Politics & Policy

The Media Create a Schrödinger’s Presidency

President Trump greets reporters outside a meeting with congressional Republicans in Washington, D.C., March 21, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Trump is simultaneously manning the ship of state and dead in the water.

For the duration of 2017, I did my best to keep a running tab of the media’s constantly evolving conventional wisdom on the Trump presidency.

What I found, in the timeline I created, revealed a great deal about the way political news and analysis are produced and consumed in an era when a hunger for chaos, drama, and judgment makes dignified caution passé.

After the shock of Trump’s unanticipated victory, the press quickly sprang into explanation mode. Their goal was to confirm that the election outcome was every bit as wild as it seemed in November 2016. This then ushered in a need to frame the Trump administration as something uniquely fragile, as failed assumptions that he couldn’t win sought retroactive justification with proof that he couldn’t govern.

And since we inhabit a culture of hyper-competitive online news where there exists extraordinary pressure for political commentators to distinguish themselves with conclusions firmer, meaner, and more assertively stated than those of their competitors, these characterizations of the precarious, unsustainable nature of the Trump presidency were destined to become ever more sweeping, immoderate, and heedless as time progressed. So here we are.

A much-shared recent column by Adam Davidson in the New Yorker provides an excellent example of the contemporary tone and style of this flavor of Trump analysis. Davidson argues, in part through analogy to the 2003 Iraq invasion and the 2008 financial crisis, that the recent legal troubles of Michael Cohen indicate that the Trump administration is now in gothic dénouement — “the end stage of the Trump presidency,” as the headline called it. This linkage holds that just as Iraq’s descent into chaos and the subprime meltdown were disasters that smart people (i.e., Davidson) saw coming miles away, so too is Trump’s downfall.

The obvious rebuttal is that neither Iraq nor the financial meltdown ended in a tidy climax at which one could unambiguously point and yell, “You see!”

Until President Obama withdrew combat troops from Iraq in 2011, many insisted that a militarily imposed peace in that country was still possible — arguments that continued during the subsequent rise of ISIS and that are aired to some extent even today. The financial crisis, meanwhile, was a period of economic turmoil that manifested in different ways for different people over the course of several years. Was the “gotcha” moment the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008? The passage of Dodd-Frank in 2010? Something in between?

Even in the worst-case scenario, the Trump presidency could easily play out in similarly hazy fashion: a long-running spectacle of trouble and turmoil that nevertheless lacks the storyteller’s convenience of a sharp and dramatic end.

Trump survived the release last May of Jim Comey’s infamous “let this go” memo, despite CNN’s Chris Cillizza’s calling it an “existential threat” to his presidency. Firing Comey himself does not appear to have triggered the “beginning of the end of the Trump administration,” as predicted by Frank Rich in New York magazine. The revelation of Don Jr.’s meeting at Trump Tower was hardly the “smoking gun” of Russian collusion, as Politico called it at the time. Months of foreboding articles in Axios and Vanity Fair about the president’s “increasingly” distraught moods or frightened staff have failed to yield anything tangible; same for the endless warnings of Trump’s “crumbling base.” Anticipatory profiles of “President Pence” in The New Yorker, GQ, FiveThirtyEight, and The Atlantic feel as premature as ever.

The cumulative effect of such rhetoric has been to simply create the perception of a “Schrödinger’s presidency” that permanently exists in a simultaneous state of life and death. At any given moment, you can visit the nation’s leading news outlets and receive a terminal diagnosis of the president’s career, only to come back months later and read that the delay of the imminent end just proves it’s now more imminent than ever.

Of 45 presidents, only one has resigned, and none have been successfully impeached. All have faced periodic scandals and bad headlines that have, at times, clouded their ability to effectively govern. Yet Trump remains unique in just how casually and constantly his presidency is framed as bridging the conventional world of political scandal with historically exceptional outcomes. Predictions of an explicit downfall and unfinished term, once the justified taboos of presidential analysis, are now the standard language of Trump observers.

The vulture-circling that defined media coverage of Trump’s first year reveal a consistent bias toward imagining the most sensationalistic outcomes.

By any journalistic standard, this is deeply undisciplined and reckless. The vulture-circling that defined media coverage of Trump’s first year reveal a consistent bias toward imagining the most sensationalistic outcomes to even the vaguest developments on the scandal front. Weak or ambiguous evidence is inflated into sweeping conclusions through the use of cartoonish generalizations about characters and events that are only half understood.

In Davidson’s New Yorker essay, for instance, he confidently asserted that recent FBI raids of Cohen’s property spelled certain doom for the president, since Trump’s crooked business empire was “mostly run by his two oldest children and Michael Cohen.” It was the sort of cocksure, theatrical line you read all the time these days, but someone who actually knew what he was talking about dispelled it. Onetime Trump biographer Timothy O’Brien noted in Bloomberg the less exciting reality: Trump Inc. was run by two blander characters we never hear much about, Jason Greenblatt and Allen Weisselberg.

Anything can happen in politics, and there are countless theoretical ways the Trump presidency could end prematurely, just as there were countless theoretical ways every previous presidency could have ended. The fallacy of contemporary White House punditry is the persistent assumption that the unprecedented nature of the current occupant makes any other unprecedented scenario not only plausible but certain.

I have plenty of sympathy for journalists who called the 2016 election incorrectly. Though some were clearly motivated by partisan delusion, far more were simply cautious and — in their own way — conservative, with a healthy skepticism for the unlikely and an aversion to assuming wild outcomes without solid grounding.

We could use more of that today.

J. J. McCullough — J. J. McCullough is a columnist for National Review Online and the Global Opinions section of the Washington Post.

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