On the eve of an election filled with danger I take up my pen to describe one more time what I think political journalists missed about the candidacy of Donald Trump.
We lack any common language for talking about press performance at the level where Trump eluded it. So this essay will have to roam a bit. If it doesn’t cohere in the end— well, neither do we. We who care about news, truth, factuality, and democracy. We don’t know where we are with Trump and the depiction of reality in an election contested this way. We have lost the plot.
This is my attempt to restore one. But it probably won’t work.
I’d start the story in October of 2004, with the appearance of an article by Ron Suskind in the New York Times magazine: Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush. You might recall it as the piece that introduced the phrase “the reality-based community” to American discourse. That phrase — and the quotation from the Bush adviser that introduced it — caused an instant sensation.
Few people remember that Suskind’s article was primarily about the creatures we today call “establishment” Republicans. They were dismayed by a confusing development within the Bush White House. Asking for evidence, expressing doubt, presenting facts that didn’t fit a simplified narrative: these were considered disqualifying acts, even for allies of the President.
Knowing what you know now, about candidate Trump, listen to these quotes from 2004…
* “He dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts.” —Bruce Bartlett, former Reagan and Bush-the-elder adviser.
* “In meetings, I’d ask if there were any facts to support our case. And for that, I was accused of disloyalty!” —Christie Whitman, head of the EPA under Bush.
* “If you operate in a certain way — by saying this is how I want to justify what I’ve already decided to do, and I don’t care how you pull it off — you guarantee that you’ll get faulty, one-sided information.” —Paul O’Neill, Treasure Secretary under Bush.
* “Open dialogue, based on facts, is not seen as something of inherent value. It may, in fact, create doubt, which undercuts faith. It could result in a loss of confidence in the decision-maker and, just as important, by the decision-maker.” —Suskind’s words.
* “A cluster of particularly vivid qualities was shaping George W. Bush’s White House through the summer of 2001: a disdain for contemplation or deliberation, an embrace of decisiveness, a retreat from empiricism, a sometimes bullying impatience with doubters and even friendly questioners.” —Suskind.
* “You’re outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don’t read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way [Bush] walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it’s good for us. Because you know what those folks don’t like? They don’t like you!” — Mark McKinnon, media adviser to Bush, explaining the political logic to Suskind.
And then the money quote, the one everyone remembers, from a Bush adviser who went nameless:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “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. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Liberals immediately embraced the term: We’re the reality-based community, yay for us! Conservatives thought this hilarious (and they still do.) Both reactions bypassed what Suskind reported: a tension between factions within the Republican coalition. Bruce Bartlett, Christie Whitman, Paul O’Neill and other loyal Republicans who talked to Suskind were alarmed by what he called “the retreat from empiricism.” The most outstanding example was of course the faulty case for war in Iraq presented to the U.N., to Congress and to the American people, which the press had failed to detect, debunk, or resist. (With one exception.)
Today this is seen as a major screw-up by journalists, a moment of shame. They admit it: they missed a huge story. But now we can see that underneath it was an even bigger failure: they failed to flag the retreat from empiricism as a pattern that could replicate. That’s more than a missed story. That’s a shift in political culture away from journalism’s grasp. I tried to point this out in my 2006 post, Retreat From Empiricism. I failed.
The alternative to facts on the ground is to act, regardless of the facts on the ground. When you act you make new facts. You clear new ground. And when you roll over or roll back the people who have a duty to report the situation as it is—people in the press, the military, the bureaucracy, your own cabinet, or right down the hall—then right there you have demonstrated your might.
Complicating any attempt to sound this alarm was an asymmetry in the pattern. It wasn’t exclusive to the Republican Party; but it found more fertile soil there. Liberals warning about vaccines and genetically modified foods, left wing extremists who considered 9/11 an inside job: they were also in retreat from empiricism. They just never had the influence among office-holders and opinion leaders that, say, climate change denialists and the birther movement had within the Republican coalition. But as I wrote in a previous post: this kind of asymmetry fries the circuits of the mainstream press.
With the election upon us — and with our knowledge of what the Trump campaign turned out to be — try to connect these dots:
2009: Clip of Tucker Carlson at the CPAC conference, an annual gathering of conservatives. He’s trying to persuade them that they need their own version of the New York Times: a news source that cares first about establishing what actually happened.
Nooooooo, the crowd says. The Times twists everything! “Yes, they twist it, but they are still out there finding the facts and bringing them to people,” Carlson replies. Some in the audience cotton to what he’s saying. But he gets heckled and shouted down when he tries to insist “at the core of their news gathering operation is gathering news!” What the crowd wants is denunciations of liberal bias, not a plea for rigorous reporting from one of their own. They don’t know it, but the people heckling Carlson in 2009 are heralds of Trump in 2016.
2010: The New York Times runs a detailed portrait of the Tea Party movement, after sending a reporter on the road for five months to interview participants and understand their grievances. One part of it puzzled me:
It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny. This narrative permeates Tea Party Web sites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos. It is a prominent theme of their favored media outlets and commentators, and it connects the disparate issues that preoccupy many Tea Party supporters — from the concern that the community organization Acorn is stealing elections to the belief that Mr. Obama is trying to control the Internet and restrict gun ownership.
I did not understand what the Times was saying about this “narrative of impending tyranny,” other than: these people seem to believe it! No reports about an impending tyranny had appeared in the New York Times. The columnists weren’t warning about it. That’s a pretty big story to miss (if it was actually happening.) As I wrote at the time:
Why is this phrase, impending tyranny, just sitting there, as if Barstow had no way of knowing whether it was crazed and manipulated or verifiable and reasonable? If we credit the observation that a great many Americans drawn to the Tea Party live in fear that the United States is about to turn into a tyranny, with rigged elections, loss of civil liberties, no more free press, a police state… can we also credit the professional attitude that refuses to say whether this fear is reality-based? I don’t see how we can.
