Thursday, October 13, 2016

"The Media"

Trump appears to be singing his final aria at the moment, before the curtain swings shut, and, unsurprisingly, it is a song full of petulance and whinging. "The Media" is pouncing on some tiny little thing he once said, a long time ago, in order to smear him, he tells us -- it's so unjust! Of course, it was not actually long ago at all (2005 is not quite ancient history, especially not to a man of Trump's years), and Trump was already well into middle age when it happened. Nor were these some uncharacteristic, off-the-record remarks from an otherwise reputable public servant. The only really surprising thing about the notorious Trump "lewd comments," in fact, is that anyone bothered to dredge them up from some hidden mic footage from ten years back, when they could have just played any number of recordings of the Donald's public utterances from his decades of high-profile obscenity and alighted upon something just as outrageous.

So too, the only real injustice here is not that Trump's reprehensible banner-men are deserting him in droves (except for those who already signed over their souls too completely to ever demand them back -- Christie, Gingrich, Giuliani, et al.), but that it took them so long to do so. The true outrage is not that everyone is at last joining the chorus to heap odium on Trump, but that they didn't do it long before.

Now listen up, all you johnny-come-latelys (or better, johnny-leave-latelys) who are now trying to claim that you saw through Trump from the start -- all you "righteous, grandstanding creeps" (Philip Roth's phrase) in the GOP who are now bolting from Trump's cause and uttering the now-popular platitudes as you go about how "appalled" and "sickened" you are by Trumps' remarks, and doing so with all the same haste with which you were once willing to court him ("they flee from me, that sometime did me seek," as the poet says) -- where were all of you, I ask, when it was the undocumented immigrants, or the Muslims, who were the victims of Trump's attacks? Where were you when he was pledging to commit war crimes?

Apparently all those other groups of people were fair game. (Once again, America shows that the old Puritanism is still going strong, and that the moral sense only really seems to come into play in our politics once sex is somehow involved. Torture and religious discrimination are apparently just fine in the meantime.) To all you late-to-depart grandstanders, do not be surprised if few show you sympathy as you now try to back-peddle, as you strain to put as much distance as you can (but too late, far too late in the game) between yourself and Trump -- for you it will be: First they came for the Muslims... and I did not speak out... And now no one is left to speak out for me...

It is depressing, I have to say, however, that Trump's sudden fall from grace should mimic, in its rapidity and grandeur, the appearance of martyrdom. It allows him to bask for a little while at least in the reflected glory of the suffering innocent.

The fact that so much of our political class and media are turning against him so quickly does, I have to admit, seem almost a point in Trump's favor (emphasis on almost). After all, usually when people are deserted en masse by so many false friends and so much fickle fortune, it is because they did the right thing, not the wrong thing. One hates to see the noble words of John Clare applying now to the ignoble Trump: "My friends forsake me like a memory lost:/ I am the self-consumer of my woes[.]" And Trump, sensing this, is now desperately trying to fill this role of the noble victim, trying to pull piteous faces.

Shall we be taken in by it? Is it time, now that Trump has so fallen in the eyes of the world, for us to "pity the monsters," in Robert Lowell's phrase? Do we feel, that is to say, just a little bit sorry for Trump, in spite of everything?

My brother-in-law (no Trumpist, I hasten to reassure you) was actually pressing me on this point the other day -- holding my feet to the fire, as he likes to do, on the subject of whether the vaunted moral universalism of my religious denomination extends as far as I like to claim it does -- if it reaches even to the Donald in defeat. I spluttered out many responses to this question, in the process of arguing, but one of them was along the lines of: "let's wait until he's actually been defeated, then we can talk." I think I stand by this still. Once Trump has been truly routed, defanged, rendered no longer a menace (and that may never happen, actually, depending how he capitalizes on his new political brand from here on out -- besides, let us pause to remember that the election is not actually quite over yet, and lord knows what tricks and changes the final month could bring -- Trump has been counted out too soon before, to everyone's detriment!)-- then we can speak of pitying the monsters.

But one does have to observe, in the meantime, that the hangers-on and camp-followers of Trump really have been worse than the man himself, from the start. The people who hitched their wagon to his star are more reprehensible than the star. Trump was just behaving all along according to his nature. One really gets the sense that he couldn't have helped himself if he tried. He's a kid in a candy store. It was the people who should have known better who really deserve our blame.

