They Haven’t Learned

The media showered Donald Trump with unnecessary attention all last week in honor of his re-election rally kickoff in Orlando, Florida. The coverage was so reminiscent of 2016, that it raises fresh concerns about whether the news media has learned anything from previous campaign about covering a whiny bully like Trump. Will journalists still view him through the lens of celebrity and hold him to almost no substantive standards, while echoing his lies and bogus attacks on his enemies?

Coming off the monumental failure of 2016, the press seems poised to stumble through another campaign to failure. Especially since, following the 2016 debacle, many in the press refused to concede that any mistakes had been made, let alone offer up much serious self-reflection.

It’s likely the White House loved how rally week played out, with an avalanche of coverage that mostly regurgitated Trump’s stale, familiar rally speech, which leans heavily on victimhood. One of the media themes regarding Trump’s event was that, with his endless attacks on Hillary Clinton, he’s stuck in the past.

But the same point can be made about the press, which seems determined to hit rewind for 2020. And that means a return of the circus-like, spectacle-type campaign coverage Lord Dampnut loves.

Last week the press sent some 500 journalists to Orlando for the indoor event. But what exactly was the point of the endless media attention, considering that Trump has held more than 50 rallies since taking office?

Trump talking = news is a ridiculous formula for newsrooms to be using in 2019. Yet last week, ABC News adopted the premise, when the network aired an hour-long prime-time special of, well, Trump talking. There was no news hook for the unusual programming event, which featured ABC’s George Stephanopoulos shadowing Trump over the course of two days and recording Trump lying relentlessly. Not surprisingly, it was a ratings flop.

Still, the press seems committed to the idea that every Trump utterance is wildly important and newsworthy. Here’s how The New York Times reported Trump’s rally:

“President Trump delivered a fierce denunciation of the news media, the political establishment and what he called his radical opponents on Tuesday as he opened his re-election campaign in front of a huge crowd of raucous supporters by evoking the dark messaging and personal grievances that animated his 2016 victory.”

Subtract the phrase “opened his re-election campaign,” and that paragraph could have easily been published during any month in the last four years. We’ve seen this Trump show over and over and over, to the point where it’s quite obviously not news. Weirdly enough, the Times acknowledged that fact in its report, “in the end, it was not so different from the dozens of rallies he has held during the past two years” yet they still treated the rally as front-page news.

In fact, lots of other journalists commented on the ho-hum nature of the event. CNN’s Betsy Klein wrote on Twitter, “I was promised new material.” The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty added, “When Hillary Clinton runs in 2020, Trump is totally ready for her.”

In others words, Trump hyped up the rally as a huge event. The press played along and treated it that way, even though reporters in real time conceded the rally was something of a big fat nothingburger. Guess who walks away the winner in that scenario. To its credit, MSNBC did not carry Trump’s rally live Tuesday night, while CNN broke away after five minutes (although they did show his empty podium for a while). Naturally, Fox News aired the event in its entirety.

And yes, the rally coverage featured the hallmark media whitewashing that so often protects Trump supporters from the harsh glare of reality. Trump was met in Orlando by “cheering and chanting supporters,” reported USA Today, and by “thousands of adoring supporters,” according to Politico.

Both of those cheerful descriptions remind me of the bland, innocuous ways his supporters were often described in 2016. What has traditionally been missing from the nonstop deluge of Trump voter stories? A look into the dark nature of Trump Nation, and an open acknowledgment that his base is often fueled by racism.

Trump’s candidacy was driven by immigrant-bashing, and so too has his presidency. But when journalists profile his faithful supporters, acknowledgment of Trump’s racist rhetoric rarely comes up. The problem with that type of whitewashing is that the Orlando rally attracted throngs of white nationalists, who clearly have become part of the Trump’s political coalition, and whose presence was not mentioned in most press reports. The whole fascist vibe of the rallies is badly underplayed by the press.

Trump spouting off doesn’t qualify as news. But will the press acknowledge that before 2020?

The Next Nightmare

Polls currently show that all of the major Democratic presidential candidates are pulling way ahead of Donald Trump. While Democrats should take nothing for granted, there is at least some reason hope that Americans will turn out in large numbers and Trump will be soundly defeated in 2020. That victory would be both exciting and an enormous relief, a moment when we can collectively begin to believe that the national nightmare is ending.

If that does happen, the next nightmare will likely begin. It may be minutes, hours, days, or even weeks, but at some point between Election Day November 2020 and Inauguration Day January 2021, odds are that Trump will declare that the election was “fake news” and refuse to vacate the White House. There will be no peaceful transfer of power.

This past weekend showed some disturbing signs of this. Internal polls commissioned by the Trump campaign were leaked, showing that he is trailing badly in several battleground states. In response, Trump angrily called the polls “fake” and then fired the pollsters.

He also suggested on Twitter (where else?) that it was possible “the people would demand that I stay longer” than two terms of office, using his joking-not-joking strategy to suggest that he’s not hemmed in by laws or the Constitution when it comes to retaining power.

