(October 10, 2016)
Donald Trump was never a politician, and billionaires are a dime a dozen (or billion a dozen, anyway) but what made Trump special was that he was a blowhard billionaire reality star with no substance at all, which meant that he could not be judged by the same standards as real politicians. He swept away the competition in the GOP that way, with the press–the television press especially–holding all his opponents to much higher standards of behavior, awareness, truthfulness and anything even remotely presidential, while The Donald acted like, well, a billionaire blowhard reality star. In the process, Trump and the television press managed to lower the level of discourse and debate to cataclysmically low standards, especially as no matter what Donald Trump said, the press began repeating it with deadly seriousness. Perhaps they scoffed a bit at his penis references–heh heh–in the early GOP debates, but they accepted his armchair neurologist diagnosis of Hillary as an epileptic with drop dead seriousness. She needs to get to a neurologist right now! demanded Brian Williams live on NBC as Hillary stumbled, weakened from a mild case of walking pneumonia. Apparently Brian had seen those fake spasm videos so much he was believing them, medical science and truth be damned.
But then Brian Williams was just doing what the press has been doing all along. Whatever Trump says the media will echo, and they will find surrogates for their panels to defend even his most outrageous and stupid prevarications, to which his opponents–at long last only Hillary–are compared with. They have to show that their network too is fair and balanced, so if Trump says something horrible, then Hillary too must have said something horrible too. If Trump did something awful, then Hillary must have done something just as awful. Think how differently Nixon’s career would have turned out had the Washington Post insisted that the Democrats were just as guilty of illegalities as poor Dick Nixon. But here was no sense of innate balance then, the press didn’t have to find McGovern’s evil ying to match Tricky Dick’s criminal yang. Fair and balanced did not mean everyone must be equally guilty.
Yet that is the way so much of the press coverage is presented in this election, particularly on television . And the White House press corps, raised on the ethos of All the President’s Men, make no attempt whatsoever to conceal their overweening sense of intellectual and moral superiority over the politicians they cover. It oozes like molasses across all the TV coverage, as if they, the press, had nothing to do with the disgraceful displays of lies and filth and hate we heard from Trump in last night’s debate, when they in fact are almost completely responsible for it being on that stage at all. They cultivated it. It made good TV. Trump makes the best TV ever. Hell, look at the ratings. A presidential debate buried the NFL, twice. Advertising revenues must be going through the roof. Traffic to websites reaching astronomical levels. Even Kim Kardashian is buried under the stuff coming out of Trump’s mouth. This is certainly better than any of those deadly dull issues discussions. No one watches TV to learn about education. This is politics as show biz. And no one knows show biz better than Trump. He is the P.T. Barnum of politics, and there is a reporter born every minute.
You could see all this in the glare of the post debate analysis last night on MSNBC and CNN (I couldn’t get myself to watch FoxNews). Maybe half the men–and none of the women–on the panels insisted that Trump had a good debate. It was all on style points. Threatening to jail your opponent? Well, yeah, that was bad, but his base loved it. Throwing Mike Pence under the bus? Well, yeah, that was bad, but his base loved it. About glorifying Putin? Admitting utter ignorance about Russia? Bragging about not paying taxes? All bad, but his base loved it. Somehow all that mattered to these men was that the sloppy, bigoted, and collectively none too deep base that was the ragged Greek Chorus off stage dug everything that Trump said, no matter how hateful, how much a lie, how authoritarian, how blatantly ignorant. And the consensus after a couple hours discussion on both CNN and MSNBC? Trump won the debate. How? By not losing. Hillary–though none of them uttered the word–lacked stamina.
