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.

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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."