To have a prayer of meeting the interpretive challenge posed by the Trump candidacy…

Last week in the Washington Post I said that journalists covering the candidacy of Donald Trump may have to come up with novel responses. Here I elaborate by asking you examine this image:

21 Jul 2016 9:21 pm 20 Comments

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 4.20.26 PM

That’s the line-up of interpreters presented by CNN on Tuesday of this week. They all fit under one of three categories: Journalists who cover politics for CNN (Gloria Borger, John King, Nia-Malika Henderson); political operatives who have worked for more traditional candidates (David Axelrod, Van Jones, Ana Navarro); and surrogates whose value to the conversation is that they reliably support Trump (Jeffery Lord, Andy Dean.)

But is that mix good enough? Can those three types — political journalists, operatives, surrogates — bring enough perspective to make sense of the Trump phenomenon?

My answer: No. Not even close.

The journalists are on screen mainly because these are the people CNN has at hand. They’re already being paid, so they have to be used. The operatives are there because, according to the producers, politics is a game and these are people who know how the game is played. The surrogates are there because in order to elude criticism — a massive and undeclared factor in political coverage — CNN needs to present itself as “balanced.” It’s hard to find anyone who from experience knows a lot about politics and also supports Donald Trump, so CNN has to pay people to even the scales.

Notice: all of these reasons are producer-centric. They aren’t responding to user demands, or the demands of the phenomenon itself. Jeffrey Lord is there because CNN needs him on air to feel fair and balanced. His job is to help CNN ward off criticism that it is one-sided or insufficiently Trumpish. This is the same reason Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was hired by CNN. The decision has nothing to do with serving audiences, explaining politics, or telling voters the hard truth about their choices. It’s about avoiding criticism.

In order to have a prayer of meeting the interpretive challenge posed by the candidacy of Donald Trump an executive producer of election coverage at a major network would need to call on different categories than the three we commonly see: journalists, operatives, and surrogates. Here’s a partial list of the “slots” you would need to fill to even come close to a useful and rounded view…

Parody: In many ways, Trump’s is a joke candidacy, a parody of a presidential campaign. The wall that Mexico will pay for is much closer to a goof on the political class than it is to any serious policy proposal. One of the slots on our revised roundtable should therefore go to someone who is attuned to this dimension and can evaluate how well the candidate did in extending his parody to the most sacred rituals in American politics, like the acceptance speech.

Stay shocked. “Many forces will be at work in the coming weeks to normalize Trump,” wrote E.J. Dionne in May. “Please don’t mainstream [him].” Dionne’s plea deserves its own chair, a slot on the televised roundtable for someone whose only job it is to stay shocked, remain alert to the unprecedented, the hard-to-believe, the amazing, the chaotic. This person’s job is exactly what Dionne said: never normalize Trump. Remain awestruck.

‘Dominance politics’ and the imperative of humiliation. “A series of symbols and actions that mark the dominating from the dominated.” Here I am quoting Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, who has pursued this interpretation for months. (Brilliantly, I should add.) There should be someone on the pundit’s roundtable who is paying close attention to the manner in which Trump tries to establish his dominance over all comers and humiliate anyone who would try to contest his superiority. Hearing that person opine on the latest speech, or press conference maneuver would be useful and illuminating.

Narcissism watch. Anyone aware of what “narcissism” really means would also be aware that Trump is a classic and illuminating case. Narcissists are distinguished not by self-love — that is a common misconception — but by a weak sense of identity that needs constant shoring up. It is hard for the narcissist to tell what is self and not self. A pundit alert to the paradoxes of this condition might be able deliver insights that would baffle a campaign operative.

Reality TV. No roundtable attempting to size up Trump is complete without someone who can view his events through the lens of Hollywood values, entertainment priorities, reality television imperatives, the demands of the script— worlds in which Trump has truly excelled. Van Jones cannot do that. Jeffrey Lord cannot do that.

“Identity politics for white people” is a phrase I first heard in this August 2015 essay by Ben Domenech. More recently it was the subject of this report by Nick Confessore: For Whites Sensing Decline, Donald Trump Unleashes Words of Resistance. “Everyone’s sticking together in their groups,” said one of his sources, “so white people have to, too.” Instead of turning to another political consultant with a savvy take on the game of politics, Anderson Cooper should be asking his expert on white resentment to weigh in.