Was that the debate you saw? No. And how did these genuinely very intelligent guys come to that counter-intuitive conclusion? By holding Trump to a much, much lower standard than Hillary. So low that there was no way to even approach Trump’s level with aping Trump. Apparently, that is a hood thing for Trump. His base loved it. The rest of us do not count in this analysis. Donald Trump seems to have a big male chunk of the Washington press corps completely under his spell. Hypnotized. Crow like a rooster. They crow like a rooster. Dance. They dance. Quote everything I say. They quote everything he says. They do all that without even a hint of discussing the issues. Not even a hint of journalistic self-awareness that they are not talking about the issues. Indeed, they still feel terrific about themselves as professional journalists. Mark Halperin had a brief moment of self-consciousness about this on his show a few days ago, but decided it was the fault of the candidates. Co-host John Heileman said how could they report on issues when the two campaigns–Hillary and Trump–are essentially moral and issueless cesspools? Of course, Hillary’s campaign is perhaps more issue oriented than any other nominees in American presidential history, but never mind, the press has spoken. They report only on scandals, therefore this campaign is only about scandals.
Of course, it is reporting on those scandals that gets you on TV. All those talking head appearances on the networks help pay the mortgage, help boost your Twitter following, help make you a TV personality. Besides, you don’t get called back if you insist on talking about the deficit. The press covered the nomination campaign as a horse race, and since the conventions they’ve covered it as heavyweight boxing match, and issues be damned, integrity be damned, that’s how it will be reported. By that measure, and that measure only, Trump had a good debate. What the hell? It’s only show biz.
When the Alt-Right and Trump’s media surrogates began alleging that Hillary was having seizures, I knew she was in trouble. Americans perhaps alone among western countries are notoriously hung up about epilepsy, often terrified of it, always uncomfortable around it, and almost universally uninformed. And when you actually go and utter the terrible word and apply it to a presidential candidate, even if it is a complete lie, it sows severe doubts in a lot of people in this country. Hillary, of course, is NOT epileptic (though Chief Justice John Roberts is), but no matter, this is a TMZ world, people believe the stupidest stuff, and now several million Americans think that Hillary is, or might be, epileptic. And you know what that means. Well, no, almost nobody does know what that means. Except that Donald Trump suddenly looked a lot more presidential to a lot of people whose neurological knowledge isn’t that far removed from the Middle Ages. Hell, even Tom Brokaw flipped out. And when an anchor man says that Hillary better see a neurologist right now, then there must be something to it.
Donald Trump has utterly transformed the way the media covers the presidential election. Now, running on issues is considered a weakness by both Trump and the media. Try as you might, you will see almost zero coverage on any actual issues this week. Trump and the Alt-Right dominate the media’s thinking. When Tom Brokaw screams that Hillary needs to see a neurologist immediately, you can see just how fundamentally news coverage has been altered.
And unless you spend hours daily on Twitter, you will be completely mystified as to how this is happening. But it’s happening because Trump turned Twitter into the dominant medium this campaign, even more so than television itself, and on Twitter the news cycle runs in seconds, with everyone trying to be the first person to tweet the latest story. When Gary Johnson made his What is Aleppo goof on Morning Joe (on MSNBC), he was barely a minute away from the set when panelist Mark Halperin–one of the country’s leading political reporters–got him on his iPhone. Within two minutes that conversation was broadcast on the air, with Johnson still inside the building, but even more remarkably, Halperin tweeted about that phone conversation while still talking to Johnson. That news cycle was literally less than sixty seconds, and What is Aleppo was trending within two minutes (I watched it happen.)
I think the reason that news coverage of the campaign is so distorted is that political reporters and pundits are addicted to Twitter. 140 characters or less. Even telegraphy was not so terse. Ironically, though, vastly more of us voters get our news on social media from Facebook instead of Twitter, and the disconnect between media and voters has never been so stark. We each live in our own social media universes. You and me here, on Facebook, and reporters and pundits on Twitter, and neither platform can access the other. That happens second hand, via television news. Twitterized reporting is stretched out into news stories and pundits shouting at each other, which filters into Facebook and down to us. “I was just asking a few farmers about grain prices & all they wanted to talk about was how the Clinton campaign handled the media Sunday” Mark Halperin tweeted today. It’s like policy issues don’t even exist.
