The Media Today

‘Divisive’ isn’t the best word to describe Trump

July 6, 2020

“Dark and divisive.” Over the weekend, both the New York Times and the Washington Post used those words to describe President Trump’s Friday evening speech at Mount Rushmore. The Times’s top story on the event used “divisive” or “division” six times, if you include the headline, a photo caption, and a quote from a spokesperson for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. Headlines in many other outlets focused on divisiveness, too, regarding the president’s Rushmore speech (the Associated Press: “Trump digs deeper into nation’s divisions”) and a second address in Washington, DC, on Saturday (CNN: “Trump doubles down on divisive messaging”). Vanity Fair proclaimed, below a headline that also used the words dark and divisive, “So much for national unity!” 

Trump’s Independence Day speeches certainly were dark. He conjured lunatic images of rabid left-wing mobs rampaging through US cities, wantonly canceling the totems of American history and their present-day defenders. He did not dwell on the deadly pandemic ripping through the country; he mentioned it only as an opportunity to blame China, brag about his administration’s response, and state, falsely, that 99 percent of COVID-19 cases are “totally harmless.” There are many words that could be used to describe his rhetoric—and over the weekend, as the speeches drove ample coverage, many words were used. Major outlets kept coming back, however, to “divisive.” Was this really the best we could do?

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Throughout the Trump era, strong reporting has been let down by weak writing—“racially charged”; “partisan brawl”; and, yes, “divisive.” Shorthand can be undermining when it factually and morally blurs sharp, often uncomfortable truths about racism, abuse of power, and the growing asymmetry of political “sides” that reporters were taught to treat equally. (Trump’s “divisive” is not analogous to Obama’s “divisive.”) Last week, after the president retweeted (then deleted) a video of a supporter shouting “White power,” Greg Sargent, a columnist at the Post, argued that Trump-boosters like to use euphemisms such as “stoking division” and “throwing a match on gasoline” to maintain plausible deniability around their true goal: “to engineer violent civil conflict, by signaling to white Americans that they are under siege in a race war that they’re losing.” 

Such euphemisms, Sargent wrote, imply that Trump “is a passive bystander to societal conflicts.” The mainstream press knows this not to be true—yet many reporters and editors too often find refuge in soft language. (It’s not just members of the press: see also Mark Zuckerberg.) Two weeks ago, when Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the Times, appeared on the Longform podcast, the host, Max Linsky, asked him what he really thinks of Trump. “I think he’s an incredibly divisive figure,” Baquet replied. Then he paused. “I think I’ll stop,” he said, “other than to say he’s an incredibly divisive figure.” 

When the mainstream press gestures toward the immorality of Trump’s “divisiveness,” the implication often seems to be that he is an unwelcome aberration from America’s otherwise noble history. (It’s surely not an accident that “divisive” was everywhere over the July 4th holiday weekend.) At best, that’s the product of wishful thinking; as Todd Gitlin, a sociologist at Columbia Journalism School, told Voice of America over the weekend, the idea of American unity is a myth. (“Pick a moment in history when we have always not been deeply divided,” he said.) At worst, that tendency is an abdication of journalism’s responsibility, at this moment in particular, to illuminate the persistent race- and wealth-based disparities that splintered America’s past and define its present. 

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In February 2016, months before Trump was elected, Wesley Morris, of the Times, reflected on this and similar ideas in a piece, “It’s in America’s DNA to Be ‘Divisive.’” Morris wrote that “divisive” used to carry a neutral, even positive connotation—Americans like to argue, after all—but became a word of admonishment. “This incarnation of the word doesn’t invite debate. It preemptively squelches it,” Morris wrote. “‘Divisive’ here tries to take what’s divisive off the table, in order to keep a version of the peace.” That analysis has even greater resonance today. Taking Trump off the table won’t restore a halcyon conception of unity. So let’s take the euphemisms off the table, instead.

