February 16th, 2017 // 12:51 pm @ Oliver DeMille
We are on the verge of a new media era in America. The first occurred during the American Founding, and was characterized mostly by articles and pamphlets—short, direct commentaries by numerous citizens on whatever topics they considered important. The second era was dominated by full-time commentators and publications—the Newspaper Age—where nearly everything that got published had to go through editors and editorial boards.
A third phase of American media centered around professional journalists—newspaper, magazines, radio, television, and cable—who saw themselves as intermediaries between those with financial/political power and the rest of the populace. At its best, such journalists bravely stood up to power and told the populace the kind of truth that only insiders can know. At its worst, mainstream media became a tool of spin for the elite Establishment.
Today a fourth, different type of media is taking over; and while some of its members naturally attempt to look as much as possible like the journalists of the Professional Era, many others couldn’t care less about what is increasingly considered old-style “credibility”. In this new stage of American media, we are in many ways witnessing a return to the kind of media that dominated the American Founding.
Consider the parallels, noticeable in the following quotes about American media between 1760 and 1790:
- “The newspapers, of which by 1775 there were thirty-eight in the mainland colonies, were crowded with columns of arguments and counter arguments appearing as letters, official documents, extracts of speeches, and sermons.”[i] Some of these were closely screened by editors, but the majority were not. Newspapers during this time period were a gathering place, where practically anyone could share an opinion or argue with the views of someone else. Unlike modern newspapers—where even op-eds and letters to the editor are carefully vetted, partitioned, and “blue-lined”—this was a grassroots free-for-all, much like today’s blogs, memes, vines, posts, tweets, etc. Regular people (not editors, boards, or committees) wrote them.
- “Broadsides—single sheets on which were often printed not only large letter notices but [short] essays…appeared everywhere; they could be found posted or passing from hand to hand in the towns of every colony.”[ii] This is in many ways a similar kind of media as modern blogs, tweets, RSS feeds, and social media posts—specifically, news and thoughts on the issues go directly from the individual to others. Some ideas catch on and spread, others don’t. But professional editors and committees are entirely left out of the process. It’s person-to-person media, like that experienced during the American founding.
- “Above all, there were pamphlets: booklets consisting of a few printer’s sheets…. Then, as now, it was seen that the pamphlet allowed one to do things that were not possible in any other form.”[iii] This is like the modern blog or online article—from 1 page in length to 8 or even 10. It addresses a topic, without editorial oversight, and is shared with anyone who shows interest. Many of today’s pamphlet-equivalents are also found in online tutorials, YouTube videos, TED talks, etc. In the same way that reality television is often more popular than shows that are scripted, edited, and re-edited, person-to-person media is the new reality. The professional mainstream media—big business—doesn’t like this shift, of course. But that hasn’t stopped it from spreading.
Apply what George Orwell said about person-to-person news in his day: “The pamphlet is a one-man show. One has complete freedom of expression…more…than is ever possible in a newspaper, or in most kinds of periodicals. At the same time, since the pamphlet is short and unbound, it can be produced much more quickly than a book…. Above all, the pamphlet does not have to follow any prescribed pattern. All that is required is that it be topical, polemical, and short.”[iv]
The word polemical certainly describes a lot of modern online posts—clearly expressing opinions, and frequently against something. When people see a concern or a need, the Internet allows them to research, learn about it, and share their opinions widely.
As noted, this is a significant return to media between people, rather than media controlled by experts and handlers. No wonder the modern media is apoplectic about this development in the Age of the Internet. They’re losing both their jobs and their status; even media professionals who keep their jobs are watching their prestige and credibility decline.
In much of society the media is now less popular than Congress—a dismal position in the past few decades. The reasons are instructive: (1) Increasing numbers of people simply don’t believe what the media says. (2) A lot of people, maybe a majority of people, think the media has deeply abused its power by trying to sway the populace on numerous occasions—and that perhaps it always did, even before most people realized what was happening.
The Need to Question
During the American Founding era, all “great public events”[v] were “surrounded”[vi] by numerous individually-produced media responses from various citizens on all sides of the issues. This had huge influence on the nation. While some people argue that professional media is better at emphasizing the facts than person-to-person media, a growing number of people simply don’t trust the mainstream media to remain objective. The history of media in just the past twenty years proves that media outlets have almost consistently exhibited a clear and obvious bias.[vii] To trust them now without skepticism and deeper personal research would be entirely unreasonable.[viii]
Moreover, more people are asking themselves: If individuals must research things on their own to find the truth, why should we give any real credence to the words of “expert” media figures? A lot of Americans don’t. Since most of the professional media is clearly biased, even partial, why give it our carte blanche trust? The truth is, all media has some spin.[ix] Let’s just admit this reality, and let citizens read what they want and draw their own conclusions.