Trump will lose the election–he gets slaughtered on Facebook–but his campaign stays even in the media because he tweets incessantly, and the media follows every tweeted utterance like it is a message from on high. No one, not even Hillary now, can compete for the media’s attention when the media has become conceptually twitterized. It certainly beats doing any real issues reporting. You can’t discuss, say, the ramifications of the new Filipino president pivoting his nation away from the U.S. and towards China in 140 characters or less. Anything politically newsworthy today can be no more than a catch phrase. Even sound bites are too long for Twitter. And certainly sound thinking is.
The Gettysburg Address, a mere 272 words long, has 1,369 too many characters and spaces for Twitter. 87 yrs ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty & dedicated to the prop that ppl are created equal. That’s about all that fits. Then on to the real news that Lincoln picked up a case of smallpox in Gettysburg.
A lot of veepstakes talk in the air. Personally, I’m hoping Hillary picks Xavier Becerra. It’s true that Liz Warren (my second choice) would help bring some of the angrier Bernie voters on board. And it’s true that Corey Booker (my other second choice) is a helluva man. No kidding. Rescued a man from a burning house, literally. Hard to top that. But both he and Warren are senators, and we need every senator we can get. And both are also future and exceptionally qualified presidential candidates, and being veep is rarely a path to the oval office without somebody getting shot first. So I’m loathe to pluck someone out of the Senate. It doesn’t help any that both Massachusetts and New Jersey have Republican governors who would not replace either with a Democrat.
Corey Booker’s base is solidly Democratic and already vote at a higher rate than anyone else in that Democratic base….including nice white middle class Democrats. (Indeed, boomer/gen-x black women have the highest rate of voting of all Americans.) And to pick Liz Warren to draw Berniecrats seems a little unseemly. Most of them are going to come over anyway, and a fifth will vote for Trump whether or not Liz Warren in on the ticket. There’s no doubt that selecting the eminently qualified Elizabeth Warren would be interpreted, unfairly and wrongly, as pleading for Bernie votes. Still, that is how many would interpret it, Hillary pleading for votes. Begging even. And a presidential candidate should never beg. Jimmy Carter begged the voters once. He never recovered.
Xavier Becerra, though, not only rewards one of the key components of Hillary’s winning coalition, but it would dramatically increase the amount of Hispanics who will vote on election day, always a weak point for the Democrats. There were already record numbers of Hispanics registering to vote in the primaries this year, such was their fear and loathing of Donald Trump. With Xavier Becerra on the ballot, the son of Mexican immigrants much like a certain Indiana judge, versus Donald Trump, who has called everyone from Mexico to potential rapists and degenerates, the number of Mexican American voter registrations will sky rocket. This would not only help the Democrats beat Trump this year, but would have profound long term implications for political power in the south west. If Hispanics began voting at the same level as whites, a lot of crazed Tea Partiers and redneck sheriffs can kiss their political asses goodbye. At last there would be a price to pay come election day for all that Republican nativist ranting.
Becerra could turn the southwest into an electoral vote nightmare for the GOP. The increase in Mexican-American voters coming out for a second generation immigrant a heartbeat away from the presidency will deliver Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico to the Democrat column, turn Arizona into a swing state and even force the Trump campaign to spend its limited resources in Texas, where the Hillary campaign will make a huge effort if only because the Republicans will have to spend so much money fighting it (Texas with its seventeen media markets is very expensive for statewide TV advertising.) Becerra on the ticket will give an increased edge in Illinois, make things that much harder for Trump in Florida, and dramatically increase fundraising in California. And above all, it puts Trump’s vicious anti-Mexican bigotry (and his prejudice in general) in the front row seat all campaign long. With Becerra on the ticket, Trump will be a racist 24/7.
And besides all that, Becerra is thoroughly qualified, smart as hell, and a nice guy. He was our congressman for years, and come to think of it, he actually knocked on our door once. As did his brother. The man walked the precincts, old school.
Yeah, Xavier Becerra for vice president
End of pitch.
