Sorry, but maybe the dumbest line to come out of a very dumb season is the suggestion that the media is to blame for Donald Trump. First of all, if we in the media were even remotely capable of thinking Trump up, don’t you think we would have thought him up a couple decades ago, back before half the daily newspapers in the nation went in the tank?
And secondly, what? Does anyone seriously believe we’re even remotely capable of turning away? The man is a formidable contender for president of the United States who comes on stage regularly and sets his own hair on fire. And he’s married to a beautiful naked lady. Add a puppy to the picture and we’d go sleepless for the entire year.
We are in the audience business. No audience, no business. And, yes, if you were wondering, we do have shame. Some. Please. I have been in the newspaper trade for a very long time, the better part of a half century. I have never worked for or even heard of an editor who would tell his staff to go out every morning and search for a man who sets his own hair on fire and is married to a beautiful naked lady.
But if you put one right out there at center stage for us in a national presidential campaign, herd us into our little roped off camera area and then do the drum-roll, yeah, no kidding, we’ll shoot. What is this, a psychological test or something? Oh, I get it. You’re really just trying to see how fast we’ll shoot. Pretty damn fast.
If you helicoptered all of us out to a really great beach house on a private island off Key West, stocked the place with sushi and wine, left us out there and told us you wouldn’t come back until we invented the wildest, craziest, ratings-getting, click-baiting, audience-boosting presidential candidate we could possibly dream up, guess who we’d come up with? Jeb Bush. Why do you think so many newspapers are in the tank?
Which brings us to a related matter: Just how smart do you think we are? No, wait, before we even get to that, how smart do we think we are? I saw a column by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times the other day called, “My Shared Blame,” in which he said, “We should have aggressively provided context in the form of fact checks and robust examination of policy proposals.”
Sure. That would have been nice. It would also have been nice if the Times had done the same thing on WMD and the Iraq War. I’m a faithful reader and ardent admirer of the Times, but it’s not like stuff doesn’t get by them. That was a whole war, and their response ever since has been sort of, “My bad.”
So, I don’t know about you, but I am not stunned and amazed that they admit now they didn’t take Trump seriously enough. You know what? I don’t believe they’re taking him seriously yet, not privately, not in chats over adjoining sinks in The New York Times bathrooms.
And if not, how much can they be blamed? Hey, Trump is not the easiest guy in the world to take seriously. He makes uninvited penis jokes. I don’t take people seriously who make uninvited penis jokes at lunch, let alone in a presidential campaign. So hate me.
We media people are also a more narrow breed socially than we seem sometimes to realize or appreciate. I saw another Times man on TV recently, David Brooks, whom I greatly admire most of the time. But this time he was on PBS blubbering about how he should have spent more time out in the hinterlands rubbing elbows with the common baseball cap-wearers of the land. Oh, sure. And when will that start, Mr. Brooks?
I try to imagine. Some phone-answering person is saying, “David would love to have been able to join you for dinner, but right now he’s living in a trailer in Appalachia with a family of unemployed Oxy addicts.” I’m not holding my breath.
Let me put it this way: Most people in the media, even the ones who don’t work for the Times, have what we might call a very limited social reach. For many of us it’s no reach at all. I go back to what I said above about things getting by us.
I hope I don’t sound thin-skinned about getting blamed for Trump. Really, you know, we’re used to this. Google “blame the media,” and you’ll come up with: blame the media for eating disorders, blame the media for youth violence, blame the media for apparel (?), and, yes, blame the media for victim blaming.
And I do understand that we’re not the only ones getting blamed. A quick flight around the Internet reveals that Trump is being blamed on President Obama (of course), Sunday School (?) and “institutional failures,” which I can well believe if it begins with his grammar school. Or his Sunday school, perhaps.
I would assume that everyone in this country who can be blamed for Trump probably just needs to get in line. But let me say this: I’m not going to go to the head of the line. For that honor, we need to sort out some more important and proximate factors.
