The Banality of Banality: Media Coverage of Trump's Crimes

[Note to readers: For the first time in a few months, I have written and published a new Verdict column: "Fighting the Good Fight versus Knowing When to Move On (Part One of a Series)."  That column begins to deliver on the promise in my "retirement" announcement to answer why anyone in their right mind would resign a tenured position at a highly-ranked research university -- or at any college or university, really.

[I have no idea how many entries I will ultimately write in that series, but the overall idea is to use my direct experiences at the University of Florida, along with my candid interest in possibly leaving the US permanently, to explore what Trumpist Republicans like Florida's governor and others are doing to education, politics, the economy, and ultimately the world.  The short version of today's column is: Why would I leave a tenured position?  I didn't.  The tenured position left me.

[Meanwhile, today's column here on Dorf on Law addresses the dominant news story of this week.]

When I discuss media coverage of almost every issue -- Social Security, elections, foreign policy, the federal budget, and on and on -- I find myself using words like tedious, dreary, desultory, and tiresome.  I have recently (and very reluctantly) accepted horse-race coverage of elections as a necessary evil in the will-Trump-get-away-with-it era, but for reasons that do not deny or diminish the tediousness, dreariness, and so on of the standard approach to treating all political stories as having no consequences for people's lives.  Most of the time, headlines that begin with "Democrats Worry that ..." or "Republicans Dismiss the Importance of ..." are as disposable as a high school orchestra's performance (and even more painful to sit through).

One adjective that would also fit into my list of synonyms is banal, as in "commonplace" or "devoid of freshness or originality; hackneyed; trite."  But the nominal form of that word is banality, which almost automatically brings to mind the now-famous turn of phrase "the banality of evil," used broadly to describe the ways in which the Nazi regime's crimes against humanity somehow became so commonplace at the time as to be unremarkable to the people engaged in committing them.  The specific context in which Hannah Arendt coined that phrase was to describe Adolph Eichmann, after she had observed his trial in Jerusalem in 1961, but the phrase now carries with it the danger of confirming Godwin's Law.  (Side note: When I was doing a preemption check for the title of this piece, I came across Banksy's 2013 "The Banality of the Banality of Evil," which is fascinating but not relevant here.)

With today's title, I do not at all mean to call media types any kind of monsters, because they are not.  They are part of a business model and social system in which being banal is rewarded and expected.  Many of them understand the enterprise at least well enough to know that they must try to turn something inherently boring into something superficially interesting, while those who are oblivious know that they are supposed to try to be interesting (and believe that that is possible).  There is a reason, after all, that the most overused phrase on cable news is "Breaking News."  It all has to be breathless and engaging.

Except that they often cannot deliver on any of that, leaving people on camera and in print feeling compelled to come up with hot-takes and completely uninformed criticism of something in the world about which they should simply keep their mouths shut.  Cable sports shows have turned the dial on the manufactured controversy amplifier up to 11, and cable TV has also leaned heavily on that model over the years.  Remember "Hannity and Colmes"?  Indeed, even before cable news became a thing, absurdities like "The McLaughlin Group" had exposed the emptiness of the insta-argument enterprise.

And even pundits who are not put on the spot during a roundtable discussion on TV apparently feel the need to engage in Monday-morning quarterbacking, carping, caviling, nitpicking, and so on.  Much of it is in the context of making predictions to which they will never be held to account, but they make their claims with great certitude.  They also often angrily denounce the actions of people who have had to make difficult decisions.

Current discussions about Donald Trump's legal troubles take this banal banality to a new level.  Again, the exigencies of the media universe require it.  We thus see people saying that Fulton County DA Fani Willis made strategic errors of one sort or another.  Notably, these non-ideological quibbles often parallel the opportunistic distractions offered by Republicans.

