There should have been no surprise when, at the end of June, President Trump responded to a comment by TV’s Mika Brzezinski that he was “lying every day and destroying the country” (not to mention that he had “teensy” hands) by accusing her (as “low I.Q. Crazy Mika”) of coming uninvited, together with recently affianced “Psycho Joe” Scarborough, to his Mar-a-Lago golf club while “bleeding badly from a face-lift.” All the same, the delighted media exploded with its customary indignation on behalf of insulted womankind. “The tweets ended five months of relative silence from the president on the volatile subject of gender,” wrote Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman for The New York Times, using a recently fashionable alternative word for “sex.” But of course the “subject” of the tweet in question was neither sex nor “gender” but Mika Brzezinski.
The tweet, continued the Times reporters, both of whom used to work for Politico and both of whom had turned up in purloined John Podesta and DNC e-mails during last year’s campaign as surreptitiously cooperative with the propaganda efforts of the Clinton campaign, had the effect of “reintroducing a political vulnerability: his history of demeaning women for their age, appearance and mental capacity” — a history which they were then only too happy to rehearse, just in case readers had forgotten any of the details. So outrageous was the Trump tweet that even Jerry Springer felt he had to get into the act, tweeting in his turn: “I’m sorry, but Trump’s behavior is not just beneath the dignity of the Presidency, but that of any decent man” — to which Ben Shapiro tweeted back, “You do realize you are Jerry Springer, correct?”
When decency is the plea of Jerry Springer, you know the word has undergone something of a change in meaning. Scott Adams, the ironist and author of the “Dilbert” comic strip recorded a video calling the tweets “Hitler-like behavior” which “might even destroy civilization as we know it” — and then noted on Facebook a day or two later that “about 30 per cent of the people who have so far watched my video about Trump’s tweets didn’t realize I was joking.” Thirty per cent sounds a bit low to me, but then it is probably also the percentage of Mr Adams’s followers who take what they read in the media seriously.
For those who did get the joke, it was a reminder that the exchange of insults on social media is now the rhetorical world we all live in, whether or not we indulge in social media ourselves. Even if he weren’t Donald Trump, the president could hardly be expected to behave with the sort of rhetorical decorum and restraint that we once expected of our public men and women. George W. Bush might once have perfected the art of looking like a stuffed fish whenever anyone accused him of being a liar, or a war criminal, or Hitler, but that was never going to be Mr Trump’s style. If we, and above all we in the media, are behaving in such a childish fashion, why should we be shocked and surprised when he joins in the fun?
You might almost suspect that the shock and indignation are affected — rube bait designed to entice the unwary into a false fellowhip of the morally fastidious who would never, ever be guilty of using such insulting language themselves, particularly to a woman. But what could be more absurd than the spectacle of the media’s getting on their high horses about behavior that they themselves indulge in on a daily basis with the bizarrely anachronistic excuse that, unlike Mr Trump’s, their scurrility is at least not ungallant (or not unless the damsel in distress should happen to be a Republican and a conservative, as Sarah Palin could attest)?
Moreover, respect for the Dignity of the Office can only be the plea of those who choose not to notice how little dignity the Office has been afforded by the media since Vietnam and Watergate, apart from the Obama interregnum wherein going on serious scandal-hunts as they have done with his predecessors and, now, his successor would have seemed to themselves to have been racially motivated. Why should we expect the Office to go on taking it forever without dishing it out in return?
It is not just Mr Trump who is giving as good as he gets. Nowadays, even the language of diplomacy appears to have been tinged with the “trolling” mind-set which is social media’s gift to our public discourse. At the same time that the American media were obsessing over the horrible injury done to poor Mika, so like that previously visited upon poor Megyn Kelly, the British media were excitedly recording a slanging match between Sir Michael Fallon, the British defense minister and his Russian counterparts over the respective potencies of their countries’ aircraft carriers. It seems that the aging Admiral Kuznetzov, recently the subject of disparaging comments in the British press when it passed through the Strait of Dover on the way to Syria, was unfavorably contrasted by Sir Michael with the brand spanking new £3 billion HMS Queen Elizabeth — to which remark the Russian defense ministry sniffed that the British ship was, to them, nothing more than “a large, convenient target.”
