Politics & Policy

The Unlearned Lessons of 2016

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez rallies with protesters outside the White House, May 10, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The media, Democrats, academia, and Hollywood stick to old habits in the Trump era.

We’re eight months into the Trump presidency, and we can now draw one frustrating conclusion: Very few of the voices opposed to the president want to learn anything from their experience in 2016.

The media will not slow down and make sure they get the story right as well as getting it first. Does it feel as if the country’s largest news organizations attempted any serious self-reflection about how they covered the 2016 election? Are they attempting to be more fair-minded, more dedicated to accuracy, resisting groupthink and the temptation to become an echo chamber? Hardly. At Politico, journalism professor Mitchell Stevens boasts with pride, “Our most respected mainstream journalism organizations are beginning to recognize the failings of nonpartisanship.” Yeah, that was the problem with 2016, journalists just weren’t clear enough about which candidate they wanted people to support.

Almost 63 million people heard the mainstream media’s encyclopedic criticism of Donald Trump in 2016 . . . and they voted for him anyway. They either didn’t believe the criticism or didn’t find it sufficient when confronted with the alternative of a Hillary Clinton presidency. One of the axioms of self-help is “if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting.” In the aftermath of the greatest upset in presidential election history, most of America’s media have decided to keep doing what they’re doing.

Are the issues debated in Washington any more serious and substantive, any less focused through the prism of personality and conflict and the shallow measurement of “optics”? Before you answer, consider that the Washington Post wrote more than 900 words in the Style section about the “black snakeskin stiletto heels” that Melania Trump wore while walking from the White House to Marine One, beginning a day meeting hurricane victims. (She changed on the plane and emerged in Texas wearing sneakers.)

American society has never lacked outrageous controversy-courting personalities who probably need several hours (or years) on a therapist’s couch instead of being taken seriously. But in the Trump era so far, our public debate is more focused, not less, upon these types, and we keep rewarding these gadflies with fame and a high-profile platform.

Harvard offered and then rescinded a fellowship to Chelsea Manning, convicted of six counts of espionage. Perhaps Harvard was expecting a scintillating lecture that called for abolishing the CIA and the presidency, or that Manning would once again compare U.S. immigration enforcement to the Gestapo. Vogue gave Manning a glossy profile, complete with glamorous photos by Annie Leibovitz.

Upon arrival at NBC News, Megyn Kelly profiled Alex Jones, who worries that chemicals are turning frogs gay and who has asked whether the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax. (She described him as a “conservative radio host.”) The Huffington Post still reports the utterances of Kathy Griffin, who thought that it was a good idea to pose, ISIS-style, with a fake severed head, dripping fake blood and made to look like President Trump’s.

Members of the media are finally growing reluctant to re-tweet the increasingly outrageous claims of Louise Mensch; all it took for serious skepticism to kick in was her claim that Russian president Vladimir Putin had Andrew Breitbart killed, that both Steven Bannon and President Trump were facing the death penalty for espionage, and that Utah senator Orrin Hatch was preparing to assume the presidency.

These are not mavericks, visionaries, or iconoclasts, boldly asking the questions no one else dares. These people are cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. The media is now so diversified that there are no common standards of what is newsworthy; any sufficiently outlandish claim or act is worth spotlighting because it will generate traffic. An unhealthy part of our public debate amounts to trying to reason with people whose alphabet doesn’t go all the way to Z.

The Democratic party’s leaders haven’t changed their methods, either. They denounced Trump and his “Deplorables” and the rest of the Republican party in the most furious terms in 2016, but that didn’t produce the results they wanted. In 2017, Democrats decided to just keep on doing that, but with more profanity.

Representative Maxine Waters calls the president and his allies “scumbags,” while DNC chair Tom Perez declares, “Republicans don’t give a s*** about people.” The outgoing California Democratic-party chairman leads a chant of “F*** Donald Trump!” Little-known Democratic lawmakers create national headlines by calling Trump the p-word, “ “fascist, loofa-faced, s***-gibbon,” and wishing for his assassination.

Russ Feingold, who came within 4 percent of winning back his old Senate seat in 2016, declared, “Let us finally, finally rip off the veneer that Trump’s affinity for white supremacy is distinct from the Republican agenda of voter suppression, renewed mass incarceration, and the expulsion of immigrants.” Enraged by the White House proposal to end DACA, Illinois Democratic representative Luis Gutierrez declared that White House chief of staff John Kelly is “a disgrace to the uniform he used to wear” who “should be drummed out of the White House along with the white supremacists.” DNC vice chairman Keith Ellison recently compared the Dreamers, those who came to the United States illegally while children, to Jews in Nazi Germany — which make ICE comparable to the Gestapo.

It is as if Democrats concluded that the reason they lost in 2016 was that they just didn’t denounce Trump angrily enough.

It is as if Democrats concluded that the reason they lost in 2016 was that they just didn’t denounce Trump angrily enough.

After 2016, one might have expected Democrats to reconsider their full embrace of identity politics. Instead they’ve doubled down. Instead of examining why so many voters in so many states rejected their arguments and philosophies, many within the academy and universities greeted 2017 by insisting even more adamantly that freedom of speech is dangerous and that you should be threatened or violently assaulted if you express a view they disagree with. Instead of giving the lecturing speeches at awards shows a break, Hollywood celebrities are becoming even more politically outspoken and strident, and even more openly contemptuous of roughly half their audience.

If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting; if you double down, you’ll get twice as much of what you’re getting. The old methods may not have achieved the results they wanted, but those methods sure felt good. And 2017 is becoming a frustrating lesson that many people in politics prioritize feeling good over achieving their goals.


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