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The Media’s Pretend Sense of Doom

President Donald Trump speaks to the media as he returns from Camp David to the White House in Washington, D.C., January 6, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

On the menu today: Examining why some politically passionate people need to have a sense of impending catastrophe in their lives; a rushed DOJ lawsuit against Georgia; the only interesting question about Wilmington, Del.; and something you probably didn’t know about the upcoming Olympics.

‘An Air of Doom Over People Who Don’t Have That Much Doom in their Lives’

I ran across a book review in the Sydney Review of Books that noted the phenomenon of “Trump novels” in modern literary fiction:

But this is not really the point or function of Trump in the Trump novel. Trump in the Trump novel is spectral. He is there to cast an air of doom over people who don’t have that much doom in their lives, allowing the story to begin with its (left, liberal, educated, non-Trump-voting, internet-literate, middle-class) characters already steeped in a kind of ambient adversity that compounds and is compounded by their own personal, more minor adversities. Donald Trump as POTUS functions like the tacked-on trauma characters get as individuating backstory in bad novels and films, but here it’s a shared story, therefore vaguely structural-seeming, therefore important-seeming. Writers also do this with climate change, 9/11, and (less often now) the 2008 Global Financial Crisis: hyperobjects of catastrophe, lazily invoked. In short, set-dressing with Trump can be a way for the writer to imply high-stakes without having to raise them herself.

If you are an illegal immigrant, then yes, Trump’s election in 2016 probably altered the course of your life a great deal. If your work involves arguing before federal judges, then you faced a dramatically different collective federal judiciary at the start of 2021 than you did at the start of 2017. Maybe if your work involves exports, the tariffs and trade wars affected your life a great deal. Obamacare’s individual mandate was repealed, but the rest of the legislation, including the expansion of Medicaid, remained in place. The percentage of Americans without health insurance increased by nine-tenths of a percentage point — not a good trend, but hardly a calamity. When you ask people how their taxes changed — and don’t ask about Trump, or any other political issues — a majority of respondents say their taxes remained the same.

For lots of Americans, the policy changes enacted during Trump’s presidency did not actually change their daily lives that much.

But for four years, a lot of wealthy urban progressives spoke and thought as if they were enduring a fascist regime, literally adopting the identity of the French Resistance against the Nazis. And yet, their hometowns were sanctuary cities, their local officials pledged to never work with the administration on any issue, their representatives in Congress furiously denounced the president and probably voted to impeach him twice. Even when Trump was nowhere near a particular situation, certain progressives saw his lurking threat around every corner. The Saint Petersburg, Fla., Democratic Party invoked Trump when running against an incumbent on the technically nonpartisan city council. In the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial race, a progressive-activist group ran ads against Ed Gillespie — as mild-mannered, even-keeled, and common-sense a candidate as you’re going to find — “depicted a pickup truck being driven by a sinister-looking white man, flying a Confederate flag and sporting a Gillespie bumper sticker as it chased down a group of terrified brown-skinned children.” And of course, we all remember the phantom menace of “this is MAGA Country”-crying thugs attacking actor Jussie Smollett.

Trump gave a lot of progressives a devil figure to rally their ranks against — and they needed that figure, because if they looked too closely at their own lives, they might find that they’re not all that different from those other wealthy elites whom they’re usually denouncing. Donors to Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren included plenty of lawyers, corporate executives, tech gurus, Hollywood, philanthropists, and Wall Street investors. Progressives like to think of themselves as scrappy underdogs, but quite a few of them live very comfortable lives. They realize they have $12-per-pint ice cream in their freezers while noticing more homeless people sleeping on grates not far from their brownstone townhouses, and they feel guilty about that. They need to feel as if they’re at risk, too. They need to feel as if they share in the struggles of the less fortunate. The sense of being part of a noble political resistance to a white nationalist/fascist/insert-other-bad-label-here occupying force gives their lives a sense of consequence and meaning that these individuals otherwise cannot find.

This novel cultural villain is all-consuming, leaving little room for other villains. Recall that the New York Times staffers who launched a revolt over the newspaper’s decision to run Senator Tom Cotton’s op-ed simply couldn’t muster much energy to object to a Chinese-government official’s op-ed justifying a brutal crackdown on protesters in Hong Kong:

In the meantime, the section sometimes ran into the same problems. Last month, “Opinion” published a column by a Chinese government official arguing for the country’s military crackdown in Hong Kong. It was a virtual repeat of the Cotton situation. The #newsroom-feedback channel lit up briefly, but the conversation was muted. “The China op-ed didn’t hit home because everyone is exhausted,” one Times reporter told me. “You can’t be mad all the time.” Everyone agreed that broader reforms would have to wait until after November.

