Politics & Policy

No One Emerges from Trump’s Feud with the Media Looking Good

(Reuters photo: Aaron P. Bernstein)
Not the media, not Trump, and certainly not their respective fans

Just when you think things can’t get any stupider, they do.

On Sunday, President Trump tweeted out a gif of himself clotheslining someone, knocking him to the ground, and then pummeling him at an old WWE event. In the gif, the head of Trump’s victim has been replaced with the CNN logo, so Trump appears to be tackling and then beating the hell out of the network he most despises, the one he has best used as a foil in his rise to power. Trump’s CNN tweet followed on the heels of his tweets from last week, in which he attacked MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough in the most personal terms.

Trump supporters responded with unrestrained glee to much of this: Trump was fighting back! CNN, meanwhile, responded with its typical restraint and objectivity: Reporter after reporter declared that Trump’s tweet didn’t merely represent an obvious breach of decency, an unpresidential and apparently pathological outburst of spontaneous rage-tweeting; it promoted violence, and Trump would have blood on his hands if some rogue follower picked up a gun and decided to come after Brian Stelter.

Trump supporters responded to this outpouring of faux rage from CNN by shouting about Kathy Griffin’s carrying around the bloodied mock-head of Trump, Julius Caesar presented by Shakespeare in the Park as an assassination of Trump, and Democrats from coast to coast who have proclaimed that Trumpcare would end with grandma being shoved off a cliff by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

In this kabuki theater, both sides are right and both sides are wrong.

The media are right that the president is acting out in a fashion that makes my three-year-old daughter’s tantrums seem mature by comparison; Trump supporters are right that the media’s coverage is so wildly corrupt and hysterical it makes Leo Bloom in The Producers look like Mother Teresa.

The media are wrong that their liberties are under some sort of existential assault from a president who is merely mouthing off the way he has his entire career; Trump supporters are wrong that all evils can be excused by simply pointing at the latest media bad actor and gurgling “WAAAAR!!!” at the top of your lungs.

So here we are: a media nobody trusts schoolmarming a president who’s simply the class clown. Nobody looks good in this particular fake wrestling match; the question is why anyone engages in it at all. After all, we know that the match isn’t real. Trump so adores the media attention that if CNN and the New York Times were to stop covering him, he’d quickly set himself on fire outside their offices. Likewise, if Trump were to stop tweeting, CNN would have to go back to covering missing Malaysian airliners.

It’s a romance made in hell, but the ratings sure are stellar!

It’s a romance made in hell, but the ratings sure are stellar!

Still, the question remains: Why does everyone treat this game as if it’s being played for high stakes? Well, it’s entertaining, and entertaining conflicts must have clear good and evil combatants. Because the media are corrupt and Trump is immature, both sides must willingly blind themselves to the faults of their favorite characters.

Thus, the Right deems Trump to be a virginal political victim, a neophyte undeserving of his critics’ vitriol. Even better, he’s held up as an unparalleled political genius, the voice of the people, the populist revolutionary in the guise of the prince of the city, a sort of Bruce Wayne who dons the cape of justice by night and tweets rage at the media by day, while the music from The Dark Knight thunders dramatically in the background. The halo effect from stopping The Joker — er, sorry, Hillary Clinton — never fades in the eyes of Trump supporters.

Meanwhile, the press overlooks its own participation in the corrupted political–entertainment complex in order to paint itself as thoroughly painstaking and objective in its work. Journalists see themselves — and the Left flatteringly sees them — as warriors for truth, exposing light in every dark nook and cranny of the Trump administration. They imagine themselves in battered hats and trench coats, walking around in the rain looking for evidence of dark deeds, the muckrakers uncovering the seedy side of Trumpanny Hall. The halo effect from opposing Trump never dies for the fourth estate.

This Manichean dichotomy means that there’s no way for any reasonable or tempered debate to emerge over proper behavior or coverage. Instead, there’s glee for Trump’s base in watching Trump bring justice to the streets of media Gotham, flinging Batarangs of acerbic nastiness at Mika Brzezinski’s bloody face. And for the media, there’s similar glee in proclaiming Trump an incipient Hitler, a Willie Stark who must be stopped before he can transform into a real-life Huey Long.

All of this makes the political scene a lot more entertaining, but also a lot less useful. While the drama of Trump vs. the media is amusing, it’s not quite WWE-quality, because most people presume it’s real. We can find the WWE amusing because we know it’s scripted. But if we believed it were real and were all of a sudden rudely disabused of that notion, it would probably ruin the fun. The same is true of our politics right now. The realization that Trump vs. the media is overblown stupidity, half-scripted on both sides, makes the conflict less compelling. The comedy becomes tragedy. After all, it’s easier to laugh at the antics of the Undertaker than to laugh as the office of George Washington and the industry of Ernie Pyle become punchlines.

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