Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Donald Trump’s ban on Muslims entering the U.S., Obama’s national address, and Spotlight and the state of investigative journalism.
Donald Trump’s call for a Muslim exclusion act (which drew cheers at the rally where Trump proposed it) has drawn an almost-universal backlash nationwide, yet Trump is sticking to his guns. Is there any way this helps him?
Doesn’t it seem a century ago when Trump committed what was supposed to be a cardinal sin, particularly to Republicans, and insulted the war hero John McCain? Trump was pronounced politically dead back then — this was in July — and we needn’t catalogue all of the times he’s risen like Lazarus since, after each racist, xenophobic, misogynist, or just plain lunatic pronouncement theoretically ended his campaign. So when people talk now, as you put it, of “an almost-universal backlash” to his latest and perhaps most outrageous thunderbolt of bigotry, it depends on how you define universal. That universe does not include Trump’s fans. In a USA Today/Suffolk University poll released yesterday, some 68 percent of respondents said they would bolt the GOP if their hero decided to run as an independent. In other words, this latest episode, which took place just after that survey, should help Trump as all of his other outrages have: He’ll remain at or near the top of Republican polls because he is telling his audience what it wants to hear in ever louder tones. And the “universal backlash” of the elites will only make him more of a hero with his supporters, who revel in the disdain of the Establishments of both parties and the press.
There are not enough Trump partisans to capture the presidency, no matter how much some liberals liken his rise to those of Hitler and Mussolini. There may well not be enough Trump supporters to win him the GOP nomination (though it cannot be ruled out). But there are certainly enough to destroy his party for the foreseeable future by branding it as a haven for bigots at a time when America is on its inexorable path to be a white-minority nation. So you’d think that those now at the top of the GOP would try to banish Trump by any and all available means, if only out of self-interest. That’s still not happening. Those who wield the strongest anti-Trump language among his primary opponents are those with rock-bottom poll numbers (e.g., Lindsey Graham, who told him to “go to hell”) and no clout. Jeb (!) Bush, whose poll numbers are also near rock bottom, has also pumped up his anti-Trump rhetoric, but he’s still too low-energy and too late, and he has no moral standing to attack Trump’s Islamophobia since he only recently (like Ted Cruz) proposed banning Syrian refugees who aren’t Christians. Party titans like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have condemned Trump’s latest jeremiad, but they are wusses, too fearful of both him and his fans to say they would disown him if he got the party’s nomination. (Jeb has also recently reaffirmed that he’d support Trump over Hillary.) Cruz and Marco Rubio, besides indulging in their own Muslim-bashing, have been pointedly mild in their criticisms of Trump and his views because they hope to annex his crazies should he flame out.
So who can stop Trump? Not the fat-cat GOP donors whose doomed anti-Trump strategies keep being floated to the press. Not the earnest members of the reality-based community who diligently write articles explaining that, yes, Trump’s latest proposal is unconstitutional, impossible to implement, racist, and a boost to the very ISIS ideologues Trump wants to destroy. Not the fact-checkers who show that almost every bit of evidence Trump cites, from nonexistent crowds of Muslims cheering 9/11 in New Jersey to junk polls of Muslim-American sentiment, is a lie. Trump’s adherents are going to accept Trump’s facts, just as they have accepted such “facts” from the other conservative leaders who have claimed Barack Obama was born in Africa and that climate change is a hoax.
No, the only people who can stop Trump are the obvious ones: those who actually vote or caucus in Republican primary states. Their verdict will be decisive, and come February we will start to hear from them directly in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina (where Trump’s ban-Muslims oration played to a standing ovation last weekend). It’s been a standard refrain of Establishment Republicans since the summer that Trump’s toxic views don’t represent their party — and, indeed, if Republicans don’t actually vote for Trump, he’s done, and probably as an independent as well. But what if he does attract voters in numbers consistent with his polling? In less than two months from now, we are finally going to start getting a definitive answer to the question that’s riveted us for months: Who are the Republicans?
