Sunday, April 30, 2017


Donald Trump's presidency has been a miserable failure by any objective measure. Perversely, he seemed to be drawing attention to that fact in the past couple of weeks by obsessing over the first-hundred-days milestone, and by flailing desperately in an effort to get a few accomplishments up on the board before Day 100 arrived.

But even as he was failing as a president, he turned the passing of the hundred-days milestone into a major pseudo-event -- which brought out the worst in our media. In addition, he marked the milestone with another pseudo-event, an ersatz campaign rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, timed to coincide with the White House Correspondents Dinner. Again, the press rose to the bait.

Not all the coverage of Trump's rally was awful. But this, from The Washington Post's Marc Fisher, was bad:
On the 100th day, the president had fun. He zipped up to the nearest Rust Belt state full of the forgotten men and women who put him into office. He bashed the bad guys of the media and Hollywood and the swamp he’d just left behind. He promised jobs and greatness. It was like last year again, all lusty cheers and smiling faces, a refreshing tonic after three months of stubborn lawmakers, naysaying judges, carping protesters, frenetic days and lonely nights.
I think Fisher believes that he's successfully worked an undercurrent of snark into this paragraph. But look at the number of Trumpian premises he seems to accept at face value. "The forgotten men and women" -- you mean the voters who are now quoted literally every day in the press, the ones before whom we must all genuflect which flagellating ourselves for our elitist sins? And Trump's "lonely nights"? Did Trump even ask his wife whether she wanted to live in the White House if he won? If not, what the hell kind of marriage is that?
Donald Trump could have stayed home and had dinner with 2,700 card-carrying members of the Washington elite, many of whom make their living inspecting his every move for missteps, most of whom probably didn’t vote for him anyway. But he said no to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, where the swells in tuxedos and gowns feasted on jokes at his expense.
It's true that the WHCA dinner represents everything awful about Beltway journalists -- their obsession with status, their excessive chumminess with the politicians they're supposed to cover. But we need the press. It needs to hold politicians' feet to the fire. Trump's phony campaign rally inspired journalists to sneer at their own profession. Mission accomplished for Trump.

The historian Daniel Boorstin, who coined the term "pseudo-event" in the early 1960s, offered an example that was strikingly similar to Trump's rally. Conor Friedersdorf writes:
To illustrate the term’s meaning [Boorstin] conjures a hotel. Its owners wish to increase its business. “In less sophisticated times, the answer might have been to hire a new chef, to improve the plumbing, to paint the rooms, or to install a crystal chandelier in the lobby,” he wrote. Instead, the hotel retains a PR counsel, who “proposes that the management stage a celebration of the hotel’s thirtieth anniversary.”

He continues:
... Once the celebration has been held, the celebration itself becomes evidence that the hotel really is a distinguished institution. The occasion actually gives the hotel the prestige to which it is pretending. It is obvious, too, that the value of such a celebration to the owners depends on its being photographed and reported in newspapers, magazines, newsreels, on radio, and over television. It is the report that gives the event its force.
Exactly what happened with Trump's rally.

But Trump also made the hundred-day anniversary more of a pseudo-event than it otherwise would have been. He challenged the self-evident fact that he'd accomplished little or nothing. He took the arbitrary milestone seriously, and the press dutifully accepted his valuation of it.

And so we get write-ups like this one from Peter Baker of The New York Times. It resembles the summation of an eight-year presidency, or one of the memorial tributes the Times publishes every year under the heading "The Lives They Led": It's solemn, sober-minded, and crafted not to give offense, which means that it grotesquely distorts the reality of the Trump presidency so far:
In his first 100 days in power, President Trump has transformed the nation’s highest office in ways both profound and mundane, pushing traditional boundaries, ignoring longstanding protocol and discarding historical precedents as he reshapes the White House in his own image.

But just as Mr. Trump has changed the presidency, advisers and analysts say it has also changed him. Still a mercurial and easily offended provocateur capable of head-spinning gyrations in policy and politics, Mr. Trump nonetheless at times has adapted his approach to both the job and the momentous challenges it entails....

He has assumed even more power for the presidency, expanding President Barack Obama’s use of executive orders to offset the inability to pass major legislation and making it more independent of the Washington establishment. He has been more aggressive than any other president in using his authority to undo his predecessor’s legacy, particularly on trade, business regulation and the environment. And he has dominated the national conversation perhaps more thoroughly than any president in a generation.
That was written with something approaching awe. It ignores his bigotry, his ignorance, his utter lack of respect for important governing norms, his obsession with score-settling, and his infantile capriciousness. (No, the word "mercurial" doesn't get Baker off the hook. That's a word you use for an emotionally volatile genius artist, not for a seventy-year-old lucky mediocrity who has the emotional maturity of a pre-schooler.)

This is not how Trump needs to be covered if this country is going to survive his presidency. But Trump created pseudo-events, and the press covered them the way he wanted them covered. He won the weekend -- or, rather, the press lost it.

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