The myth of a truly objective and accurate professional media system is just that: a myth. Certainly there are still good journalists,[x] but trust in our media Establishment is largely fractured. Citizens must take what the news tells them with a grain of salt—or continue allowing themselves to be expertly “shepherded” by the mainstream media.[xi]
A look back at history is instructive: The American Founders deeply believed in the people. They didn’t consider the masses perfect, or infallible. But they realized something today’s elites seem not to understand: that experts and political leaders have the same flaws, faults and weaknesses as the regular citizenry. Trusting either group is potentially dangerous, but trusting elites to take care of the masses will always fail, while trusting the people to take care of their own interests will, over time, lead to better results than giving such power to any small group of influencers or rulers.[xii]
The differences between experts/elites and the people are important. While the modern media tends to operate on a “chisel of skepticism driven by the hammer of social passion,” as Michael Polanyi put it,[xiii] the people have long been too trusting of, and too dependent on, the press. The masses needed a bit more skepticism, and it has come in spades in recent years—spurred more than anything by the triangular relationship of the people, the media, and the president, from Bill Clinton and George Bush to Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
Freedom vs. Followers
We live in an era of Reality News, not just Reality Television. The people of the nation are less and less interested in news filtered by experts. They want things straight up, raw, and direct. Media consumers now prefer the smartphone camera version of the news, captured by whoever happens to be passing by, rather than the slick, doctored news filmed and edited by professional camera crews and producers (although we usually need to take such reporting with a grain of salt as well).
The worst “problem” with the new era of person-to-person media is that people will have to think deeply, think independently, avoid being swayed by whatever they read or watch or hear, do some further personal study on news stories that interest or effect them, and ponder the issues on their own.[xiv] Which, we should all note, is precisely what every citizen should have been doing all along with any news reported by the mainstream media.
This is necessary for freedom to flourish. The new era of widespread person-to-person media is more conducive to real freedom than any media system since the American Founding. It also has real dangers—if people don’t actually study and think.[xv] But at least with person-to-person media, we know this is the reality: it is up to the people to vet the news.
The truth is that a media revolution has already occurred: anyone still largely trusting the mainstream media and accepting its words at face value is stuck in fantasy.[xvi] Nobody reads multiple Facebook posts and just believes everything. But that’s largely how many Americans absorbed ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN news for decades.
It is time for a different kind of citizen. The era of implicit trust in a professional media is over. What remains to be seen is if we as citizens will do any better.
[i] Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, ch. 1: “The Literature of the Revolution”.
January 31st, 2017 // 10:36 am @ Oliver DeMille
Servant or Partner
There is a funny undertone right now in many media circles. For decades the national mainstream media has largely portrayed Congress as the little brother of the White House—existing mainly to support the president’s agenda. Since at least 1996 the level of independent action by Congress—directly tackling presidential action and shutting it down when necessary—has decreased. On a longer trajectory, this same pattern has been gaining momentum since 1861. Many have referred to it as the era of the Imperial Presidency.
Moreover, real use of power by Congress has become increasingly unacceptable in the eyes of the national media. Just consider the results when Congress tried to use the purse strings to check the president: the media called it “shutting down the government” and portrayed any who supported it as pariahs.
Now that Donald Trump controls the future of the Oval Office, however, the media is seeing things from a different perspective. Maybe the silver lining in Trump’s election, a number of journalists are suggesting, is that Congress can finally get back on track. It should be more of a partner with the president, less of the president’s support base.
Well…yes. On the one hand, this is patently true. Of course Congress should be a partner, independent, sometimes supporting and other times checking the White House and pruning the powers and budgets of the sprawling executive bureaucracy. On the other hand, it is ironic that the media is just now figuring this out. Thanks to Donald Trump, the media is suddenly concerned that we need a stronger, more independent Congress. But when Barack Obama was in charge, not so much.
This is a fundamental problem with liberalism/progressivism. It promotes what it wants, and changes its views on our system of government whenever such promotion would benefit its agenda. In the process, however, it creates confusion and chaos. “Follow the Constitution when it blocks something we don’t like, but just ignore or circumvent the Constitution when it makes what we want more difficult.”