A talking point of Democrats who are reluctant to begin an impeachment inquiry is that Trump needs to be removed at the ballot box, not by impeachment. The argument is that Trump can’t be removed from office through impeachment since Republicans, who control the Senate, will refuse to convict him no matter how much evidence there is. Which is true. With rare exceptions, Republicans have shown that there is no level of criminality Trump could display that they are unwilling to accept, so long as it allows them to retain power.

But it’s also why there’s a real danger that, if and when Trump refuses to leave office after an electoral defeat, Republicans will go along with it. And why not? They haven’t drawn any line yet when it comes to Trump cheating or breaking the law. On the contrary, Republicans were already flouting the law in their attempts to retain control over all levels of the government even though a majority of Americans have rejected them at the polls. So far, there appears to be no limits to what Republicans will allow, so long as it entrenches their power.

Republicans have been doing it even before Trump came along. Gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts predated his candidacy, taking off in earnest after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. Mitch McConnell refused to hold any hearings for Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, on totally bogus pretenses so he could hold the seat open for a Republican president to fill. This trend goes back to the 2000 Bush v. Gore decision, in which the Supreme Court’s conservative majority handed George W. Bush the presidency rather than allowing a recount in Florida.

McConnell’s response to the Russian criminal conspiracy to undermine the last election has been to reject any effort to prevent such conspiracies in the future. Bills have been written and passed by the House to shore up election security and McConnell simply refuses to bring them for a vote. Trump made clear, in his interview last week with George Stephanopoulos, that he fully intends to cheat in 2020 the same way he cheated in 2016. McConnell’s response has basically been, “Cool!”

Republicans are so complicit in Trump’s criminality that it is simply a statement of fact to note there is no chance that the Senate would vote to convict Trump in an impeachment trial, no matter how serious his crimes are. If they refuse to throw him out for being a criminal, why would they throw him out because he lost an election?

We have to presume that Trump and the Republicans will not be hemmed in by law or custom when it comes to holding onto power they haven’t earned. It would be deeply unwise for Democrats to pin their hopes on the possibility that Trump will suddenly, after all this time, become the kind of man who would admit he lost an election, or that Republicans will finally decide that there’s such thing as “going too far” when it comes to taking power in defiance of democratic will.

How should we deal with it when Trump declares the election void and Republicans back his play? The time to plan for that is now. Being caught flat-footed and scrambling to catch up will only make it easier for Trump to entrench the idea that his hold on the White House is absolute, just as he and Republicans have entrenched the idea that it’s normal and acceptable for the Senate to refuse to convict him no matter what.

Unless Democrats move swiftly and forcefully when Trump refuses to leave the White House, (and they need to plan for “when,” not “if”) Republicans will be able to make the Trump Dynasty feel inevitable, as they’ve done with other successful efforts at gutting American democracy.

The Beast is Freed

Over the last few months, we’ve have grown accustomed to Donald Trump in his cornered-rat mode, lashing out and ruminating obsessively over the possibility of his impeachment. But his tweets so far this week have been surprisingly cheerful, and a cheerful Trump is bad news for everyone.

First, overcome with the pleasures of racist sadism, Trump tweeted o Monday night that “ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens.” No reason to think that’s not going to be horror show.

Trump’s gleeful sadism continued a few hours later, when the always highly caffeinated Gröpenführer wrote, at 1:10 a.m. on Tuesday, “Only a few people showed up for the so-called Impeachment rallies over the weekend.” “The numbers were anemic, no spirit, no hope,”

As painful as this is to admit, Trump is right that the impeachment rallies attracted poor turnout. That’s not due to a lack of public support for an impeachment inquiry however. More than half of Americans support at least an impeachment investigation, which is much higher than support for impeaching Richard Nixon was before the Watergate hearings began. Instead, as Trump correctly diagnosed, the low turnout was because liberals and progressives are demoralized, since it seems the House Democratic leadership is determined to do nothing to shine a light on Trump’s extensive corruption and criminal behavior.

After Trump admitted on camera that he’s open and eager to keep doing crimes, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi remained as firm as ever on her refusal to start an impeachment inquiry. If Trump telling us that he plans to commit more crimes won’t move the needle, a bunch of people in a plaza with witty-but-angry slogans on a placard isn’t going to do it either. So of course the only people who showed up are the insufferable types who actually enjoy protests.

Trump has realized that he can do whatever he wants and no one is going to stop him. Which is clearly his greatest pleasure in life, one that even outstrips buying the silence of porn stars whom he pressures into underwhelming sex.

Half the reason Trump does bad things is because he gets off on getting away with it, as demonstrated by the innumerable contractors he’s screwed over and the wives he’s cheated on (all of them). He infamously bragged, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Apparently, it also won’t’ convince Nancy Pelosi to allow an impeachment inquiry.

Pelosi’s reaction (continue to do nothing) to Trump’s admission to Stephanopoulos that he would be happy to commit more election fraud in 2020 lets him know there are no limits. There’s nothing he can do, no crime so big that he can admit to doing, or say he would do again, that will actually propel Democratic Leadership to allow an impeachment inquiry.

