Monday, May 01, 2017

Beware the Coming "Trump Isn't So Bad" Narrative

by Michael Dorf

The non-FoxNews non-Breitbart assessments of the first hundred days of the Trump administration were pretty uniformly negative. Search news stories for "100 days of failure" and you'll get your pick, all with roughly the same headline: The Guardian, Vanity Fair, the ACLU and CNN. Not that these reports won't be dismissed by Trump himself. Close your eyes and you can see him tweeting in response that this is all just the kind of fake news you'd expect from the failing fill-in-the-blank.

Trump need not even dismiss all of the negative assessments, because within them he can find a silver lining. (Or perhaps make that a gold lining, as our president prefers that his precious metal match his hair.) The CNN piece--an opinion essay by Princeton history and public affairs professor Julian Zelizer--comes with a question mark in the title: "100 days of failure for Trump?" Having written some of my own essays for the failing CNN (as well as the failing Newsweek, not to mention the failing Dorf on Law), I know that editors customarily write headlines without consulting the author, so it's possible that either as a tease or in the interest of a false objectivity, the CNN editors inserted the question mark on their own.

That itself would be significant, however, because it would show that CNN editorial policy regards it as an open question whether Trump's first hundred days are a failure. It isn't an open question -- unless you're a cockroach thinking that by bringing us closer to a nuclear or environmental apocalypse, Trump may be hastening the end of mammalian life on Earth and ushering in the Planet of the Roaches.

Zelizer himself is ambivalent. After cataloguing Trump's failures, he remarks that maybe they "are not as devastating as some might think." Why not? Because people like Zelizer have stopped talking about Trump and his family's conflicts of interest! With most media coverage now focused instead on such matters as Trump's next moves on North Korea, taxes, and infrastructure, Trump has been "normalized" as president, Zelizer writes, thereby fulfilling his own prophesy by contributing to Trump's normalization.

Zelizer is not the only member of the commentariat to write what I expect will be a wave of stories and op-eds about how Trump is becoming a normal president or otherwise downplaying his failures. Expect much more of this in the coming months and years.

What will drive the coming "Trump isn't so bad after all" narrative? Consider five factors.

1) "News," by definition, means information that is new. A story that says that Trump is an ignorant egomaniacal grifter surrounded by unqualified sycophants who are cynically exploiting popular grievances by directing anger at scapegoats while pursuing policies that exacerbate the underlying problems would be perfectly accurate, but it would not be news. True, Trump manages to vindicate that storyline in new ways daily, so it is possible to write stories with new angles and new illustrations of the basic storyline. However, such stories are less novel than a completely new storyline, like Trump is actually doing okay or Trump is less unpopular than you might expect with Latinos, etc. During electoral campaigns, the imperative of news in the literal sense drives reporters to seek out stories that have the candidates going back and forth. The same imperative drives coverage of the presidency.

2) Trump continues to lower the bar on our expectations. When they go low enough, he occasionally exceeds them. This phenomenon explains the repeated pronouncements that Trump is finally acting "presidential." Thus, Trump received accolades for reading a mediocre speech to Congress off of a teleprompter. Trump himself was unaware that the media were grading him on an extremely generous curve, so he recently told an AP reporter that "some people said it was the single best speech ever made" in Congress. Put aside the question whether "some people" are named Eric, Ivanka, and Donald Jr., or whether they even exist. Trump's hyperbole about his own speech making is not just a function of his ego, but a consequence of the phenomenally low expectations set for him by the dominant media narrative.

3) Low expectations also explain a related narrative. Unless you are a Syrian refugee trying to enter the country or a law-abiding undocumented immigrant who hitherto did not worry much about being deported, your life probably has not materially changed much yet as a consequence of Trump's policies. That doesn't mean that you aren't at serious risk. You are at risk of the economy crashing due to Trump and the GOP Congress eliminating important financial regulations. You are at risk of nuclear war due to Trump's impetuous and strategy-less threats. You might be at risk of losing your health insurance due to Trump's and Congress's aim of dismantling or sabotaging the Affordable Care Act. You are at risk of dying from ecological catastrophe due to Trump's abandonment of even the pretense of environmental protection.

