The most important moment in the coverage of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was the first: when his political career was greeted with laughter. The news programs didn’t just underestimate his chances of winning but giggled at the very idea of his running. Everything that Trump tapped into that made him popular enough to win — i.e., making clearly stated and explicitly bigoted political promises — was met with smiles and jokes from centrist TV-panel pundits and podcast analysts. For those whose job it was to describe it, this country’s political reality was downright laughable.
Since then, each playful mention of our world as “the dark timeline” or “the upside-down” tries to make this persistent cluelessness cute. Just as when Trumpism emerged, it remains more comforting to regard reality as fiction than to come to terms with it as fact. This approach is complimented by an impulse to treat various political incidents as “too on the nose,” or as something out of Veep or The Onion — to see them as uncannily strange and self-evident at the same time. Often, some outrage committed by Trump or a member of his administration is trumpeted with the warning “This is not normal.” But while Trump doesn’t play along with rhetorical and procedural norms, his attention stoking and never-ending dishonesty are ordinary for his office. So deep is the press’s bias toward assuming “real” politics is a matter of complicated wonkish analysis and expert-vetted policy proposals that it continues to miss how normal politics-as-entertainment is and how normal bigotry is in the American political process.
Jay Rosen has critiqued the press’s tendency to treat Trump’s demagoguery as a cogent set of coherent aims beyond maintaining his notoriety, as if Trump had “policies.” Rosen argues the press has a vested interest in periodically anointing Trump’s sudden “presidential” stature. This is an apt critique, but it should alert us to concerns about “normalizing” not just Trump but also a certain idea of the presidency itself as something that, before Trump, was centrally about competency, that was a role undertaken in good faith. Decrying Trumpism as a unique force warping American politics plays into the myth that politicians are usually smart and diligent technocrats who entered public service because they care about the tedious workings of legislation and government bureaucracy. Instead, presidential political coverage is an aggrandizing discourse of objectively dumb speeches, pretend debates, and breathless hype — essentially fan fiction — that elevates a ridiculous authority figure chosen by a massive reality show.
Analyses, like this year-end take from Peter Baker in the New York Times, tend to describe Trump as trading the loftiness of the office for something closer to tabloid rule. But rarely do they detail the press’s role in maintaining that false majesty of the presidency and how that ideal itself is integral to selling presidential politics as reality TV. The former props the stakes and payoff for the latter, but the latter also destabilizes the former, driving the cycle. The notion that the president is or should be a moral authority was always fictitious and unhelpful to begin with.
On the political right in the U.S., there’s a tendency toward what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness”: ignoring facts in the name of some larger “truth.” For example, for many of Trump’s earliest supporters, the fact of Barack Obama’s birthplace mattered less than the racist “truth” of white superiority, which presumed his inherent unfitness for office. Therefore anything that disqualified Obama may as well have been true, and thus may as well be believed and asserted. If it seems like it should be true, then you can act as though it is.
Political news coverage didn’t fail at informing voters to help them perform their civic duty. They succeeded at something else
On Election night in 2016 (as I pointed out then), a liberal counterpart to truthiness became clear: “factiness.” Factiness is the inverse of truthiness; it’s the taste for the aesthetic of “facts” — the elaborate and formal presentation of data — at the expense of missing larger truths. Factiness is at work in data visualizations and in the pretense of outcome predictions worked out to the tenth of a percentage point. It’s evident in the acceptance of pseudoscientific explanations of human behavior drawing on pop neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, and in the epistemic concessions made to the tech world because their data is so “big.” Factiness is obsessing over the assembly of fact after fact while refusing to assess the basic truth of our political reality. With enough facts on your side, Trump was just funny. It was often said during the campaign that “journalists didn’t take Trump seriously while his supporters didn’t take him literally.” Another way of putting that: the journalists were beholden to factiness and Trump‘s supporters to truthiness.
The obsession with facts and detail can leave the political press overly satisfied and complacent, partly because the drip-drop stream of new data points can provide the feeling of being newly informed. As Maya Binyam wrote in the New Inquiry, “to believe that the dysfunction of the Trump administration reveals a violence altogether new requires a willful and insistent abandonment of reality.” What is “abnormal” about Trump is not his ignorance, bigotry, or narcissism — that’s all too normal among American political leaders — but how his habitus makes these qualities obvious and explicit, leveraging them to his advantage with his supporters. This is in keeping with the president’s role to serve as a partisan attention merchant — a function that is hardly new. The presidency has long been a media spectacle, and in this respect Trump is hardly a failed president but highly successful at the long-established fundamental workings of the office.
To understand Trump’s tenure, we must better describe how his conduct aligns with conventional “normal” presidencies and how they have been covered. Criticizing Trump in order to prop up a fantasy of presidential dignity fundamentally misunderstands American politics. David Banks noted here last year that liberal pundits are using Trump’s presidency to normalize the rest of electoral politics, making it appear as less performative and irrelevant than it really is: “The liberal commentariat constantly refer to ‘alternate realities’ and departures from custom, implicitly casting a nostalgic glow over the political program that centrist Democrats wielded the last two times they held the presidency.” The fiction being sold is that the centrism of the “reality-based community” is real politics; Trumpism is the violation that proves it so.
When Trump began his campaign, many commentators claimed that he was “trolling” the race with his outlandish interrupting of the ordinary functioning of the political system. But Trump was never a troll — he wasn’t trying to hack our political system or expose the truth about it to subvert and change it — he was playing by the rules of the big political reality show as it was designed. Despite the frequent criticism he lobbed at journalists, he wasn’t really running against the press but with them. Consider the audio recording of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women: This was completely on brand for Trump, but some opportunistic Republicans pretended to be just shocked by his comments so they could jump ship from an otherwise struggling campaign. No adult learned anything new about Trump from the tape. Meanwhile, the editor in chief of Buzzfeed penned a victory lap for journalism, “We Told You So: The MSM, vindicated,” arguing that mainstream journalists uncovered facts and changed people’s minds and took a liar down. This was impossibly naïve: It legitimated dishonest Republican opportunism and was one more attempt to bolster the fiction that outside Trumpland is the truth.
