Every day, we hear and read Donald Trump spew hate and lies and division.
Increasingly, we are seeing its effects.
But if – as I still firmly believe — that does not represent who we are as a people, and the majority of Americans reject Trump’s values, then why aren’t we hearing those voices more loudly?
To find the antithetical view to one political party, we generally turn to the opposition party. (And as I wrote on Friday, the midterm elections nest week present a hugely significant opportunity for the people to be heard.) But if the Democratic Party were a coherent, effective, consistent and sincere voice of anti-Trumpist values, I wouldn’t be asking this question in the first place.
Maybe it’s the media’s fault. Maybe those voices are out there – many of them women and minorities – but our elite journalistic organizations can’t hear them, or don’t want to, or don’t think what they have to say is news, certainly not day after day.
But for now, here’s a not-well-ordered first-draft list of some of the principles that I think most Americans share that I think get drowned out because Trump is so loud abut expressing his own:
We are not a white-nationalist nation, and we don’t want to be.
We are a pluralistic nation that values diversity.
We oppose divisive rhetoric.
We believe that empathy is essential to political leadership.
We oppose the politics of fear.
We respect leaders who constantly tell the truth, rather than those who constantly lie.
We don’t think that our society’s problems are simple and that the right Leader can fix them easily.
We think our society’s problems are complex, and the solutions are sometimes hard.
We support a free press, particularly when it holds the powerful accountable, and even when we disagree with it.
We strive for domestic tranquility, not a society with armed guards everywhere.
We oppose political violence and political terrorism.
We don’t blame others for our problems.
We think a president should abandon partisanship in moments of national crisis.
We listen to women, and oppose any force that systematically diminishes them or their contributions.
Same for people of color, immigrants — or anyone.
We believe the government has no say in people’s gender identity, sexual orientation, or what they do with their bodies.
We believe that the government has a responsibility to provide a robust social safety net.
I just don’t see these as particularly controversial. Do you? And do you feel like you hear them sufficiently voiced in the political discourse?
Surely there are much better versions of this list out there. Point me to them. Suggest changes.
Earlier today, I posted my question on Facebook:
So I’m asking myself this question today: Who, what or where is the anti-Trump? If I believe that this is not who we are, who is my champion? Why aren’t we hearing this message more loudly? Please respond with your thoughts.
Do a majority of Americans still value pluralism, and facts, and empathy? Is that still who we are?
You wouldn’t know it from following the news, where it’s all Trump all the time. Sometimes Trump pushback. But still Trump.
I suspect that his brilliant showmanship is part of the reason why 42 percent of Americans (47 according to one particularly terrifying poll) say they approve of the job he’s doing.
He’s been the undeniable ringleader of the circus.
And there’s been no effective way for the people watching it all, in horror, to make themselves heard over the din.
So we’ll get a better idea of who we are as a country on November 6. And if a Blue Wave comes, it will be the start of a counter-narrative.
Voting for Congress in 2018 is actually a lousy way for the public to express its core values. Democratic candidates are running eclectic campaigns, often choosing what they think is pragmatism over framing the election as a choice between fundamentally different values. Money and gerrymandering distort democracy. The Democratic Party is weak, fickle, and corrupted by money. The best expressions of American values arguably lie outside the current Democratic-Republican axis.
But in the absence of any other effective form of collective action, it’s all we’ve got.
If Democrats win even one chamber of Congress, there will be another center of power in Washington, another locus of news. There will be another story to tell.
There will be a news peg to broadcast the views of the (I think) majority of Americans who feel disgust at Trump, what he stands for, what he is doing, and how he has cultivated and aroused strains of anger, violence, and racism in this country that had seemed to be in remission.
And, to the extent that those Democrats take action based on fundamental values, there will be something to organize around. I’ve been stunned by how few options ordinary people who are outraged have had to effectively express the importance and urgency of taking back the country from a president they feel has hijacked it.
There was the Women’s March, then pretty much nothing. Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court was such a concentrated expression of Trumpism that it prompted a ferocious grassroots response – so powerful that it did, in fact, establish a counter-narrative, for a while. But that, too, passed.
The next 11 days provide the best opportunity yet for people who are traumatized by Trumpism to show themselves – by voting, and by helping get out the vote.
After that, perhaps the American political narrative will shift. Trump’s latest odious lie will no longer lead the news. Instead, we’ll be watching smart, aggressive oversight of the executive branch. And we’ll be talking about legislation that serves as a blueprint for a post-Trump restoration.
On Monday, he had this rambling, repetitive and sometimes baffling exchange with reporters (what does he mean by “come to their sense” or “get smart”?):
Q Mr. President, are you prepared to build up the U.S. nuclear arsenal? You said you’re going to pull out of the arms deal.