How can you say to readers: these people live in a different reality than we do… and leave it there? That is not the kind of story you can drop on our doorsteps and walk away from. It’s describing a rupture in the body politic, a tear in the space-time continuum that lies behind political journalism. I don’t think the editors understood what they were doing. But even today they would find this criticism baffling. We reported what people in this movement believe. Accurately! What’s your problem?
2016: This is from Oliver Darcy’s compelling portrait of the conservative media universe after Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party. The speaker is Charlie Sykes, host of a right wing talk radio program in Wisconsin that was influential in the rise of Scott Walker.
One of the chief problems, Sykes said, was that it had become impossible to prove to listeners that Trump was telling falsehoods because over the past several decades, the conservative news media had “basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers.”
“There’s nobody,” he lamented. “Let’s say that Donald Trump basically makes whatever you want to say, whatever claim he wants to make. And everybody knows it’s a falsehood. The big question of my audience, it is impossible for me to say that, ‘By the way, you know it’s false.’ And they’ll say, ‘Why? I saw it on Allen B. West.’ Or they’ll say, ‘I saw it on a Facebook page.’ And I’ll say, ‘The New York Times did a fact check.’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s The New York Times. That’s bulls—.’ There’s nobody — you can’t go to anybody and say, ‘Look, here are the facts.'”
“Everybody knows it’s a falsehood.” (Sykes said.) Except our listeners! (Sykes said.) So “everybody” doesn’t mean everybody, does it? Just one way that language breaks down when we try to talk about the retreat from empiricism.
One of the missing facts in Darcy’s report is that while conservatives with big microphones taught their listeners not to believe what is reported in the mainstream media (and especially the elite press in New York and Washington) they themselves still relied on those sources as their baseline reality— minus the liberal “spin,” of course. They weren’t willing to adopt the information diet they recommended for others. This act of bad faith lies behind the complaints of someone like Sykes, who is now saying: Lord, what have we done?
2016: This is from Politico Europe, a few days ago:
Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned on Saturday that political debates devoid of facts present a “deadly danger” to democracy. Referring to the upcoming presidential election in the United States, the U.K.’s campaign to leave the EU, as well as an ever more assertive Russia, Steinmeier said the “audacity with which facts are hidden and denied in public, expert knowledge is discredited, and, simply, lies are being told in the West as in the East and beyond the English Channel, leaves one almost speechless.”
Speechless we cannot afford to be. Yesterday I read something by a philosopher, Jason Stanley, that illuminated what I mean by “a miss bigger than a missed story.” Beyond Lying: Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Reality. Stanley made the point that fact checking Trump in a way missed the point. Trump was not trying to make reference to reality in what he said to win votes. He was trying to substitute “his” reality for the one depicted in news reports.
“On a certain level, the media lacked the vocabulary to describe what was happening,” Stanley writes. And I agree with that. He compares what Trump did to totalitarian propaganda, which does not attempt to depict the world but rather substitutes for it a ruthlessly coherent counter-narrative that is untroubled by any contradiction between itself and people’s experience.
The goal of totalitarian propaganda is to sketch out a consistent system that is simple to grasp, one that both constructs and simultaneously provides an explanation for grievances against various out-groups. It is openly intended to distort reality, partly as an expression of the leader’s power. Its open distortion of reality is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness.
Trump’s campaign was “openly intended to distort reality” because that is a show of power. Power over his followers. Over the other candidates he humiliated and drove from the race. Over party officials who tried to bring him to heel. And over the journalists who tried to “check” and question him.
One of the first observations the checkers made about Trump is that he doesn’t care when his statements are shown to have no basis in fact. As Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, put it: “What’s unusual about Trump is he’s a leading candidate and he seems to have no interest in getting important things factually correct.” The more astute journalists were aware that something different and threatening was going on. In December of 2015 Maggie Haberman and Patrick Healy of the New York Times made this observation:
Trump uses rhetoric to erode people’s trust in facts, numbers, nuance, government and the news media, according to specialists in political rhetoric. “Nobody knows,” he likes to declare, where illegal immigrants are coming from or the rate of increase of health care premiums under the Affordable Care Act, even though government agencies collect and publish this information. He insists that Mr. Obama wants to accept 250,000 Syrian migrants, even though no such plan exists…
A political campaign intended to erode people’s trust in facts is an attack on the very possibility that journalists can inform those people. But Trump went beyond that. He tried to substitute his world for the one we actually live in, as Jason Stanley describes:
The simple picture Trump is trying to convey is that there is wild disorder, because of American citizens of African-American descent, and immigrants. He is doing it as a display of strength, showing he is able to define reality and lead others to accept his authoritarian value system.
So what I mean by a miss bigger than a missed story is this. It is one thing to bypass the journalists and go directly to voters. It’s another to pull up the press by its roots. It’s one thing to lie for political advantage. It’s another to keep lying to prove you have the power. The retreat from empiricism was a disturbance in 2004. Twelve years later it is a political style in utter ascendency. “When we act, we create our own reality” was a boast in the Bush White House, a bit of outrageousness intended to shock the reporter. Now we have Trump’s attempt to substitute his reality for news of the world. Covering Trump was a massive challenge. Recovering from him may be all but impossible for the political press.
I hope that is not the case. But as election day dawns I fear it might be.