When the Centre No Longer Holds: Trump and the Media

The day will arrive when the world is rid of this menace of a President, but just as the rot did not begin with him, neither will it end with him. The rot itself is that the centre cannot hold and that, as a result, America is today two warring nations. With each passing day it feels more and not less that mere anarchy will be loosed upon the world, or at least upon American streets. If recent trends continue, the President who succeeds Mr Trump will likely be despised by a large minority of the country, if not by a majority, and the disgruntled will immediately set to the business of conspiracy theory and dark-corner whispering and agitation-propaganda. In other words, business as usual. Optimistic invocations of healing and unity fall upon the ear like a sour quip. Who among us believes that sweetness and light await, and not blood and struggle?

Above I have perverted Yeats’ phrase “the centre cannot hold” to suit my own interest and ends. I subscribe neither to Yeats’ peculiar views of history nor his evident admiration of fascism. The centre that no longer holds is simply the proposition that America can be fashioned into a community of shared interests, a notion that has never been true but which has held enormous sway, much like the fiction that America has no classes or (what amounts to the same thing) one universal class, the middle-class. Still, even a lie can have its utility. As long as Americans believed in the universal middle class, the fiction obtained in a uniquely American form of positive thinking. Then, throughout the Reagan years and beyond, the progressive left took to chipping at the myth of a classless society, and by the 2000s the anti-globalist right had joined them in denouncing the elite. The Internet made it possible to cultivate and spread tribal grievances and provided adherents to the most outlandish views the comfort of knowing that they were not alone. With the election of Mr Trump, the conspiracy theorists and white supremacists could fancy themselves respectable and not the rejects of polite company they had long known themselves to be. The emotional charge that attended this must have been intoxicating.

The word I am reaching for is frisson—the vertiginous thrill at the thought that something extraordinary is occurring. Upon hearing of their election victory, the devotees of Trump doubtless felt what supporters of Mr. Obama felt in 2008. In the case of the Obama victory, intoxication led partisans to say plainly ridiculous things, for instance that America was now a post-racial society, healed of its past. Intoxication however is a passing state, as the alt-rightists discovered soon after concluding that it was now de rigueur to wave the Hitler flag in the Charlottesville daylight. Much has been written and said of the rally aftermath, but the pedigree of the present moment merits reflection also. For only a year ago, the generic Klansman knew to keep hooded and the fellow travellers of National-Socialism understood the public relations downside of chanting “Jews Will Not Replace Us” in the open air of a small American city. Only a long, occult incubation punctured by a sudden mainstreaming of fringe sentiment and style—and the resulting discharge of excitement—can account for the far-right’s present boldness. Once its nose is up against the unyielding glass of reality, however, Trumpism will probably fare no better than Obamaism.

Before we learned to decry the tribalism of social media, and to heap the blame for present ills upon it, the material world provided its own opportunities for tribal self-segregation. It is no mystery for example that a certain kind of person is attracted to the nation’s largest cities, whereas a different kind of person adverts to the rural heartland. Much is said of the liberal media, a category of person you will find clustered in New York and Los Angeles and not in Boise, Idaho or rural Arizona or the ranches of Montana. What makes the media liberal? Above all, an outlook formed by social class. Rarely will you find a big-city journalist who takes the Bible literally or who thinks that the biggest threats to America are abortion and gay marriage. Whatever his political views, the “liberal” journalist will look down upon evangelical Christianity not because it is conservative but because it is déclassé, hence a threat to respectability and advancement. And since the whole point of choosing where one lives is to ensure you are around others of roughly the same tastes, prejudices, habits, and outlook, the liberal journalist will feel himself no more liberal than the fundamentalist Christian will feel odd for believing the earth is only a matter of tens of thousands of years old. Most of the folks he rubs against will believe the same. Until Twitter arrived, it was unlikely that you would stumble upon your political antipodes in the course of daily commerce, and that’s how we liked it. The result of self-segregation generally speaking was that water found its level. Everyone felt that they lived in Their America, because the Other America was far away, in a city or town or heartland they would never, ever visit.

There is of course a way to connect two distant points, and that is to put something in the middle. The thing that is put in the middle is a medium, and more than one medium are media. The media bring us unpleasant word of the faraway, and we despise them for it, because they undo the subliminal mental and physical effort to which much of our interior life is dedicated, that is, insulating ourselves from unpleasant facts and people. Nor is this hatred of the media a recent turn. I can recall political phone-in shows of the early Reagan years where diatribes against the liberal media were a commonplace. The subtext of most liberal-media complaints, if not all, is that They (liberal journalists) are not Our kind of people. As a writer for the newspapers I encountered this sentiment as a matter of course. How dare I express the unpopular views of an outside caste! This attitude was evident also in the people who held me in high esteem merely because I happened to share with them a pet prejudice.

It is no longer possible to keep the old ways going, but it is also difficult to get beyond them using the tools of conventional electoral politics. The centre, where debate and nuance and consensus building used to live, no longer holds. In theory the media might be able to do something about this, but in theory television and the Internet were also poised to deliver us into the new enlightenment. There appears to be no way forward but toward the precipice. This, in a thimble, is the American problem today, just as it is a problem everywhere tribalism has taken root. Mr. Trump will soon be a memory, and the sooner the better. If we are lucky he will not do irreparable damage. The most we can reasonably hope for is that narcissism will keep him tethered to his obvious, chief concern—how he is spoken of on television. Incompetence and laziness might limit his reach, as may his utter lack of interest in anything that does not, or will not, bear his name. In the meanwhile the media have acquired a central place in the drama of this administration. It is worth considering to what extent journalists comprehend the position they are now in, the nature of the opportunities and dangers, and the probable consequences should the media themselves no longer hold.

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