Bezos Opens the Overton Window

Kompromat was an unacceptable topic of debate. Then came yesterday.

Today’s Editorial Board is about the conditions by which we determine what debate topics are and are not tolerable. My inspiration is Jeff Bezos. The billionaire founder of Amazon alleged yesterday that AMI, the firm owning the National Enquirer, tried to extort and blackmail him. Before I get to that, let me start at the beginning.

When it comes to understanding why powerful people do what they do, I try to avoid baseless speculation. I look for the simplest explanation for complex phenomena. So when people tell me Lindsey Graham has been compromised, I’m usually dismissive. Yes, Graham was against Donald Trump before he was for him, but so what?

Craven, cynical people addicted to power and prestige will do what they can to maintain their high. It doesn’t take a conspiracy devised by a criminal president in hock to the Kremlin to explain why Graham is pandering to his constituents. South Carolina voters like Donald Trump. Ergo, the South Carolina senator does, too.

The same, I think, can be said of Jerry Falwell Jr. He’s the heir to his late dad’s evangelical Christian empire. You’d think a man of faith would reject common cause with a lying, thieving philanderer. Sadly, the opposite is true. Therefore, lots of people wonder if the president has something on Falwell. Recent reporting of his business partnership with a handsome former pool boy only fomented speculation.

But as I have argued, there is a simple explanation for Falwell’s support, as well as Franklin Graham’s. Trump is clear about who should be and should not be punished for their “transgressions.” That’s just the thing for faith-based autocrats like Graham and Falwell. The president vowed to maintain “God’s order.” Music to their ears.

It’s possible Trump possesses kompromat. But I don’t see reason to sort through the details when there are within reach simple explanations. If the explanation is more complex than the behavior, the explanation is problematic. In my mind, kompromat has been an unacceptable topic of debate. That was then, though. Then came yesterday.

I’ll let the AP and Bloomberg’s inestimable Tim O’Brien provide the sordid details. In short, Bezos was investigating, through a private firm, how the National Enquirer got text messages of his that revealed his affair with Lauren Sanchez. This revelation led to separation from wife MacKenzie. (It’s unclear what the cause and effect were.) AMI responded by threatening Bezos. We have pictures of you and Sanchez, they said. Stop investigating us or we’ll post them. Yesterday, Bezos beat them to the punch.

AMI, as you know, was Donald Trump’s helpmate. It would “catch and kill” stories about his sexual affairs before they hit the mainstream news. This got AMI in legal trouble. It agreed to work with federal authorities while promising not to commit future crimes or risk responsibility for any crimes authorities already know of.

O’Brien said: That fact ... may explain why AMI tried to wring a false statement out of Bezos in exchange for not publishing the new photos. Specifically, AMI demanded ... that he assert publicly that he has “no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces” (my italics).

The AP compounded things when it revealed who Bezos suspects had leaked text messages to the National Enquirer. That person is Michael Sanchez, Lauren’s brother and manager. Michael Sanchez, moreover, is a Trump supporter with ties to—wait for it—Roger Stone. Citing an anonymous source close to Bezos’ investigation, the AP reported Michael Sanchez “may have provided the information to the Enquirer.”

To recap: Bezos owns the Washington Post. The Post reports on Trump. Therefore, Trump hates the Post. This we know. We don’t know if Stone encouraged Sanchez to steal embarrassing pictures of Bezos. We don’t know if they conspired, along with AMI, to try forcing the Post’s owner to censor the newspaper. There are a lot of things we don’t know, but there are now rock-solid reasons warranting more questions.

And whoosh goes the Overton Window! That’s the social science theory explaining the conditions by which we determine what debate topics are and are not tolerable. If the president has any role in AMI’s attempt to blackmail Bezos, it stands to reason he might have a role in Graham’s “weird” behavior, and the behavior of other people publicly committed to him. A billionaire can weather a temporary storm of shame and embarrassment. But can a US senator or evangelical Christian leaders? Hardly.

What had been unacceptable, to me anyway, is now acceptable. That doesn’t mean we understand more than we do. But it does mean we have good sound reasons to ask questions that previously felt too loony to ask. Bezos opened the Overton Window.

And I thank him.

—John Stoehr

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—JS

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A very special local event!

The Editorial Board is partnering with the New Haven Review and the Institute Library to bring writers and thinkers together to explore key issues in civic life.

We’re calling it Politics in Plain English.

Our first event is titled “Everything You Wanted to Know about Impeachment, But Were Afraid to Ask.” Dan Freedman, Washington, D.C., national editor for Hearst newspapers will join Bill Scher, contributing editor for POLITICO Magazine, to examine the possibilities, prospects, and politics of Trump’s impeachment. 

Date: Tuesday, February 12. 
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Location: 847 Chapel St., New Haven, Conn.
Cost: $10 suggested donation.

If you live in the New York metro area, please come if you can.

I’d love to meet you!

—JS

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Listen up!

I was a guest on the Rick Smith Show Wednesday talking about that day’s edition of the Editorial Board, in which I said the biggest thing lacking in the SOTU was trust.

Click hear to listen.

—JS

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