Friday, March 29, 2019


Matt Bai -- yes, he's still around, writing a largely unread regular column for Yahoo News -- is a Trump-skeptical journalist who's ashamed of being one:
... this might be a good moment to step back and ask some hard questions about who we’ve become, as journalists, in the Trump era.

... I don’t agree with my former New York Times colleague David Brooks, who says we all made fools of ourselves with this Russia business....

That said, I think we have to admit an inescapable and uncomfortable truth about the Trump presidency more generally, which is that the media that covers him is almost unrecognizable from the media that covered every previous president. He’s just right about that.

There are days now — a lot of them — when I open the up the homepages of the New York Times and the Washington Post in the morning, scroll down a bit, and have the odd sensation that I’m reading the organ of an opposition party, with one headline after another trumpeting the moral depravity of the administration.

Even last weekend, as news broke that Mueller wouldn’t be recommending any further charges against the president or his aides, the front pages pivoted instantly to other, ongoing investigations and breathlessly assured us the scandal would not go away. After two years of innuendo, Trump couldn’t be allowed his due for a day.
Let me stop Bai right there. Why was Trump's "due for a day" a complete suspension of all negative coverage? Sure, he was inevitably going to take a victory lap, but was it the responsibility of the press to help him do that? The press "pivoted instantly to other, ongoing investigations and breathlessly assured us the scandal would not go away" because there are other, ongoing investigations and Trump scandals won't go away. Besides, we haven't even seen the report that Bai believes entitled Trump to a holiday from bad news coverage. All we've seen is a brief summary by a partisan hack.
... I can’t help nodding along with one of my idols in this business, 79-year-old Ted Koppel, when he decries the drift of our best media toward a kind of reflexive advocacy.

It’s not that I think Trump has a lot of redeeming qualities as a president. It’s that I think we’ve been played.

You see, Trump doesn’t hate the media — not really. He’s spent a lifetime manipulating and cultivating reporters. He talks to them, even now, more than any of his recent predecessors, by a lot.

But Trump very skillfully drew us into a fight. He cast the “fake news” as his enemy, and we responded exactly as he knew we would — in kind. He goaded us into becoming outright advocates, into jeopardizing what little remained of our public trust.
That's not how it happened. Before Trumped glommed on to "fake news" as a catchphrase, he was proving himself not fit live among civilized people -- calling Mexican immigrants rapists, launching gutter-level attacks on John McCain and a physically disabled journalist, making crude remarks about women who weren't deferential to him. Prior to that, he'd spread racist conspiracy theories about Barack Obama's birth. He didn't goad the media into treating him as a blight on the political landscape by attacking the media -- he did it by attacking common decency.
And now we’re playing to our own audience, just like him.

This is Trump’s superpower. He has an innate talent for bringing out the worst versions of everyone else, so that everyone ends up as compromised as he is, or at least somewhere on the continuum.
Prior to Trump, it wouldn't have taken much for any of the disgusting true stories about Trump to sink his political career. But "Trump's superpower" isn't "bringing out the worst versions of everyone else" -- it's his ability to strike a chord with millions of citizens who turn out to be worse than we ever realized they were, thus neutralizing ordinary journalistic efforts to hold him accountable. That's the reason the press has sometimes seemed shrill -- the evidence of Trump's rank unfitness is in plain sight, and it doesn't seem to matter.


The breast-beating of Bai and David Brooks leads me to conclude that just as some members of the elite commentariat cheerlead for a political stance shared by very few ordinary Americans -- liberalism on social issues accompanied by fiscal conservatism -- some elite pundits also dislike Trump but feel really bad about it, another pairing of beliefs that's rare among ordinary citizens.

As many observers have noted, the American populace has quite a few people who are fiscally and socially liberal, quite a few who are fiscally and socially conservative, and quite a few who are socially conservative but fiscally liberal (i.e., they're wary of modern morality and multiculturalism, but they believe in the social safety net). The only people in the fourth category, socially liberal and fiscally conservative, seem to be elitists like Howard Schultz and many elite commentators.

Similarly, the U.S. population has many people who love Trump and are proud of it, many who despise Trump and are proud of it, and many who support Trump but don't like him personally. Only in the elite media are there people who dislike Trump and feel bad about it.

Poll after poll demonstrates that the public still doesn't believe Trump is in the clear -- today it's the NPR poll, in which 56% of respondents say that "questions still exist" about Trump's conduct, while only 36% say he's been cleared of wrongdoing. There's also the Pew poll, in which 64% of respondents say that Trump has definitely or probably done something illegal, while 72% think he's definitely or probably done something unethical.

In other words, ordinary people don't feel bad about believing all this time that Trump is a sleazebag -- because they still believe he's a sleazebag. Only the likes of Matt Bai and David Brooks feel bad about that.

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