THE PRESIDENT: Until people come to their senses, we will build it up. Until people come to their senses. Russia has not adhered to the agreement. This should’ve been done years ago. Until people come to their senses — we have more money than anybody else, by far. We’ll build it up. Until they come to their senses. When they do, then we’ll all be smart and we’ll all stop. And we’ll — and by the way, not only stop, we’ll reduce, which I would love to do. But right now, they have not adhered to the agreement.
Q Is that a threat to Vladimir Putin?
THE PRESIDENT: It’s a threat to whoever you want. And it includes China, and it includes Russia, and it includes anybody else that wants to play that game. You can’t do that. You can’t play that game on me.
Q You want more nukes is what you’re saying? You’re building up the nuclear arsenal.
THE PRESIDENT: Until people get smart. Until they get smart. They have not adhered to the spirit of that agreement, or to the agreement itself — Russia. China is not included in the agreement. They should be included in the agreement. Until they get smart, there will be nobody that’s going to be even close to us.
Even though it’s the only political issue that could kill us all any day now, nuclear weapons policy has gotten very little attention in Washington over the past several decades.
(Barack Obama, despite his soaring speech in Prague in 2009 extolling “a world without nuclear weapons,” quietly put in place a plan to spend as much as $1 trillion over the next three decades on a whole new generation of nuclear warheads, bombers, submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles.)
But the Los Angeles Times reports today that California soon-to-step-down Gov. Jerry Brown is coming to Washington to sound the alarm. “My fellow politicians are totally asleep here,” Brown told John Myers. “We’re in a real predicament.”
Few topics produce more fiery rhetoric from Jerry Brown, delivered with equal doses of exhortation and exasperation, than the threat posed by nuclear weapons. And as he exits the state’s political stage, California’s governor will expand his role in the global debate over nuclear disarmament.
Brown accepted an invitation Thursday to become the executive chairman of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Chicago-based organization best known for its Doomsday Clock that is reset periodically to measure the threat of global annihilation. He will join the group’s leaders at their next meeting in early November.
“There’s no doubt we’re at one of the most dangerous, if not the most dangerous point, since the atomic bomb was first dropped,” Brown said in an interview. “There’s great and mounting hostility.”
Brown identified Trump’s new national security advisor, John Bolton, as a particular nemesis. “He is dedicated to tearing up all the nuclear agreements,” Brown told Myers. “Nuclear deterrence only works if there’s arms control.” (See this Politico story about how much Bolton loves tearing up treaties.)
Brown’s new organization ticked the hands of its symbolic Doomsday Clock up 30 second to two minutes from midnight earlier this year, presumably in part because of Trump’s boasting that his “nuclear button” is “much bigger & more powerful” than North Korea’s – and in part because of his overall flightiness.
The Bulletin also published a Q&A with its new leader. Brown said:
I think it’s crucial to wake people up to the dangers that still persist so many years after the dropping of the first atomic bomb. The peril grows and in no way diminishes. I think it’s important that scientists, political leaders, and other people who have positions of responsibility take the time to understand and probe into the basic issues that, if not handled right, could eliminate the whole human race.
And he had an interesting observation about why the topic gets so little media attention:
Unfortunately, the news in the so-called democratic societies, particularly in America, is a function of conflict. It’s the conflict engendered by the president or against the president through tweets, through congressional battles. That dominates a lot of news, and the risk of the end of the world is not news. The risk of even great catastrophe is not news. Smaller issues are.
Incidentally, Foreign Affairs is just out with a new issue all about nuclear weapons. It asks, somewhat perplexingly: “Do Nuclear Weapons Matter?”
It’s nice that the Washington Post and the New York Times the other day both ran articles pointing out that Donald Trump’s main strategy in the midterm elections is to traffic in fear and falsehoods.
It’s nice that PBS Newshour had the Toronto Star’s must-follow Trump-tracker Daniel Dale on the other night, patiently explaining to Judy “we call them false statements” Woodruff that “in our regular lives, I think the word we would use is lie. So, I think we as journalists should use it in our articles as well.”
All that fact-checking out there sure is fine, especially when it comes online while the lie is still young.
And the overall tone of Trump coverage from our top newsrooms has clearly become more skeptical over time.
But it’s all still a wildly understated reaction to a presidency that is an affront to so many core American – and journalistic – values.
Let’s be real: The vast majority of political journalists have been stifling their outrage ever since Donald Trump became a plausible candidate for president.
But by stifling that outrage, they have done a grave disservice to their audiences and to country.
By responding normally, they have unwittingly sent the message that what is going on is within the realm of the normal, when it is not.
They have let Trump widen the boundaries of socially acceptable discourse to include poisonous strains of overt racism, xenophobia and misogyny.
They have failed to defend against the erosion of democratic institutions.
Trump played the mainstream media for fools. He knew political journalists would be paralyzed into stenography by their phobia of appearing politically biased. He knew — he still knows — that every time he makes a preposterous statement, they’ll give him a megaphone, rather than a dunce cap.
Washington Post editor Marty Barron famously asserted that his organization isn’t covering Trump any differently than it would any other president. “We’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work,” he said.
