Tuning out Trump but not his legacy

Recently, a narrative has taken hold, in some media quarters, that the Trump story (whisper it) is getting old, and that the public and the press are starting to tune it—and him—out. “To a remarkable degree, people have already stopped paying attention to the 45th president,” David A. Graham wrote in The Atlantic last Tuesday. “Trump’s ability to command the news cycle has been eclipsed by the virus he couldn’t be bothered to stop and the rival candidate he couldn’t beat.” On Wednesday, Trump spewed election lies in a deranged forty-six-minute video address; he called it “maybe the most important speech I’ve ever made,” and yet, the New Republic’s Alex Shephard wrote, “the press barely batted an eyelid.” Trump “has reached a stage in his career analogous to Lenny Bruce reading court documents from the stage, except that Bruce had legitimate injustice to discuss,” Shephard added, noting that we seem to be seeing a “palpable shift” away from wall-to-wall Trump coverage. On Friday, Amy Walter, a host of The Takeaway on WNYC, asked Ben Smith—who recently wondered, in the New York Times media column that he writes, whether the media can break its Trump addiction—if he had a verdict yet. “I do actually think, maybe to a degree I didn’t even expect, that Trump’s getting a little boring,” Smith replied. “It’s not as interesting when a former politician tweets crazy stuff.”

Since Trump lost the election—and whatever limited life his push to subvert the result may have had drained, definitively, away—the general tenor of the Trump story does seem to have changed. Scrolling down Twitter—on my timeline, at least—has come to feel a lower-stakes, less mentally-saturating experience. Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, noted on his show yesterday that, according to Google Trends data, searches for “Trump” are way down now compared to a month ago. Stelter asked Thomas Friedman, a columnist at the Times, if he is still interested in writing about Trump at this point. “Brian,” Friedman responded, “I pray to God I never, ever, ever have to write another column about Donald Trump again.”

From the magazine: Ideal Filler 

Implicit in many of the Trump-is-boring-now takes, and much current Trump coverage generally, is a shifting power dynamic—the sense that Trump’s is ebbing, and that the media is reclaiming its rightful ability to set the agenda. (Of course, we had this power all along, but many media decision-makers chose to sacrifice it before the altar of the bully pulpit.) As with the actual presidential transition, however, this transfer of power is not yet complete. On Saturday, Trump held a rally in Georgia that was ostensibly in support of Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, the Republican candidates in the state’s upcoming runoff elections for the US Senate, but was actually in support of himself. While right-wing networks carried the rally live, CNN and MSNBC did not—though the rally still generated much mainstream coverage, including chatter on the Sunday shows. And further stunts are coming down the pike. Last week, NBC’s Carol E. Lee, Monica Alba, and Kristen Welker reported that Trump is planning to skip Joe Biden’s inauguration and may even announce a 2024 presidential bid on the same day; yesterday, Alayna Treene, of Axios, added that Trump is considering doing so at a packed rally in Florida following a “dramatic” White House exit aboard Marine One. The event, Treene wrote, would be a “made-for-TV grand finale” that “could create a split-screen moment” as Biden is sworn in.

If Trump does do that, we should ignore it; as the Times columnist Charlie Warzel tweeted yesterday, in response to Treene’s reporting, “newsworthiness is a choice masquerading as an inevitability.” (The phrase made for TV, in its ubiquity, has long betrayed our worst Trump-era impulses.) Whatever Trump chooses to do on Inauguration Day, it won’t be a big story—if he participates in good grace, it’ll be an unexpected but totally normal act; if he flounces off to announce a 2024 run it’ll be abnormal but totally expected—and we should resist the urge (already indulged by some reporters) to crank up our campaign coverage once again. American election season is already far too long and dull, without Trump expanding it. Trump’s ongoing impact on the Republican Party will be more consequential—but as Smith told Walter, on The Takeaway, it’ll be, like, an A20 story, rather than front-page news. (“It’s not that big a story.”)