Such rhetorical flyting is traditional between nations in times of war and international tension — as the war of words in August between Mr Trump and North Korea might have reminded those who saw in it only another excuse for criticizing the President’s rhetorical intemperance. “Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ parallels North Korean rhetoric,” headlined the Associated Press — as if the real story behind that of a potential, and potentially nuclear, second Korean war lay in its redundant demonstration of the bad manners of America’s commander-in-chief. No doubt we all hope that the latest outbreak of belligerent rhetoric remains as estranged from reality as such rhetoric has remained, lately, in the domestic arena, but that’s not quite the same thing as losing sight of the difference between rhetoric and reality.
That is, primarily, the media’s failure and largely the result of the moralization of our politics. Over the last 50 years we have become so accustomed to the media’s obsession with scandal and, therefore, politics in black-and-white, that we hardly notice it anymore, or how far our politics has strayed from the political into the realm of the merely personal. Sharyl Attkisson, formerly of CNN and CBS, this summer published The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote (HarperCollins), a brave and timely adumbration of the netherworld of smear merchants on both ends of the political spectrum who now make up a multi-billion dollar business. But the author pretty consistently fights shy of recognizing that these nefarious wholesalers of scandal could never have come to dominate our politics as they have without the media’s insatiable demand for their services.
Ms Attkisson is a little too much inclined herself to smear all negative political advertising as “smears,” but this could be because, like so many of us, she now takes it for granted that what is still laughably called political “debate” must consist almost exclusively of attempts to besmirch the character, the motives, the morality, the good faith, the intelligence and even (in the age of Trump) the appearance of the opposition. The media’s interest in keeping this absurd hullabaloo at full volume is not limited to its partisan usefulness when directed, as it nearly always is, at Republicans. There is also big money in it, as the ratings gold of the Trump candidacy demonstrated last year. When politics is reduced to scurrilous gossip it excites readers and viewers as boring policy debates never could.
That’s also why election campaigns cost more all the time and why Ms Attkisson’s smear merchants are rolling in dough, as she so ably demonstrates. They and not the politicians are the ones now promising rich people the golden road to political influence — through the expert discrediting of those they disagree with, or the threat of it. As she also shows, politicians and journalists alike live in terror of what might happen to them if they cross such big-business oppo research organizations as Media Matters and its network of affiliated front committees and super PACs run by David Brock. But it’s not as if they themselves haven’t created these monsters and given them the power they now wield so irresponsibly by reducing political differences to a conflict between good and evil.
What is customarily described as the “polarization” of our politics over the last 40 or 50 years is really the replacement of older ideas of honor and decency, long since in decline, with political attitudes, elevated by the left (in the first instance, at least) from mere opinions to unshakable “principles” and seen by their detractors as “political correctness.” These principles are thought to constitute a new definition of decency and one understandably much more congenial to the Jerry Springers of the world than the old one. The difference between the old and new notions of decency is neatly summarized in a headline from the London Daily Telegraph about the Rotherham “grooming” scandal (see “The irony of p.c.” in The New Criterion of March, 2015), now revealed to have been only one of several such criminal conspiracies in Britain: “We are more worried about being called racist than stopping child abuse — enough.”
“Enough,” I’m afraid, is more of a hope than an expectation. For the political version of decency is also what has transformed political opponents into “enemies” or that never-to-be-forgotten “basket of deplorables” cited by Hillary Clinton as comprising so many of those inclined to vote for her opponent or against her. Sadly but hardly surprisingly, the right has been inspired to come up with its own, rival set of principles according to which it is the progressive left which is transformed, though with less rigid consistency, into the deplorable enemy — with what results we see in the interminable and undignified shouting matches on social media.