After election night, we failed to put the feelings of shock and confusion to good use. The degree of disconnect between political reality and how journalists and pundits describe it was exposed, yet little has changed. We didn’t imagine different ways of doing things. The same mainstream outlets and often the same misleading commentators still have the job of describing the political world. It’s not enough to therefore conclude that, in the business of political journalism, competency simply doesn’t matter. The more plausible assumption is that political news coverage didn’t fail at its supposed job of informing voters so they could perform their civic duty, but that it succeeded at something else.
The “autopsies” of 2016 election coverage didn’t resonate or convince because, ultimately, a job was done well; it’s just not the job that the “fourth estate” often pretends it’s doing. From a business perspective, the Trump election was a resounding success: There is more news to cover, always bigger, with higher ratings, and a president who abides by such ratings demands. At last the news business is no longer beholden to electoral news cycles: Trump’s election has pulled off the trick of making the campaign perpetual. An election that never ends.
“Factiness” is the inverse of truthiness—it’s the taste for the aesthetic of “facts” at the expense of missing larger truth
Social commentators claim that epistemic authorities like journalists, editors, scientists, and academics have been stripped of their legitimacy by a so-called post-truth populist wave. But equally true is that these authorities forfeited legitimacy and trust just as much as it was taken. For as long as I’ve been alive, cable news has worked around the clock to degrade the idea of a common fact and assert a continuous narrative of a scary, chaotic, unknowable world to which we can react only with more and more histrionic reporting. The press shapes presidential politics into sports-like drama, with countdown clocks, constant polling statistics, scored to melodramatic visuals and music, all centered on the logic of team loyalties. It was fitting that Trump responded to CNN on Twitter with a professional wrestling gif: Like politics, pro wrestling is a perfect intersection of reality television and sports.
Some saw the wrestling tweet as indicative of Trump’s general “attack” on the press, but Trump joined a game that CNN and others created and profit from. Trump’s cynical attention grabbing is hardly antithetical to CNN’s demonstrated values or actions. Requiring no “genius” at all, Trump conforms to the way politics is covered: as a merciless sport for audiences with mutually exclusive rooting interests. Trump’s “war” with the press is a similar staged struggle: a mutually beneficial rivalry performed for ratings. Last June, CNN and others billed former FBI director James Comey’s Senate testimony as “Washington’s Super Bowl” — that is, as an awesome opportunity to advertise against compelling live content. Newsrooms threw parties.
Trump’s chaos, mass shootings, natural disasters produce valuable attention. “Engagement.” The whole point of news is for there to be something new, pushed right to your home screen. Twitter, an app turned news show about Trump, is functioning as it was designed to do when something new and big is happening, offering a means to participate in what everyone’s talking about. The news spinning ever faster is the logic of attention working itself out efficiently and profitably. It is the underlying logic that shapes the behavior of both politicians and how they are covered. Indeed, the quicker cadence of the news has been one of its defining features for as long as we’ve had mass media, from the first ticker in Times Square to hourly radio updates to 24-hour cable TV networks. The increase in pace isn’t new but is itself still newsworthy, an opportunity to reflect on current editorial decisions being made by publishers and platforms to maximize information instead of minimize being misinformed.
If you consumed and enjoyed most mainstream political coverage during the campaign, you likely woke up the day after the election confused by the reality of the world. All the while, however, that factiness-oriented coverage was likely soothing. And after the election it probably became more so, its palliative effects stronger than ever. After hardly missing a beat, people tuned right back in to what was misleading in the first place.
This is the clearest indicator that the role of the news is not to be informative but to use information as a means to comfort. If political coverage produces anxiety, it also sells a kind of relief, the antidote to its own poison. As Trump began to dominate every news cycle, you could at the same time find an increasing amount of data-science statistical models, insider punditry, and “wonk” podcasts. There, you could take in a stream of numbers and facts and hyper-informed opinions that stood in for a desired “normal” reality that didn’t exist outside those media objects. Instead of plainly and accurately describing our political reality as a violent and dishonest system that has little bearing to any objective truth outside of consolidating wealth and power, we can instead be “engaged” by the comforting narrative that the “good” politicians are in good faith, norms are productive and hold sway, and Trump was merely funny and, now, always about to be impeached.
Trump was never a troll — he was playing by the rules of the political reality show as it was designed
The logic of consuming more news — getting more information and facts, more numbers, more precise probabilities — is a matter of entertainment, a chance to vicariously feel in the know and to align one’s identity with that feeling. The political “wonks” and “nerds” during the campaign could make you feel super-informed but that feeling is distinct from being informed. The taste for more news becomes its own end.
There is so much happening right now that really matters as I type this (and again as I edit it) that it feels wrong to not pay attention. It feels even worse knowing it won’t still be discussed in a month. Or a week. With more news, Constant News, the value of any individual piece of news shrinks. The disjunction between what matters today and what we’ll care about tomorrow creates a tension; it makes me doubt whether I should continue to watch. A central product of news coverage as it is generated today is the process of seeing information, any information, revealed, debated, and made irrelevant in time for a new topic to come along. Coverage that cares so deeply today and has moved on tomorrow posits a tragic contradiction: that everything matters profoundly but nothing matters at all.
“Breaking news” isn’t so much about the news itself but a way of being in the world. Once the illusion of news “mattering” is dispelled, there is no motive left but entertainment: I should enjoy the content stream as a stream, and let it carry me along.