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The dangers of mystifying Trump

Media in the Age of Trump

December 13, 2016

The atmosphere still echoes with warnings both from and to the media against “normalizing” Donald Trump. But the danger for journalists lies not in normalizing Trump–whatever that means. The great danger is in mystifying him.

People seem to mean two things when they issue exhortations not to normalize the president-elect. One is an admonition not to invoke the strength of American democracy and of American democratic institutions when speculating about the effects of a Trump presidency, as if the very advent of Trump has, overnight, weakened the deeply rooted foundations of American freedom. The other is a caution against placing Trump in some type of historical context that might explain away his menace by means of complacent analogies. Do not, under any circumstances, let your guard down.

It is unlikely that any journalist worth her salt would let her guard down in the course of doing her job at any time, let alone in this moment. Yet the injunction against normalization seems, in varying degrees, to have been assimilated by the media. The result is to impart to Trump and his followers an almost occult power and authority.

Journalism that does not keep fringe sentiments harbored by a ludicrously small group of people in perspective risks endowing them with a fantastic-beast-like enchantment.

For example, a recent article in The New York Times about the reverence some white supremacists have for Vladimir Putin argued that Trump’s praise of Putin was a shrewd move that he made in order to court these supporters.

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This was an assertion easily as bizarre as any of Trump’s late-night tweets. It attributed an almost diabolical political foresight to a man who does not seem to possess the intelligence or the attention span to be able to carry on a meaningful conversation. It assumed that Trump would risk seeming seditious in order to court people who were already in his camp. And it seemed to take for granted the fact that these white supremacists were so populous and consequential that they required a preternatural guile to be won over.

The effect of the article was to confer on the schlub from Queens–who seems to have stumbled into the White House to his own surprise–the aura of a political genius and shaman, a cross between Machiavelli and Rasputin.

On the contrary. Though still unstable and indistinct, the next four years are beginning to acquire a certain shape. Trump, as a dedicated plutocrat and the servant of a growing Republican oligarchy, will follow an extreme right-wing policy in economics–what the French left used to quaintly call le capitalisme sauvage. In foreign policy, as a corporate internationalist whose first alliance is to the movement of global funds–Capital first, then America–he will be committed to peaceful relations with even the most adversarial or repugnant foreign powers, as long as they can make a buck for him and his friends.     

If ever there was a time for coverage with a broad, deep, penetrating historical context combined with the specific details of contemporary events, it is now. There is nothing fatal to the republic about the causes of Trump’s election. The majority of the people who voted for Trump did so in order to keep what is left of their familiar world stable and unchanged while at the same time hoping to destabilize and sweep away the parts of society that they feel have flourished at their expense.

Their dislike of liberal elites might, in its spleen, encompass a resentment against a black president, and that might spill over into racism, but that is not the same thing as believing, with ideological dedication, in the superiority of the white race. Resentment, ugly and toxic as it is, is a negative emotion, not a positive commitment. Journalism that does not keep fringe sentiments harbored by a ludicrously small group of people in perspective risks endowing them with a fantastic-beast-like enchantment. For all the ink spilled about the alt right, I have yet to read specific statistics on just how many individuals consider themselves radical right revolutionaries. These people have been around at least since Reconstruction, and the FBI has kept tabs on them and infiltrated their groups for decades.

In the same way, the talk about irresistible changes transforming Europe also has the effect of mystifying political trends that have been decades in the making, and that vary in their particulars from country to country.

Recently, just before the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi* saw his referendum defeated at the polls and promptly announced his resignation, I watched him being interviewed on 60 Minutes. Sixty-five governments in 71 years, the interviewer was saying, sixty-five! Renzi bowed his head in a performance of embarrassment over the political incompetence of Italians. We are all in the same boat now, the interviewer seemed to be saying. You with your surging right-wing populism, we with ours. Other media outlets continued that narrative.

