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Two Theses on Trump: My Response to Marcy Wheeler
She asks some political questions: I offer up some answers
My column on Maggie Haberman generated the reaction I expected it would generate. There were some thoughtful responses, a great deal of anger, a few ethical questions, and the occasional effort to compare Haberman to a Nazi. That’s all fine — I was not expecting it to be a popular argument and given the carnage Trump wreaked in the country, I cannot blame folks for directing their anger at anyone they believe enabled him. I also don’t think Haberman did that, which is why I wrote the column.
Marcy Wheeler, a.k.a. @emptywheel, wrote a longer blog post that merits a response, however. Wheeler has been indispensable in explaining the myriad legal machinations surrounding Trump, and if she’s doling out free legal analysis I can certainly return the favor and provide some free political analysis.
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Wheeler raises three points that are worth addressing. First, she brings up something that I had overlooked: none of Haberman’s excerpts from Confidence Man have appeared in the New York Times: “none of the teaser exclusives are being published at the NYT. The Atlantic, CNN, Axios, WaPo’s own Trump-whisperer — they’re the ones getting traffic from Maggie’s tidbits this week, not the NYT.” The implication here is that the Gray Lady might be less than pleased with Haberman hoarding material for the book that might otherwise have appeared in the paper.
This is a very good point. Haberman also is affiliated with CNN and something ran there, but the Times is what really matters. The Washington Post didn’t run anything from Bob Woodward’s last book and I remember raising my eyebrow at that. So, good point by Marcy that raises some questions!
Wheeler’s second point was wanting to know more about my claim that most politicians would have been brought low by Haberman’s reporting, but not Trump:
I would have welcomed some reflection about why he believes most other politicians, but not Trump, would have been destroyed by Maggie’s tidbits. Do Maggie’s strengths and weaknesses as a journalist offer any insight into Trump’s unique resilience? Is she a symptom of it? Or one of the causes?
I have a three-part answer: the first part is unique to Trump and the other two parts about where we are as a country right now.
The part unique to Trump is his abject lack of shame. Some scandals that bring politicians down involve illegality, but most involve the revelation of actions or statements that are either embarrassing or completely at odds with their public positions. Most politicians are human beings who embarrass easily, and so are vulnerable to scandal. They will withdraw from the stage to avoid further unwanted attention. Trump’s entire career, by way of contrast, gloried in scandal. During the 2016 campaign he contradicted himself constantly, said and did repugnant things, and did not care a whit. As Ezra Klein noted way back in 2015, that was Trump’s political superpower: “This is Donald Trump's secret, his strategy, his power…. He just doesn't fucking care. He will never, ever give an inch. Better to be a monster than a wuss. You cannot embarrass Donald Trump.”
This would not have mattered if two other trends that I discussed at length in The Ideas Industry had not also kicked in: the rise in political polarization and the erosion of trust in institutions. These two trends created a permission structure in which ordinary Republicans could dismiss damning Maggie Haberman stories in the New York Times as fake news. Even if Haberman (and every other reporter) had published absolutely everything she knew in real time, it would not have affected this dynamic.
Finally, Wheeler asks an interesting question about whether Haberman’s reporting advantage really mattered or whether it hurt political discourse in this country. Haberman specialized in reporting on Trump’s immature, petulant bullying. Wheeler argues that those stories — and the Toddler-in-Chief thesis that I curated from them — wound up being a weapon of mass distraction:
Those stories, individually and as a corpus, revealed Trump to be a skilled bully. But those stories of Trump’s bullying commanded our attention, just like his reality TV show did, and reassured him that continued bullying would continue to dominate press coverage.
That press coverage, I’m convinced, not only was complicit in the bullying, but also served as a distraction from things that really mattered or levers that we might have used to neutralize the bullying.
It was power by reality TV. And Maggie Haberman was and remains a key producer of that power.
I heard this a lot throughout the Trump years and find myself completely unpersuaded by it. The reporting on Trump’s immature brand of leadership often contained anecdotes of his petulant behavior, but that was never the whole story. In my book, for example, I made two arguments. The first was that Trump was acting like a badly-behaved two-year old. The second was that the shifting institutional context, “having a President who behaves like a toddler is a more serious problem today than it would have been, say, fifty years ago. Formal and informal checks on the presidency have eroded badly in recent decades, and Trump assumed the office at the zenith of its power.” Part of the reason for covering Trump’s bullying behavior was to demonstrate that he was getting away with it in a way that prior presidents could not.
Putting that to one side, however, Wheeler’s framing presumes that the media did not cover the Trump administration’s systematic instances of illegal or egregious behavior. But that is not true either. There were plenty of in-depth stories about the Trump White House attacking the civil service, implementing malevolent policies, acting in a corrupt manner, and otherwise running the federal government into the ground (and Haberman was a contributing reporter for many of these stories). The problem is that in a world of low trust in institutions, high levels of partisanship, and rationally ignorant voters, those stories do not move the political needle.
To give one recent example: The Atlantic’s searing cover story on family separation that dropped in August. Caitlin Dickerson’s “The Secret History of Family Separation” is a devastating read. The combination of malevolence and incompetence on display by folks like Stephen Miller was enraging. If you have not read it yet, please do.
My point, however, is that Dickerson’s article got some play the day it appeared but was soon drowned out a rash of new stories, particularly the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago. I don’t think this happened because reporters like Haberman were engaging in a pattern of distraction. I think it happened because Americans prefer to read about easily digestible, scandalous stories like that than longform deep dives into policy.
If Wheeler and others want to argue that Haberman et al’s reporting does not have a lot of nutritional value, that is an utterly defensible position. But I don’t think that this coverage crowded out better coverage. It was all available to read. It’s just that most Americans, when they read about politics at all, will go for the quick sugar high.
In other words, the fault does not lie with Haberman, it lies within ourselves.
UPDATE: Please check out Marcy Wheeler’s response to this column at the end of her post.