The official name for this is “rule by men,” as opposed to “rule by law.” As one article suggested, “The arrival of President Donald Trump could revive Congress’ political will…” (Foreign Affairs, January/February 2017, 133) Many in the media seem to think this is a new idea. Indeed, Congress might actually start doing what the Constitution says it should do.
A wave of progressives sigh in relief. “Congress shouldn’t have blocked Obama, clearly. But it should block Trump. A lot.” The hypocrisy is poignant.
Or consider another suggestion: “…foreign policy leaders in Congress should take advantage of their positions to fight back against deception on the part of the executive branch.” (Ibid., 143) This is exactly right. What isn’t mentioned is that Congress should have been doing precisely the same thing a lot more effectively for the past eight years.
“Legislators often sense that the administration is not telling them the whole truth but do nothing to call it out.” (Ibid.) A serious problem. But why didn’t the national media call for a change while Obama was in office? Why did they in fact excoriate any Congressional committees that tried to do exactly this? Why the newfound popularity of the Constitution among media elites now?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m elated that more voices are now calling for Congress to step up and do its job. All I can say is: “Finally. It’s about time.” I support this trend, even if it is coming many years late. I can’t help but smile at the irony, however. Now that their candidates are out of office, many in the liberal media are suddenly noticing the importance and value of the Constitution.
The Lesser of Two…
As one writer put it, quoting Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: “History has shown that neither the Presidency nor the Congress was infallible, and that each needed the other—which may well be what the Founding Fathers were trying to tell us.” (Ibid., 145) Right on. Just as those of us who believe in the Constitution have been saying for the last three decades.
But this trend is bigger than first meets the eye. The sad reality is that the Constitution is more often lauded and promoted by those out of power than those in office. The real need is for it to be cherished and followed by those in authority.
Which brings us to the subject of President Trump. Many who voted for him didn’t do so because they believed he was the great champion of the Constitution, or even America. Indeed, many Trump voters weren’t at all sure what their vote would bring about in our nation and world. They cast their ballot for Trump largely because they were sure a vote for Hillary would bring more the same—more rule by career politicians and bloated bureaucracies, more economic stagnancy and empty promises from Washington, more business as usual politics, more blah, blah, blah from the mouth of politicians, more problems and few actual fixes.
They voted for change, hoping that it would actually come. Many—perhaps most—feared that the election wouldn’t actually change things very much at all. Politicians frequently promise change, and then don’t deliver. Why would Trump be any different? Many Americans are still skeptical that things will truly improve. They expect more bureaucratic double speak, more economic bad news.
They’re waiting, watching. Wondering what will happen. As one Trump voter told me: “Maybe Trump will make things better, maybe he’ll make things worse. But with Hillary we know what we’ll get: more of the same. No solutions. Just an endless stream of problems. If Trump can bring even a little bit of positive change, it’s worth it.”
Note the cynicism wrapped in a tiny husk of wistful hope. “If” he can bring “even a little bit of positive change…” The subtext is sobering: “It’s not likely anyone will bring any solutions. But if only we could get even a tiny bit of good news…”
Dusk or Dawn
We are now an America deeply in doubt. “No good news will come. Probably not even a little. But still, if only it would…”
The desperation is palpable, if we allow ourselves to notice. In short, America 2.0 is suffering from PTSD. We’re just waiting for “the other shoe to drop.” Too many Americans expect bad news. We expect tragedy. We are biding our time, assuming bad things will come. “This is the new normal,” the Obama Administration told us. We anticipate more that is negative.
Consider the following headlines:
“Officials hold firm, despite Trump’s skepticism” (USA Today, January 6-8, 2017).
“Department stores become endangered” (Ibid.) [More lost jobs, the end of the Mall Era that began in the Eighties and became synonymous with the postmodern American Dream.]
“Year Ahead: A partly sunny outlook for sales” (Ibid.) [We bide our time, trying to stay positive, largely sure that clouds are coming.]
“Sears watches its relevance fade in changing world” (Ibid.) [For many people, this sentence would be even more true with the word “America” inserted for “Sears”.]
“Macy’s and Sears, which owns K-Mart stores, announced more than 200 store closings on Wednesday and Thursday” (Ibid.)
All of these come from one page of the same national newspaper. They paint an emotional picture of a nation not in full-blown crisis but clearly expecting it. Or, maybe, it is in crisis already. Sadly, each day’s front page is similar. Another front page from a different national newspaper tells the same story:
“The retail property market is showing signs of a slowdown…” (The Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2017)
“Trump Creditors Are Many, Varied” [The article tells us the new president is deeply in debt, as is the norm for real estate developers, and this may weaken his ability to lead.]
