The Press Continues to Give Trump a Pass on His Nonexistent Policy Agenda

by Neil H. Buchanan

[August 26, 2017: This column has been updated to fix some editing errors.]

There are serious concerns that Donald Trump's ceaseless rhetorical attacks on the news media could lead to very non-rhetorical violent attacks on reporters.  Trump hates to be the subject of negative coverage, so he attacks the messenger rather than changing his message.

One of the reasons that Trump is angry is that news organizations have made some efforts to prevent Trump's outrages from seeming at all normal.  The word "lie," which used to be all but taboo in American journalism when discussing politicians (and certainly presidents) has been forced into service in response to a president who lies constantly.

Even so, habits of mind persist.  There is, for example, a running list of Trump's lies in The Washington Post, yet the most recent update, "President Trump's List of False and Misleading Claims Tops 1000," uses all of the euphemisms for "lie" but contains not a single usage of the l-word.

What is all too easy to forget is that, even now, Trump benefits from journalistic habits and rituals that make him look much more effective -- and his policies much more defensible -- than the evidence can support.  It turns out that, especially on policy matters, reporters seem to have a default mode that gives Trump a pass and treats him as perfectly normal.

With a huge debate looming over whether Trump and the Republicans will be able to transfer trillions of dollars to the superrich from everyone else, this journalistic sloppiness matters.

The pack mentality of journalists is a well studied phenomenon, of course.  Coverage of stories in the two fields in which I have some claim to expertise -- economics and tax policy -- is especially likely to fall back on conventional wisdom.

To some degree, this is a matter of generalist reporters being forced to write about technical topics and thus becoming overwhelmed.  When in doubt, the mantra seems to be, repeat what everyone else seems to be saying.

But lack of expertise cannot explain all of the useless coverage that we see.  Before he founded Vox, Ezra Klein made a sharp observation about how the press treats stories about the federal budget deficit:
"For reasons I've never quite understood, the rules of reportorial neutrality don't apply when it comes to the deficit.  On this one issue, reporters are permitted to openly cheer a particular set of highly controversial policy solutions."
Klein wrote those words four and a half years ago, and they remain true today.  Even though the standard conservative story about deficits was disproved in spectacular fashion by the Great Recession and its aftermath, it is still the safe journalistic move to nod sagely when Paul Ryan spews more nonsense about "looming debt crises" and all that.

Speaking of our Speaker of the House, he also continues to benefit from a media narrative that treats him as something other than the pure political hack that he is.  Even though Ryan is now being widely mocked for his spinelessness in failing to stand up to Donald Trump, there is still the sense among mainstream journalists that Ryan is somehow still "a good and smart man who means well," or something.

The fact is that Ryan's reputation as a policy wonk was, as Paul Krugman never stopped reminding people, based on nothing more than Ryan's having ceaselessly presented himself as a policy wonk.  One cannot even say that Ryan's budgets never added up, because his budgets were never detailed enough to be assessed.  He would simply designate (via "magic asterisks") where money in the future would be saved, and the press dutifully called his PowerPoint presentations "serious."

Even in the current environment where Ryan's weakness is on display for all to see, we are reminded in mainstream publications without criticism or irony that Ryan has "many fans in the Republican establishment, who see him as an avatar of moral leadership and someone who is revolted by the president’s low-road political style—if only he could bring himself to say it."

What is that moral leadership?  Ryan certainly uses moralistic language, but anyone can do that.  What is the content?  He completely misrepresents the evidence to claim that poor people are caught in a dependency trap by government programs, allowing him to say that taking from the poor and giving to the rich is good for poor people's souls.  Without that tissue-thin cover story, Ryan is simply a ruthless advocate for tax cuts for the rich and spending cuts for everyone else.

And that has also been true of Trump all along.  He has differed from Republicans on international trade (at least rhetorically, even though he has done nothing of policy substance while in office that would ruffle the feathers of the Republicans' business base), but Trump is ultimately all about huge tax cuts for the rich and businesses.  Whatever else one can say about Trump's willingness to shift positions and contradict himself, he has consistently said that he wants to pass enormous regressive tax cuts.

Given Trump's track record, one might think that reporters with a renewed vigilance about presidential deception might think more critically about how they report on Trump's White House.  But when it comes to policy -- as opposed to political issues like Trump's open affection for white supremacists, about which the press has been admirably aggressive -- the old rules apply.

It is not, moreover, just the technical stuff that suffers from reporters' unquestioning stenography.  Take this relatively standard formulation, where a reporter is describing policy differences among the White House staff and Republicans in the aftermath of Steve Bannon's firing: "Those differences are still harming Trump’s effectiveness as he tries to kick-start a sputtering legislative agenda..."

What makes anyone think Trump is doing that?  Where is the evidence that Trump is trying to do anything with a legislative agenda, or that he even has one?

