We imitate each other. It’s one of the most basic features of our humanity. Financial workers who want to be successful buy the expensive watches and go to the tailors that their highest paid bosses do. We also go out of our way to one-up each other. People who crave thrills and the dopamine hits of social-media likes risk their lives, and sometimes lose them, taking selfies on cliffs or on the edges of skyscrapers.
And that’s why, when Donald Trump became president, I feared that American society at large, and the political class that felt insulted by his election, would begin to find their inner Donald. Maybe even a worse one than the one we have. I wrote:
The most immediate thing to be on guard for in the new era is the way Trump inspires both supporters and opponents to abandon their moral, ethical, and professional standards and give in to their unchecked instincts to acquire power and humiliate or denigrate their perceived enemies, usually their fellow countrymen.
In some little ways this was already obvious before the election, such as when “Little Marco Rubio” started making jokes about Trump’s private parts. But now the returns are in, and they don’t look good for us. Kirsten Gillibrand now tentatively tries on a potty-mouth.
We’ve begun playing fast and loose with conspiracy theories, the way Trump has in the past. When BuzzFeed published the infamous Steele dossier — the document that made many allegations against Trump, including that he hired hookers to urinate on a bed he believed Obama had slept in — it did so with great chest-beating about its “ferocious reporting.” This brag came right alongside an admission they “have been investigating various alleged facts in the dossier but have not verified or falsified them.” In fact some of the claims turned out to be easy to falsify, a fact that should have colored any release. And this all happened twelve days after the site’s editor-in-chief warned his staff in a published memo: “Fake news will become more sophisticated, and fake, ambiguous, and spun-up stories will spread widely.”
Since Trump’s presidency began, the media has filled up with mini celebrities, the hyper-tweeting game theorists who spin up conspiracies about who is a Russian agent. The answer turns out to be everyone one degree less hysterical about Trump than they are. This was after loads of Russia-related stories blew up in reporters’ faces, such as the story that the Trump campaign had a secret Internet server connecting to the Kremlin. The sloppiness and credulity extended to the American intelligence agencies, where reports on Russian influence included details about the reach of the RT Twitter account, a fact that required no intelligence to discover and low intelligence to think relevant or interesting.
This has all devolved down to Michael Wolff’s bestselling book Fire and Fury, the talk of all journalism even though Wolff admits that the stories are not all true and the scenes are recreated. Wolf has defended the book by saying that “if it rings true, it is true.” The Fourth Estate is now producing #Resistance fanfic. Nobody much cares, save for Masha Gessen, who correctly laments that such a book “degrades our sense of reality further, while creating the illusion of affirming it.”
Trump’s opponents are still treating his presidency like a fascist uprising and tossing aside all common sense.
Even though, apart from a giant tax break, America’s foreign and domestic policy remains basically the same, Trump’s opponents are still treating his presidency like a fascist uprising and tossing aside all common sense. See the judge who ruled that Trump can’t rescind an Obama-era executive order, as if the president could lose authority over executive orders, or as if the rights of citizens and residents of the United States depended on previous ones. There is little chance a justice would have ventured to look so ridiculous, until Trump became our president.
Trump’s presidency may have worse things in store for us. But his ability to really change policy in unconventional ways is now obviously constrained by a Republican Congress committed to its own policies, Trump’s world-historic inattention to detail, and the fact that he finds commanding the executive branch of the most powerful government on earth fundamentally boring, a distraction from his love-hate relationship with the media.
I can’t think of a more stupid response to this presidency than throwing away all the standards that make our work meaningful and good.