As the mishaps, scandals, and outrages of the Trump administration unfold on a daily if not hourly basis, some in the media are starting to suggest that all of these things are distractions from the real, substantive issues that ought to be receiving more attention.
The right-wing version of this, expressed by conservative MSNBC talk-show host Joe Scarborough but also by his MSNBC colleague Chuck Todd, goes something like this (I paraphrase): “Trump’s antics are distracting him from attending to the substantive policy issues of his campaign. He is needlessly making enemies of the press, playing only to his base, and shooting himself in the foot. We ought to do our part as responsible media to focus attention where it really belongs, on the issues.”
The left-wing version is harder to locate, but it is a kind of mirror image of the right-wing one (again I paraphrase): “all of this talk about Trump, Bannon, Priebus, Spicer, how they treat the press, how they get along or don’t get along with the FBI or the CIA; these are distractions from the real policy issues that ought to be the focus of discussion. Trump might even be trying to distract us, because he has no real policy agenda. But we should not let ourselves be so distracted. Let us focus on the issues — jobs, the environment, etc. — and not get caught up with Trump.”
There is an element of truth in these sorts of claims. Trump is a master showman; he does deliberately play the media, and he does seek to distract the public from certain things, and we ought not to allow him to get all the attention, to determine the agenda, and to use the criticism of himself as a way of whipping up mob hysteria about how liberals are “enemies of the people.”
It would be good if the focus was not on Trump but on issues and policies.
But here’s the problem with this call to focus more on the issues: Trump is the President of the United States, and the Executive Office of the President is the most powerful chief executive in the world. Trump possesses and exercises great power. And that is the problem — the power and the way it is being exercised. This is not a question of Trump as an individual. It is a question of Trump as a public figure, the holder of public office, the maker of public decisions and the issuer of Executive Orders, and the mobilizer of right-wing populist resentment from the most visible, powerful bully pulpit in the world.
The issue is not Donald Trump.
The issue is that Trump is making mincemeat of constitutional democracy in the United States; that he admires, and has clear ideological and other connections to, dictators like Vladimir Putin; and that his rhetoric and his decisions thus far have been consistently authoritarian and seem headed more in this direction every day.
“Trump’s authoritarianism” might sound less substantive than “the economy,” or “the environment,” or “healthcare reform,” or “education policy.”
But “issues” and the “policies” that address them are politically defined, politically organized, politically legislated, and politically implemented by a political system. And the shape and character of the political system is kind of an important issue!
To be more blunt: Trump’s erratic personal conduct, his corrupt and clientelistic business connections, his hostility towards the independent media, his brazen disregard of important political conventions and legal requirements, and his efforts to restrict the flow of information and of people — all of this together is frighteningly dictatorial.
In other words, we are dealing here not simply with policies on this or that issue, but with the very question of whether the United States will continue to be a flawed liberal democracy, or it will become, or has already started to become, something different, something darker, more authoritarian, and more dangerous.
This afternoon the Trump administration decided to ban the New York Times, CNN, Politico, and the Huffington Post from the White House press room. This morning, as a prelude, Trump gave a televised speech that led with the claim, repeated many times, that the press are “enemies of the people.” He claimed he is “only” targeting “the fake press,” and that he respects “the real press.” But he has made clear that for him it is independent news organizations that are the purveyors of “fake news,” and that it is Breitbart, Fox, and other organs of his own broad ideological apparatus that are the “real journalists” that he “respects.” This is utter and transparent deception. Trump is making war on independent news outlets, by denouncing them, by banning them and restricting the information flowing to them, and by generating daily propaganda about their “fake news.”
It has been suggested today that it would be a mistake for the media to make too much of this. Instead, they should focus on the issues.
But this is the fundamental issue: our democracy is in clear and present danger.
No self-respecting journalist should cooperate in any way with the administration so long as these thuggish tactics and rhetorics are being deployed. If the Times is banned from the press room, then the Post and the Wall Street Journal should refuse to participate. If CNN is banned, then MSNBC and NBC and CBS and ABC should refuse to participate.
But that is not all. These media should cover the entire range of issues, scandals, and investigations. But they should also get serious about the broader narrative in which these particulars are embedded.
The narrative is simple. Alas, it is too simple, and terrifying in its simplicity: American constitutional democracy is in danger, and if the Trump administration is not challenged, we may soon experience real regime change. It happens. And our media have no difficulty reporting it when it happens — elsewhere. Well, it can happen here. It’s already happening. Here. Now. That’s a pretty big story, isn’t it? Will it get the attention it deserves?