Published June 9, 2016
Were you the tiniest bit surprised at the outpouring of media affection which accompanied the news that, as the Los Angeles Times headline put it, “Rob Ford, scandal-prone former Toronto mayor, dies of cancer at 46”? It wasn’t just the crack-smoking that, caught on video, first brought him to international attention in 2013, nor the public confession in light of this damning evidence that, yes, he guessed he must have “tried” crack, “probably in one of my drunken stupors.” Nor was it the brawling, drunkenness and sexual misbehavior that characterized so much of his public life and made him, in the words of his political opponent and successor as mayor, John Tory, “a profoundly human guy whose presence in our city will be missed.”
Nor was it just that Canadians are more polite and, therefore, less likely to speak ill of the dead. Even south of the border, the man whom The Washington Post called “Canada’s Trump and a self-avowed racist” got considerably gentler treatment than our own profoundly human guy, a teetotaller who, so far as anyone knows, has never said anything remotely so scandalous as Mr Ford’s “I’m the most racist guy around.” Though at least as ignorant and uncouth as his American counterpart, he even seems to have been a pretty good mayor. Or so you might suppose from The New York Times’s appreciation by Ian Austen, headed “Why U.S. Cities Should Envy Toronto for Electing Rob Ford.”
Could this be the same media which had scarcely let a day go by for the previous nine months without dire warnings of the apocalyptic consequences to be expected from a Trump presidency? Perhaps “The Donald,” as they still cannot refrain from calling him, can look forward to a similarly forgiving spirit in death. But for me, the comparison between these two celebrity politicians served as a reminder of the contradiction at the heart of the post-Watergate media’s obsession with uncovering and exposing wrong-doing on the part of our public men. Scandal depends for its impact on an old-fashioned assumption of the scandalous one’s wickedness, but its importance as the media’s principal method of attracting and keeping an audience inevitably lessens the scandal-hunter’s ability to hold this moral posture. So great is the media’s need for scandal that those who willingly supply it, as Rob Ford did, are now as likely to be fawned over and lionized as they are to be anathematized.
As memories of Vietnam and Watergate begin to fade, our more recent examples of scandal in public life are less like that of the notorious evil-doer Richard Nixon than they are like the former governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, whose attempt to sell to the highest bidder the unexpired senate term of Barack Obama got him an invitation to appear on Letterman and “Dancing With the Stars” — not to mention Mr Trump’s own “Celebrity Apprentice.”
The warm bath of sentimentality which greeted news of the death of “the world’s most infamous mayor” was, if anything, even more of a sign that the infamous are now hardly to be distinguished from the merely famous — which is what the media are up against in trying to demonize Donald Trump. Mr Ford, as it turned out, was not so much “scandal prone” as he was scandal-resistant, and he stands, as did ex-Governor Blagojevich and Anthony Wiener before him, for some considerable devaluation of the currency of scandal which has put food on the media’s table and kept a roof over their heads for nearly half a century now.
You can understand why they might feel a trifle anxious about this, but they have only themselves to blame. The example of Bill Clinton, the first celebrity president as well as the man who first made scandal ridiculous in the media’s eyes, rather than evil, remains ever before us — much, by the way, to the benefit of Mrs Clinton who, to an unbiased eye, has been much more corrupt in office than her husband ever was.
Unfortunately for her, the defining down of scandal has also helped Donald Trump. With the Clinton example kept still so prominently before us, the media’s mock outrage and attempts to visit the full Watergate treatment on him only make them look hysterical to those who are otherwise inclined to a measure of sympathy with the bumptious billionaire — and even many, like me, not otherwise so inclined. To be sure, the potential damage to the country of a “scandal-prone” president would be much greater than that of a similar mayor, governor or congressman, but then it is not at all clear that even those lesser forms of political catastrophe have been proportional to the media hoopla they have occasioned.