This makes it seem that we are in the grip of some dark magic, some unknowable and therefore irresistible force, when the reality is far more complex, and therefore far less inevitable.

A different way to look at Italy is that, having invented modern politics, the Italians form and dissolve governments not out of incompetence, but out of a remarkable mastery of the art of politics. At the same time, civic life is so strong in Italy–so much stronger than here–that Italians scarcely need politics at all, except as an ancient blight whose sordidness unifies, on some level, people of every political stripe.

Indeed, Renzi’s foreign minister, the center left Paolo Gentiloni, now has a presidential mandate to form a new government. Elections, when they come, might not be held until 2018. What is taking place in Italy is hardly a right-wing coup. It is, in fact, a considerable improvement over the era of Berlusconi.

A recent article in Newsweek, echoing sentiments in other media outlets, linked Trump’s victory to populist movements throughout the world and labeled them all “fascist,” a word that connotes violent revolution and repression, which is not happening anywhere or about to happen anywhere in the West.

Another article in The Wall Street Journal linked “populist victories in British and Italian referendums” to Trump, and to the impeachment of the South Korean president, the last event bearing as little resemblance to a populist referendum as a referendum bears to a presidential election. And never mind that the surging political forces in South Korea are on the left, not on the right.

Populism is on the rise throughout the West and we are in a transformative moment the likes of which we have not seen in our lifetime. That is all the more reason to make distinctions when talking about wildly disparate countries and cultures. Too many journalists now put forward sweeping comparisons that create the illusion of a unified menace gathering over America and Europe. This makes it seem that we are in the grip of some dark magic, some unknowable and therefore irresistible force, when the reality is far more complex, and therefore far less inevitable.

Nigel Farage might cite Brexit and Trump as symmetrically united waves of the future, but he himself is now in the dust heap of history. The south and north of Italy are about as similar to America’s Rust Belt and coasts as braciola resembles meatloaf. In Austria, the far right was recently defeated in the presidential election. François Fillon, though a hard-line conservative, is not nearly as extreme as the right-wing Marine Le Pen, whom he vanquished in France’s conservative primary in November. And Germany would immolate itself before allowing another extreme right-wing party to come to power.

One of the many ironies of all this promiscuous international comparison-making is that as Trump is being, rightly, lambasted by the media for his support and praise of Putin, the media is busy making one analogy after another to Russia.

Again and again we hear that we are on the verge of an authoritarian overthrow of our government a la Putin. As a member of the Russian punk protest group, Pussy Riot, recently put it, “I know what does it mean to live under rule of person who is a so-called ‘strong leader’ or ‘strong hand.’ Donald Trump refers a lot to that kind of politician, and he praises guys like Putin or Bashar Assad. I don’t think that actually some Americans realize what consequences could be for their country because of this so-called ‘strong leader.’ ” Her statement was widely quoted in the media.

I respect and admire anyone who risks her life by standing up to Putin, but the chances of America turning, at this juncture in time, into a dictatorship are nonexistent. The analogies with Russia are absurd. The histories of the two countries could not be more different. Russia has never been a democracy, and America has always been a democracy–as grossly imperfect as it is. A country’s future is sown in its past. America does not have the past of Russia, Syria, Germany, Italy, or Latin America.

If anything, were are in a better place than we were in the late 1960s, when CBS regularly censored and finally canceled the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour because of the two satirists’ constant attacks on Nixon and his administration.           

We have had leaders with dangerous personalities before. We have had presidents who were every bit as irresponsible, if not as stupid and ignorant, as Donald Trump, but whose weaknesses and/or recklessness were not on display on Twitter and the continuous streams of cable news and the Web. Trump is something entirely new. The perils he presents are not.

Having fatally missed Trump’s ascension and the forces that elevated him, the media is overcompensating.

