

To see this problem in a different way, Nye makes a comment later in the video about sexual education. He is correct that abstinence only education does worse at preventing teenagers from having sex than full sexual education—and that is why I support it. And it is true that a lot of people have convinced themselves of the opposite. But the truth is that if you accept the fact that abstinence only prevents teenage sexual activity, you still have to deal with the dilemma that creates for those who believe sex before marriage is immoral. Communities must either prepare their children to sin or increase the number of their children who sin. It is the weirdest formulation of the Trolley Problem I have ever encountered. I agree with Nye, not only because of the scientific evidence, but because I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with teenagers having sex.

There are probably a small number of people who would change their views if they better understood the science underlying some of these value judgments. Further, on principle, I support correcting the scientific record. Finally, insofar as Nye’s points address some of the badly worded bills, I am with him. But I think it is deeply misinformed to think that the main issue is scientific illiteracy rather than a metaphysical disagreement.

But Nye has never shown much understanding of philosophy.

*Not non-existent. Meaningless. There is no way to check for the presence of metaphysical objects by physical means, so you cannot credibly point to material science to comment on them. If you could, they would be physical!

Argument of the Week: Bannon Planned the Hamilton Fiasco

From time to time—ideally weekly—I will highlight an especially bad argument I saw made by the press or political class. Recipients need not collect their award in person, but rather take a sabbatical from public life in general.

In the aftermath of the Hamilton Stars in Much Ado About Nothing, variants of an argument suggesting that Bannon or Kushner planned the spectacle. At first glance it seems possible—it did bury the Trump University story. But the more you consider it, the more it should strike you as incorrect:

  • It was a poor cover-up: Trump also tweeted at length about how he would have won the suit. That was actually a major news story during the day.
  • The settlement, for different reasons, would have been a low news item: News outlets in the US are somewhat ham-stringed in reporting on settlements. While it makes sense to read them as admissions of guilt, most specify that they are literally the opposite and that no one involved may suggest otherwise. So while the press can imply it, they cannot say this proves his guilt. The lack of a juicy angle would have suffocated the story without an elaborate scheme from Bannon or Kushner.
  • These are Hamilton Tickets: Pence probably did not buy them last minute; Bannon probably could not have “sent” Pence and his family all that easily.
  • Bannon would have been hard pressed to predict what the Hamilton cast would say, if anything: It seems obvious in retrospect that the Hamilton cast would have said something, but this was a bit unusual. That’s part of the controversy. As far as gambles go, there are better ones.
  • Trump’s Twitter Meltdown about Hamilton was in fact newsworthy: Whether or not you think it should have been covered as much—see above—the president threw a temper tantrum about his VP getting criticized. A day of arguing if the president-elect was respecting norms of criticism was not a win.
  • Related to that, it was a bad way to distract: Many articles actually put the Hamilton Twitter Meltdown in context of the Trump University Meltdown. Bannon is an editor; he would have seen this coming.
  • It endows Bannon with more foresight than people have: If you’ve ever sat through an ad that was “designed” to go viral, you know how hard it is to design viral content. Breitbart and other outlets use a pretty simple formula for getting pieces to go viral: look at what worked, do it a lot, and let the law of large numbers send a fraction of them viral. Bannon would have been hard pressed to guess in advance that this would take off.
  • The disorganization: Pence ended up contradicting the master plan when he said the booing was what freedom sounded like. Or maybe that was part of the plan all along? Or maybe it backfired? Doesn’t this all just seem like Donald Trump throwing another tantrum?

As a pilot episode of a new political drama, I’m in. The power behind the throne orchestrates a convoluted scandal to make another scandal disappear. Watching the pieces fall into place, seeing them explained by our anti-hero as he sips whisky, and then he compares himself to Satan. House of Cards, move over!

But life is not House of Cards. Bannon almost certainly found out about this when a staffer called him to say Donald was tweeting again. He said his favorite four letter word. You know what? He might have considered that this could mask some of the fallout from Trump University. But then he set to work putting out the new fire.

This is a flimsy conspiracy theory filled with holes.