Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The B.S. threshold:
Media resistance of the Trump Experience

IT’S BEEN A rough and challenging 18 months for the national press corps assigned to cover the Trump campaign (aka the boys and girls thrown under the bus).

From the implication of social media in the proliferation of fake news to the eight-minute hate that Donald Trump, the 45th president-apparent, indulged in berating the leadership of The New York Times at the Times’ own offices, the nation’s journalists — economically and professionally beleaguered to begin with — face a grim and uncertain time.

They’re working to restore their footing after the bruising campaign, and to get themselves out of campaign-embed mode. It’s hard not to drink the Kool-Aid when Kool-Aid is all that’s offered. But that was then. The campaign per se has been over for months, but the withdrawal period takes ... a while.

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Thinking now of the unfortunate phrase “Trump’s America,” which at this writing yields about 101 million Google search-engine results.

Since Nov. 9, the phrase has been adopted for the headlines and content in essays in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, ThinkProgress, Al Jazeera, The Economist and other news orgs that should know better. But Vanity Fair got the bug early, using the phrase this summer, way before the election, apparently identifying what it saw as a cohort of America large enough to be identifiable, and identifiable enough to be memorable.

Or go another way: Look for “age of Trump” or its variants (“Age of Trump,” “the Age of Trump”). That gets you about 132 million Google search results. Since the election, it’s turned up at Salon, The New Republic, The New Yorker and The Washington Post. And more besides.

Veterans of the newsroom know how this goes. You’re on deadline, rounding third base on a solid long-form piece on the election and its outcome, and you need that Perfect Headline, the one that embraces everything. And voila! You find something that works. And suddenly, thanks to the herd behavior common to online journalism, “the age of Trump’s America” is everywhere.

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BUT NO. Even making allowances for a 24/7 news cycle, or for hyperbole and exaggeration (those foundations of “editorial license”), it’s disturbing to see this viral canonization of someone who hasn’t yet taken the oath of office. The next administration hasn’t even finished ordering drapes for the East Room, and already the majors of mainstream media have lifted Trump to being a figure worthy of an “Age” of his very own.

As if his kingly aspect wasn’t hard enough to resist, the 325 million people in this country now come to find they’re living in “Trump’s America” — a rebranded nation in thrall to one man with a vanity distilled in a turn of phrase not far (and not far enough for comfort) from “Napoleonic France” or “Hitlerian Germany”).

At least those last two phrases are borne out through the long arc of historical time. But it’s as if by apparently winning the election, the mainstream media have accelerated The Donald’s political ascension. Trump's America? Really? With that, they’ve conceded to Trump the status of an acquisitive deity who just bought up the whole damn country, like a burger joint or a chain of motels.

Mainstream media has been so intensely, breathlessly focused on the what-next of the “Trump Experience” — and that right there is the phrase we should be using for this vertigo chapter in American life — we’re not hearing enough about the what-now of the lives to be affected, deeply affected, by the rabidly partisan, nationalist juggernaut that may be less than a month from ruling this nation.

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Not that those millions of lives don't have their own way to push back. Quiet as it’s kept in the dizzying (and real) age of digital media, the American people do have a bullshit threshold. Americans have a built-in detector for the presence of this existential agricultural staple of modern life, in journalists, politicians and everyone else. That detector’s not always engaged, and it sure as hell isn’t infallible. Sometimes it’s not working even when we think it is — we proved that on Election Day.

But over time the American public makes sense of things, calling leaders (and their policies) to account, even sometimes second-guessing its own first-blush judgment.

That begins to explain the buyers’ remorse result of a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll — one of the first big post-election surveys of the national mood. The poll, released Monday, found that 54 percent of the country is “pessimistic” or “uncertain” over Trump’s election — this a month before the man takes office.

“That's a significantly worse outlook than Americans expressed after the elections of both Barack Obama and George W. Bush. A combined 66 percent were either optimistic or hopeful about Obama in January 2009, according to the same poll,” reported NBC News’ Carrie Dann on Monday.

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OUR B.S. threshold has been seriously tested by the Trump Experience over the last year and a half, the nation’s bullshit detector all but worn out. “Like any autocrat, he wins his followers’ trust — let’s call it a blind trust — by lying so often and so brazenly that millions of people give up on trying to distinguish truth from falsehood,” the New York Times editorial board said on Dec. 10.

And that’s where the press and the media, mainstream and otherwise, comes in. In 2002, one of President George W. Bush’s top brass said a New York Times reporter was living in the “reality-based community.” “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he was quoted as saying. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study, too, and that’s how things will sort out.”

It’s exactly that conjuring of convenient realities, that disposal of the very idea of Facts that the national press is predisposed to push back against. Or at least it’s supposed to.

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Read Summer Brennan, writing in Lithub, to get a feel for the challenges faced by MSM in particular and all content creators in general, as they prepare to face new vistas of government bullshit:

We have been beset with dangerous euphemisms. A neo-nazi becomes “an economic populist.” A lie becomes “a claim.” A propagandist becomes “a maverick” or “a provocateur.” Equality becomes “identity politics.” A public school privatizer becomes “a school reformer.” A climate change denier becomes “a climate contrarian” and a climate scientist “a climate alarmist.”

Journalists are being called “presstitutes” or “l├╝genpress,” which is German for “lying press,” a term adopted by the Third Reich. There has been a kind of doublespeak silencing on social media in which those speaking out against white supremacists are themselves called “racists,” and those pointing out misogyny are called “sexist.” A protestor becomes “an economic terrorist.” White people become “the working class.”

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IN THE WAKE of this editorial revisionism done in the service of the conservative agenda, more and more people post-election are using the word “resistance” seriously, in a context reactive to a perceived rising militarism — recalling the way the word was used by the French during World War II.

Keith Olbermann, a shit disturber from way back, is lately the host of an online commentary source, “The Resistance.” At Literary Hub, Brennan’s smart  exegesis of language post-2016 election is titled “Notes From the Resistance.”

This isn’t a criticism — far from it, just an observation. People don’t adopt such a powerful, historically freighted term lightly, and Americans haven’t really had a reason to do it in generations — arguably since the flashpoint era of the civil rights movement or that of the SDS and other “mobe” organizations arrayed against the U.S. government during the height of the Vietnam War.

Today, as it did generations ago for the French, the word itself carries an implicit grasp of the force in apposition to it. But today, during the Trump Experience, it’s different.

Americans seem to have already adopted the word in some expectation of failure, the crushing assumption that the forces of history and presidential politics are likely to prevail — that little or nothing can change the course of events over the next four years. There’s no other reason to presume there’ll be a need for a “resistance,” that there will be something, anything that malign, to push back against. Or maybe not. Maybe it's precisely that kind of cynicism, like Rick Blaine's in “Casablanca,” that the very idea of resistance inoculates you from.

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WHETHER THEY admit it or not, mainstream journalists (still hard-wired to observe the reflexes of objective journalists) subscribe to the last best use of “the resistance” as a rallying cry. With Trump bellowing during the campaign about making changes in libel law and otherwise punitively encircling the First Amendment, journalists don’t have any choice. It’s nothing more or less than enlightened self-interest. And it damn well better be.

The language we use to define this man and his administration for the next four years will say as much or more about the people using that language as it’ll say about the object of their attention. If journalists already smitten with snappy titles and quick-twitch terminology legitimize the shorthand (“Age of Trump,” “Trump’s America”), it makes the idea of social resistance — to say nothing of anything approaching objective reporting — that much more difficult.

Style note to copy desks across the country: Refrain from using “Trump’s America” and other encomium boilerplate in reference to the administration. It’s not Trump’s America. It never was and it never will be.

It’s just America. For 240 years that’s been enough, and it’s certainly enough right now.

Image credits: Trump: © 2015 Gage Skidmore. Election sentiment chart: NBC News. Olbermann Resistance promo image: Paul Henreid in 'Casablanca': © 1942 Warner Bros.

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