“The Yuan surged, posting its largest-ever two-day gain against the dollar…” [China is still gaining ground on us, slowly but surely.]
“Trump blasted Toyota…” [Big government and big media are constantly in conflict.]
“Belgium’s Botched Hunt for ISIS Cell” [Danger everywhere…]
Look past page one, and the same newspaper adds the following:
- Young people are now renting more, buying fewer homes.
- “More older people carry student loans”
- Research shows that smartphones hurt children’s eyes.
- Sales at Barnes and Noble and other bookstores are way down, while liquor sales are up.
- Saudis cut oil production, so fuel prices are expected to rise.
- Macy’s, Kohl’s, and many other retailers’ sales are way down.
The news is endless. It’s more than “bad news sells,” there’s a distinct tone of worry, concern, even fear of what’s ahead. “What is coming next?,” Americans seem to be asking. The answers are generally cynical and a bit gloomy.
Again, in this environment, the Constitution is gaining “support” in many media outlets. No doubt President Trump will face many big battles with Congress, not just from Democrats but from those in his own party. (See The Wall Street Journal, January 7-8, A13) In fact, Trump probably won’t just face an attempt to set the national agenda from Chuck Schumer, but also from Paul Ryan. (Ibid.) Congress seems poised to reassert itself.
That’s a good thing. The Founders would have applauded. It’s way past time for Congress to do its Constitutional duty and stand up to the President as needed. Sadly, it didn’t do this very well during the Obama era—or the Bush era, or the Clinton era. It’s great that there is more support for such a resurgence today, even it makes us chuckle at the irony.
The fact is, the Constitution is still the best hope for good government. We should follow it. Congress should follow it. They should follow it with Trump in office, and with anyone and everyone else in the Oval—not just when it’s convenient, or popular in the media, but always.
January 26th, 2017 // 7:59 am @ Oliver DeMille
(How Bias in Media is Getting Even Worse, and What To Do About It)
The U.S. media hasn’t been so blatantly biased since the days of the muckrakers. For decades many Americans have known that the mainstream media has a liberal lean. It treated Bush I, Bush II, McCain and Romney differently (worse) than progressives like Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Hillary, and Obama. But in the Trump era the media has gone all in: it has largely lost its sense of objectivism or balance.
This isn’t limited to a few channels or outlets. Nearly every news organization that once claimed journalistic objectivism is clearly one-sided. Journalism is dead, for all practical purposes, as some political watchers have suggested.
Consider TIME magazine’s handling of its famous Person of the Year. In 2015 it refused to put Trump on the cover, even though by the end of that year he had clearly turned American politics on its head (for good or ill, depending on your viewpoint). When the magazine did choose Trump as the 2016 person of the year—even TIME couldn’t deny the surprising revolution he presided over—it did so in backhanded fashion. The cover announced: 2016 Person of the Year, Donald Trump, President of the Divided States of America.
Note the word “divided” in the last sentence.
This kind of bias is now the norm. Not that our nation isn’t divided. It clearly is, and no doubt Trump would gladly own responsibility for that in 2017. But it was deeply divided in the Obama era as well. Why would objective media attribute such divisions to Trump but not Obama? Indeed, this level of divisiveness is perhaps the major lasting feature of President Obama’s legacy. Much of the media simply ignored how many people were deeply alienated by Obama’s politics. Top media outlets literally fawned over Obama, and his heir-apparent, Hillary Clinton, during the past several years. It lauded them, praised them, discounted and downplayed failures—as if such things didn’t matter in the presence of such glowing leaders.
A commentary in The Atlantic noted that Trump voters tended to take his words seriously but not literally, while Hillary supporters took Trump’s words literally but not seriously. But progressives applied the same standard to Obama: they took him seriously but not literally, quickly dismissing broken promises about Syria, Guantanamo, keeping one’s healthcare provider, the cost of insurance going down, etc. They excoriate Trump on the details of his promises, while giving Obama a pass on a long string of failed promises.
Extremism in media is now the fashion. Extreme flattery of Obama and Clinton coupled with extreme vilification of Trump and anyone who voted for him. Even if you dislike Trump’s approach or politics, this development in our national media is alarming.
