One of the most pervasive myths about Donald Trump is that he has a true talent for manipulating the media. He’s a master magician they say, adept at using the shiny toy in his left hand to keep your attention off what he’s doing with his right. I don’t think that’s true at all. If it was, he probably would have gotten much more favorable coverage during the 40-odd years of his life spent in the public eye prior to entering politics, instead of having generally been treated as the grifting huckster that he always has been. That view of him in the press has never changed much, if at all. And strangely, that has morphed into the central problem with the journalistic response to Trump. Veteran reporters just can’t believe our political system has been hijacked by a nitwit neophyte, and so they’ve taken to imbuing Trump with talents he doesn’t possess.
22 months after Donald J. Trump first declared his candidacy and nearly 4 months into his presidency, the American media still has no idea what to make of the 300 lb. orange elephant in the room. In spite of decades of evidence from their own reporting to the contrary, they are now insisting that this is a man with long term goals and strategies. Trump has acted impulsively and in the moment for his entire public life, with little regard for what the eventual outcome of his brash words and rash actions would be. He has walked back or outright reversed himself on countless statements, because he simply doesn’t have the self-control to stop himself from saying whatever pops into his head at the time, regardless of whether he agrees with it or means it at the time he says it. “I don’t stand by anything,” he said. “What I say is what I say.”
I do understand their confusion in a certain way. To paint with a broad brush, political journalists tend to have some degree of faith in the institutions they cover. They believe in the ultimate goodness of the American people, and by extension, the US government. They are used to covering complex politicians with opaque agendas who apologize, or at the very least have the decency to act embarrassed when they are caught in lies or distortions. They don’t want to believe that the newly minted most powerful man in the world is exactly what he appears to be- a rich loud idiot with no agenda outside of building his own personal brand, and no personal complexity of any identifiable type.
This is most evident in the cascade of stories since the inauguration about how Trump is only doing X to distract us from Y. Just how blurred have the lines between meaningful action and distraction become? I started with a list of the biggest stories from Trump’s first 100 days as President and tried to find out how many of them had been referred to as ‘a distraction’ from something else. I knew there would be a metric ton, but was still surprised to discover that literally everything Trump has done so far in office has been cast as a distraction from something else he’s done, usually many times over, and sometimes in ways so circular that you can’t help but laugh. The most common theme by far is some variation on ‘Trump is doing this to distract from the Russian probe’, but that’s not anywhere close to the only one.
Depending on whose word you take for it, bombing Syria was either a distraction from the Russian investigations, his failing domestic agenda, or his tax returns. Bombing Afghanistan was a distraction from all of the above, or a distraction from having just bombed Syria. Both Syria and Afghanistan were a distraction from…something. The disastrous Yemen raid was a distraction from the in-fighting that has plagued his White House staff. Escalating tensions with North Korea are the Old Country Buffet of distractions, where you can choose to fill your plate with either the Russian investigation, his domestic agenda, his tax returns, his bombing of Syria and Afghanistan, or ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
His botched Executive Orders on Immigration, attempts 1 and 2 at his promised Muslim Ban, were a distraction from the Russian investigation, or the Russian investigation is a distraction from his Muslim ban. Every Executive Order he has signed is a distraction from whatever, your guess is as good as the author’s there. His proposed budget was a distraction from the Russia investigation and the Russia investigation was a distraction from his proposed budget. The resignation of Michael Flynn was a distraction from just about everything. His Executive Order on Religious Liberty was a distraction from individual states’ anti-LGBT agendas (credit that one for actual nuance), and his push for funding his border wall is a distraction from the opioid crisis (credit that one for actual insanity).
Because they are wholly unaccustomed to dealing with a politician who has no cogent plan, no master strategy, journalists have bent over backwards to try to invent one for him. The dizzying circle they’ve created, where every single important issue gets treated as a distraction from another important issue, is doing a serious disservice to the American public. We’re becoming unable to separate the really important things that have happened during the Trump administration from the things he’s said that actually are diversions, like his accusation about Obama wiretapping Trump Tower (which has now gotten nearly 2 straight months of coverage), or his ridiculous claim that he would have won the popular vote if 3 million illegal immigrants hadn’t voted (6 months, albeit more sporadic).
Make no mistake, when Trump authorizes airstrikes or a mangled raid that results in civilian casualties, that’s not a distraction, that’s the action. When he signs executive orders attempting to enact his campaign promise of a Muslim ban, that’s not a distraction, that’s the action. When he pushes hard for the AHCA bill that will have disastrous effects for millions of Americans without having any personal understanding of it, that’s not a distraction, that’s the action. When he rolls back protections for transgender students, that’s not a distraction, that’s the action.
We sincerely need our journalists, columnists and media institutions right now. To be sure, there are many out there who have done exceptional work these last few months. David Fahrenthold has done an exhausting and comprehensive investigation into Trump’s fraudulent charity. Lauren Duca has provided incisive commentary (and made Tucker Carlson look like the smarmy jerk he is on his own show). Ta-Nehisi Coates and Rebecca Solnit have been as sharp with their op-eds as ever. PBS rolls right on with their sober and serious reporting, and Vox continues to provide excellent, wonkish coverage of every major piece of policy that comes up for discussion. These are just a few of my personal favorites, and there’s many others out there that are well worth your time.
But far too many more reporters are falling into a trap of self-deception, insisting to themselves that the President is playing chess when they can see perfectly well he’s eating checkers and drooling on himself. And because they’re not just failing to recognize the game Trump is really playing but going so far as to make his moves for him, they’re conceding defeat in the only game they should be playing- enriching and informing the American public.