Past leaders would have envied the ease with which their modern-day counterparts can whip the media into a frenzy. Or maybe they wouldn’t.
For most of the history of politicians and tyrants, the less the people knew what they were up to, the better. But in the age of marketing, many rulers and would-be rulers have embraced the adage “there is no such thing as bad publicity.”
The current master of this phenomenon, at least in Western media, is undoubtedly Donald Trump, but as with so many other components of Trumpism, he didn’t invent the concept. Still, he certainly deserves credit — or contempt, depending on one’s point of view — for exploiting it to levels rarely seen before.
For at least the last two years, Trump has exasperated his critics and political enemies, including those in his own Republican Party and, evidently, in the White House, with outrageous comments, startling displays of apparent ignorance, smears of people he doesn’t like, including entire countries, religions and ethnic groups, outright and obvious lies, and the ability to make contradictory statements within seconds of each other, sometimes in the same sentence. And his support base loves it, as the media — and his critics — take the bait every time.
Usually, Twitter is Trump’s favored platform, but a recent round of hand-wringing was triggered by another “reliable source” typical of the Age of the Donald — leaked reports from a meeting at the White House on immigration policy. This was the infamous (at least it was until superseded a few days later by a new clickbait generator) “shithole countries” remark.
Trumpisms echo unspoken prejudices
The comment contained several of the hallmarks of the best (or worst) Trumpisms. First and foremost, there was nothing controversial about it; the president was merely voicing an opinion shared by millions of Americans and, in fact, billions of xenophobes around the world. It’s why people love (and hate) him: He says what many, many people wish they could get away with saying.
Whether by accident, design, or his long experience as a snake-oil salesman and reality-show star, Trump has an unerring ability to expose hypocrisy. One of the best examples of this was during the 2016 presidential election campaign when he bragged about how evading taxes was “smart.”
It was impossible to distinguish among all the consequent red faces whether the ruddiness was caused by outrage or by embarrassment that a member of the wealthy ruling class had openly stated what they had always believed and put into practice. And as usual, his opponents in both the Democratic and Republican parties were made laughing-stocks when they tried to turn the remark against him.
This and the “shithole” brouhaha also highlight another key component of Trumpism: grains of truth. The truth of trillions of dollars, euros, pounds, yen and Thai baht being hijacked by tax evasion not only in the US but worldwide is obvious to anyone with eyes. It’s just as obvious to anyone who has ventured outside a condo or a gated community that shitholes abound — including not a few in the United States itself.
And another truth few want to see is that a very large number of the shitholes outside the US were either created or made shittier by US foreign policy. About the only major exceptions are those for which Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and multinational corporations (especially in the arms, energy, and garment industries) are largely responsible.
In mainstream newsrooms, demands for verifiable evidence, skepticism of official press releases, and other old-fashioned concepts are sacrificed for fear of jeopardizing ‘access,’ or worse, offending advertisers
Another crucial element, possibly the most important, behind the success of the Trumpism phenomenon is the decline of quality journalism, especially in the US and UK but to only a slightly lesser extent elsewhere. Gone are the days of the Pentagon Papers or the Watergate probe or the campaign against Red-baiting Republican senator Joseph McCarthy. Or, on those rare occasions when the whistle is blown on something of actual importance, those responsible are forced out into the cold, sometimes literally in places like Moscow, and sometimes in the relative warmth of South American embassies.
In mainstream newsrooms, demands for verifiable evidence, skepticism of official press releases, and other old-fashioned concepts are sacrificed for fear of jeopardizing “access,” or worse, offending advertisers.
Instead, we have furious competition for advertising dollars and political favors through almost daily “scandals” — some based on legitimate grievances, such as the long-overdue outcry against sexual harassment, but nearly always used primarily to divert attention from deeper and more dangerous issues such as warmongering, climate change, endemic corruption, and the worsening impoverishment of the working class.
Attempting to rise above this din are independent news organizations, but there is a growing — and somewhat successful — effort to suppress these, using another hysteria du jour, the “fake news epidemic.”
In the name of seeking “truth,” scurrilous neo-McCarthyist slurs are wielded against writers and commentators who dare to stray from groupthink on, for example, Vladimir Putin’s personal crusade against Western democracy, or Sunni dictatorships’ superiority to Shiite theocracies, or the disruption to the international liberal order by anti-fracking protesters, or the morality of bombing women and children in Gaza and Sanaa. Meanwhile, YouTube is “demonetizing” non-mainstream commentators and Google is “de-ranking” searches for non-centrist political commentary.
Still, that may not be the most serious aspect of the demise of responsible journalism. As formerly trusted news media become less and less relevant, swirling down the toilet of sensationalist crap while playing down or ignoring major issues such as nuclear proliferation, great-power warmongering and climate change, the more they open themselves to be victimized by anti-information opportunists in politics and big business.
And ignorance is fatal to democracy, civil progress, and possibly even mankind itself.