Historians look forward to decades of a parlor game entitled “the worst thing Trump did was….” There are many contestants. A related version will run the catalogue of Trumpians through memoirs, exposes, and somber histories. How shall we categorize them? Can we get Dante to write a sequel and add a few more levels of Hell? Family, criminals, racists, ass-kissers, apologists, collaborators, moral bankrupts (and the merely weak), sociopaths, un-indicted co-conspirators, delusionals, deplorables, and avatars of every deadly sin (categories not mutually exclusive).
Certainly some space should be reserved for the media, by which I mean more than the famous Fox & Friends gang, Breitbart, and those further to the loony right. I refer to the “lame-steam” media who, from a position of market dominance, both resented and facilitated His rise and rule: CNN, MSNBC, NYT, dozens of journals, papers, magazines, and websites.
The rapidity of Trump’s rise to power caught them off-guard. They couldn’t believe anyone could be so brazen in their disregard for the truth and for the conventions of American public life (“democracy”). They didn’t know how to react: “How can we not take him at his word?” they must have said. And so, they covered him, reported his words, played his speeches and generally completely fell for his schtick.
During the 2016 campaign, Selena Zito wrote in The Atlantic, that Trump’s supporters were taking him “seriously, but not literally;” but that the media and the “left” were taking him “literally, but not seriously.” It was a trenchant observation. Hillary didn’t pay attention, to her (& our) chagrin. Despite the warning, he became President; to whom great deference is owed. Even while the Emperor repeatedly demonstrated that he had no clothes (scary thought: is he orange all over?); that he said what he said for effect, not for accuracy, the media couldn’t stop themselves. It took years to not cover his antics and press conferences and media events; to call out his untruths. Eventually (after the loss in 2020) even Fox dropped him. Even Twitter is Trump-free.
The media loves drama and controversy. (“If it bleeds, it leads.”) Attention drives ratings, which drives revenues. Horror drives excitement and all sorts of sanctimony and rationalization of the actions of the noble and “objective” fifth estate. Most of it, at least on the journalistic side of the media is unconscious (although headline writers have clearly slid over the line); probably less so on the business side of the media conglomerates. The result was a joint venture: the Trumpian circus feeds his ego and his politics, the media gets lots of excitement (feeding their egos and economics): he gets the spotlight and all the air gets sucked out of the room.
For those of us who were not buying it; there was little choice: Fox sycophancy or MSNBC outrage or pulling the plug (“Real Housewives of Downton Abbey” etc.).
There was a way to cover him, responsibly, without giving in to the circus. And here, I am not talking about the (finally) clear characterization of his falsehoods. Perhaps some writers did so; but not too many, too early, or too prominently. To restate what Zito wrote: Trump and his supporters were having a feelings conversation and which the media and many responsible citizens read as a solutions (literal) conversation. What if the media had reported the news based on that stance:
* “The President today expressed anxiety over the fact that America is declining relative to China and used his trade powers to slap them since it was much easier than motivating American productivity.”
* “Trump’s meeting today with the North Korean leader satisfied his urge to garner attention but brought nothing tangible beyond a photo-op at the DMZ.”
* “Fearing for the erosion of White privilege and power, the Administration kidnapped small (brown) children and put them in cages.”
Might things have played out a bit different?
He was right, of course, the “lame-stream” media was hooked on “fake news”: all his stunts were at least good for outrage and self-righteousness, the breathless reports of Congressional negotiations made it easy not to cover the lives of millions feeling disconnected from elites. Trump was too good a show to pass up. Why did it take so long to look into the real concerns of MAGA-ites? Could it be the same reason as the elite-focused media had to “discover” that Black lives matter and that systemic racism (and sexism, etc.) exists in American society?
In this they were just a reflection of the broader society; which wouldn’t be so terrible if they didn’t claim a status as tribune of the people, with a unique role in our democracy. Rarely has the standard of “objectivity” been so dutifully observed in form (“equal time” for all sides); and abused in practice (truth is a much less interesting story than histrionics). He wanted/lusted for/lived for coverage (even that which he didn’t read). He designed his Presidency around it and the media largely gave him what he wanted.
Now that he’s out of office and (among a majority of the population) disgraced, We will see if the media will wean itself off his daily diatribes. The implosion of his media presence after the Capitol rampage may be a start of a new (or stealthier) Trump. However, even if the 2d impeachment never goes to trial, there will be other trials; scandals at Mar-a-Lago, Melania departing for quieter climes; not to mention the always juicy kids. On the other end, already the farthest wing is feeling betrayed by his apparent “surrender”; punctured delusions can be hard. Will QAnon survive? Or will they sign- up for a 12-step QAnon-anon program?
As for me, I would like to be done with him. No reruns of Leonard Pinth-Garnell’s “Bad Political Theater,” (from SNL in the ‘70s) no speculation on whether he will be convicted by the Senate, no intrigues about his incipient bankruptcy. Let’s leave him to the historians and move on; there is real work to be done.