Trump is the ringmaster and the liberal media his unwitting clowns

Back in July, I wrote a post about the amnesia of the Vox generation of journalism.

This was about the time when young journalists were claiming that no presidential candidate in modern American history ever posed the kind of threat to American democracy that Donald Trump did. I went through the specific claims, and cited example after example of comparable threats. I concluded thus:

So many of them seem to lack the most basic gut impulse of any historically minded person: if you think something is unprecedented, it’s probably not. Check your amnesia, dude.

I know this is nothing deep or fancy, but it does make me wonder if today’s generation of commentators, raised as so many are on the assumption that the biological sciences and social sciences—with neuroscience as the master mediator—are the source and model of all knowledge, are somehow at a deficit.

By amnesia, I was thinking of these journalists’ failure to remember events from the Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan campaigns.

Little did I expect that only three months later they’d be forgetting events from…the Trump campaign.

At last night’s debate, Trump and Clinton had the following exchange:

TRUMP: And I tell you what, I didn’t think I would say this, but I’m going to and I hate to say it. But if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation. Because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it. And we’re gonna have a special prosecutor.

CLINTON: Everything he just said is absolutely false, but I’m not surprised….Last time at the first debate ,we had millions of people fact checking so I expect we will have millions more fact checking because, you know, it’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.

TRUMP: Because you would be in jail.

Ezra Klein immediately responded:

This is one of the most shocking moments in my history of covering American politics. I don’t know how to convey just how serious and dangerous it was.

It was an odd response.

Hadn’t Klein, like the rest of us, just witnessed the shit show that was the Republican National Convention this past July? Where speaker after speaker called, not from the crowd but from the podium, for Hillary Clinton to be put in jail. Where Chris Christie—the governor of New Jersey and, for a time, a candidate for the Republican nomination—led a call-and-response of “guilty” or “not guilty” to which the crowd replied “Lock her up”?

Hadn’t Klein read his own website?

It’s pretty disturbing to hear a large crowd at a major party convention repeatedly call for the jailing of the leader of the other major party.

To me, all this seemed like a new crossing of a line and an ugly degradation of a norm in American politics.

Now, I can’t really believe I have to say this, but here goes: In a democratic society, it’s really disturbing for a political party’s leadership to basically endorse the idea that its main political rival should be jailed.

(I guess if the jailing is of a leader of a less major party, it’s okay.)

Under other circumstances, one might make allowances for the difference between such calls emanating from the base and such statements being uttered by the party’s nominee. But this, as liberal journalists have been telling us for months, is Donald Trump, the man who turned ego into id, who made red meat into elite material, who looked at the racist garbage of the ultra-right and saw the poetry of his platform. One would think, to hear these journalists talk, that the window of surprise had been closed some time ago.

As it turns out, Klein wasn’t the only one at Vox shocked by Trump’s comments last night; Zack Beauchamp was, too:

This is so far beyond normal that it’s hard to even know where to start.

Yet start he did—

In democracies, we respect people’s rights to disagree with each other. When one candidate wins a presidential election, the loser returns to private life or another government position. In some cases, former rivals become close friends. George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who defeated Bush in the 1992 election, travel together and have spent decades jointly raising money to aid the victims of natural disasters.

They don’t get sent to jail, because we believe that political disagreement should be legal.

—and this is where he ended up:

That’s what is done by tin-pot dictators spanning the globe from North Korea to Zimbabwe. That’s what happens in countries where peaceful transitions of power are the exception, not the rule.

Donald Trump just threatened to bring that to America.

Like Klein, with nary a mention of the RNC, as if this were all unheard of in the United States of 2016.

It’s hard to take seriously all this shock and awe, this sudden Sturm und Drang over the completely unexpected, when this is just a sample of what journalists and pundits were saying, not in 1916, not in 1980, but in July of 2016.

Chris Matthews:

It seems third world, by the way. Somebody pointed out earlier, when you start talking about locking up your opponent, that is banana republic.

David Corn:

This is actually dangerous. delegates chanting, “Lock her up.”

Ryan Lizza:

Not a healthy sign in a democracy when the case against your opponent is that she should be imprisoned.

Washington Post:

The Trump campaign’s descent from standard red-meat partisanship to unprecedented accusations of criminality displays contempt for the rule of law and a startling disinterest in fact and reason.

Nick Kristof:

Look, people always engage in hyperbole about people they disagree with, but this Republican convention has taken it further than I’ve ever seen…In democracies, it’s natural to denounce opponents. But it’s in tin-pot dictatorships that opponents are locked up. When you’ve covered autocracies in countries where politicians are actually locked up after losing power struggles, you really don’t aspire for that in your own country.