I realize that this is a matter of emphasis, but when all of the evidence points to the conclusion that Trump has no legislative agenda, and when the few times that he is supposed to talk about policy issues he strays into hateful nonsense, why would a neutral reporter think that it makes sense to describe Trump just like any other president who is struggling to get something that could be called an agenda through Congress?

Again, that example is relatively mild, but that story had followed one by two other reporters for The Post, who wrote:
"Worries on Thursday that Cohn might join the exodus of business leaders after two White House corporate advisory boards disbanded in the wake of the events in Charlottesville helped send the Dow Jones industrial average down 274.14 points, or 1.2 percent, the largest sell-off in three months. Investors feared that the Trump administration might lose a leading architect of the president’s economic agenda just as it approaches a critical juncture."

The problem here is that the reporters are stating uncritically that Cohn is a "leading architect of the president's economic agenda," and although they attribute this view to "investors," a truly neutral reporter would have done one of two things: (1) state that there is serious question about whether there is an economic agenda at all, and even if there is, question whether Cohn is the "leading architect" of that agenda's only known plank, which is tax cuts for the rich, or (2) write that "investors fear that further upheaval in the White House will derail any effort to deal with must-pass legislation like the federal budget."

I am not saying that good reporters would only say negative things about Trump or Cohn, but I am saying that it does everyone a disservice to blithely mention Trump's agenda when it is not at all obvious that he has one or that Cohn is architecting anything.

Seriously, other than some version of an enormously regressive tax cut (which Cohn teased this past Spring with a one-page list of bullet points that were a study in vagueness), what is Trump's agenda on any other economic issue?  Infrastructure spending?  He is in favor of some kind of privatized plan, sort of, unless he is uninterested in it this week.

The debt ceiling?  The federal budget for the next fiscal year?  What is Trump's agenda?  If we cannot describe it, why act as if it obviously exists and that everyone knows what it is?

But it gets worse, because reporters in the top newspapers that Trump calls "the enemies of the people" do not merely casually ascribe content to the formless void that is Trump's policy views, but they even give Trump's nonexistent policy specifics credit for magical powers.  A business columnist for The (failing) New York Times recently offered this nugget:
"Stocks slid on Thursday in part on worries that the president’s ruptured relations with business would damage his plans to jump-start economic growth."

Trump has "plans to jump-start economic growth"?  Tell me more!  Yes, Trump has said that he will pass tremendous policies that will increase economic growth, but The Times is not the White House press office.  It is not a reporter's job to say that an agenda would jump-start growth, even were an agenda actually to exist.  Where are the journalistic caveats, like talking about policies that "Trump's advisor say" will increase growth?

The most down-the-middle way to describe what was happening is that Wall Streeters (and the business community more generally) have eagerly anticipated some kind of big tax cut ever since Trump improbably won his narrow victory last year.  Stocks fell not because of worries about economic growth but because investors see a golden opportunity to cut their own taxes being threatened.

And if there really was worry among investors that growth might be lower than it could have been if the tax cuts had passed, it is at least incumbent on a neutral reporter to point out that the available evidence on tax cuts and growth is exactly contrary to that conventional wisdom.  Because the fact is, as I have written over and over recently, even some top conservative economists are admitting that the economic evidence for a causal link from tax cuts to economic growth is nonexistent.

Even if I were guilty of over-reading that (lack of) evidence, however, it is at least important to report that there is serious doubt about the presumed tax-cuts-to-growth connection.  Instead, yet another Post reporter wrote this last month: "Now, the size of the tax plan is in doubt, and that could hurt chances for hitting the 3 percent (or better) growth level Trump has promised."

Now we have not only accepted that there is certainly a link, but that the link is unambiguous and can be calibrated in a way that the size of the tax cut might be too small to achieve Trump's objective to increase growth to three percent annually.  If the tax cuts are too small, we are told, the growth will be too slow.

Not only is there no evidence to support any of that, but there has been widespread discussion in many major media outlets over the past few months of the evidence that economic growth cannot possibly be increased to three percent, because of changes in demographics and other trends that are not going to be responsive to policy changes.

Note that nearly all of my examples in this column have been from The Post and The Times, which are the two non-TV news sources that Trump attacks most viciously.  And reporters for both of those papers have done impressive and essential investigative work on the Russia story and many other aspects of Trump's mess of a presidency.

This makes it all the more depressing that the habits of mind among those reporters who cover economics and tax stories continue to be so lazy and have not been updated to the current reality of White House dishonesty.

It is especially bad because this kind of unthinking reinforcement of the conventional wisdom on tax cuts is exactly what not just Trump but the entire Republican establishment feeds on when pushing their regressive agenda.

I would obviously be pleased if reporters started to use my views as their default positions, but I am more than willing simply to hope for something resembling balance.  Reporters should stop treating assertions that are either known to be false or are at least highly contestable as the uncontested truth.  Is that too much to ask?