John F. Kennedy suffered so many physical and mental afflictions that he was sometimes on no less than 12 medications at once. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, when America and the Soviet Union stood on the brink of mutual extinction, Kennedy was taking, according to historian Robert Dallek in his book, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, “steroids for his Addison’s disease, painkillers for his back, antispasmodics for his colitis, antibiotics for urinary tract infections, antihistamines for his allergies, and on at least one occasion, an antipsychotic drug to treat a severe mood change that Jackie Kennedy believed was brought on by the antihistamines.”

Lyndon Baines Johnson was so depressed that at one point, according to Richard Goodwin, Johnson’s special assistant, Johnson took a “huge leap into unreason.”

Some historians believe that Richard Nixon was taking the powerful psychotropic drug Dilantin to control his mood swings. Others maintain that Nixon suffered a prolonged nervous breakdown during his last year in office.

There is no dispute that Ronald Reagan, who died in 2004, suffered from, as Nancy Reagan said, Alzheimer’s for the last 10 years of his life. The question is whether he had the disease to some degree before then. Lesley Stahl, at the time a White House correspondent for CBS, recalled meeting Reagan in 1986: “Reagan didn’t seem to know who I was. He gave me a distant look with those milky eyes and shook my hand weakly….Oh, my, he’s gonzo, I thought.” Reagan’s son, Ron Reagan Jr., remembered that during his father’s 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, “My father . . . floundered his way through his responses, fumbling with notes, uncharacteristically lost for words. He looked tired, bewildered.”

Trump, 71 next June and the oldest president ever elected, clearly is showing signs of odd behavior himself, what with his bizarre tweets, volatile conduct, forgetfulness, and changing perceptions of reality minute to minute.

This is the sort of context that, if it is delved into and explored, makes Trump no less of a threat, but does rob him of his mystical authority to fluster and excite the press.

Instead of this larger perspective, though, prestigious and authoritative news organizations have taken to calling Trump an autocrat before he even takes office. There is no doubt that he has an autocrat’s personality. But to make his reign autocratic before he becomes president is to make a highly unlikely possibility, given America’s history and the strength of its institutions, a preordained reality, and to exclude from the realm of possibility other forms his regime might take that could make it far easier to deal with him, and to thwart him when necessary.

Having fatally missed Trump’s ascension and the forces that elevated him, the media is overcompensating. It is attributing mystical powers to him, as if blaming some occult force for their blindness. And it is turning him into an authoritarian monster when he is, from all appearances, a toothless demagogue being manipulated by the American right. The media seems to be trying to make sure that, this time around, no one accuses it of playing down a political menace.

All this is not to say there is no reason to worry. There is more reason to worry than in recent memory. But the pitfall journalists must avoid is to make this vulgar, pedestrian, and transparent figure a mystery and then to turn this mystery into a fascinating enigma that will have the effect of making his actions seem inevitable and implacable. This in turn will obscure the more consequential, and more politically and socially opposable, events happening in politics.

The danger is not that Trump will overthrow the still-strong and durable American government. That, among other things, would be bad for business. The danger is that the Republican leadership will use Trump to overthrow American society using all the normal methods of democratic legislation and executive order–in the name of business. The media should overcome its aversion to examining the “normal” process of this quiet upheaval.

The Heisenberg principle states that you cannot observe the position and the velocity of an object in space at the same time. The media has been obsessing over Trump’s velocity–his tweets, his contradictory meetings, his threats, his surprising declarations. It’s time to focus more closely on his position. That means moving attention, to some extent, away from Trump and on to his relationships with his allies, funders, and handlers, who have now put a diamond-studded collar around his neck.

And it means acknowledging that the American republic now finds itself in a historical phase many other countries have already passed through: a puppet leader manipulated by dark money; fanatical ideologues; a rotting political establishment; and a bizarre and still largely unknown confluence of social, commercial, and entertainment elites, some of which would not be considered right-wing, or even conservative, at all.

For journalists, that, for now, is the real mystery, and an old story.

An earlier version of this article misspelled Renzi’s name.

Lee Siegel , a widely published writer on culture and politics, is the author of six books and the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism.