Imagine covering politics every day, considering yourself a Savvy Politics Knower, and suggesting in a public forum that Donald J. Trump is "torn between the impulse to speak and cater to his base, and the demands of governing a multiracial country in the throes of unprecedented turmoil and upheaval." He is not torn. He's catering to his base, because he does not feel he owes anything to anyone who does not support him. He will continue catering to his base, no matter how much Beltway journalists yearn to once again declare that This Is the Day Donald Trump Became President. He will never become a president for all Americans. He will never consider the demands of governing a multiracial democracy. It's been three and a half years. Just stop it. This is something beyond Charlie Brown with the football, and yet Politico trotted it out, again, in Thursday morning's Playbook.
For a long time, that daily newsletter was synonymous with the kind of bloodless Objective Beltway Journalism where Both Sides Have a Point, especially if anonymized congressional aides from Both Sides were willing to talk. Pretty much everything became about the narrative and the process and the discourse, and rarely was it about the material impact on normal people's lives. Who's up and who's down? Who was at that book party? Whom do you need to contact today on the pretense that you actually care it's their birthday? Democrats say climate change is real and needs to be addressed, while Republicans say it isn't. Who's to say who's right? And who's sending us money?
Things have gotten much better over at Politico in recent years, but today's Playbook is a spasm of that old impulse to cover politics using a tabula rasa brain. Who can say whether Donald Trump will suddenly become the person to heal the wounds of 400 years of American racial strife, except anyone who has observed him for more than 15 minutes? He is currently leading a campaign to keep the names of Confederate generals, who committed treason against this country in defense of slavery and killed hundreds of thousands of American soldiers in the process, on various U.S. military bases. He has scheduled a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma—the site of one of this country's most horrific incidents of anti-black violence—on Juneteenth. He has begun referring to the protesters who've taken to the street to demand the full rights of citizenship almost exclusively as rioters and anarchists, much as the only immigrants he ever talks about are rapists and gang members.
The evidence that Donald Trump may chart a new course as a leader of a true multiracial democracy seems to be that he wants to sign an executive order and that the White House has "signaled" they're "interested" in a Senate bill. (Approximately one million years ago, Jared Kushner convinced him to sign a modest criminal-justice reform bill, a point in his favor.) This is weighed equally against the evidence that he does not actually want to make America a true multiracial democracy, which is composed of pretty much everything else he's ever said and done. He has suggested, in word and policy, that Muslims have no place in this country. He's indulged his crowds when they chant that a black member of Congress should be sent back to where she came from. He's encouraged police to rough people up during arrests. His party is committed, top to bottom, to disenfranchising black voters. The root of his political career was a campaign suggesting the first black president was not American. But he wants to sign an executive order.
In related news, there was also—inevitably—a Both Sides incident.
TRUMP SEEMS SINGULARLY FOCUSED on economic indicators like the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the unemployment rate, and seems to have difficulty grappling with intangibles like whether people of color in this country feel valued and included.
IT’S ALMOST THE MIRROR IMAGE of BARACK OBAMA, who tended to downplay hard facts, but focus almost intently on the arc of America.
The first part is abundantly clear, and backed by the available evidence. But if you only point out the flaws in one side's approach, you risk being accused of Bias against that side. (Often in these criticisms, "bias" becomes an adjective.) No matter how crazy they are, no matter how little merit the argument has, no matter how little grounding in the evidence, you must pretend that they might have a point—or at least that the other side is somehow doing the same thing. In this case, it means suggesting Barack Obama had a comparable disregard for reality to the current president's. This is just false. If you want to find something they agree on, try extrajudicial executions from the sky. But this ain't it.
And thus we stumble upon one of the great journalistic issues of our time: can the view-from-nowhere, tabula rasa, Objective Unbiased Journalism tradition survive the current moment? Is it capable of dealing with bad-faith actors, and of prioritizing the truth over concerns about accusations of bias? Can we psychically handle the task of saying one of our political parties has lost its mind, or will we Both Sides ourselves into oblivion? The last few weeks have shown that the most basic rights upon which journalism relies are under threat from the state and its instruments of force. If journalists will not take a stand in defense of the values that make their jobs possible, what will it take? And how much bullshit can any one person stomach—and spread—in the interest of "norms"?
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