It didn’t take a clairvoyant to predict that President-elect Donald Trump would be almost instantly normalized by the press since he had already been normalized by them when he was a candidate. After a 60 Minutes interview, Lesley Stahl declared him “more subdued and serious.” NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reported approvingly upon the transition as if proposed White House counselor Steve Bannon and proposed attorney general Jeff Sessions, two men with racism in their pasts, were ordinary appointments. Mitchell’s colleague at NBC, Chuck Todd, chastised Sen. Harry Reid, after his eloquent and impassioned attack on Trump, for being “too harsh.” And so the media fell into line. To which we can only invoke John Oliver’s emphatic post-election pronouncement: “THIS IS NOT NORMAL.”
That, however, is only one of the media’s derelictions. Far more serious is their normalization not of Trump but of his voters. The former is typical cowardice under threat of reactionary populism. The latter is an endorsement of reactionary populism that may have far-reaching consequences for whether the country can ever be reunited after having been torn asunder.
First Trump. The media impulse to render Trump ordinary, and their sudden disinclination to criticize him is natural reflex. The press needs him as it needs all presidents because the press need access. Trump was fairly brilliant in branding the mainstream media as his opponents and, worse, a group of snotty elitists who disdained not only him but also his supporters. The general public doesn’t much like the press to begin with and Trump ramped up the hatred, so that, according to some reports, a cluster of his supporters began using the term “luginpresse,” or “lying press,” which is how the Nazis characterized those organs that opposed Hitler. More, they began to intimidate the press, verbally and even physically.
Under normal circumstances a candidate who incited his supporters to attack the press might raise First Amendment issues. But these are not normal circumstances, so Trump can target the press with impunity. Their only recourse is to make peace, which is what they seemed to be doing when they met with Trump this weekend, and peace means less rigorous coverage. The meeting, according to accounts, didn’t go well, but it didn’t have to. Trump bullied the press, and they stewed. We all know how this turns out. No matter how much the media may protest and show false bravado, he will thrash them into submission. Always remember: The news media are in the eyeball business, not the information business. And Trump gets eyeballs.
Then there is the “Theodore H. White” syndrome. White was the longtime journalist-cum-novelist who came up with the idea of “cinematizing” the 1960 election campaign between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, going behind the scenes, showing the candidates up close and personal, and driving the electoral drama. He became the ultimate insider before there were insiders. But with The Making of the President 1960, both a best-seller and a Pulitzer Prize-winner, White not only changed the temper and tone of political coverage; he created a quadrennial fairy tale. In White’s telling, as reported in that first volume and subsequent volumes, the American people somehow manage to make the right decisions, choose the right men, which made the democratic process infallible, even magical.
White would later express misgivings about what he had wrought, turning the election into a soap opera. He seemed to have fewer misgivings about the fairy tale aspect, but that has had as much influence. To decry Trump’s election now is not just to decry Trump. It is to question the wisdom of the American people. And that, not many journalists — certainly no journalist who is dependent upon the American people for his living — dare do. Trump is ours, whether many of us like it or not. And he is the media’s.
But while it is one thing to normalize Trump, it is quite another to normalize the election that brought him to the presidency. Ordinarily, media autopsies concentrate on what the losing candidate did wrong, and we certainly got our share of those, even though this time, with a switch of a few hundred thousand votes — a mere drop in the bucket — they would have been talking about how Trump blew it and Hillary nailed it. However, the incredible shock of Trump’s election among the chattering classes led almost instantly to mea culpas. The press had never understood flyover America. They didn’t feel the grievances of the white working class. They assumed that the demographic trends would overwhelm the diminishing white vote. And so on. Ron Brownstein had long ago written about two competing coalitions: the restoration coalition of white rural America and the transformation coalition of young and minority urban and suburban America. No one in the press expected a restoration, which is what they got.
But notice the tone of the post-mortems. It isn’t just that the media missed the magnitude of the seething rage. It is that the seething rage was now entirely justified. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi is no apologist for the right wing, God knows, but his analysis could have been written — and was written — by dozens of surprised and chastened journalists. Taibbi, rightfully in my estimation, chastised the mainstream media for its insularity and condescension. They only spoke to one another, and they felt vastly superior to the hoi polloi. As Taibbi and others have cast it, the election was the hoi polloi’s revenge against this elitism:
Deep-seated resentment. There was a catchy, succinct line, over which we could all collectively stroke our chins in quiet contemplation. That’s as opposed to what the voters intended, which was to sock us all so hard for our snobbism and intellectual myopia that those very chins of ours would get driven straight through the backs of our skulls.