Political correctness. A portion of Trump’s appeal has to do with his open defiance of what is often called “political correctness.” If I were an executive producer of campaign coverage trying to capture the Trump phenomenon, I would dump Gloria Borger (what does she add, really?) and insert a careful student of this form of backlash politics, in which rules about what you “can’t say” are broken and energy is thereby released.


Minor edit: “press conference maneuver by would be useful and illuminating.”

Delete “by”?

I think the person sitting in the “Narcissism watch” chair would say narcissistic traits are the source of Trump’s “Dominance politics/humiliation” campaign tactics.

Richard Aubrey says:

Trump wouldn’t be where he is in the race if he hadn’t pushed a lot of popular buttons.
How many rapes, murders and drunk-driving deaths at the hands of illegal alien felons released by ICE are we supposed to absorb in order to be the Right Sort of Society?
It is, of courses, to be expected that the bitter clingers in flyover country will have their buttons discredited by The “self” Elect.
Which, of course, only makes them madder.
I would have greatly preferred Cruz/Fiorina. I’ll support Trump because of Hillary who will pack the various agencies with Lois Lerner clones.
I’d suggest that, in speculating about the Trump triumph–so far–that two things be considered; first is he’s the only anti-Hillary, and, two, he’s doing a better job with the buttons of a lot of people.
Oh, yeah. Three things. That the Self Professed Exceptionally Wonderful (SPEW) sneers at the buttons doesn’t escape the bitter clingers.

Paul Lukasiak says:

How many rapes, murders and drunk-driving deaths at the hands of illegal alien felons released by ICE are we supposed to absorb in order to be the Right Sort of Society?

since when is there a qualitative difference between crimes committed by undocumented aliens, and crimes committed by “natural born” Amurikuns?

There is not a qualitative difference, there is a quantitative difference. If we can agree that rapes, murders and drunk driving deaths are bad things, then why should we accept more of them from people with no legal right to be here? Is it not a role of government to try and minimize the bad things that happens to its citizens? Its Amurikuns?

Paul Lukasiak says:

Two things

1) too many categories. The nine person panel was way too large to begin with.

2) Last night, I think that Ana Navarro filled the “stay shocked” role quite nicely. She made no effort to hide her astonishment/disgust at Trump’s acceptance speech — and at at least one point (responding to Jeffrey Lord) I thought she was going to lose it entirely.

This was pretty uncharacteristic of Navarro, and I applaud her for it. Everyone else (non-Trumpist) was doing their best–albeit, unsuccessfully — to hide their disgust with the proceedings, but Navarro simply refused, or was unable to.

PS.. I hope you continue to explore the question of how the media needs to cover Trump. After last night, I think all but the worst ideologues in the media recognize that they have a responsibility to communicate just how dangerous Trump is — but they are at a complete loss when it comes to figuring out how to do that.

“I think all but the worst ideologues in the media recognize that they have a responsibility to communicate just how dangerous Trump is”

This is the statement of an ideologue as well, absolute and judgmental.

Hillary is as much a corrupt, lying, authoritarian as Trump. She is part of the brain trust that decided removing authoritarian régimes in Egypt and Lybia was smart since it worked out so well in
Iraq. Given this choice between the two, rational people might chose Trump as the lesser of two evils.

Lacking the empathy to see how a good, kind person could choose Trump is your problem, and a major tool missing from efforts to understand or counteract Trump.

One last thought. Elections, and politics in general, have become tribal,emotional affairs. The media in this election is playing a conservative role defending progressive policies. Trump is campaigning on emotion and the “solution” is for media explain to people why their feelings are wrong. Or if I am reading you right, why his supporters are comparable to Nazis. Good luck with that.

Well Red says:

Do Trump voters think things will really be better for non-Trump voters if Trump wins? Do they think things will be better for women, or blacks and Latinos, or Muslims and Jews if their side wins?

Trump supporters have not articulated a vision for how Trump will help anybody other than other Trump supporters. To me, that’s their greatest weakness. By playing up all the ways the country is divided, Trump people miss all the ways in which we are connected.

If you start with the assumption that Trump supporters are good, rational people then the short answer to your question is yes.

If I were a CNN producer I would be partnering with IBM’s Watson to access as many past speeches and reliable databases for real-time fact-checking immediately on screen. Not only would this be a great gimmick and an attempt to remove assumed bias, but it might make for very surprising television, especially during the debates.