Moreover, we seem to be entering a new era of media behavior. During the Bush years the mainstream media was clearly liberal, but conservatives, centrists and even progressives could find some balance in media coverage by reading and watching both sides of the media: The New York Times and also The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC and also Fox, The Atlantic and also The Weekly Standard, The Huffington Post and also National Review.
For every mainstream liberal media outlet there were comparable conservative publications and networks. This is no longer the case. Conservative news is still available, but much of Fox is anti-Trump, and many traditionally conservative media outlets publish articles that read like The NY Times or Huffington Post in their attacks on Trump and his embryonic administration.
The reason for this is obvious. Many on the Right distrust Trump, considering him an authoritarian at best (which may or may not turn out to be true), and the old balance of Right versus Left is almost entirely gone in the media landscape. Where are the publications or channels that support the administration’s platform, viewpoint and interests? They are practically nonexistent.
Regardless of how you feel about Trump as president, this is a dangerous development. Americans have long decried Soviet-style media in nations where the government controlled journalistic outlets and the people only got one side of the story—the official line as approved by the dominating state. In the United States we are witnessing the rise of the opposite extreme: a one-sided media that only tells the American people one story: zealous anti-Trump rhetoric. The media that blasts Trump for his bombast also frequently surpasses him in pomposity (toward Obama and Clinton) and arrogant anger (toward Trump and Trump voters). They spin and inflate (and quite simply misreport) policies, utterances and choices he makes, without clarification or retraction.
Again, this is alarming, even if you dislike Trump. A one-sided media simply cannot be objective, and to aggressively set out shape public opinion in such a fashion is a reprehensible tact for a sector of society that has traditionally been a watchdog of democracy. If this continues, we won’t be getting the full story, or the real story, in the years ahead. And we won’t be able to balance mainstream views with strong media reporting from the other side—because pretty much no media anywhere cares about truthfully communicating both sides. Nearly the entire industry is committed to either passionately attacking the new administration, or misrepresenting its loyal opposition.
On a deeper societal level, part of this growing media problem is couched in the national antipathy toward the so-called experts. Our economy has become so specialized in many sectors that people are increasingly expected to rely on experts for major decisions in their lives (educational, financial, parental, healthcare, etc.), often without even seriously questioning the “accepted expert wisdom” or making their own choices. For the Establishment, Trump voters represent the opposite of this trend.
For example, a political cartoon from The New Yorker showed a middle-aged man, balding and portly, standing up in the aisle of an airplane and announcing to the passengers: “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?”
At first blush, few of us want some regular guy from our next flight to use democracy to take over the cockpit. But the cartoon hits an even deeper chord. While it is apparently meant to criticize many American voters, it actually does a lot to point out flaws in the expert-dependent Establishment.
First, nearly all passengers shown in the cartoon are raising their hands. Democracy is strongly against the expert-dependent Establishment right now. Most people are skeptical of experts, seeking a second or even third opinion even in arenas where expertise is most sacred.
Second, the word “smug” in the cartoon is poignant. Only smug experts would believe such a political cartoon would make their point; the truth is that most voters, unlike most airline passengers, aren’t seeking a political expert in the White House. They specifically prefer a non-expert, a non-politician. The Establishment can’t quite grasp why anyone would hold this view. They really are out of touch.
These people want a wise and effective leader, not a bureaucratic manager. They want a visionary and strong commander-in-chief, not another smug political specialist. (There is an excellent commentary on the same cartoon in USA Today, January 6, 2017.) Voters want an outsider. They want someone who doesn’t actually like the bureaucracy and the lobbyists. Most of the media realizes this on a logical level, but just can’t bring themselves to believe it in their gut. Mainstream media wants government by experts. A lot of voters don’t.
Of course there is an important place for expertise in society. But clearly elections should be up to the people, all the people across the U.S. – not just the population-dense regions on the right and left coasts. Our era of over-reliance on professional political experts and bureaucratic dominance has caused a lot of problems. Concerning journalism, we want experts in telling us the truth and letting us make our own decisions, not experts of spin who sway the populace to a certain political view—whatever it is. Unfortunately, for decades many in the media have been telling us that their opinion is the truth—to trust them—to follow them—because they know what is best for us. The people are calling their bluff.
At the highest level, the Establishment acts on the assumption that experts determine elections. For example, most elites are convinced that expert choices, not voters, really swayed the latest election, and other elections as well. This is broadcast in various ways, including the following Establishment beliefs:
- Obama’s social media gurus and ground game won 2008 and 2012, while Jared Krushner’s Silicon Valley-style analytics and online campaign won 2016 for Trump.