And, still more to my brother-in-law's point, there is something genuinely pathetic (though also kind of amusing) about the thought of Trump sitting all alone in Trump Tower last weekend, huffing and fulminating and recriminating against those who have forsaken him, on the day the tape story broke -- much like a mad king in his deserted keep; much like "Lonesome Rhodes" of A Face in the Crowd (whose -- fictional in his case -- career as show biz personality-cum-right wing demagogue mirrors Trump's in more ways than one), deserted by his friends in the final scene, and talking like a maniac into an old radio. Not quite King Lear, as my Mom said when we discussed this -- but sad nonetheless?

The Right is of course willing to work this emotional vein for all it is worth. According to a Republican friend of mine (what follows is therefore second-hand information), Rush Limbaugh was taking the line on his radio show, after the audiotape story broke, that -- as much as Trump deserved the criticism he was now receiving (and this was surely an admirable admission from Limbaugh, who also, to his credit -- I gather -- is no Trumpist) -- he (Limbaugh) was sick nonetheless of something like this "always happening" every election season.

What he had in mind, presumably, were such notorious social media blitzes as Mitt Romney's "47%" comments, the dog on the roof of the car, the binders full of women, Big Bird, etc., not to mention the more genuinely dark and troubling stories that were excavated from the 2012 GOP candidate's past -- such as the alleged incident of Romney's bullying of a "hippie" classmate in high school (a tale that becomes all too plausible the more one learns about the climate at BYU in those years, which Romney later attended. A friend and I recently dredged up an old fundraising video from the school from 1969 -- when Romney would have been a student there -- that bills the flagship Mormon university as a haven from "subversive activity," and which later spotlights a commencement address by Paul Harvey, in which he makes crudely homophobic jokes about left-wing campus protestors. The video is tellingly entitled "Where No Flag Burns.")

There is a reason, however, why that particular line of historical complaining (the one about how liberals always have to spoil the election at the last minute with lurid personal accusations) halts rather abruptly in 2012. Look back any further than that, and you will be hard pressed to find any election in which the scurrilous media tattle was being directed against anyone other than the Democratic nominee. Observe, I ask you, ("Go, blindworm, go/ Behold" (Emerson)) how unmerciful the Right has been to their political opponents, whenever they have had the whip-hand!  -- Look at what they were able to do in the days of their more unrivalled cultural ascendancy. Look at Kitty Dukakis, look at Willie Horton, look at Whitewater and Vince Foster! Or remember the swift-boating of John Kerry? Think, for that matter, of what is still being done to Clinton every day, between the Benghazi rumor-mongering and the email nonsense, and the witch-hunting (and extra-legal) demands to create a "special prosecutor" to hound her into prison (demands that have been coming from  -- which innocent victim of media hype, again?). I would challenge you to name any remotely comparable treatment that was ever dealt out to the Bushes, say, or to Reagan.

Indeed, I think the standard view on the Left of Bush Jr. was, if anything, that his personal life was rather surprisingly decent and admirable -- given that in his political life he was willing knowingly to approve the torture, rendition, and indefinite imprisonment of other human beings. Reading recently in Byron's "The Vision of Judgment," I found just the right stanza to encapsulate this paradox -- though the poet happened to have been speaking of a different mad George (George III in his case). Tell me truly, now, if you do not see the striking similarities between our George W., and the monarch  as described here, whose rule we had to overthrow in order to become a nation:

"I know he was a constant consort; own
   He was a decent sire, and middling lord. [...]
   I grant him all the kindest can accord;
And this was well for him, but not for those
Millions who found him what Oppression chose."


It must at last be admitted, however, that if Trump is able to glean some ill-got sympathy out of all this, in will in part be the media's fault. It will be due to the fact that so many other innocents have been so indifferently ruined at that media's hands in the past, that Trump's ruination appears almost in the light of victimhood. If there hadn't been so many scapegoats sacrificed before, that is to say, to the great Moloch of our hypocrisy and stupidity, then no one would be so gullible as to mistake Trump for being one of them.

Let us pause for a moment to recite their names, lest you do not know what I mean -- lest we forget these martyrs to absurd scandal-mongering from days gone by. Mike Dukakis, for one. Blessings be upon him. [Lights a candle.] Howard Dean. His message was deafened by a single scream. [Beats a drum].

Speaking of Deans, or those similarly named, my Republican friend reminded me in our conversation last night of the fate that befell poor Paula Deen -- remember her? That is surely a classic example -- a flawless illustration of the way in which prejudices against a certain way of speaking or eating are dressed up and camouflaged as their opposite -- as anti-racism, as opposition to bigotry. Deen's career, her reputation for geniality, were flushed away by a single confession -- under oath -- that she had previously used a disgusting word for black people, a long time ago. Her later apologies for it did not matter. Overnight, everything that was not racist or cruel-minded in her was negated, and replaced with this one incident -- now made defining of her whole personality. To quote from Roth's The Human Stain once again: "The story is you've been discovered, so it's been your whole life. It's not just that you did one thing wrong [...] Suddenly it's your entire life[.]"