What’s really going on, in other words? What beneath the surface is driving the Trump phenomenon other than the man himself? Look, whatever else he may be, the man is orange. That’s not normal. In a normal year, an orange candidate for president would frighten the socks off people. Forget the penis. What about the orange? There has to be something way beyond Trump that’s driving Trump’s numbers.
Even among the most committed media blamers and media self-blamers like Brooks and Kristof, I pick up this very weirdly understated recognition that it could have something to do with working and middle class people waking up to the fact that the Republican Party really has not been their friend all this time. A sense of betrayal, I have heard it called. I think of it more as a sense of waking up with someone else’s underwear on your head not knowing where you are.
You mean busting the unions didn’t wind up providing higher wages after all? You mean fighting health-care reform actually created an entire class of people who are now too poor to live? You mean the Republican establishment, which preached hard work and enterprise, was really just enabling Wall Street to defraud the world?
It’s almost too much, isn’t it? Ronald Reagan wasn’t really a cowboy? He was just an actor who played a cowboy? Well, what about John Wayne? Wait, wait, don’t tell me.
And now, yes, it all does seem to be coming apart, the whole fabric of social delusion, and the coming apart does seem to be pretty ugly. So whom do we blame in this picture?
I’m serious. My own first reflex is to want to blame a Republican establishment, either cynical or without principle or true conviction, that used sleazy Hollywood imagery and multiple Big Lies to con a gullible public into surrendering its own self-interest.
But I do find myself pausing, finger above the blame button. Since when did the American people get a pass for being credulous? Are we talking about the pre-Revolutionary long knives who defied the crown and crossed the Alleghenies in the 1770s to settle what was then the West? Were they notably gullible or known for their political passivity?
Fast forward a century and a half to the 1930s when United Auto Workers leaders Walter Reuther and Richard Frankensteen got their heads bashed by Henry Ford’s goons on the Rouge Overpass in Dearborn, Michigan. Working men and women of America in industries all across the nation were risking life and limb to organize and fight for respect, pay, pensions and decent lives and futures for their families.
Where exactly in our history did the right-wing movie actors come in? What do we think would have happened if the Republican establishment back in 1937 had sent Roy Rogers to Dearborn? “Now, fellahs, y’all need to let loose of this union talk and go picket you some abortion doctors.” I don’t see that working out back then.
So I’m back on the blame button. Sure, we could blame the Republican establishment for suckering the American working and middle classes into abandoning their own economic self-interest, not to mention their self-respect. But that didn’t happen all at once, nor does it appear to have been the product of especially ingenious forethought or plotting, at least not at first.
In 1968 a political consultant named Lee Atwater stumbled on a trick. As he recounted later for the political scientist and author Alexander P. Lamis: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can't say ‘nigger.’ That hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff.”
It worked. Richard Nixon got elected. The Republican leadership kept shoving coins into that same divisive socially corrosive gumball machine, and the Republican leadership kept getting gumballs. Why would they stop?
OK, I’ll ask you. What could have stopped the Republican Party from using exploitative and divisive political appeals as mechanisms to churn votes and money for themselves?
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Their consciences? Their commitment to the greater social and communal good of the nation? Could those ideals not have prevailed and staved off this Day of Trumpening? We only know one thing. Their consciences did not stop them from squat.
But isn’t there always some slick out there on the street conniving to play us for fools? We didn’t survive the transit ships, break our chains or conquer the frontier by being bimbos. So, back to the blame button, and I have one last question:
When history hands a people a new land and a new nation — with the unions already organized and a humane deal already in place for working and middle class people if they will only serve the good of community — and when some of those people freely choose instead to squander that legacy and go for the Lee Atwater line, are those people not to blame themselves for what ensues?
I’ve already said I’ll get in line for my share. But up there at the head of the line I’d like to see the people who love Trump. I don’t see anybody else nudging them out of first place.