That was a helluva speech Liz Warren gave. It’s unfortunate it had to be today, though, and not tomorrow, because I would have loved to have seen Bernie Sanders’ speech at RFK stadium. He was a couple minutes into it, subdued, almost pensive, like an immense weight was upon him. Where was he going with this? How would the crowd respond? I was transfixed. Suddenly it’s a split screen, and Liz Warren came walking out onto a stage, beaming. Bernie, exhausted, was speaking but you couldn’t help but be distracted by the electricity in Elizabeth Warren’s stride. Bernie was telling the crowd that his campaign is doing something different. It is telling the truth, he says, as he has said a thousand times–when the audio switches without warning to Liz Warren and Bernie is cut off mid-sentence. We hear Liz Warren launch into one of the greatest speeches in our modern political history. It was that good. Bernie’s stump speech was forgotten. None of the talking heads even mentioned he had been speaking. They were all about Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It’s like Bernie was never even there. Bernie Sanders, the man who had upended American politics, who had dominated every Democratic conversation. Bernie Sanders, who is all anyone could talk about yesterday. Bernie Sanders, who held the fate of the nation in his hands. But through the magic of live television it seemed like Warren’s star had risen, instantly, and Bernie’s had waned, just as instantly. Was it intended that way? Who knows. But it did make for exciting television. Will it have an electrifying effect on Bernie voters? No doubt, especially the under thirty young women who had been so loyal to Bernie Sanders and not so crazy about Hillary Clinton. Elizabeth Warren had changed the political demographics instantaneously. Liz will definitely win over the Millennial women for Hillary, a young under thirty journalist said, if not the Bernie Bros. Bernie Bros. She rolled her eyes saying it, as if ill mannered, foul mouthed Bernie Bros were suddenly a relic of an older, more primitive time. Angry young men with no respect for women in a women’s world.
But this was not the way this should be happening. I’d been waiting for hours for Bernie’s speech. It was supposed to be a major speech. All the news networks were waiting for it. It was to be broadcast in its entirety. This was to be one of the most significant speeches by the single most significant politician of 2016. “How Bernie Sanders’s day in Washington got eclipsed by Democratic unity” said the headline in the Washington Post. It had all happened so fast. If only somebody could have worked the timing out, coordinated the two events, but perhaps they just were determined to have Elizabeth Warren scorch Donald Trump before she endorsed Hillary this afternoon. And scorch him she did, beautifully, rehearsed to perfection, leaving a pile of cinders where once a big loutish billionaire had been.
There was a lot of stagecraft today, that was obvious, the Obama White House and Hillary Clinton campaign and Elizabeth Warren’s every move choreographed to perfection, without a wasted motion. Smooth and perfect. Political tai chi. Meanwhile Bernie, good honest Bernie, truthful Bernie, crusading Bernie, is left looking like William Jennings Bryan in Inherit the Wind, somehow immediately dated, a relic from an earlier time when he left crowds spellbound and chanting his name. Bernie’s speech today seemed divorced from reality, said the usually sympathetic Huffington Post, scolding him for pretending his campaign was not over. But you had to scroll way down to find that story, it was buried far beneath Elizabeth’s Warren’s enormous photo and name in huge red letters. Scroll down past Marco Rubio’s picture, and a bit further on, between an article on mosquitos and an article on a hit and run driver, was Bernie’s small picture and smaller font, an afterthought. “It would be extraordinary if the people of Washington, our nation’s capital, stood up and told the world that they are ready to lead this country into a political revolution” Bernie told the smallish crowd, just a fraction of the turnout he’d gotten in Los Angeles only days before. But Tuesday’s Washington D.C. primary, would be the last stop in the political revolution, and he will lose it like he lost the South, by a huge margin. Bernie knew that. He had told President Obama just that morning he understood the math. But he was putting on the show for the true believers spread out on the lawn before him. They cheered, they swooned, they knew the catechism by heart. Stay in the race, they chanted. Some said they’d write in Bernie Sanders on the ballot come November. He smiled wanly. It’d been scarcely forty eight hours since the California primary, but that seemed like another time.