Bernie Latham says:

Re Josh’s dominance thesis, even Limbaugh gets this (on why Trump went after Cruz again)

” This is alpha male, gang. This is the way… It isn’t beanbag. This is not for sensitive leftists.” (final sentence).

So far as I can tell, no one has addressed Trump’s unique rhetorical/persuasion techniques, most particularly, his ubiquitous behavior of repeating phrases and terms. He does this all the time.

” “You know, he’ll come and endorse over the next little while,” he said. “He’ll — because he has no choice. But I don’t want his endorsement. What difference does it make? And I don’t want his endorsement. I have such great — I don’t want his endorsement. Just — Ted, stay home, relax, enjoy yourself.”

“Again, I don’t want his endorsement,” he said. “If he gives it, I will not accept it. Just so you understand. If he gives it — I will not accept it.”

So, what’s going on here? In part, this is filler. There’s so much he doesn’t know and can’t expand upon that repetition presents the opportunity for him to dominate the conversation without leaving gaps (as with “..uh…um”) where interjection by others is facilitated. The repeated statements (up to four repetitions in the above) also serve a domination goal in the manner that four punches in the face “works better” than one punch in the face.

There may be other things going on here, but those I’ve mentioned can be identified.

Paul Lukasiak says:

Not withstanding my previous statement about too many categories, let me suggest two more…

1) Historian — someone who can speak authoritatively to historical precedents, and what they have lead to in the past. It would have been nice to have someone on the panel who could use not just Nixon as an example, but could get away with citing Hitler, Mussolini, Peron, and American demogogues like Huey Long.

2) Forensic rhetorician — someone who can authoritatively explain the art of persuasion as it applies to politics as it happens.

Bernie Latham says:

I have to say, I love “forensic rhetorician”. It reminds me of a WC Fields film where he’s pulled over by a cop who asks Fields, “What do you do, sir?” Fields’ reply is immediate and authoritative, “I’m a memory expert” which completely befuddles the cop (an interesting rhetorical move in itself).

I noted your initial “too many categories” dilemma but I think Jay is looking at missing areas of expertise while not supposing one panelist representing each.

Still, the problem is how such TV news shows might be, in the present environment, encouraged to expand their formats in the direction Jay properly advises. In this morning’s NYT, Dan Abrams has a piece on competing with Fox’s audience-capture strategies and Abrams’ value set doesn’t even hint at the sort of goals that Jay and most of us would deem desirable and necessary. It’s just ratings.

Richard Aubrey says:

Paul. WRT illegal alien felons: They’re doing their felon thing after we had them in custody.
See, for example, Kate Steinle (aka “who?”) I watched some of the hearings. ICE boss was either lying or ignorant. They didn’t pick up a particular guy under discussion because his crime–not his first–hadn’t been serious. True. The vic was still on life support. Other point is that, if Trump’s talking about controlling immigration, he’s talking about immigrants. I suspect, although I haven’t heard him on the subject, that he’s against early release for violent felons who are citizens. See, if we control immigration, we don’t have to worry about that particular set of bad guys and then there will be fewer victims. And it appears the feds are not doing, nor do they look as if they want to do, what may be in their power (and if it isn’t, we need new feds) to take care of that particular category.

We’re not running the 2016 election debate or re-fighting the last 40 years of the culture wars in the comments section of this blog.

All further exchanges that do that will be deleted.

sorry please feel to delete my 1:44 above.
I was just trying to point out Reasonable people could look at this differently.

Paul Lukasiak says:

I actually realized this immediately after I wrote my initial response to Richard (digression is the soul of the internets, after all) — and would have deleted/edited the comment, but there is no edit capability.

My apologies, and I’ll try not to do it again.

Bernie Latham says:

@Jay Rosen
What might be the chances that you could sit down with, say, Rachel Maddow and her producer or Chris Hayes and his producer to discuss your criticisms? It seems to me that both of those shows, in content and process, suggest they would be relatively amenable to your viewpoint. If such a conversation did happen (and if honest) we might gain some further insights into the institutional impediments to better programming.

Narcissism reflects a weak sense of self only in its more obviously pathological manifestations. I’m a clinical psychologist by training and work in an environment with a lot of narcissists–some know how to manage their narcissism and others are pathetically in need of validation. The former tend to be effective leaders and their narcissism may lead them toward mastery of subject matter, skills, etc. The latter tend to be trainwrecks who lack skills and let their pathology get in the way of accomplishing anything useful.

Puh-lease! You need only ONE pundit, a Trump piniata, and a baseball bat.