Closing out the week: Matt Taibbi has quietly turned into one of the least predictable and most interesting columnists of the Trump era, and he offers a particularly sharp assessment of the symbiotic relationship between the president and his most vociferous critics in media; a quick rundown of how runaway salesmanship can undermine the power of the president; a detail in that Jeffrey Goldberg article in The Atlantic that doesn’t quite ring true with public presidential appearances; and a “wowsers!” of a new unemployment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
How Trump’s Biggest Foes Not-So-Secretly Need Him
In terms of political journalism, one of the more fascinating aspects of this era are the usually on-the-left figures who have either drifted towards the right or found themselves at odds — and at risk of cancellation — by other factions on the left. The spotlight turned to Bari Weiss and Andrew Sullivan in recent months. Even Vox’s Matt Yglesias is increasingly writing things that make his usual allies uncomfortable. Yesterday he observed, “The extent to which the great ‘reckoning’ on race is accompanied, on a practical level, by a huge reduction in the quality of educational services being offered to Black and Hispanic kids in big liberal cities is driving me insane.”
But Matt Taibbi’s journey might be the most fascinating of them all. He shifted from the Rolling Stone correspondent whose coverage was a reliable serving of “these people leading the Republican Party at this moment are the absolute worst,” and regular guest on shows of Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow’s shows, to a voice who is as infuriated with what the Democratic Party and the professional liberal class have become as he is with the president.
He’s observed that liberals used to mock conservatives for being censorious, closed-minded, and feeling threatened by contrary views, and now the modern left is the dominant censorious force. He’s observed that most modern journalism communicates a state of perpetual panic that means little stands out as a genuine crisis. He compares the coverage of Trump’s connections to Russia to the reporting on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq War.
Taibbi is no Republican; he still dismisses the non-Trump options of 2016 as “a slate of mannequins hired by energy companies and weapons contractors to be pretend-patriots and protectors of ‘family values.’”
But man oh man, does Taibbi astutely diagnose the symbiotic relationship between the president and his most vociferous critics, particularly those in the media:
The paradox ensnaring America since November 2016 is that Trump never intended to govern, while his opponents never intended to let him try. In an alternate universe where a post-election Donald had enough self-awareness to admit he was out of his depth, and the D.C. establishment agreed to recognize his administration as legitimate for appearances’ sake, Trump might have escaped four years with the profile of a conventionally crappy president, or perhaps a few notches below that — way below average, maybe, but survivable.
Instead it was decided even before he was elected that admitting the president was the president was “normalizing” him. Normally no news is good news, and the anchorman is encouraged to smile on a day without war, earthquakes, terror attacks, or stock market crashes. Under Trump it became taboo to have a slow news day. A lack of an emergency was a failure of reporting, since Trump’s very presence in office was crisis.
We spent four years moving from panic to panic, from the pee story to the Muslim ban to Michael Flynn’s firing to the Schiff hearings in March 2017 to Jim Comey’s dismissal to Treason in Helsinki to Charlottesville to the caravan to the Kavanaugh hearings and beyond . . .
The problem was this all played into Trump’s hands. Instead of crafting a coherent, accessible plan to address the despair and cynicism that moved voters to even consider someone like Trump in the first place, Democrats instead turned politics into a paranoiac’s dream, imbuing Trump’s every move with earth-shattering importance as America became a single, never-ending, televised referendum on His Orangeness.
This does not make Taibbi a fan of the president. Like many other political journalists, he’s noticed how much of each day’s news cycle is based upon “did you see what Trump said this morning?” and how little is about actual policy. Coverage of Washington these days makes you feel as if you have ADD. Remember when a member of Congress chained himself to his mailbox so the Trump administration wouldn’t take it away? That was 17 days ago. It feels like the Postal Service controversy was last year.
Taibbi notes Trump’s congenital inclination to exaggeration and his use of outlandish opening statements as a bargaining tactic:
When Trump first hit the campaign trail in 2015-2016, reporters were staggered by the outrageous promises Trump would toss out, like that he’d slap a 45% tariff on all Chinese products, build a “high” wall across the Mexican isthmus, or deport all 11.3 million undocumented immigrants (“They have to go,” he told Chuck Todd).