It would be interesting to me, merely as an experiment, to see whether the promised ruin of American credibility in the world under this media bugbear could possibly live up to the actual ruin of same under that media darling, big-brained Barack Obama. It would be a test case of the late Bill Buckley’s famous dictum that he would rather be governed by the first 2000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard University, an educational establishment headquartered in the greater Boston connurbation. For one thing, the tack the media’s cries of outrage are taking has already set it up that way. As Janet Daley wrote in the London Sunday Telegraph, “Would Donald Trump’s supporters like to travel in an airliner flown by an amateur?”
I think the analogy there is a little off-beam. When it comes to flying airplanes or doing brain surgery, expertise really is essential, but lots of people, and not only Trump-supporters, looking at the results of government by the best and brightest over the last half century or so and not just under Mr Obama, may be inclined to think that there are qualities even more important to the task than knowledge or intelligence, for all Mr Trump’s own Obama-like overemphasis on mere brains.
The Trump campaign may or may not be dog-whistling to racists and bigots, as the media charge, but it is certainly dog-whistling to people who are fed up with government by experts, which is why his supporters are only made more fervent in their support by the media’s constant emphasis on his lack of experience or knowledge. Mr Trump himself obviously recognizes this, as Politico noted in reporting a speech he gave in La Crosse, Wisconsin ahead of the primary there in April:
You look at what China’s doing in the South China Sea, and they say, ‘Oh, Trump doesn’t have experts. . . Let me tell you, I do have experts but I know what’s happening. And look at the experts we’ve had, OK? Look at the experts. All of these people have had experts. You know, I’ve always wanted to say this — I’ve never said this before with all the talking we all do — all of these experts, ‘Oh we need an expert —’ The experts are terrible. . .Look at the mess we’re in with all these experts that we have. Look at the mess. Look at the Middle East. If our presidents and our politicians went on vacation for 365 days a year and went to the beach, we’d be in much better shape right now in the Middle East.
Even Jonathan S. Tobin of the strongly anti-Trump Commentary had to admit that “He’s not entirely wrong about that” — before adding:
But even if we concede that so-called experts have been responsible for most if not all of the foreign disasters that the United States has suffered, that doesn’t constitute an argument for the complete ignorance of history and policy options that Trump exhibits.
Apparently a lot of people think that’s just what it does constitute. The secret of Donald Trump’s success for so long as he has had it has been the same as Rob Ford’s was before he lost it to mere media celebrity: he makes people who are not of the governing class and who have no hope of joining it feel that he is on their side against those who appear to be arrogating to themselves a right to govern. And to such people, the media are very much in and of that privileged class themselves.
Imagine, if you will, how they would read the observation of New York Times’s “Editorial Observer,” Elizabeth Williamson as to “Why Trump Supporters Are Angry — and Loyal.” She thinks it’s all the fault of Republicans like Ted Cruz for not doing enough to improve the “safety net”:
Yet who, really, has let these people down? For several election cycles — most prominently Pat Buchanan’s presidential bid in 1996 — Republican politicians have played on class- and race-based resentment to win elections. In loyalty to wealthier voters, they, including the extreme Mr. Cruz, have cut federal safety-net programs and done little to address problems of job training, wage stagnation and drug addiction that affect the lower middle class, both minority and white.
Left and right seem to agree that it’s all about white victimhood, either real or imagined. All those lovely manufacturing jobs have gone overseas and left the white men bereft. Or millions of Mexicans and hordes of Hondurans have suddenly appeared to take what jobs were left here after the factories moved to their countries. Ms Williamson thinks their grievances are owing to their not getting enough out of the government “safety-net programs” cut by the wicked Republicans.
But that sounds to me like a slander on the white working classes. What if they’re not feeling sorry for themselves so much as resentful at those, like Ms Williamson, who pretend to speak for them? Or, even more so, at the smug self-righteousness of comfortable elites engaged in the politics of what the British call “virtue-signalling” while condemning their Trump-supporting social inferiors for racism, sexism and being less intelligent, and therefore less fit to run their own lives, than the brainiacs whom God or nature or “science” has set above them?