Below, more on Trump, history, and the July 4th weekend:

  • Mind meld: Jonathan Swan, of Axios, compared the language Trump used in his Rushmore speech with Tucker Carlson’s recent monologues on Fox News; in many places, Trump’s statements about monuments and cancel culture closely repeated those of Carlson. Alex Thompson, of Politico, reports that Republican circles are abuzz with speculation that Carlson might himself run for president in 2024, as the keeper of the Trump flame.
  • A July 4th hoax: On Saturday, self-proclaimed militias and other far-right groups traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to shut down an antifa flag-burning event—complete with antifa face paint and miniature flags for kids to burn—that they’d seen advertised on social media. The event was a hoax. The episode, Shawn Boburg and Dalton Bennett report for the Post, “is a stark illustration of how shadowy figures on social media have stoked fears about the protests against racial injustice and excessive police force.”
  • Columbus comes down: On Saturday, protesters in Baltimore pulled down a statue of Christopher Columbus and threw it in the city’s harbor. (The city still has two other Columbus monuments.) Lester Davis, a spokesperson for Bernard C. Young, Baltimore’s mayor, told the Baltimore Sun that the toppling of the statue was part of a “re-examination taking place nationally and globally,” and that Young will continue to support the protests in the city. “That’s a full stop.”
  • History has its eyes on Hamilton: On Friday, Disney released a filmed performance of the musical Hamilton on its streaming service, Disney+. When Hamilton debuted on Broadway, in 2015, it was roundly praised for centering actors of color—but as Ed Morales, a journalist and academic, wrote for CNN yesterday, Disney’s release has landed “in a different landscape.” Over the weekend, journalists online debated the show’s representation of race in light of recent events. “To reassess Hamilton now,” Morales writes, “is to note a crucial incompatibility with our current moment: Its hero and its message are essentially ambivalent while today’s politics around America’s racial sins requires taking a strong stance.”

Some news from the home front:
Today, CJR is out with our new magazine, “Reckoning: Covering an election amid a pandemic and an uprising.” Features will roll out online over the next two weeks. You can get started with Adam Piore’s profile of MSNBC, Simon van Zuylen-Wood’s dissection of David Axelrod and the pundit class, and Jack Herrera’s analysis of how longstanding calls to “Defund the Police” got coopted as a campaign story. Last week, Herrera talked with Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, on our podcast, The Kicker.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, the family of Vanessa Guillén, an Army staffer who went missing in April, confirmed that Guillén’s remains were found near Fort Hood, Texas, where she had been stationed. Last week, CJR’s Alexandria Neason asked why coverage of Guillén did not come with the same urgency as that given to other recent deaths. The case, Neason wrote, “touches on many of the themes now in the news: a life endangered in the custody of officials; a woman of color gone from the world; denial and obstruction by police.”
  • For the Times, Ginia Bellafante reports on calls for greater diversity at WNYC, whose bosses recently installed Audrey Cooper—the former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, who is white and does not have a public radio background—as editor in chief. WNYC staff, who had told management that they wanted a person of color to be appointed, responded to Cooper’s hiring with “great consternation,” Bellafante writes.
  • Also for the Times, Soledad O’Brien, a former CNN anchor, writes that this is a moment of empowerment for journalists of color, who, she observes, “are sidestepping management and going straight to the public” to share their experiences of racism in the media industry. “Absent a hashtag but buoyed by this public awakening over Black Lives Matter,” O’Brien writes, “we have collectively inaugurated our own #MeToo movement.”
  • The Times’s Mark Leibovich profiles Symone Sanders, who was Bernie Sanders’s press secretary in 2016 (they’re not related), is a senior adviser to Joe Biden now, and was a pundit on CNN in between. The CNN gig “made her a quasi-public figure at an early stage of her career,” Leibovich writes. “This was a stark departure from the quaint old notion that campaign staff members should stay in the background.”
  • Ethiopian Airlines is suing Henok A. Degfu, a Minnesota-based journalist who runs ZeHabesha, a newspaper serving the Ethiopian diaspora, for libel. The airline claims that Degfu accused its management of deliberately importing COVID-19 into Ethiopia, and of operating prisons at its headquarters. Ibrahim Hirsi has more for the Sahan Journal.
  • In Kansas, the Facebook page of the Anderson County Review, a newspaper owned by Dane Hicks, a local Republican official, posted a cartoon comparing a mask-wearing order imposed by Laura Kelly, the state’s Democratic governor, to the Holocaust. Hicks initially defended the cartoon as legitimate speech. Yesterday, he apologized.
  • And in other Godwin’s Law news, the Islander News, a weekly paper in Key Biscayne, Florida, defended its decision to run a cartoon of Trump with a swastika on his jacket. The depiction left many locals outraged. Michael Cavna has more for the Post.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.