But none of those catastrophes has materialized yet. And so we get stories like this one by Ross Douthat pointing out that "it could be worse." Exactly right. It could be and, given time, it probably will be much much worse. That's hardly cause for optimism, but until the catastrophes materialize, expect more wildly premature reporting on how life under Trump isn't so bad after all.

4) NBA coaches sometimes complain that their team went to the free-throw line significantly less frequently than the opposing team. This complaint implicitly assumes that each team commits roughly the same number of fouls during a game, so if one team is shooting many more free throws than the other team, it must be because the referees are enforcing the rules unevenly. That could be true, but usually the reason a team shoots more free throws than the opposition is that the opposing team commits more fouls. Nonetheless, coaches register the complaint (especially in the playoffs, when they play the same opponent multiple times in a short period) because it plants a seed in the referees' minds. Wanting to be fair and also to appear to be fair, a referee charged with bias might go out of his way to call fouls in favor of the complaining coach's team.

Journalists are like NBA referees. A journalist who is in fact doing her job by reporting fairly will be susceptible to self-doubt if told that she is biased against the president. Indeed, the more scrupulously fair the journalist, the more likely she is to be concerned about such allegations. And while blanket accusations of "fake news" won't rattle a fair journalist, it is possible to lie with statistics. For example, a recent Breitbart story carried the headline "Study Finds 88 Percent of Media Coverage is Anti-Trump."

Whether a story is "anti-Trump" allows for a substantial amount of judgment and here the judgment is being made by the right-wing Media Research Center. Still, a responsible journalist hearing about this might think that even if a more disinterested assessment would be 70%, that's still potentially biased--even though, to paraphrase Stephen Colbert, the facts have an anti-Trump bias. Maybe 88% is actually generous to Trump, because simple honest reportage would be close to 100% anti-Trump if that means something like "shows Trump and his minions in a negative light."

The two-sides-to-every-issue approach of conventional journalism leads to false equivalence. Increasingly, it could interest reporters and editors in stories that are more favorable to Trump than would be warranted by what's actually happening. And that would be true even without Trump's allies working the refs.

5) During the campaign and since taking office, Trump hit upon (whether by design or by accident) a counter-intuitive but highly effective means of defusing what, in almost any other politician, would have been a long litany of career-ending scandals and gaffes: Each scandal or outrage would quickly be supplanted by the next one. Thus, rather than stories of corruption, misogyny, and racism having a cumulative effect, they somehow displace each other. Remember Trump University? "Grab em by the pussy"? The Trump Foundation? With each new revelation, the prior scandal is quickly stuffed down the memory hole of old news.

The phenomenon does not just apply to scandals that reveal Trump's personally disqualifying characteristics. It also applies to policy. Twelve days after Trump launched a missile strike against a Syrian airbase in clear contradiction of his prior position and prior criticism of the Obama administration, Verdict published a column I wrote arguing that the strike was unlawful. A journalist I know marveled that I was bothering to write about the incident so long after it occurred. The news cycle had moved on.

Now in some sense this is simply a rehash of my point 1): The news media want new stories. However, with Trump there is the added dimension of new negative stories about Trump actually benefiting him by crowding out deep coverage of the prior negative stories. Almost half a year after the presidential election, Trump endlessly boasts about the fact that he defied expectations to win it. Yet coverage of the horrible things he said and did last week, much less last year, is not deemed newsworthy.

* * *

What is a sane person to do in the face of the coming wave of "Trump Isn't So Bad" stories? I don't have a complete answer, but I do have a slogan worth appropriating.

Just two weeks before the election, I drove from Ithaca to Baltimore to deliver a lecture at Johns Hopkins University. En route, I passed through central Pennsylvania, where I saw many a Trump-supporting yard sign and nary a Clinton sign (except in and around Lewisburg, home of Bucknell University). My favorite Trump sign--which I have since determined was actually mass-produced--read simply: "Trump 2016: No More Bullshit!"

No doubt the Trump supporter displaying this sign thought that Trump would bring an end to some unspecified category of bullshit. Perhaps he has. But in the process Trump has released an avalanche of new bullshit. If my analysis in this essay is correct, there is even more coming. Hence, I suggest that people who respect the truth make the yard sign's slogan our own, albeit with a syntactical change, as in, "Hey Trump: No more bullshit. We're onto you."


el roam said...