- Russian hackers were responsible for election outcomes, since clearly the American people wouldn’t have voted this way without some kind of sinister expert intervention.
- Media sway makes the biggest difference in presidential elections, and the mainstream media was clearly anti-Trump; therefore, Fox and talk radio are responsible for the “skewed” results on election night.
In reality, voters gather information in many ways, consider their options, and then select whom they want to lead (or vote against the candidate they least want to be in charge). It is ironic that the Establishment lauds democracy at every turn, but doesn’t actually believe in it. The Establishment believes, rather, that experts ultimately determine votes, one way or the other. And that they should.
Again, this arrogance is only expanding in the current media environment. I expect it to widen and deepen in the months and years ahead.
In all this, what are freedom-loving citizens to do? What about those who sincerely want to get both sides of the news and really compare what the White House is doing and thinking to what the mainstream media is reporting? Answer: such citizens are largely out of luck. They aren’t getting much help from institutional media.
They can try reading The Economist, which is certainly not a pro-Trump or even remotely conservative publication but is at least European and not quite so caught up in the anti-Trump venom of the American national media. This is a good option for some readers. Or they can read the business news, like Fortune and Forbes, for example, which focuses on commerce and addresses the news only tangentially—and with less extremism. Again, some readers can use this kind of sidebar-journalism to get a more objective read on the new.
But it’s hardly a solution. The real answer is for the media to self-regulate and deliver objective, quality journalism. Until this happens—if it ever does—citizens who want to know what is really happening are going to need to find quality sources of knowledge. Most sources of this kind will come not from big media outlets, but rather from deep thinkers who share important views online.
Find writers and thinkers—instead of relying on publications or channels—that spark your thinking and help you see things differently than the major media retailers and showrooms. Since the big media isn’t doing its job anymore, it’s up to us as individuals to more actively seek out ideas and knowledge.
The silver lining in this new era of media is real. In the current news environment, it is up to each of us to dig deeper and think more independently if we want to see through media spin and really keep an eye on the news. The mainstream media is taking much of the nation on a pied-piper-style spin, and only the vigilant will actually know what’s really going on in current events.
(Consider taking our Current Events Course, which helps participants learn to more effectively see through the media, whatever its agenda, and know what’s really happening. Once you’ve completed this course, try getting your news by reading a major publication from both sides of the aisle, such as The Atlantic and also The Wall Street Journal, and then adding one or more of the sources listed above to get a more objective view of things. We all need to read more closely in this new era of media, and keep our thinking caps on no matter what we’re reading.)
January 23rd, 2017 // 1:55 pm @ Oliver DeMille
(What it Means for the Future of America)
First of all, the very idea that each president must aim to leave a lasting legacy of some sort is wrong-minded. Some of the best presidents in history did little except what they were elected to do: keep the nation safe, follow the Constitution, and stop other branches of government from intervening in the economy.
This is precisely what they should do. For example, presidents Madison, Harding and Coolidge are seldom given props for their legacies—but they were better presidents (using the Constitution as a measuring stick) than many others who used their time in office to “do more”, and in the process went beyond the Constitution and reduced American freedoms.
At its root the concept of legacy as a vital part of the presidency comes from the Establishmentarian desire to have a king. Establishment media, political parties, and many professional politicos want the pomp and circumstance of looking up to “royalty,” and the perks that come with close connections to those who hold executive power.
Jefferson once chided John Adams for this same tendency. In the Jeffersonian spirit, the president should…well, we already said it: keep the nation safe, follow the Constitution, and stop other branches of government from messing up the economy with too much regulation and/or bureaucratic intervention. This bears repeating over and over in our generation—until we get it.
In fact, this is the opposite of Obama’s legacy, which could be summed up as: “The more government intervention in the economy and people’s lives, the better.”
But let’s put aside the battle over ideals for a moment and focus on the practical side of governing.
Obama established at least four major precedents that could be a serious problem for Americans—depending on how Trump and future presidents apply them. These include the following presidential disasters:
1. Do what you want unilaterally, using executive orders, instead of doing the hard work to lead and persuade Congress to work with you—as required in the Constitution. Just dictate things from the Oval Office.
2. Use the “nuclear option” to get things through Congress (the Barack Obama and Harry Reid approach of forcing things with a majority vote instead of sixty Senators). One more check and balance gone.