Starting the inquiry and taking stronger measures to arrest witnesses who refuse subpoenas would go a long way towards wiping the gloating smirk off Lord Dampnut’s face. But for some reason, Democratic leaders seem more interested in complaining that no one cares about their go-nowhere health care bills than in taking the fight to Donald Trump.

So it’s no wonder Trump is feeling good. He realizes that accountability for his abundant misdeeds isn’t coming and he’s free to do what he wants with no danger of facing any consequences. Trump has slowly become more emboldened over the past couple of years, but now he’s coming into the realization that the Blue Wave of 2018 was not the threat to his power he thought and feared it was. Now there’s reason to worry he’ll conclude the same about the prospect of losing the 2020 election.

What happens when a man who has no moral compass realizes he can do whatever he wants without consequence?

The Battle of El Paso Part II

The city of El Paso, TX has sent Donald Trump’s reelection campaign an arrears notice for a $470,000 rally bill, ABC News reports. Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, on the other hand, has already paid his $28,630 tab to El Paso for a city event to officially launch his campaign six weeks later.

El Paso charged Donald J. Trump for President Inc. $470,000 for his February 11 “Make America Great Again” rally. The bill was due April 24, but the campaign hasn’t paid a dime. Some city costs incurred for Trump’s rally included $381,000 for extra police and $61,000 for fire department services.

Trump and the Trump Organization have a long history of not paying their bills and have been the target of several lawsuits in bids to collect money. Trump Organization properties have declared bankruptcy six times.

The city has threatened to tack on a late-payment penalty that could result in another $100,000 in costs. Late penalties are probably something contributors aren’t thrilled to absorb. If the debt is unpaid, Trump could also be blocked from holding another campaign rally in the city.

The Trump campaign has insinuated it’s being overcharged, a common tactic Lord Dampnut uses to try to get out of paying bills. Michael Glassner, Trump Campaign CEO, told ABC: “We are reviewing” the bill.

Twitter isn’t Real Life

In 1985, media critic Neil Postman wrote, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” in which he argued that the ascendancy of television was destroying public discourse in America. The primary support for this claim was that television is so structurally biased toward entertainment, triviality, and spectacle that it is incapable of fostering serious, sustained, and rational deliberation.

It seems in 2019 that an equally seismic cultural shift occurring, one that is moving us even further away from healthy public dialogue.

Just as the Age of Typography gave way to the Age of Television, the Age of Television is now giving way to the Age of Twitter. Nowhere is this shift more evident than in Donald Trump’s obsessive use of the platform. But Lord Dampnut is far from alone, as the popularity of congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter feed suggests. Given Twitter’s growing centrality in our politics, it seems prudent to highlight the defining traits of this platform and the dangers it poses.

Twitter is defined by three main characteristics: simplicity, impulsivity, and incivility. Thanks to its 280-character limitation, Twitter structurally disallows communication that is sophisticated and complex. While people can say things that are smart and witty on Twitter, they cannot convey complex ideas.

This is significant because the issues and concerns confronting us today, from climate change and healthcare to terrorism and immigration, are exceedingly complex, and talking about them 280 characters at a time ensures that we will never develop workable solutions. You cannot fix a problem that you do not actually understand.

Also, Twitter does not invite serious contemplation and thoughtful consideration. Generally speaking, people do not spend hours carefully crafting 280-character messages. They fire them off in the “heat” in the moment. This is due to the structural properties of the platform, whose simplicity of use invites impulsivity. People can tweet from virtually anywhere at any time. Tweets are, well, tweeted usually with no forethought and reflection. As such, Twitter frequently contributes to misunderstanding and escalates sensitive situations.

While there are positive and civil messages on Twitter, research concerning the platform points to three interrelated findings that privilege incivility.

First, Twitter usage is positively correlated to the personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.

Second, people are more likely to communicate in uncivil ways when the target of their message is not immediately present.

Third, negatively-toned messages travel both farther and faster on Twitter. Consequently, while it is certainly possible to be civil on Twitter, the medium is biased toward incivility. So, is it any wonder that our politics have become so divisive and mean-spirited?

These traits ensure that we are not having thoughtful and civil conversations on Twitter. To be clear, I am not anti-Twitter. The structural biases of any medium make it ill-suited for some types of communication and well suited for others. For example, Twitter may be the most effective emergency alert system ever created. It is ideal for conveying simple messages quickly and widely. But it is exceptionally ineffective at fostering meaningful and mature public deliberation.

Choosing the right tool is essential to successfully performing any task. You would not use a screwdriver to dig a ditch, and you should not use Twitter to conduct national and international politics.

Other social media platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, do not serve us much better. They overwhelmingly expose us to information we already agree with, leading to confirmation bias. Much of the information they spread is unreliable (and even propagandistic). Also, social media are designed to elicit emotional rather than rational responses from us.

As we enter the 2020 campaign season in earnest, it’s important that we look outside social media for our news and information. We should actively seek out serious and sustained discussions of public issues, and we should remember social media was never designed to inform us or conduct our politics.