In the summer of Mika and Kim, the associated animosities have also spilled over into the halls of the legislative chamber once known to some, not all of them with their tongues in their cheeks, as the “world’s greatest deliberative body” as, after repeated attempts, the Republican dominated Senate proved unequal to the task of either repealing or replacing the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as “Obamacare.” This they had spent the previous seven years solemnly promising voters they were going to do, first chance they got, but the effort now appears to have ended in an epic, a colossal failure. Yet how little shame any of those most responsible for it seemed to feel! So far from being ashamed, the GOP rebels seemed to be proud, as individuals and gentlemen and ladies of principle, of having ditched their party in the cause of signaling what they imagined the world would see and appreciate as their own superior virtue.
Those of us of advanced years might have recalled Casey Stengel’s remark about the 1962 New York Mets: “Can’t anybody here play this game?” The answer, clearly enough now, was no — but only because the GOP has lately become so stiff with “principles” that they have forgotten what game they are playing, and that politics is a team sport or it is nothing but an excuse for mouthing off, as it sometimes seems to be for Donald Trump. In the same way Senator Ted Cruz, as I noted at the time (see “Politics without honor” in The New Criterion of April, 2016) obviously expected during last year’s primary campaign that he would be congratulated by voters for having called his own party’s leader on the floor of the Senate a liar. How very principled, how very much a non-liar that must have shown him to be, as he must have supposed. Such naiveté is not in nature, I would have imagined. At least Mr Trump’s epithet, “Lyin’ Ted,” like similar language directed at other rivals, was pretty clearly intended further to debase in the public mind the already robotic and all-but meaningless charge of mendacity directed at himself.
Now the object of Mr Cruz’s insult, Senator Mitch McConnell, instead of honorably resigning when he proved unequal to the task of moving the long-promised measure for repeal of the ACA through the Senate, chose to blame Mr Trump’s inexperience in government for having expected him to do so in the first place! He might have salvaged what was called a “skinny” repeal of Obamacare, but that Senator John McCain, presumably jealous of his own reputation as a highly principled “maverick,” turned against it at the last minute and without warning. No party hack he! But why, then, had he sought election as a Republican in the first place if he reserved the right to be disloyal to the party and its leadership at will? If he only regarded the Senate as a forum for proclaiming his high moral principles, why didn’t he stand, like Senator Bernie Sanders, as an independent?
Not that the Democrats were in any better shape. Though united in their hatred of Mr Trump and all his works, they had to use that hatred (helpfully abbreviated for street use as “NoHate”) as the glue to hold them together because there seemed to be no other. Still deeply split by the breakaway children’s crusade led by Senator Sanders last year and dimly aware after four by-election defeats that Trump-hatred by itself would not be enough to carry them to victory, they unveiled a new campaign intended to unite the party’s warring factions under the banner of “A Better Deal.” As The New York Times reported on the big unveiling of the new slogan in rural Berryville, Virginia (which went for Trump last year):
“Too many Americans don’t know what we stand for,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, told a sweat-soaked crowd of about 100 at a park here off Main Street. “Not after today.”
Two paragraphs further down, we read that
the policies combine left-leaning doctrine old and new — a $15-an-hour minimum wage, a crusade against monopolies, and efforts to lower prescription drug costs — elevating issues that Democrats expect to animate next year’s midterm elections and supplying an answer to critics who accuse them of offering nothing but obstruction. Not coincidentally, Democrats latched onto two policies that Mr. Trump campaigned on but has done little to combat as president — the power of big-business monopolies and surging drug prices.
In other words, what they stand for is anything they think might conceivably strike a spark of enthusiasm among the residents of places like Berryville. I wonder how many other readers cast their eye back up the page, as I did, to make sure they hadn’t misread Senator Schumer’s “Not after today” for “Especially after today.” But standing for things, the infallible mark of political virtue, has now become detached from any particular thing a given politician or party might stand for. Virtue, since being redefined to suite the predilections of the age, is only for signaling.
James Bowman is resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.