It is a month into Trump’s term, and I am glad to say, for the sake of the country, that we have finally had a relatively quiet week. Nothing too outrageous has transpired in the last seven days worthy of the press and individual protesters sparking national outrage. As portents go, this might mean that slowly, the new reality and style of Trump as President is beginning to seep in and “normalize,” something that some on the Democrat side have been trying to prevent. Or, it might just mean that there is a sense of protest fatigue, and widespread exhaustion among the commentariat and the people. Few thrive from the kind of stress where every single issue is a battleground. The exception is Trump himself, who seems to be one of the rare kind who becomes more energized in face of constant adversarial relationships. As a case in point, think for a moment about his relationship with the press, currently cast by themselves and the administration as the opposition party.
So, let’s speak about the press. Recently, Nicholas Kristof published an op-ed in the New York Times where he tried to talk his readers down from hating all Trump voters, painting them all with the same brush as “bigots” and morally impaired. The ironic thing about this op-ed is that it reads like a remedial lesson in civics for his “elite” New York Times readership; and, judging by the selection of comments he published, he must feel they are in dire need of this moral instruction. He writes, “And so the comments went, registering legitimate anxieties about President Trump - but also the troubling condescension that worried me in the first place. I fear that the (richly deserved) animus toward Trump is spilling over onto all his supporters.”
Further down the column, he makes the point that he is not just interested in better civic relations all around, but future political outcomes too, so that the column now has a self-serving side as well. For one, he’s worried about Democrat voters otherizing all Trump voters, which will prevent the former Democrats among the Trump voters from coming home to the Democrat party in the next round of elections. And this will have bad political repercussions for the electability of Democrats down the road. He mentions that Hillary Clinton’s notorious comment claiming half of Trump’s supporters as deplorables likely cost her votes. If the appeal to his readers’ better natures does not work, Kristoff is hoping that the appeal to their future political interests will. However, once this realization comes to light, the high-minded tone is brought down several pegs.
What to do, however, in cases where the condescension is actually coming from the press, like a bad odor that will not fully dissipate? On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Mika Brzezinski has been consistently passionate arguing against Trump’s statements about the press as the opposition party. She revealed one reason for this opposition recently, as a fear that in face of hypothetical bad news, the press will be so undermined, that Trump will be able to control what people think about the news: [H]e could have undermined the messaging so much that he can actually control exactly what people think. And that, that is our job.”
Now, this is an undiplomatic slip on Ms. Brzezinski’s part; nevertheless, it’s a slip that reveals a great deal of what she actually believes. In this digital driven world, the press, for her, is still the gatekeeper of the news, responsible for controlling what people think. While she is certainly correct to fear a fascist world in which the President and his chosen political class controls the news, as in the former Soviet Union, that is not what is going on here. It’s a new world, full of citizen journalists who are able to go online themselves and report on local events directly and think for themselves. Moreover, there’s an aware readership that is sophisticated about biases that distort the news. And this last is something that the press itself is often unaware of, because for many in the Washington and New York City press corps, their opinion is the conventional wisdom, the way everyone they know thinks, or in line with what they learned in their activist university class.
Some of this attitude is due to a certain kind of capital class provincialism. Some of it is due to the fact that we are living in a period of transition. Social media is rapidly changing the role of journalism in our lives. The old model is slowly disintegrating, with cracks everywhere letting in light and different perspectives. But the new model has not yet fully emerged. We are existing at a liminal point in time, betwixt and between the two, and that is one reason for the heightened anxiety levels. President Trump is the first politician to have mastered the new technology sufficiently so as to understand its power and to use it in a brand new way to circumvent the press and make his case to be President. The press is greatly threatened by the fact that they threw all their ammunition at him and, despite that, he was able to succeed. This puts them in an extraordinarily vulnerable position and reveals their weakness publicly, and, perhaps, for the first time to themselves as well. And that is really the unforgivable sin.
So, we see the press corps, time and again, doubling down on the same oppositional approach to President Trump that only energizes him more. Yet it seems perfectly obvious that less heat (and elite condescension) from them would eventually shed far, far more light for the rest of us. What a shame for the country that they do not yet understand this dynamic!
Mara Schiffren is a writer and health coach who lives in North Salem