Yes, Trump’s win was a triumph of the hideous racism, sexism and xenophobia that has always run through American society. But his coalition also took aim at the neoliberal gentry’s pathetic reliance on proxies to communicate with flyover America. They fed on the widespread visceral disdain red-staters felt toward the very people Hillary Clinton’s campaign enlisted all year to speak on its behalf: Hollywood actors, big-ticket musicians, Beltway activists, academics and especially media figures.
What Taibbi and others discovered is that the east coast and west coast media elites should have known what was brewing. They should have known about the festering resentments. They were so cocksure of themselves that they wound up missing the big story.
All too true. But in saying that, the media also let the Trump supporters off the hook. It wasn’t their fault that they bought Trump’s vicious bigotry. It was Clinton’s fault and the Democrats’ fault and the Republicans’ fault and the media’s fault and everybody else’s fault. Give the American people a break. That, in a nutshell, is the new conventional wisdom.
You hear that wisdom everywhere now. I revere Jon Stewart, but in his brief post-election reaction to Charlie Rose on CBS This Morning, he said two things I think are demonstrably wrong. First: “I don’t believe we are fundamentally a different country today than we were two weeks ago or than we were a month ago,” and he cited anti-Semitic remarks by Nixon and LBJ to make the point that anti-Semitism was alive and well in the White House long before Trump. But the point — the fundamental difference — is that Nixon and LBJ made those remarks closeted in the White House. They didn’t make them publicly to rouse the latent hatred in their fellow Americans. Trump has. Second: “There is now this idea that anyone who voted for him [Trump] has to be defined by the worst of his rhetoric.” And he went on to say how he “loved” some Trump supporters he knew, who weren’t really racists. They were just angry about their rising insurance premiums.
I doubt it. Unless you hold the terribly condescending view that Trump voters — “low-information” voters, as they were sneeringly called — had no idea what he actually said, they were not voting against insurance premiums or other economic difficulties. They were voting against a world, including one with rising insurance premiums, that they didn’t want, didn’t understand and above all, didn’t control. He is right in this: They were not all reprehensible, any more than Clinton voters were all godly. Many of Trump’s folks just wanted to blow up the system and then see what happens. But, yes, most of them were voting for racial and religious hegemony too. Let’s not pretend otherwise.
Similarly, when Tom Hanks recently pronounced that we Americans have suffered through worse times than these, he wasn’t acknowledging that, the Civil War aside, which truly was the worst period in American history, our other calamities were things that happened to us: war, natural disaster, economic collapse. Trump is something we did to ourselves. He is a cancer inside the body politic — a force that turned the body against the body. And this time there is no single immunity system to save us.
We know where Stewart and Hanks are coming from, and it is a place paved with good intentions. We are told that it does progressives no service to demonize Trump voters. I whole-heartedly agree, just as it does conservatives no service to demonize Obama and Clinton voters. But those are political propositions — ways to build coalitions. Democrats won’t win elections unless they attempt to understand Trump voters’ grievances and unless they frame policies to address them. This is precisely what political activists must do in the years ahead.
But the media are not in the politics business, and they are not activists. They are supposedly in the information business, though many of us would say they are really in the entertainment business. And I would suggest that having foresworn it for far too long, they should now also be in the morality business. That’s because alongside but separate from the political proposition, there is also a moral proposition for both the public and the press. As a moral proposition, you can’t get all teary-eyed over Trump voters who feel disrespected. You can’t excuse the racism, misogyny, nativism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia because we think these all-white voters have legitimate gripes against elites or because they haven’t enjoyed the economic success they feel they deserve. With apologies to Jon Stewart, these do not justify the worst effusions of human nature. Every fascist and proto-fascist movement arose from disgruntled citizens who felt dispossessed, disillusioned and disrespected. You can read Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners for evidence. Of course, the media must attempt to understand and explain. That is part of their job. But they must not legitimize the cruelty, and they must not normalize this election, which is precisely what they are doing. They must treat it as the aberration it is: an unprecedented and, one hopes, singular moment when angry white Americans loosed their ugliness and turned on their fellow Americans.
And so the real question for the media as Trump assumes the presidency is this: Can the media grow a conscience? Or: Can the media be our conscience? This is not a role they have played or appear to feel comfortable playing. They don’t take sides; they work in equivalencies. But the media owe it to America to hold Trump, the Republicans the Democrats, and the rest of us to the highest moral standards. They owe it to the country to call out the bigotry. This is not strictly speaking politics, and it isn’t sociology. It is something much more, and, I think, much more valuable. It is morality, and it isn’t as complicated as some would have you believe. Just this: Always report the truth. Promote the good. Condemn the bad. And don’t ever normalize or excuse the worst in us.
This is not normal.