One of the journalists I admire most is Roger Cohen, who weaves elevated ideas into on-the-ground reporting and clarifying common sense with a magisterial effortlessness. Cohen was, in many ways, one of the few people to see a Trump presidency coming. Yet a phrase in a column he wrote in The New York Times the day after Trump’s victory jumped out for me as an example of one of the limitations on the established media’s view of the world.
In the course of a typically sharp reflection on the forces that propelled Trump into the White House, Cohen wrote: “For some Americans–and this is painful to admit–a woman following a black man into the White House was simply too much to swallow.” It was the phrase “this is painful to admit” that stood out. Why was it painful to admit? No knock against Cohen, but it seems like the most obvious insight in the world. Elsewhere in the same column Cohen keenly noted that “not every American loves choose-your-gender bathrooms.” For men who have lost their jobs, and their place in society, for men whose familiar terrain has become something like a moonscape, the election of a woman who also happened to epitomize liberal detachment and privilege would, it goes without saying, be too much to swallow.
So why was it “painful” to say so? One of the establishment media’s fatal flaws is the fear that describing things as they are will make the describer complicit with what he is describing. That fear is not unfounded. If you suggested eight years ago, amid all the jubilation, that the election of a black president, in a country that was slipping away from the white working class and much of the white middle class, would cause a reactionary backlash in politics unique in modern American history, you might well have been called a racist.
Why are journalists, who are experts at poking, prodding and sometimes exploding pieties, the complacent prisoners of so many pieties themselves? I think it is the nature of an exclusive club to require adherence to refined pieties. For too long now, journalists whose sense of themselves as heroes is contradicted by the helplessness induced in them when in the presence of real power, have gravitated toward the empowering shared pieties of an exclusive club.
Like many people, not since 9/11 have I felt as threatened, for myself, my family and my country, as I do now that Trump has been elected president. American journalists cover and read about sudden historical turns for the worst in other places; we are not supposed to be caught up in them here, in protected America.
I feel the same dread and apprehension as everyone else who is in the segment of the country–divided right down its soggy middle, like a cake left out in the rain–that voted either for Clinton or against Trump. Yet I also have a very contrary feeling, the same sense of liberation and even hopefulness that has seized that other segment of the country that put Donald J. Trump in the White House. Journalism, which has for so long been trapped in a gilded, insulated, shuttered room, can now throw open the windows and let the rest of the country pour in.
For decades now, journalists have relished being guests in the rarefied realms of power. Now they have learned, with the force of a sobering slap in the face, that you cannot find the pulse of your moment in the still-young century while you are spending months lobbying to get into the Century Club. You cannot both step on toes and step around them.
Recently, as journalism and politics have both seemed to disintegrate together, I’ve been staying up late watching, as a kind of escape, old movies about journalism. What’s struck me about so many of these flicks was that, on the surface, journalists were portrayed as amoral, dishonest, cynical and driven only by the desire to find the most sensational story. The Front Page, Ace in the Hole, Nothing Sacred, Meet John Doe. Their protagonists, mostly comic, are paragons of sleaze.
They also exist on the social margins, are drawn toward outsiders and the dispossessed, are indifferent to social norms, and are thorough pains in power’s behind. Behind the inglorious portrayal of journalists was a subtle celebration of their glorious aloofness from convention. Many of these movies were written by former journalists, after all. What especially captured my attention was that, among all the different motives driving their pursuit of the most attention-getting story, attaining high social status was not one of them.
It is not insignificant that in the wake of American journalism’s apotheosis, the publication of the Pentagon papers and the Watergate revelations, the journalist’s outsider status evolved from a comic or comi-tragic irritant to a fatal vulnerability. At the end of Three Days of the Condor, the hero Robert Redford’s threat to expose the bad CIA guy to The New York Times is greeted by the latter’s knowing smile–the paper of record is powerless to bring him to justice. At the end of The Parallax View, the fearless, amoral outsider journalist, Warren Beatty, is murdered by the shady quasi-official agency he is trying to expose.
It was as if these movies were suggesting that journalism’s triumph over abusive power made journalists ever more conscious of how exceptional such triumph was, and how impregnable power often is. Perhaps it was that experience of feeling humbled in the shadow of their own victories that eventually led journalists to capitalize on their cachet, and to court power as therapy for undergoing, in the course of doing their job, the humiliating experience of being brushed aside by power.
It is long past time for establishment journalists to change the way they do business, to follow their moral imaginations down into the muck–into which even the most decent people stumble from time to time–rather than pursuing their social instincts and censoring themselves to maintain their comfortable professional and social status. Journalists as prestigious social actors themselves–high-conforming professionals, you might say–is so yesterday, so pre-Trump.
