Q and A

Q&A: Jelani Cobb on Trump, race, and journalism

November 9, 2017

In the hours after it became clear that Donald Trump would become the 45th president, Jelani Cobb was worried. “I was wildly disconcerted,” he says of the election of a candidate whose campaign trafficked in racially divisive, misogynistic messages. Cobb feared not just for the future of the country, but also for the state of his profession.

One year later, Cobb, a staff writer at The New Yorker and professor at the Columbia Journalism School, admits that “it’s still surreal” when he sees images of Trump presiding over official functions. At the same time, he believes journalism has evolved, at least to an extent, in its coverage of a most unusual president.

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On the anniversary of Trump’s election, Cobb joined CJR’s The Kicker to look back on the events of the past year, both for journalism and the country. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


We’re recording this on November 8, 2017, but I want to start by going back a year. You were in North Carolina on the day of the election. What were you there to report on? 

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I was there to write about some of the issues around voter suppression. It became some of what I wrote about, but the bigger story, obviously, was the tectonic shift in American politics that allowed Donald Trump to be elected as the president.


As you processed that tectonic shift that evening and the following morning, what were your thoughts? How did you think about what had just happened?

I was wildly disconcerted. The reason for my concern was as an observer of American politics, having been at one of Trump’s rallies, I had come to believe the term “populism” was a euphemism. A great deal of what he was articulating was not about people’s economic concerns: It was a cultural backlash that took on some very misogynistic and potentially violent overtones. Having seen that be rewarded with a majority in the Electoral College, I then became very concerned about what kind of climate we were embarking upon, what it meant for media—having seen things like when Trump specifically singled out Katy Tur for the derision, ridicule, and possible violence from people in the crowd at his rallies—and I thought we had just embarked upon a very dangerous moment.


Both for the country and for journalism as a profession? 

For the country and for journalism, yeah.


A few weeks after that, you warned against the normalization of Trump’s absurdities, writing that they could blend into the background “in the way that police sirens can become ambient noise in New York City.” What did you mean by that, and has that happened?  

If you live in New York City, or any major city, you hear sirens all the time. We don’t process the fact that if we hear a siren, something has gone terribly wrong. It’s just ambient.

There were things that were happening that people were just moving past without necessarily grappling with what the long-term implications. One being the complete untethered relationship from what we know as factual truth. When PolitiFact had scored that 71 percent of Trump’s statements were at the very least “partly false,” and he nonetheless had a reputation among his supporters for being the more honest of the candidates, I thought that was a real cause for concern.

What it said was, we are now not dealing with the same approach to reality. Anything can be justified or rationalized. So in that regard, I think we have seen movement in two directions. One is that, even as he has historic low support overall, he has retained support in the [mid-80-percent range] among his electorate. All of the things we have seen that are contrary to the institutional practices and values of democracy—the targeting of the media as enemies of the people, the attacks upon the independent judiciary, the conflict that he got into with not one but two Gold Star families, the disregard of the intelligence community, the willingness to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to single out and attack individual citizens—all these things that should be alarming, to one set of the public, has been. But for another set of the public, it has gone completely unnoticed.

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Is there some blame for journalists in not making it clear that those incidents you mention should be alarming? 

I think that it has been made clear; the problem is that it’s not being heard. We have the echo-chamber effect. There’s this a la carte approach to reality, where if you want to view the world in a particular way you can find the information that justifies you having that point of view. It’s not simply the Fox News element of it, but also Breitbart and a host of lesser known blogs are replicating information. We now have this question about the role bots are playing in all this. We’re just now, a year after the election, having Congressional hearings about Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the role of Russian false advertising that was being promulgated on social media. I think this conversation has been had, but it hasn’t been had in places where it really matters.


Which are?

We have these media mega-entities on the coasts and in the large cities, and then we have wide swaths of the country that are basically media deserts. Not only are they media deserts for local information, they have a suspicion if not disdain for the large corporations that are providing information to them now. It’s very difficult to penetrate that.


Playing on racial divisions was a huge part of Trump’s campaign, and we’ve seen Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie try to touch on some of those same tactics over the past month, though obviously things turned out differently. Has the media done enough to recognize and respond to the racial dynamic of the Trump presidency?

There has been a very curious bifurcation in the way the media has handled this. In terms of the large, legacy media organizations, you certainly did see people calling out what Trump was doing early on, saying he was trafficking in the worst kinds of demagogic, divisive, ultimately dangerous politics.

At the same time, after the election there was almost a genre of newspaper article trying to separate the racism that had been brandished by the campaign from the racism of the electorate that voted for Trump. That became a kind of curious element of the conversation because on some level it became self-exculpatory. It didn’t really matter, the contents of the hearts of the people who voted for him. The fact was that there was a person who has played a significant role in the mainstreaming of white nationalism in our politics, and irrespective of what their reasoning was, people still voted for someone who represented that. We still have to deal with those implications.

As time has gone on, we saw things like the reflexive willingness to denounce and politicize violence that appears to have been the product of a person of Arab descent or a person of Muslim faith, in contrast to things like what we just saw in Texas or Las Vegas, where the shooter is white, and there’s a kind of restraint from the presidency. You’ve seen media conversations pointing that out quickly. Just the other day there was an interesting social media debate when Brian Stelter from Reliable Sources announced that he was going to have Kellyanne Conway on. He got an immediate backlash, which I participated in, because people were saying “Why would you give her a forum if she has been so dishonest and untruthful in so many other instances? Is it not irresponsible to do so?” To his credit, he said he thought it was important to get people in official capacities on the record with their statements. He did say in the course of that interview that he would not allow her to use his forum to spread misinformation. That, I don’t think, would have happened even six months ago.


So you think there has been some level of adaptation from journalists to that tectonic shift you mentioned earlier?

Sure, there’s been a level or recognition, even if it’s only for existential and self-interested reasons. But I think the media being self-interested is also beneficial to democracy. Protecting the institution ends up having a salutary effect on other institutions in society.


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Coming full circle, the morning after last year’s election, you tweeted, “My great grandparents were slaves. I choose to stay, to stand and to fight.”

That was a quote, actually, from Paul Robeson, the African American activist who in the midst of the Cold War was persecuted for his leftist politics and was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. When he refused to talk about whether he was a member of the Communist Party, a frustrated congressman said, “If you like the Soviet Union so much why don’t you go live there?” Robeson said, “Because my parents were slaves and they helped build this country, and no fascist-minded politician will drive me from it.”

It’s kind of an amazing thing: My parents were slaves. People don’t understand what that means. You could say that this is the basis for recrimination, like “I hate you, I hate your society, I hate everything about you.” But Robeson saw it as sweat equity, that we helped build this place. Like, “You don’t have the authority to tell me to leave.” That’s what I was thinking about at that point.

I had kind of been wrestling with what, at that point, was an unknown and unknowable landscape. We were looking at this kind of populism not only in the United States, but resurgent in Europe, the geopolitical implications of Russia trying to undo the Atlantic alliances, and the kind of world I figured at worst-case scenario would come to resemble the one that produced World War I. Those were things that I was thinking about at that point in time. I also had a real come-to-Jesus conversation with (New Yorker Editor) David Remnick about this. He was saying, “We have to fight,” and then he wrote that amazing editorial that day.


A year on, are you optimistic about that fight?

I’m always hesitant to use the term optimism because I think that sometimes we take optimism as an easy out. What I think is that hope is not lost. I think it is possible for a more democratic society to emerge from the rubble of the moment we’re presently occupying.

Photo above by Peter Morenus/UConn Photo.

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.