Such arrogance is even more evident in the progressive media than it is in the progressive government they serve. Just look at the Washington Post headline: “No, America isn’t 100 percent safe from terrorism. And that’s a good thing.” Who says it’s a good thing? Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, was of course only trying to be clever by pointing out that there has always been an element of risk in our moving about the country, and that few of us would be willing to pay the price necessary to eliminate that risk completely. But this is a straw-man argument meant to make easily enforced precautions sound as difficult as those we would all be unwilling to accept.
Like President Obama’s frequent dismissals of the risks of terrorism as being less than that of household accidents, or his exaggeration of the risks of climate change in the promotion of policies whose burdens will fall disproportionately on coal miners and steel workers and others in heavy industry, such arguments could only be made by people who felt pretty sure that their own insulation from risk of terrorist attack orlosing their jobs to EPA regulation was pretty close to 100 percent.
Similarly, Lydia DePillis took to the Post’s Wonkblog to announce that “The $15 minimum wage sweeping the nation might kill jobs — and that’s okay.” That is at least an advance on the official line that a $15 (or any other) minimum wage couldn’t possibly have a job-killing effect, but it is remarkable that no one at the Post appears to have anticipated the objection that its being okay for Ms DePillis might have something to do with the fact that it’s not her job — or that of any of the other enthusiasts for their own compassion in mandating an uneconomic minimum wage — which is being killed.
If Trump supporters are less angry about losing their jobs than they are with their leaders’ telling them that that’s the price they have to pay for the smugocrats’ virtue, there is a comparable resentment with respect to defense and foreign policy, most recently typified by the Obama administration’s pressuring the armed forces to admit women to combat roles, even though they must know that men (and women) will die as a result. Acceptable losses, no doubt, for the sake of purging our ever more politically correct military of the stain of “bigotry,” but, as always, it will be disproportionately the Trump-supporting classes — poorer, whiter, less-educated and male — who will be the losers.
J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, made a similar point in The New York Times about the Trumpites’ continuing resentment against George W. Bush and his own team of experts for making a mess of the Iraq war and then praising those who had to fight it for their sacrifice. “War is about more than service and sacrifice,” he wrote. “It’s about winning.”
Sixty years ago, Americans looked to Europe and Asia and saw continents liberated and despots defeated. With the Islamic State on the rampage, Americans today look to a Middle East that is humiliatingly worse off than the way we found it. The burden of this humiliation fell hardest on Republican strongholds. Demographically, the military draws heavily from the South, rural areas and the working and middle class. And while no racial group has a monopoly on military service, white enlistees make up a disproportionate share of those wounded and killed in action. This is the very same demographic that forms the core of the contemporary Republican base.
It’s a bit unfair, I think, to attribute to the Bush administration a failing he and the governing class as a whole share with predecessors going back to Harry Truman and the invention of that bureaucratic monster, ever demanding of virgin sacrifice, called “limited war.” It was then that winning wars first became politically incorrect — with the dismissal of General MacArthur and his old-fashioned notion that “in war, there is no substitute for victory.”
It is no surprise, then, that Mr Trump mentions MacArthur, along with George S. Patton, as his idea of proper generalship. Both men fell foul of the political correctness of their own times by sticking up for honor — the old- fashioned name for the trust which binds, or used to bind, the general to the grunt, the boss to the boiler-room and the president to the people. The ruling class and the media which serve them have long lost sight of that honor and now barely know that it ever existed, even though their whole scandal culture was originally built on its foundation.
But those whom the ruling class regards as dispensable have not forgotten it, even if their choice of the not so lovably scandalous Mr Trump as messenger has got in the way of the message — the message that they are at last fed up with the cant of ruling class virtue for which somebody else is always having to pay the price.
James Bowman is resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.