3. Doggedly ignore the views of people and groups who didn’t vote for you. Act like your supporters are the only Americans who matter, and like those who didn’t support you are sub-par citizens whose concerns aren’t important. Treat opponents as enemies (and idiots), not the loyal opposition whose voices carry some important truths. President Obama was a master at this approach.
4. After you’ve been voted out of office, before the next president is inaugurated, reject two centuries of precedence and don’t try to make things smooth for the incoming president—instead, do everything you can in your last two months of office to establish policies and take actions that make it more difficult for the next president to implement the agenda voters selected during the campaign. Simply assume you know better than the people.
This is the Obama legacy. If Trump adopts it (any of it, for that matter) he’ll do much harm to our nation. We can only hope that the Trump Administration will take a better approach to leadership. Note that he can use executive orders and push the “nuclear option” in the Senate to undo Obama overreaches without using these tactics to engage any additional policies that unwisely expand executive power.
Rise or Fall
I have friends who believe he’ll do exactly that, and others who think he’ll use these negative Obama precedents early and often. If he does the latter, such behaviors will become forever part of the executive branch and the Obama-Trump legacy will further damage our society.
Historically, few presidents choose to exert less power than their predecessors. Jefferson and Madison did, and Jackson. As mentioned, both Harding and Coolidge did the same. Washington is a special case, because he had no predecessor. He belongs on the list of those who did it right, because he chose to exert less power than he was offered.
Other U.S. presidents built on the power they inherited and tried to expand it. That’s a dangerous pattern, one we need to reverse. It remains to be seen what president Trump will do.
Ironically, in all of this, the Obama legacy is a devil on Trump’s shoulder. We can only hope that better angels prevail in the next four years.
January 6th, 2017 // 5:44 am @ Oliver DeMille
The New Reality
The election is over, and the new Trump Administration has a problem. In fact, it’s a major problem. To begin with, governing is a whole different thing than running for office. And “draining the swamp of Washington” while also governing the nation is more than doubly difficult.
But the problem goes deeper. The very things that brought a Trump victory at the ballot boxes can be a serious liability in the White House.
Here’s why: Trump won in large part because he mastered the new media—something the Clinton team mocked and laughed at (until their shocked experience on election night).
In fairness, as Democratic strategist Van Jones pointed out, past media revolutions brought similar results. FDR used the radio to put together multiple winning elections, while opponents tried to stick with the old newspaper approach to media. Years later, Republicans were surprised by the rise of television media and how effectively JFK used it to create broad national popularity.
Another few decades, and the rise of Internet media changed the way presidential campaigns worked. While McCain and then Romney attempted to do things the old way, Obama and his team mastered social media and dominated two very effective campaigns.
Note that in all these cases, Democrats adapted to changing media realities while Republicans remained stuck in the old way. This changed in 2015-2016. As Jones put it, Trump tapped into a new media model—a nation of viewers steeped in Reality Television.
Neighbor or Villain
In this new medium, candidates win by emulating what winning participants do on reality TV. The quickest way to the stay on the show, week after week, is to jump in as the villain during week one. Say outrageous things, stir the pot, get a bunch of Americans hating you, boost the ratings, and do it every week. In fact, if you ever lose the focus of the camera, say more outrageous things. Survivor, The Bachelor, The Amazing Race, The Apprentice, even Duck Dynasty, Real Wives, Jersey Shore, etc.—this formula is effective.
The quickest way to lose in this format is simple: try to fit in, attempt to be popular, don’t make waves. Even worse: try to impress people. Today’s generation of Americans increasingly see this as acting like a politician. It feels slick and glib, a la Bill Clinton, Bush, Romney, Rubio, etc. Saying whatever you think the voters (or other contestants) will like is the sure road to losing. In contrast, in this new Reality Television media system, being the villain, saying outrageous things, and picking repeated fights, frequently brings victory.
This media shift shocked the Obama and Clinton machines in 2016, despite the fact that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump had been proving the opposite for many months. But now the election is over, and a new reality is setting in.
It’s almost impossible to predict what this will mean in the years ahead. In the last three major media shifts, the new media worked both during the campaign and after. FDR used radio to his benefit during elections and even more while governing. Presidents did the same with television when it took over the media world. Online media kept Obama’s popularity high, and even helped boost his ratings on numerous occasions during the years between elections.
The question now is whether the newest media system, the Reality Television model of “Be the Outrageous Villain and Keep Doing It, Week after Week,” will work for the next four years. Think about it. This is a big deal.