Most GOP candidates responding to President Obama’s call for calm and patience in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting attacked his address almost immediately (or sooner — Cruz offered a rebuttal before it had even begun). Was Obama right to take the higher ground, or should he have spoken more decisively?
If “more decisively” means “more angrily,” then Obama was doomed to failure. The GOP presidential field owns rage. Obama, as is his wont, was rational, not a “dead or alive” gunslinger like his predecessor, or an abject fearmonger like Trump. But if you look at what his critics had to say, including the more well-behaved neocons at The Wall Street Journal, you don’t find an alternative policy to what America is doing now — unless you count Cruz’s promise to institute a war plan to “carpet-bomb them into oblivion” and Trump’s vow to “bomb the shit out of them.” You don’t, for instance, hear any of these critics proposing that specific and large numbers of American troops be committed to the cause. You mainly find anti-Obama vitriol and vague calls for more “muscular” action that doesn’t go much beyond the “no-fly zone” that Clinton has also endorsed.
Two footnotes to Obama’s address. Forgive me for being a former drama critic, but, really, who had the brilliant idea of having the president leave his expected position behind the Oval Office desk to declaim from a podium planted in front of it? At the faux Oval Office where I work on the television series Veep, there was much talk the morning after that if we had put our show’s hapless president in such an awkward setting, we would have been criticized for exaggerating White House incompetence. Second: One politician who was widely praised by political pros for having an effective reaction to the San Bernardino killings was Chris Christie, whose constant invocation of 9/11 after the bloodbath was thought to reignite his flailing presidential campaign. But the latest New Hampshire poll from CNN/WMUR, released this week and taken after San Bernardino, finds Christie third, with 9 percent — almost identical to how Rudy Giuliani performed in the New Hampshire primary during his disastrous “noun-verb-9/11” presidential run of 2008. In first, with 32 percent, is Trump, up from 26 percent in September, and ahead of the runner-up, Rubio (14 percent), by nearly two-to-one.
After watching Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s film about the Boston Globe’s 2002 sex-abuse investigation of the Catholic Church, the New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wondered where that kind of local investigative reporting might still be possible in today’s vanishing newspaper industry. Did you see the film as a eulogy for a journalism world gone by?
To an extent, yes. It’s hard to miss: the AOL billboard juxtaposed with the Globe’s headquarters in one shot, and an early scene of a reporter’s newsroom retirement toast that all too painfully prefigures the many forced retirements of his colleagues yet to come. But most of all Spotlight is a celebration of investigative reporting itself — as well as a reminder of how much horrific crime the Catholic Church covered up for so long, in Boston and throughout the world.
Sullivan is right to worry about the future of local investigative reporting in an America with fewer and ever-more-impoverished newspapers. However, it’s worth recalling that some of the greatest investigative reporting in our history has happened in unexpected venues: muckrakers of the progressive era appeared in McClure’s magazine, known more for high-toned literature than fearless journalism; Seymour Hersh’s My Lai massacre exposé was disseminated by the Dispatch News Service, an upstart operation in its infancy. Those who are driven to expose corruption often do find a way, sometimes at considerable personal and financial sacrifice, and there’s no reason to believe that they won’t find outlets and maybe even salary-paying employers in the digital age.
Meanwhile, one of the heroes of Spotlight, the Globe’s then-new editor Martin Baron (captured with remarkable fidelity onscreen by Liev Schreiber), is now the (fairly) new editor of the Washington Post, which is also the beneficiary of a cash infusion from its deep-pocketed new owner, Jeff Bezos. Baron’s brilliance at bringing his readers a hard-hitting news report, investigative and otherwise, is on display daily in a paper that now seems well on its way to reclaiming the glory of its fabled Ben Bradlee era. If you’re not reading it, you should be: It makes you feel that, Spotlight notwithstanding, all in newspapers is not lost.