There is, inevitably, a lot of breast-beating among liberal journalists going on right now. Much it is well-deserved, of course, but some of it is excessive. The comparison between 9/11 and 11/9 that has been rippling through social media strikes me as apt. Trump’s election is a frightening visitation of history upon the heads of Americans who thought themselves exempt from history’s calamities. No one can foresee momentous historical change like that. If it were able to be predicted, there would be no such thing as history. Then, too, our environment, increasingly protected and regulated by rapidly advancing science and technology, certain didn’t help us try to imagine the dark forces outside it.
The charge that journalists missed or were not interested in the struggles of white working class and middle class America, though accurate, is also complicated. Plenty of the followers of the European demagogues in the 1930s were also hard-pressed and ignored by their countries’ elites. Sensitive press coverage of the grievances of Germany’s brown shirts would hardly have appeased them, or avoided the impending catastrophes.
Yet, as least for now, we live in less perilous times, and the blindness of the so-called coastal elites–there are liberal elites in the heartland, by the way–proved fatal. And it was not just the blindness to the way the rest of the country was living, or trying to live. Journalists who have traveled the straight and narrow path from prep school to the Ivy League to exclusive clubs and fancy dinner parties are instinctively averse to anyone, whatever her politics, who steps out of line.
As Trump stoked the rising fires of populist anger and discontent, it was agonizing to see the mainstream press slowly turn against Bernie Sanders. Powerful columnists who had made their deservedly distinguished reputations exposing the falsehoods of right-wing economics arrogantly dismissed Sanders’ left-leaning economic policies as unworkable and even dangerous. Liberal newspapers famous for the exposures of venality and corruption had nary a comment on the way the Clintons and the Democratic National Committee were rigging–Trump was right about that–the primary elections against Sanders.
It was, on the part of the liberal media establishment, an inability to tolerate a democratic socialist from Vermont who defied its well-bred resistance to breaking rules and dismantling hierarchies. Their rejection of Sanders blurred into their haughty, and fatal, dismissal of Trump. That was the moment when the industrial Midwest, a bastion of Sanders supporters, was lost to Clinton, who did not deign to spend more than a few hours in Michigan or Wisconsin.
Journalists could have burst the Clinton bubble by reminding her that cultural issues sway political choices, and that some battles, though morally right, can be postponed to fight the more consequential ones. But much of the liberal establishment media happily dines out in the same bubble.
What I wouldn’t give to be a journalist in my twenties or thirties just starting out at this moment. I don’t want to belabor the 9/11 analogy, but that tragic event was the catalyst behind some of the finest American journalism ever done. It opened the door to forces in the world and parts of the world that until then had been mostly undiscovered and obscure. It allowed a generation of journalists to define themselves as journalists, and to expand the boundaries of journalism itself.
The advent of Donald Trump has also revealed an American that had been, with the exceptions of some prescient and illuminating reporting–George Packer immediately comes to mind — undiscovered and obscure. And it will also have the effect of allowing young journalists to define themselves, and to push journalism into ever more creative forms.
Just as journalists took on different aspects of the post-9/11 world–the war on terror, the nature of terrorism, civil liberties, the lives of people in Afghanistan and the Middle East–they now have, if this is not too perverse a term to use in the current context, a feast of subjects lying before them.
How to approach President Donald J. Trump? You can observe him with clinical detachment and document his every move. You can ferret out and make certain to broadcast every inevitable betrayal of the promises he made to his supporters. You can write in-depth profiles of the people who stand behind the people who stand behind the people he brings in to serve in his administration. You can measure the extent to which he will find himself in over his head, revert to his business model, and serve simply as the branded figurehead of government. You can pursue the good, old-fashioned method of following the money, more of which will flow into the coffers of this administration and its cronies than any presidency in the history of the country.
My own feeling is that Trump will delegate most of his responsibilities as president to the improbable figures he is gathering around him and spend the majority of his time seizing unique new business opportunities and watching himself on CNN. Seeing the names of people like Gingrich, Palin and Guliani popping up as possible cabinet figures, I recall Marx’s caustic definition of the lumpenproletariat as “the rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society.” Now there’s a story to tell.
And the new journalists about to start cutting their teeth as I write can turn the attention to the media itself, curbing its most excessive instincts–referring to Trump’s circle as the lumpenproletariat might be one example –and cooling its most extravagant fears, some of which are justified, some of which smack of an attempt to create yet more liberal pieties that will add to the foundation of the liberal media’s sense of its own moral superiority.
Whatever tack the new journalists take, the clouds that formerly obscured America’s fragmented social realities have parted. There are entire new worlds to write about.
This too shall pass. Until then, a phrase once popular among Trotskyites keeps echoing in my head: The worse, the better.
TOP IMAGE: Photo by Ad Meskens, via Wikimedia Commons