For example, even after Republicans complained that Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg's indictment of Trump on charges of criminal fraud earlier this year were "ticky-tack fouls," we knew that anything as broad and encompassing as Willis's case against Trump and his 18 co-defendants would be blasted by Republicans for being too big.  Sure enough, one House Republican quickly ran in front of cameras to say that the Georgia case was "a nuclear bomb where a bullet would have been appropriate."  Mama Bear and Papa Bear can relate.

Again, Republicans' reason for doing what they do is to protect their cult leader.  Pundits' and reporters' reason for doing so is simply to say something, no matter how ill-informed or even pointless, and hope that it trends.  The tiresome punditry of “Bragg shouldn’t have gone first” seemed pressingly important to some people at the time.  I wonder whether any of those complainers will write something now saying that -- even though it remains true that the different prosecutors should not coordinate with each other -- the rollout of these cases has worked out at least well enough that no one is saying that Bragg's case should have waited until now.  Actually, I do not wonder about that at all.

And now we learn that maybe Willis should not have gone at all, blah blah blah.  One of the relatively frequent targets of my ire in discussing media dreariness is the Deputy Editorial Page Editor for The Washington Post, who is notable only for being completely unworthy of note.  She writes mostly disposable -- albeit perfectly fine, both in style and usually (but definitely not always) in substance -- columns for her newspaper.  She is no George Fwill or Ross Douthat, of course.  She is identifiably liberal-ish.  She is just so boring all the time and puzzlingly wrong some of the time.

Earlier this week, this highly placed pundit decided to publish, "Is Georgia’s case against Trump one case too many?"  Why?  Unclear.  After conceding that any overlap between federal and state prosecutions is definitely not double jeopardy, she suggests that maybe, possibly it is a problem: "Willis doesn’t have to prove it, but it’s fair to ask: What’s the 'substantial Georgia interest' implicated here that has been left 'demonstrably unvindicated'?"  But given that so many people had been saying that the federal case was narrowed down to the narrowest of possible grounds with only one defendant, that question answers itself.

After allowing that "I don’t fault Willis at all for investigating" (how kind!) and spooning out more pudding about overlapping prosecutions, we get this:

But there is a concern about piling on here. Why stop at Georgia? The federal indictment sets out conduct in six other states in which Trump and his co-conspirators allegedly sought to overturn the election results. Will he be prosecuted in those states, too? At some point, it becomes unfair — yes, even to Trump — to go state by state. That’s why the federal approach is preferable.

Why in the world is that unfair?  She does not even think to explain, perhaps because she believes that she can just say things, but perhaps also because this is all just filler.  People were reacting to the latest indictment, and pundits were coming up with their snap reactions.  She chose, "Gee, even a liberal like me thinks Trump deserves a break."  If Trump and his people committed crimes in multiple states, then there is every reason for each of the relevant states to make its own decision about prosecution, whether or not a pundit thinks that "it becomes unfair."

Oh, and by the way, the Georgia case (as well as any other state cases that she is worried will be mere "piling on") is not subject to future presidential pardons.  What a concept.

I am bending over backward to be kind here, because it is difficult to square my relatively benign explanations with this parenthetical in that column's final paragraph: "Small point, but Monday’s spectacle of an after-hours indictment and late-night news conference didn’t exactly inspire confidence in the Willis office’s professionalism."  Viewed charitably, that is merely another version of damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't heckling.  After all, had Willis done something that was less of a "spectacle" -- not a word that I would use to describe that event -- the complaint would have been that she undersold the story.

But the insinuation (if not the outright accusation) is that Willis, who will "have to run for election," was being unprofessional by holding a standard-issue press announcement.  Not doing so, however, would have been truly weird, and it surely would have resulted in reporters hounding Willis while walking to her office, to complaints about lack or transparency, and so on.

Maybe, then, this particular example of otherwise forgettable blather is a bit worse than the usual run of such things.  Nonetheless, my big takeaway from much of the media/pundit coverage of the Trump criminal cavalcade is that the banality just becomes more and more banal -- perhaps especially when someone tries to break out of the banality.