Breaking or Building
Clearly the liberal mainstream media (led by NBC, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, ABC, CNN, etc.) are an unwitting asset; they have shown they are willing to keep supporting Trump in this approach. They want to tear him down in any way they can, and as long as so many Americans distrust the media, this turns to his advantage.
If Trump wants to maintain this strategy in the months and years ahead, he’ll routinely support major reforms that drastically change Washington, he’ll pick a continuous series of fights with special interests and federal bureaucracies, and he’ll vilify someone new every few weeks.
In all this, he’ll usually blame the media. In fact, he’ll look for as many ways as possible to fault the media. The more the better. He’ll tweet, call names, use bombast, and overstate things, all in the name of stirring the pot and keeping the media focus on him and his policies.
The media will think it’s tearing him down, but if this strategy works he’ll be more popular than ever when the next election comes. If you think the mainstream media was shocked in the 2016 election, imagine how they’ll feel after attacking Trump for four years and seeing his electoral numbers increase in 2020. They’ll be positively apoplectic.
But here’s the rub. What a lot of people don’t want to hear is that this kind of bombastic, extreme tone is a lot more likely to coincide with truly, actually, “draining the swamp in Washington.” If the Trump Administration decides to try to play the mainstream media game and attempt to look like a Bush, Clinton, Bush II or Obama style system, we likely won’t see much real change in Washington.
Not So Revolutionary
Somehow the kind of professionalism and antidisestablishmentarianism [I can’t believe I actually just used one of the longest words in the English language is a serious sentence] exhibited by many presidential administrations create a tone of “Washington staying the same.” And that path guarantees bigger and bigger government. Not draining the swamp, but expanding it.
Consider the Reagan Revolution. It started out with what the establishment in both parties considered outrageous, extreme, and even irresponsible. But it also began by making some real changes. By Reagan’s second term, however, the administration wasn’t a revolution anymore. It started fitting in with the establishment, and by the time Bush was elected, the Reagan Administration was pretty much part of the establishment.
This led to the Gingrich revolution in 1992, which was considered extreme, irresponsible, and outrageous (sound familiar?), but by 1996 the Gingrich/Kasich Revolutionaries had become part of the establishment. The party of Reagan, Kemp, Gingrich and Limbaugh became the party of Dole, W, McCain, Romney, and Jeb. Not really a troop of boat-rockers.
It’s hard to tell where the Trump team is headed. Some of Trump’s White House and cabinet picks are from the revolutionary wing, while others are more establishmentarian. It’s a mix. Moreover, the tone out of Trump Tower and president-elect golf clubhouses is largely mild, professional–and leaning establishment.
The Real Challenge
This may be a smart chess move, keeping things hush-hush until after inauguration. Once the new president is in charge, his team will be a lot more effectively armed to take on the mainstream media.
But what if the Trump team takes the other approach? What if they decide they want to be popular? Or hope to get The NY Times, NBC, and CNN to like them? What if Trump hopes to be loved, or gets tired of being vilified, mocked, called a clown, a buffoon, and a devil? What if he wants popularity in New York and Washington? It might happen early, but even if it doesn’t happen for several years, the pressure will always be there.
The way the mainstream establishment fawned over Bill, Barack, Michelle, and Hillary—that’s a lot of incentive; and The Donald has, in the past, shown an affection for the spotlight and a particular aversion to being mocked or blamed.
And beyond his own instincts of self-preservation: Will his chivalry for his wife or his allegiance to his youngest son (who have both been in the cross-hairs of some harsh media treatments in recent months) begin to figure into the equation? All things considered, who wouldn’t want to be loved and popularly lauded when faced with such extremes? Will this opportunity for validation and praise prove too compelling a siren song?
The hard-working voters in the rust belt, Southwest, or rural America will never be able to provide such flattery or accolades, even if they were inclined to do so. But such fawning isn’t even part of their culture. If President Trump wants that kind of love and admiration, he’s going to have to look for it in the elite class. (They’ll never give it to him, of course. They couldn’t even be objective about Dole, Bush, or McCain–committed cronies of the establishment, all.)
Whatever you think of the new president, if he’s actually going to drain the swamp, as promised, he’s going to have to play the villain. Week after week. Month after month.
In short: Being outrageous won’t be his problem. The challenge will be vanity. And endurance. Will he embrace the role of villain and drain the swamp no matter how bad the media attacks become? Or will he follow the pattern of many presidents before him and go after popularity—by increasing the size and scope of government?
Ultimately, the new president will have to make this choice. The consequences will drastically impact America in the months and years just ahead.