Perhaps the weirdest of these in recent memory, however, is the controversy that raged around the head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP (of all innocuous things!) two summers back. Remember that one? This was when Rachel Dolezal, the chapter president in question, was suddenly "outed" as a white woman, and accused of trying to "pass" as a black person (as if we know what each of those things is, as if we have some blood test to prove it). Though the NAACP tried to defend Dolezal, she was eventually forced to step down under the fury of public pressure. For some reason, people felt compelled to destroy a whole career of service to racial justice, and all under the most spuriously "anti-racist" slogans. The fact that the hounding was done mostly by the Left, in this case (social media types who have sacrificed nothing, done nothing, for the NAACP or any other cause), does not alter the fact that it was still a kind of Kingsblood Royal for the 21st century. It was one of countless sacrifices to the color line that have been made in American history -- a modern instance of the punishment that is so often meted out to those who would dare to transgress that line.

You have to wonder, in reading all these stories, who is it that gets to decide these things? Who wakes up one morning and decides that things have been going too well for too long for one president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP? That the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP really needs to be lifted up from obscurity, in the summer of 2015 of all times, and dashed against the rocks? Who comes up with this stuff? It is so random that one feels that it could just as easily have gone the opposite way. Someone on social media could have painted Dolezal in glowing and heroic colors, and everyone would have believed that too.

I find an explanation of the mystery in a nineteenth century source. Speaking of "The Public," William Hazlitt writes in his Table-Talk (and you should expect -- fair warning -- many quotes in the weeks to come from this trove of wisdom, dear reader -- I have been a Hazlitt admirer since way back, but I am only now making the effort to read his essays more systematically):
"[T]he Public," he says, "[...] is the greatest of cowards, for it is afraid of itself.  It is so in awe of its own opinion that it never dares to form any, but catches up the first idle rumour, lest it should be behindhand in its judgment, and echoes it till it is deafened with the sound of its own voice. The idea of what the public will think prevents the public from ever thinking at all, and acts as a spell on the exercise of private judgment, so that, in short, the public ear is at the mercy of the first impudent pretender who chooses to fill it with noisy assertions, or false surmises, or secret whispers."
This does appear to be more or less how it works. All it takes is for one person somewhere to feign moral certainty, in order to frighten everyone else into silence. It just takes someone willing to speak with sufficient confidence and authority, however artificial, to persuade the rest of us that it is time to grab the torches and pitchforks.

Hey, after all, it works on me! I know whereof I speak. I'm part of this dumb Public too. In fact, when the Rachel Dolezal story broke in the summer of 2015, I swallowed the same version of the narrative that everyone else picked up from not actually following any of the details. Somehow, I got it into my head that she was the executive director of the entire NAACP, not just the Spokane branch, and that she had based a long and flourishing public career on a "lie." It was only after I was corrected by a friend (the same one with whom I like to watch old BYU fundraising videos, of an evening) that I was reminded once again that I ought to actually read these kinds of stories, before hastening to judgment.


Trump, of course -- to return to the chief matter at hand -- realizes that this is how the public works. So his solution, whenever things are not going his way in matters of public opinion, is as follows: he contrives rather brilliantly to be that "first impudent pretender," whom Hazlitt mentions, "who chooses to fill [the public's ear] with noisy assertions, or false surmises, or secret whispers." He knows all the buttons he has to push, in order to portray himself as a victim. Hence his talk of "political correctness." Hence his railing against "the Media."

The really absurd thing about all this, though (or one of many) is that perhaps no other candidate in all of history -- perhaps no other person -- has gained as much politically and financially from "the Media" as Trump has. If the Public were not in fact as fickle and as frightened of its own shadow as Hazlitt alleges, then Trump never would have made it out of his first bankruptcy the way he did.

It was a Media that was willing to portray Trump as a "business success," because it was good for ratings, when in fact he was nothing of the kind; a Media that was willing to devote hours upon hours of coverage to the obscene details of his marital problems and infidelities and wranglings with former wives and mistresses, and now -- to his candidacy for the highest office in the land... that was the Media that made Trump. By complaining of it, he is only biting the hand that first fed him and nursed him.

Thus, there is certainly no small degree of poetic justice in the fact that it is now this very same fickle Media, this great Master and Maker, that is closing its fist at last upon its ungrateful creation. It is a just end to this chapter of American political history -- I just pray that it is truly over now. And that it may never come again.

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