The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, whom I admire, has a piece up now about a former journalist, who was so embarrassed at being surprised on Election Day 2016 that he set up a site to monitor right-wing media as a sort of crib notes platform for those whose politics or interests don’t normally lead them there. Mainly, it’s aimed at journalists, many of whom totally missed the boat on the 2016 election.
I’m afraid they’re still thrashing around in the water.
As someone who grew up in a red state (South Dakota), worked in the darkest of blue places, (Washington, D.C.), and who now lives in a purplish-turning-blue-for-the-moment state (Virginia), I don’t claim to have the pulse on everything. Few do, as was so painfully proven on Election Night, 2016, in my profession. The utter surprise and recrimination and celebration on Election Night ’16 cable TV – go back and look at the talking heads blaming the voters on CNN and MSNBC and the giddiness on FOX – could be repeated later this year, but in even greater contrast.
The reason is this, and it’s exhibited in the Sullivan column today. Too many journalists still look at large slices of the American people as The Others. And journalists still have this out-of-touch, even arrogant belief that Americans are as fixated and attuned to our as-the-world-churns media as they are.
Most Americans I know are far more detached. They are too busy working or sitting on beaches or going to school or worrying about the next grocery bill to be the on-the-minute consumers that many in my profession assume them to be. I bet the Trump voters in my friends-and-family circle have never heard of most of the sites and news sources that Sullivan names in her column today. Yet here we are, creating a crib sheet of right-wing-media as a key to unlocking the mystery of why Trump could possibly have won in the first place, and may just win again.
How about just getting out and talking to people – other than just on rope line at the purposely hyped Trump rallies – where they work, live and recreate? I have seen precious, precious little of that reporting in the 37 months since Trump won.
If it’d take giving up a story or two on yet another “analysis” based on anonymous political consultants speculating on whether Trump’s “base” is going to turn out again to get to what motivated day-to-day people to support him in the first place, it’d be journalistic resources well diverted. Maybe it’d even start a new trend away from the lazy horse-race track.
You see, the very few things that break through the din – not the din itself – have the only actual weight in this modern media world. That’s what Trump gets and those who cover him don’t. He can break through at will by virtue of his office, and by the very audacity of what he says and does. Twitter is a perfect platform for demagoguery, as his critics say. But our 140-charater world is also the perfect platform to encapsulate the distance people feel from their prospective leaders.
The latter point is what journalism as a whole didn’t grasp in 2016. Still don’t.
Go to counties where Trump is popular and I’ll bet you won’t go a day without hearing someone ironically self-referencing as a “deplorable.”
This one phrase depicting those who were too far gone, in her mind, to ever come around to her reasoned enlightenment, is the damage that Hillary Clinton inflicted on herself in 2016. She, alone, provided the ready caption around the image of her as an elitist know-it-all, a label that she had claimed had been unfairly applied through the years. Combined with Barack Obama’s “cling to their guns and religion” carryover, those burst-through-the-din phrases helped frame a Democratic ticket that came across as status quo and preachy and entitled to power. And one that, despite its rhetoric of inclusion, had designated vast swaths of America as unworthy of inclusion. Swaths not only to be ignored and written off, but to be mocked and denigrated.
Yes, Trump attracts racists and bigots, and they deserve to be called out as such. He has never aspired to be the leader of all Americans; his enemies are all on the same plane, political opponents at home or despots abroad, which is why his seeming affinity for foreign strongmen like Putin is so concerning.
But there is a lot deeper zeitgeist still to explore in explaining why Trump can do almost anything and his supporters dig in even more.
It gets back to the din. To many Americans, Washington – and government in general – had long before Trump become a status quo shop of big-money special interests, irregardless of who was in power. So virtually anything Trump does that breaks the china in that shop is received favorably. This feeling was around a long time before Trump; he arrived not as a catalyst as much as a symptom. (I wrote this 2011, by the way, when Trump was thinking of running against Obama, that he was a symptom as much as a solution. Trump sent me a snarky thank you complimenting me on my writing skills).
No one should be surprised. Trump is doing what he said he’d do – constitutional or not, right policy or not, degradation of public discourse be damned – when any china gets broken. So the more his detractors protest and resist, the more his supporters are convinced he’s doing the right thing.
Here is a challenge to journalism and to voters in 2020.
Consumers, stop watching the affirmation channels. They’re the opposite of news. Lean toward mediation in your daily life.
Reporters and editors: Concede the divide, but try every single day to find bridges over it. Stay out of the arguments of Others vs. Others.
More than ever, we need journalism that adheres to a mediate role of media. There IS common ground: on judicial reform, on humane but legal immigration policies that cast aside the racism and wedge-driving; on the generational immorality of obscene spending deficits; on the need to re-examine the war creep that has often dominated our foreign policy since 9/11.
Leaders come and go. Make 2020 about the country, not just the candidates.