Trump has reached the oval office , as really inexperienced politician . Besides counting hectares in malls , he didn't know too much . That is correct , that is democracy !! No room for elites as retaining power , inherently infinitely so .

A wise analyst ( Surly not the author of the post ) would rather seek for mistakes, and repenting and regrouping and reorganizing , briefly: having courage, learn from mistakes, and in accordance, swiftly to reorganize himself and his administration . So far , what do have ?? I must admit , for very rigid type like Trump , not so bad :

First: he has insisted at the time, that he would move the US embassy in Israel, to its capital: Jerusalem, and very quickly realized, that, from the American point of view, this would be very hasty mistake , And changed his mind ( at least so far ) . Yet , promising that the international attitude towards the Israeli state , shall very swiftly improve , and : So written , so declared , and as well done ( So far ) . Very reasonable discretion .

Second : He has promised , a very unrealistic one : To crack down of china and its trade policies , and now , he has cooled down very quickly , realizing how catastrophic shall it be .

Third : He was promising that : America , is for America only , yet , attacking , in Syria , mainly due or thanks to Humanitarian reasons ( not solely for it , yet ,as one of the main reasons , and , there is a very well founded suspicion, that this is the reason , why Steve Bannon , has been kicked out from the national security council board .

I could proceed on , on both edges , but so far :

He has tried hard to keep promises , yet , learning and adapting not so badly at all . It is still early , yet , not bad , for a real estate investor , and no more than that . So, it is rather, that he has normalized things or himself , over the news or media that have done it for him, it is a very known phenomenon in politics : " What is seen from there , not at all from here ….." And many leaders , finally are bridging gaps , to the center , over sticking to rigid ideology , to the left or the right .

Let's wait ahead and see , how deep is the sea ……Too early .


katemassey said...

Friendly fact-check re: one of my favorite evergreen one-liners: I've always thought "facts [or reality] have a well-known liberal bias" was Paul Krugman's joke, but it looks like both he and Colbert borrowed it from Rob Corddry. See

Paul Scott said...

The failing NYT is already proving you right by hiring a climate change denier as part of its opinion page - purportedly to ensure balance. I look forward to them hiring a creation "scientist" and flat earther for even more balance.

el roam said...

Just link to china and the US ( mentioned above in my comment ) :

And to his promise to move the embassy and of course changing mind :


Michael C. Dorf said...

Thanks to katemassey for the provenance of "facts have a liberal bias." I wonder whether someone said something similar even before Corddry. It's the sort of quip that seems like it could have been made earlier still.

Shag from Brookline said...

The media has offered praise for Trump's selections of Generals for key cabinet and other posts on matters of defense, foreign policy, national/homeland security. Recall Trump during his campaign claiming to be smarter than the Generals. Might this suggest that these appointees in the performance of their duties are relying upon this claim of Trump?

Since this is a "family" blog, I have used the phrase "El Toro droppings" from time to time in lieu of "bu*****t." What's in a name? In this case it all smell's the same - but not like a rose. By waiving the red cape continually at our orange El Toro, he will continue with his "bu*****t" because that's all he's got. Any hope for "Trump Change" is denied by medical science. Keep in mind Trump's thirst for power - both nuclear and Coke - with his red buttons.

Joe said...

The Mets lost 23-5 yesterday and their superhero ace "Thor" appears to have a serious injury. But, only 22 of those runs were earned.

You have to look at the bright side. It's how you avoid suicides. Somewhat serious here. We tend to try to look on the bright side. Like people are looking at Trump's failures, including defeats in the courts. Others can point to the fact he still is in the Oval Office doing bad things, including filling (technically at least) 1/9 of SCOTUS with one more seat perhaps opening sooner than later.

People do this the other way. I have seen people on left leaning blogs bad mouth Obama to make him sound rather pathetic.


The concept might have been referenced earlier, but was the actual quote?

Many concepts are old; then some provides phrasing that sticks. Anyway, both guys are were on Jon Stewart, so it's hard to tell the true "source" there.

