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Sunday, August 13, 2023

Journalism and Politics Again

Donald Trump liked to brag that the media depended on him.  He was right, and the second act of a terrible drama is now underway.

Trump, let us face it, re-ignited interest in American politics in 2016.   Thanks to The Apprentice he was already a national celebrity, and he captivated the country--and not only his supporters--by saying outrageous things that no one else would say.  His election shocked the left, but the media quickly managed to integrate his presidency into one of their longstanding SOPs.  Since Watergate, uncovering government wrongdoing has become the media's favorite kind of story--whether there was really anything important to uncover or not.  (See Clinton, Bill.)   As a New York Times editor admitted after the special counsel's report essentially cleared Trump of being a Russian agent, that paper--and not only they--had committed themselves to a narrative focused on the destruction of Trump's evil presidency.  Then came the Zelensky phone call scandal and impeachment of 2019, and the election controversies of 2020.

Mitch McConnell, more than anyone else, deserves the blame for Trump's continuing presence in American politics.  With a little courage, he could have rounded up enough Republican Senate votes in early 2021 to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial and disqualify him from holding federal office--but he didn't.  The Biden Administration apparently also assumed that Trump was effectively finished, and its Justice Department did not start investigating Trump's attempts to overturn the election results until a House Committee pushed them into it two years later.  Now, fifteen months before the election, three (and probably four) indictments fill the front pages of our newspapers and our cable newscasts with an endless round of stories, enlivened by Trump's hysterical comments on social media.  Coverage of the Republican campaign is also focusing on Trump, who certainly seems certain to be nominated.  "A Day at the [Iowa State] Fair" is Trump's Show," a Times headline reads this morning, inspiring me to write this post that has been on my mind for some time.

The Times and other mainstream outlets, as observers have begun to realize, are pitching to a particular demographic of younger, mostly progressive readers who, they have decided, hold their future in their hands.  They hate Trump and all that he stands for, and the media think (perhaps rightly) that they will enjoy 15 more months of all Trump, all the time.  They ignore the risk (as the prosecutors did) of assuring Trump's place as the most famous political figure in America, as well as of energizing his base and encouraging it to keep funding both his legal defense and his campaign.  And it is anything but certain that either the prosecutors or the media will be able to bring him down.  Even if he is convicted he will surely remain free on appeal during the election and he will campaign asking for the presidency and the pardon power to end his legal "persecution."  Don't get me wrong, he is guilty, but that doesn't mean that prosecuting him will in the end serve the national interest.

The Times story about Trump in Iowa is in column one of the front page. In column 5 we find, "Political Burr Still Sticking to President: Hunter Biden's Case Drags into Campaign."  Hunter Biden has been all the rage in rightwing media and in House committee hearings for months, but the MSM has mostly ignored him--until now.  We will be hearing more about him soon.  And this is what our politics now largely revolves around: dueling scandals, real and imagined.  

In other critical periods of American history, presidents have managed to create new and inspiring stories.  Andrew Jackson mobilized troops to force South Carolina to give up its intention to nullify federal laws.  Abraham Lincoln rallied the nation around the defense of the Union and the abolition of slavery.  Wilson proclaimed a crusade to transform international politics.  Franklin Roosevelt rallied the nation behind a great attack upon the Depression and economic injustice, and then mobilized us to fight and win the Second World War.   Presidents from Truman through Reagan rallied the country around the spread of Communism, although Vietnam undermined the consensus on that point.  Reagan also created a new majority that supported dismantling Roosevelt's New Deal.  

No president since Reagan has managed to do anything remotely comparable, although Bush II, Obama, and Trump have tried.  Joe Biden got some important legislation through the Congress, but he has been the least communicative president of my lifetime.  I believe that he has given exactly one nationally televised address per year.  He has nothing like Trump's social media presence and he has not created any phrases to associate with him or his administration.  His team seems very content to try to reelect him on the grounds that he is not Donald Trump--but polls show them in a dead heat.  I sometimes wonder whether Biden actually plans to drop out of the race, but is delaying his announcement until it will be impossible for any other candidate to mount a challenge to Kamala Harris.   And I very much doubt that she could win election.

For about two hundred years, presidents helped the nation believe that we were engaged in a great democratic experiment.  That is the topic of my new forthcoming book.  They seem to have lost the ability to do that, and the media no longer seems to believe it either.  I can much more easily imagine a very bad outcome to the next eighteen months than a good one.


noribori said...

Media discourses function according to their own rules, which aim at direct representation, not abstract representation. The more influential the media world became in the course of the 20th century, the less media discourses could be integrated into political processes, and the more a competitive model emerged: media democracy.

In the end, representative democracy is increasingly undermined by the negative consequences of media democracy. Media democracy does not know abstract compromises, increasingly rejects them, discredits the abstractness of political processes as a swamp, as the rule of a degenerate elite with dark secrets. The media's own inability to make abstract compromises creates polarizing, warring media worlds. Instead of solutions, media democracy promotes enemy images and symbol politics. Populist politicians, whose incompetence is masked solely by media competence, come to the fore as saviors. If Trump sees visible crowds of people demonstrating for him or turning violent as direct legitimation of his actions, then this is the sad endpoint of a development in which abstract rules and procedures are generally called into question.

A society that rejects abstractness and is addicted to direct representation can only disintegrate.

CrocodileChuck said...

What 'Zelensky Phone Call Scandal'?


Bruce Wilder said...

Did Obama try? I missed that, I guess. I remember him immunizing banksters. The country will never recover from the tidal wave of lawless money that unleashed. I remember “surging” in Afghanistan. I remember destroying Libya. I remember bronze plans providing access to medical bankruptcy.

Is Hunter Biden peddling father Biden’s political influence somehow not a “real” scandal? We are in a proxy war with Russia in part because Trump’s call with Zelensky was an impeachable offense but Biden protecting Burisma wasn’t. Hillary Clinton’s reckless ginning up of Russiagate isn’t a “real” scandal either.

We are so caught up in overwrought media narrated partisan Kayfabe we hardly notice the reality, which is oligarchic domination of a political system that lost democratic responsiveness 40 years ago.