Those of us with liberal arts educations and professional-class jobs often have trouble processing this sort of thing. If you work in a hospital and someone asks you a patient’s hematocrit level, no one expects you to open with fifteen times the real number. But this is a huge part of Trump’s M.O.
Since the moment Trump started running for president, people who are bigger fans of the president have told me, “Jim, when Trump says X, he doesn’t really mean it, that’s just his opening bid. He’s willing to support Y, but he’s not going to say it.” You probably recall the unofficial slogan, “Take Trump seriously, not literally.”
But sometimes the job of the president is to negotiate, and sometimes the job of the president is to communicate his own policies clearly.
If “build a big beautiful wall” means “replace 260 miles of dilapidated security fencing with replacement security fencing, and build only five miles of new fencing after nearly four years in office,” say that. (That’s actually not that controversial at all!) If, while discussing taxes, the president declares, “next April you’re going to, in many cases, (file) one page, one card,” and he really means, “we would like to simplify taxes, but providing a substantial tax cut is a higher priority than simplifying the tax code,” say that.
And when confronting a problem as serious as the coronavirus, clarity and accuracy matter a lot. When Trump says, “Anybody right now and yesterday — anybody that needs a test gets a test. We — they’re there. They have the tests. And the tests are beautiful. Anybody that needs a test gets a test,” he is not being accurate.
While indeed a high percentage of people catch the coronavirus and are asymptomatic, the president is wrong when he says, “99 percent of cases are totally harmless.” When the president says, “only 6 percent of the people actually died from COVID, which is a very interesting — that they died from other reasons,” he’s just not accurately describing what occurred. (Laura Ingraham corrected him on that during the interview.)
Statements from the president of the United States carry weight — or at least they used to carry weight.
A Detail in That Goldberg Article That Doesn’t Quite Ring True
Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic, quoting unnamed sources contending that Trump has spoken about veterans and slain American soldiers in shockingly callous and ignorant ways, is likely to dominate the news cycle for the next few days.
Certainly, Trump’s past furious comments about John McCain — “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured” — indicate Trump is capable of saying really obnoxious and disrespectful things about particular veterans. Many people, particularly those who already don’t think well of the president, will believe that Trump said what Goldberg’s sources allege.
But there’s one detail in The Atlantic article that feels particularly incongruous with what we’ve seen Trump do. Goldberg writes, “In a 2018 White House planning meeting for such an event, Trump asked his staff not to include wounded veterans, on grounds that spectators would feel uncomfortable in the presence of amputees. ‘Nobody wants to see that,’ he said.”
We’ve seen Trump interact with wounded and disabled veterans and other amputees quite a few times. In 2017, President Trump awarded the Purple Heart to Sergeant 1st Class Alvaro Barrientos in a ceremony at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Last year, at the White House, Trump warmly embraced retired Army Captain Luis Avila, who was severely wounded by a bomb in 2011 in Afghanistan. He’s greeted Marine veteran Sergeant John Peck — a quadruple amputee who received a double arm transplant — in the White House. To the extent we ever get to see a nice, warmer, softer side to Trump, it’s usually in these interactions with veterans and their families. Here’s Trump signing a supporter’s artificial arm, and he doesn’t seem disturbed or troubled by the sight.
These events don’t, by themselves, mean it is impossible that Trump said what he’s alleged to have said. But it would be odd for Trump to object to the presence of wounded veterans, in between separate presidential events that hosted wounded veterans.
ADDENDUM: Just as I’m about to send the newsletter to the editors, a “holy moley!” of a jobs report:
Total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 1.4 million in August, and the unemployment rate fell to 8.4 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. These improvements in the labor market reflect the continued resumption of economic activity that had been curtailed due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and efforts to contain it. In August, an increase in government employment largely reflected temporary hiring for the 2020 Census. Notable job gains also occurred in retail trade, in professional and business services, in leisure and hospitality, and in education and health services.
We’ve gone from a national unemployment rate of 14.7 percent in April to 8.4 percent in August!