But what is the work of a journalist? It starts with doing our best to deliver accurate information to the public — and then extends to advocacy for such core journalistic values as fair play, free speech, government transparency, a humane society, and holding the powerful accountable.
There’s a reason that not one of the top 50 American newspapers’ editorial boards endorsed Trump for president – even those that traditionally sided with Republicans. They recognized that Trump’s values are antithetical to journalism’s.
There’s a reason media outlets are having such a hard – and sometimes embarrassing – time finding Trump supporters to write op-eds or take part in panels. They don’t process facts or use language the way journalists do.
NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen and Vox’s Ezra Klein recently had a spirited conversation about journalism in the Trump era, exploring Klein’s hypothesis that political journalists haven’t just failed to make politics better, but are actually making it worse.
Rosen despaired that members of the political media never stop to take stock of things, and never seriously consider changing their ways.
There have certainly been several appropriate occasions to do so recently, including the failure to challenge the specious arguments for war in Iraq, and missing the financial implosion of 2008 until it was too late. Giving rise to Trump and then failing to explain him properly may be the worst yet.
“The erosion of democratic institutions — not just the press but all of them” is a key element of Trump’s political movement, Rosen said. “I don’t think our journalists have learned how to angle their work so they can defend democratic institutions, and they probably need to at this point because it’s getting so bad.”
The standard defense from our newsroom leaders is that the voting public is divided on what I am calling core American values.
But if Trump were denying gravity — it is just a theory after all — and a big chunk of Americans backed him up, we’d recognize two things quite clearly:
We have not done our job very well, if people believe something so idiotic; and
We have a responsibility to point out – consistently, aggressively, without any caveats — that he is wrong, and that things fall down.
Sometimes it feels to me like the most important requirement to work in a major newsroom these days is to be unflappable. Well, sometimes flapping is the appropriate response.
So how would justifiable outrage manifest itself? Every time Trump is being deceptive, the main thrust of the story should be the truth, not the lie. The story should vividly illustrate how wrong he is. It should point out how no president before has ever lied this much.
Journalists should not shy away from expressing their own informed conclusions about what is true and what is not. Many stories should include quotes from experts in their field — who are treated as trusted sources who know what they’re talking about, not marginalized as “critics.”
When Trump lies in a tweet about wanting to protect people with pre-existing conditions, that’s a great time to write about how the opposite is true. When he lies about wanting a middle class tax cut, that’s a great time to write about how he lied about last year’s massive tax cut for the rich.
Trump is hardly unique when it comes to violating core American and journalistic values. George W. Bush committed the ultimate presidential sin: lying us into war and then trying to cover it up. Barack Obama, despite his vaunted speech to Muslims calling for a new relationship, dropped 26,172 bombs in seven predominately Muslim countries in his last year in office alone. Despite his public commitment to transparency, he made up rules for drone and cyber warfare unilaterally and in secret.
But Trump’s affronts are across the board, and constant.
Back in July, I wrote at great length about how the rebirth of the deflated Los Angeles Times Washington bureau could become an occasion for the sort of journalistic revolution I’m looking for. California newspapers are the natural vanguard. As I wrote (initially on Medium):
A supermajority of Californians see Trump for what he is. California is future-focused — in distinct contrast to Trump’s fantastical visions of a mythological past that he wants to return to. California is leading the state-level resistance to Trump initiatives in areas such as environmental deregulation, health care, immigration and voting rights. Its people are multicultural and pluralistic. They take seriously their role as stewards of the earth.
So from California, the view is clear: Trump is a profoundly regressive force whose actions and statements are dangerous. And he’s being enabled. Congress has abdicated its role as a check to presidential power. The Supreme Court is no longer committed to protecting minority rights. The result: an irrational and unrestrained president threatens the future of our country as a pluralistic constitutional democracy.
A bureau that openly embraces this view as a baseline… would cover Trump very differently from more typical DC reporters, who censor themselves for fear of appearing to take sides.
But that never went anywhere.
I tweeted my intention to write about this topic earlier today, and got some valuable responses. (One of which is already reflected above.)
I like this idea very much:
The proper response would have been to publish story after story on how his actions actually do nothing (at best) or hurt his base in terms of jobs, taxes, public health (opioids), schools etc. To frame him as the con artist that he is.
My ideas tend to stem from my idealism about journalism. Constantly exposing Trump’s con game is a very practical antidote to Trumpism, and potentially highly effective at bringing people who have been deceived by Trump back to reality.
This tweet is a powerful argument against everything I’ve written above, and I partly agree:
And this tweet reflects the existential despair I felt the other day, seeing a (hopefully outlier) poll reporting that 47 percent of registered voters approve of the job Trump is doing.
I think the fact that half the country cheers him on is the problem. Half the population of this country is the problem. Think about that.
Do half of Americans consciously and intentionally reject what I still think of as core American values? For now, I’m going to continue to hope that it’s an aberration — a fluke of history — that journalists can help reverse.