When you’ve decided that the president is the root of all evil, you just can’t be bothered with any other potential evil.

What’s really particularly ironic with this trend toward cosplay catastrophe is that in the final year of the Trump presidency, the country and world really did face a genuine, epic-scale catastrophe in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused 3.9 million deaths worldwide and counting. And while there is no shortage of presidential statements to criticize and egregious administration decisions to rue, the worst global pandemic in human history is more than just a Donald Trump story. As noted earlier this year, many corners of the national media had become so finely attuned to catastrophizing alleged xenophobia and paranoia, the normal flu season, and travel bans that they sleepwalked through the first weeks of this crisis and never catastrophized the actual oncoming catastrophe. A Washington Post op-ed, January 30, 2020: “The actual danger of coronavirus: Fear may fuel racism and xenophobia that threaten human rights.”

We’re probably going to see the same phenomenon in reverse with folks on the right catastrophizing the Biden administration. You might be irked by Biden and his team and the state of the country at this moment. The situation at the border represents a genuine mess, with three consecutive months of waves of migrants attempting to sneak into the country. Inflation has been bad for a few months, but it is not clear this is the start of a long-term trend. A violent crime wave is accelerating in America’s biggest cities, although if that is a consequence of policy changes, Joe Biden wasn’t the one telling the police to not patrol in certain areas.

We’re approaching the midpoint of Biden’s first year in office, but he hasn’t actually accomplished that much yet. He’s signed only one major piece of legislation, the pandemic-relief bill. The District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are no closer to statehood. The filibuster in the U.S. Senate remains intact. The Supreme Court still has nine justices; Biden’s commission examining expanding the Court holds a meeting tomorrow. Environmentalists are starting to realize that Biden’s negotiations on the infrastructure bill are tanking the possibility of passing a Green New Deal: “14 percent of the infrastructure package is being dedicated to environmentally aligned projects, with electric cars and grid modernization, though those are the least ambitious parts of the environmental program — no major expansion of public transit, no major renewable-power generation programs.” Biden has yet to sign legislation enacting tax hikes. H.R. 1 appears dead, at least for now.

The federal death penalty remains in place, despite Biden’s campaign-trail promise. His proposed budget does not include a public option for health care, a proposal to cut prescription-drug costs, raising the estate tax, or the forgiveness of a significant amount of student debt.

Even in foreign policy, where the president traditionally has an easier time making his preferred changes, Biden’s rhetoric dramatically outpaces what has actually changed. The Iran nuclear deal is a long way from being restored. Biden punted on his pledge to punish the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. After announcing a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Biden-administration officials are saying “complete withdrawal” really means “keeping 650 troops in place.” Biden’s approach to China is more similar his predecessor’s than he likes to admit.

This does not guarantee that Biden will not enact any of the changes he wants. It’s just an observation that so far, his impact on American life has been pretty mild. The biggest change in the past year is the vaccination effort — undoubtedly the biggest achievement of his presidency so far, even if its rollout was messier than the administration’s press releases would lead you to believe.

Countdown to Dismissal . . .

Dan McLaughlin writes on the U.S. Justice Department’s lawsuit against Georgia over its election reforms: “It illustrates quite how far DOJ is willing to go under Garland and Clarke to paint ordinary voting and election laws as racial discrimination. And it speaks poorly of the Justice Department that it rushed out this lawsuit for some quick partisan talking points without waiting for clearer guidance from the Supreme Court.”

This May Be the Only Thought-Provoking Question about Wilmington

Howard Husock raises a question that probably nags in the minds of the literal Acela-class: Was there any other reason besides politics for Wilmington, Del., to be a stop on the most-heavily used rail line in the United States?

“Wilmington, with a population of just 70,000 people, is among twelve stops on the Acela, Amtrak’s high-speed service between Boston and Washington. There’s no obvious reason that a train predicated on fast service between major cities would stop there. Wilmington, the smallest city on the line, is a mere 30-mile drive from Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, the third-busiest Amtrak station in the country. (The Wilmington station is the 13th-busiest.) What’s more, the line bypasses a number of East Coast cities with much larger populations, including Bridgeport, Conn., and New Jersey’s capital, Trenton.”

ADDENDUM: You probably know that hammer-thrower Gwen Berry can’t stand hearing the U.S. National Anthem. You probably didn’t know that over a two-week span, national anthems will be played 340 times at the Olympics — once for every country at the opening ceremony, and then at 339 medal ceremonies.

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