Shag from Brookline said...

Eventually Trump's own words will take him down. Last week I caught a Charlie Rose re-run that included an interview with Calvin Trillin. When the subject of Trump came up, Trillin mentioned a recent poem of his in The Nation that focused on Trump's "The Art of the Deal" and Trump's failure to get the House to take action on Trump's campaign promise to repeal and replace Obamacare in his first 100 days. Trillin recited the poem. Later, I Googled and came up with this site:

which provides links to several recent poems of Trillin in The Nation including the one he recited "Trump Fails to Close His First Big Washington Deal." It and the other poems are short and incisive.

It has almost become a blood sport watching Trump spokespersons twisting and turning to defend/explain the meaning of Trump's words/actions. There seems to be a lack of originalism in their political spinning. El Toro droppings. Perhaps post-Trump these spokespersons will do intentional "stand-up."

Fred Raymond said...

Mike wrote: "A story that says that Trump is an ignorant egomaniacal grifter surrounded by unqualified sycophants who are cynically exploiting popular grievances by directing anger at scapegoats while pursuing policies that exacerbate the underlying problems would be perfectly accurate, but it would not be news."

And that's exactly what is so bad about this: it's all day every day, not news.

We've lowered the bar? What bar where? There's no bar.

cheyanne said...

Why does everybody look at Trump through the "He's president so he must want to govern" spectacles?

When faced with what appears to be a Trump "failure", pundits look at Trump and call him crazy, self-defeating or dumb. That's because they are assuming that he wants to govern. But if Trump is evaluated by the actual results of his actions, there is a clear pattern that appears. He is consolidating his power; weakening all other power centers. Here is an outline of some of his actions:

Target: business community: Calls out Carrier for exporting jobs.

Result: This strikes fear into the heart of the business world. Trump has just put them on notice that he will use his bully pulpit for actually hurt a particular company for no reason at all. Lesson: I can make your stock lose $$ in one day.

Target: Intelligence community:

Result: By constantly demeaning the FBI and CIA, he is delegitimatizing them so that they are no longer trusted.

Target: Judicial system: Attacking individual judges not the law.
Result: Court system loses its authority.

Target: Congress: Every time the House has attempted to get a bill to the floor, Trump changes the agenda on them. First Healthcare, then no let's do taxes, then healthcare again just as the House is about to prevent a shutdown.

Result: Congress is no longer a co-equal branch of government that can provide checks on Executive power plays.

Target: State Dept.: He refuses to staff and cuts programs that help our allies and strengthens our international standing.

Result: Thus all international policy must come from him. And America's position in the world is weakened.

So no legislation is a win for Trump; no State dept. staff gives him a free hand.

This is the way that a demagogue makes it possible to take over a democratic country. With other power centers weakened, he can induce a "crisis" that will let him take over all power. Like Russia, another "democracy", he will have all the power and a lapdog congress to rubber stamp his decisions.

Mike C. said...

Trump just asked why we had a Civil War, so we can safely assume today is not going to be the day the narrative changes.

Shag from Brookline said...

I appreciate/enjoy cheyanne's "Target/Result" approach but wish it had applied this to Trump's attacks on the media.

Bass Around the World said...

"Why does everybody look at Trump through the "He's president so he must want to govern" spectacles?"

Because that's the job. If a company hired someone to answer phones and route calls and the new hire decided to use the opportunity to sell products to the people who call that undermine the success of the company that hired him, he'd be gone in 15 minutes.

Lawyers have to prove minimum competence when they apply for a license. Presidents should have to do so as well. El Roam interprets this idea as elitism, but competence is not the same as elitism.

el roam said...

Edwin Hurwitz :

I haven't confused competence with elitism , rather insisting ( or intended to ) of the formal aspects of it , means :

In a democracy, the formal criteria for competence , don't play any role, any part. Every common person or layman, is eligible for being president or whatsoever, and , academic background or resume ( CV) or whatsoever, have no meaning.

Elitism, could do also, with those most experienced, holding power again and again in a way or other ( like H. Clinton ) not only educated, but , experienced in governing.

By the way , those are in my view , the downsides of democracy ..... but , this is for another discussion .