What’s doubly odd about all this shock over Trump’s comments last night is that it’s not as if we’ve been wanting, these past few days, for incidents that are truly shocking. For months, I’ve been beating the drum of the non-novelty of Donald Trump, but try as I might, even I can’t remember a presidential candidate caught on tape bragging about assaulting women and grabbing pussy.

The liberal media likes to oppose itself to Trump, but with breathless commentary like this, where everything’s always new under the sun, it’s hard not to conclude that in the circus that is this election, Trump is the ringmaster and the liberal media his unwitting clowns, the side show that stumbles up and down the aisles, ginning up the crowd.


  1. Eric Romsted October 10, 2016 at 10:29 pm | #

    Sadly, I would say that this is simply one of the results of click-bait journalism. Outraged reaction drives more clicks than considered thought.

  2. Daniel Mandell October 10, 2016 at 10:34 pm | #

    Of course the difference is that we’ve come to expect such vicious rhetoric at Republican Party conventions, but until this year assumed that a candidate who during the primaries spoke as a fringe clown would during the general election — and especially in the nationally televised “debate” rituals — try to appear respectable.

    • Corey Robin October 10, 2016 at 10:42 pm | #

      I think I dealt with that objection in the post.

  3. phatkhat October 10, 2016 at 11:14 pm | #

    So where is the shock and outrage over the excerpts from the Hillary’s speeches to the ultra wealthy donor class? Seems very convenient that the Donald tape appears just in the nick of time to sideline the revelations about what Hillary said in those $250K speeches.

    Donald’s remarks were stupid and inappropriate, yes. But as far as damage goes, I think Clinton’s policy remarks were far more harmful.

    • Bill Michtom October 10, 2016 at 11:48 pm | #

      Who would do more damage to this country Trump or HRC? Include judiciary and bureaucratic picks [see “3 Reasons To Vote For Hillary Clinton That Have Nothing To Do With Hillary Clinton | We Can’t Ignore The Ways That Having A Democrat In The White House Matters” at
      Trump’s promise to fly off the handle and torture and behead people on whims (and, mind you, I’m not making a recommendation for Obama or Hillary, who both have plenty of deaths on their hands, if not, unfortunately, on their consciences, just for their ability to not be totally out of control), I’d rather see, between those two, Hillary win the election. I, OTOH, will be voting, here in safe Oregon, for Jill Stein.

    • Foppe October 11, 2016 at 1:34 am | #

      leaving aside which is more or less harmful, the major issue is that the media is actively trying to drown out their own shitty/token reporting on it by giving oodles of space to trump-hate. So no, I wouldn’t call them unwitting, nor clowns — even as they certainly are, to some extent. The trend is far too monolithic for that.

  4. Gavolt October 11, 2016 at 12:03 am | #

    As America has so frequently shown, in a truly healthy democracy, when elites break the law they aren’t jailed, they’re pardoned.

  5. gstally October 11, 2016 at 1:55 am | #

    I did *not* pay attention to the primary debates. Here I reap the wind as my reward.

  6. ronp October 11, 2016 at 12:30 pm | #

    I think the journalists are just trying to amp it up and get clicks. The left wing bloggers et al have been consistently anti-trump and doing their best to make clear how terrible he is.

    Unfortunately the trump supporters will never read them. So I am not sure what difference it makes, regardless the more anti trump wirting out there the better!

  7. William October 12, 2016 at 3:55 pm | #

    Add The New York Review of Books to your list.

  8. Edward October 13, 2016 at 7:47 am | #

    I think there is a basic problem with all this outrage over Trump’s comment; none of these journalists are asking if in fact Clinton does need to be investigated. Maybe the president who shows bias is the one who fails to appoint a special prosecutor.

  9. adam wadley October 14, 2016 at 2:52 am | #

    “History’s domain was the memorable, the totality of events whose
    consequences would be lastingly apparent. And thus, inseparably, history
    was knowledge that should endure and aid in understanding, at least in part,
    what was to come: “an everlasting possession,” according to Thucydides.
    In this way history was the measure of genuine novelty. It is in the interest
    of those who sell novelty at any price to eradicate the means of measuring
    it. When social significance is attributed only to what is immediate, and to
    what will be immediate immediately afterwards, always replacing another,
    identical, immediacy, it can be seen that the uses of the media guarantee a
    kind of eternity of noisy insignificance.”

    Guy Debord, Comments on Society of the Spectacle (1987)

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