All this being said, the substance of what Trump has done (and not done) in office still matters immensely, and will continue to matter long after he’s left office. Some of this substance—the corrosive real-world impact of his election-subversion attempt, for instance—is still being amply covered. But countless other of his malign impacts have slipped below the collective radar. Last week, for example, a court filing revealed that lawyers have yet to locate the parents of six-hundred-and-twenty-eight migrant children who were separated at the border; that story was covered, by CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez and NBC’s Julia Ainsley and Jacob Soboroff among others, but it didn’t pierce the broader news cycle, even though it remains an outrage. And Trump is still in charge of the response to the pandemic, which is ripping through the US with unprecedented force right now and will likely reach its nadir before Inauguration Day. History will surely view Trump’s COVID fecklessness as among his very worst disgraces, if not his worst—yet for now, the suffering is so vast that it’s hard to keep it adequately in perspective at all, let alone in terms of clear political accountability. On Meet the Press yesterday, Chuck Todd said that Trump ignoring the pandemic “almost doesn’t matter anymore”—not as much as the acceleration in confirmed cases and deaths, at any rate. But these stories cannot be decoupled. 

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In recent weeks, various observers—from the Wall Street Journal editorial board to (apparently) some of Trump’s own advisers—have urged him to accept his loss and instead highlight his legacy. The press should follow this advice, albeit not in the sense in which it was given. The impulse to ignore Trump’s indignities and confected dramas is generally a fine (and overdue) one, but we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater: Trump has done immense harm to a great many vulnerable people, and it’s their power the press should seek now to reclaim, as well as our own. That act of reclamation requires remembering, and ongoing accountability, and not allowing Trump to slink off into the night in the name of moving on

On his show Friday, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes held up that day’s Times front page and noted that it did not feature a single Trump story; instead, it was mostly taken up by the health and economic fallout from the pandemic. Hayes was struck by the omission. “That said,” he cautioned, “in many ways this front page is all about Donald Trump, and the disaster that he has brought upon us.”

Below, more on Trump and the pandemic:

  • The ‘quandary’ myth: Greg Sargent, of the Washington Post, argues that we should stop accusing Republicans who indulge Trump’s election lies of “cowardice”—because they’re guilty of worse than that. Such language “badly undersells the bottomless bad faith and dishonorable instrumentalism that Republicans are employing here,” Sargent writes. “They are fully embracing the opportunity to use this situation to their advantage, not doing so because they see no other option.” Sargent was writing in response to a hit that Perdue, the Georgia Senate candidate, did on Fox on Thursday. Yesterday, the Atlanta Press Club held a debate between Perdue and his Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff, but Perdue didn’t show, so Ossoff debated an empty podium instead. Perdue’s Republican colleague Loeffler did show up to debate her opponent, Raphael Warnock—but the Post’s Robin Givhan writes that she was “not emotionally present.”
  • Epoch success: According to CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan, copies of the Epoch Times—a news outlet tied to Falun Gong, a spiritual community that wants to take down China’s government—were aggressively hawked at Trump’s Georgia rally on Saturday; the edition contained an op-ed by Newt Gingrich, the Trump ally and former House Speaker, headlined, “The thieves who stole our election got sloppy.” The people handing out the paper “were running back to a truck that was stacked with refill copies,” per O’Sullivan. “I must have been offered a copy of the paper more than a dozen times.”
  • Comparisons: For a news analysis on Trump’s “final days of rage and denial,” Peter Baker, of the Times, spoke with a Shakespeare scholar and an expert on Vladimir Putin’s Russia to put the president’s current conduct in context. “This is classic Act V behavior,” Jeffrey R. Wilson, the Shakespeare scholar, said. “The tyrant is holed up in his castle and he’s growing increasingly anxious.” Elsewhere, Politico’s Matthew Choi and Daniel Lippman spoke with David Mandel, the executive producer of the political satire Veep, and compiled “the Veepiest moments of the Trump era.” (For this newsletter writer’s money, nothing tops the Conan-the-dog episode.)
  • What the news can’t capture: For The Atlantic, Kasey Grewe, an anesthesiologist and critical-care medical staffer who worked in an overrun hospital in New York in the spring, writes that headlines can’t convey the full horror of the pandemic. Grewe shares emails that she sent to friends and family at the time; they “relate the experiences of health-care workers, and young doctors in particular: the anxiety, the fear, the overwhelming responsibility, and the ethical burden of hard decisions.” Yesterday, Trump said that Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer who has been leading his election-subversion attempt, has tested positive for COVID-19. He has been admitted to hospital. Giuliani is the fifty-third person in Trump’s orbit to catch COVID since early October


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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.