In the case of Trump , it was solely for the mere introduction or side remark : The man is totally inexperienced , from scratch starting his first tenure …. As such , the score , not so bad so far !! He is not panicked by mistakes or sober revelations , and maneuvering and correcting it ….. Yet , only so far , too early !!


Joe said...

"He's president so he must want to govern."

It's a tad naive to think Trump wants to govern, full stop, and cheyanne's comment suggests a major point is more him being a demagogue. This appeals to many who voted for him; as someone Shag and I knows once noted, he has the same enemies. Or, so it seems to these people. Thus the "I'm a conservative, liberals don't like this, so I will" approach. See, e.g., comments on climate change.

The concern that this will result in degrading respect for government etc. is well taken. It's part of why I think it's a bad bet to pick Ben Carson types even if they seem better than competent true believers. The net result too often is the whole enterprise is cheapened and it makes it easier for grifters.

I don't think this means we shouldn't think presidents should be there to govern. But, that is different from them "wanting" to do so. Anyway, I gather he does want to do that to some degree, if in a shoddy way for various nefarious reasons.

Bass Around the World said...

"In a democracy, the formal criteria for competence , don't play any role, any part. Every common person or layman, is eligible for being president or whatsoever, and , academic background or resume ( CV) or whatsoever, have no meaning. "

While the technical requirements for office don't require competence, the framer's intentions were not that any idiot or grifter can become president. In fact, that was one of the reasons for the existence of the Electoral College, and also the limitations of suffrage. By keeping, women, people of color, people of no property or means, from voting, it was pretty clear that not only was the system intended to be elitist, but that only people who had attained a certain station in life were allowed to participate. We can disagree with the disenfranchisement of so many, and we can also argue that Trump does fit the original criteria, but it seems very likely he would have been weeded out by the EC.

All that said, the technical criteria is just the beginning. The idea is that we, as responsible citizens, should elect people who are competent, who are capable and interested in governing in the best interest of all the people and in the interest of upholding the Constitution (Trump just recently complained about how the Constitution limits his ability to impose his will on the laws of our Republic). Just because we can elect a grifter (and there is some question as to whether it was a legitimate election, but that, too, is another story), doesn't mean we should. Otherwise, we are suffering from some sort of psychological defect that results in suicidal behavior (Trump does appear to be more of a threat to the welfare of the people and the structure of Republic than any external threat). Which would make sense, as it appears to me that there are currently too many rats in the cage. And our own choices and psychological state are far more important than whether we are following the rules. Judging whether behavior is good can start with whether or not it comports with the law, but that's where the process is just beginning. Just because something is legal doesn't mean that it's beyond critique. In this case, Trump still demands scrutiny and critique.

As my great-grandfather's drinking and jamming buddy so famously said:

"The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.
The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."

Fred Raymond said...

"....the White House will be adorned by a downright moron...."

This raises the stupid-versus-evil assessment.

Label me a pessimist, but I choose 'evil' to describe DT.

Refer to the cheyanne comment above.

We underestimate DT at our peril.

Bass Around the World said...

I'm going to go with both evil and stupid (or at least, willfully ignorant).

And yes, you are right, we underestimate him at our peril. Accepting a new normal with complacency is not an option.

Shag from Brookline said...

I'm curious if Trump was the Mnuchin candidate after reading Steve's bragging to bankers that it's because of him that their bank stocks are doing so well. Perhaps all along the plan was to build Wall St. and make consumers/taxpayers pay for it.

cheyanne said...

Thanks for your comment, Shag. I did leave out the media because that power center is so engrossed in comparing Trump to other presidents rather than demagogues that I fear they are totally compromised.
The most interesting power grab is the one against his "partners" the Republican Congress. With other power centers he can outright call them enemies, but with the Congress he is hobbled because they can not only thwart his plans, but they are the only ones that can impeach him. So his tactics are more subtle. Whenever the congresscritters try to work on legislation, he will suddenly demand they work on another issue. They work on the new issue that he claims to back, but he doesn't provide support. He then says he's through with the bill.

The History Place,, has a step-by-step timeline of Hitles hallowing out of the German government. The comparisons are "uncanny".