The Chelsea Bombing Shows That Americans Are Getting a Better Perspective on Terrorism

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Lucky for humanity — but unlucky for cable-news ratings — no one was killed in the Chelsea bombing. Photo: Justin Lane-Pool/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: the reaction to the New York and New Jersey bombings, the presidential polls, and Jimmy Fallon’s softball Trump interview.

Writing in the wake of this weekend’s bomb attack in Manhattan, the media critic Jack Shafer argued that alarmist coverage of the story turned a “brush fire” into “a mighty conflagration,” and is part of what’s helped make Americans unable “to place pressure-cooker bombs of the type that [Ahmad] Rahami is alleged to have built in their proper perspective.” Is he right?
Of course Shafer is right. Cable news covers terrorist brush fires, as he calls them, the same way it covers the weather, crime, shootings, and just about everything else: Every potential cataclysm is a 9/11, a Katrina, a Sandy Hook until proven otherwise. It is, of course, serious news that lone wolves with seemingly jihadist aspirations savaged victims in New York, New Jersey, and Minnesota over the weekend. But it is not necessarily the apocalypse, or certain evidence that America is under terrorist attack. In these latest instances, we may be dealing instead with unhinged assailants looking for ideological rationales for their violent sprees. If only all terrorists were as stupid as Rahami, who left so many clues to his identity that he could be rounded-up with remarkable dispatch.

Where I part with Shafer is in his conviction that Americans are unable to put Rahami’s small-time infliction of violence into a proper perspective. Maybe more and more Americans are gaining that perspective. The news of the bombing did not cause widespread panic in New York, and the story faded fairly fast from center stage nationwide. Part of this was that no one was killed, good news for humanity but bad news for cable news, which doesn’t know how to keep exploiting a crime scene when there are no lost lives to be milked for sentimental effect, no surviving relatives to be interviewed on camera. The quick fade may also be because the public is simply inured to most violence at this point. Nothing short of an Orlando or San Bernardino can grab the attention of a citizenry numbed by the daily overload of shootings in a nation where there are more guns than people.

Another reason for the story’s short half-life was the predictable responses of both presidential candidates. Donald Trump says that the Rahamis at loose in America can be stopped if we overcome political correctness, legalize ethnic profiling, and stamp out ISIS through magical means yet to be specified. Clinton talks about gathering the facts before lashing out indiscriminately at Muslims. We’ve heard it all before from both of them, and we are as numb to their pat responses to terrorist brush fires as we are to the latest bulletin of a mad gunman at the mall.

Hillary Clinton’s lead in the polls has dropped considerably over the past month or so, both nationally and in some battleground states. Is it too early to panic?
It is never too early to panic, and I panic about a Trump victory all the time. It was inevitable we’d get to that post–Labor Day point when the Times would run a story about all the Zabar’s shoppers, a.k.a. Times readers, in full stereotypical dread about the election. Instead of kvetching to reporters, these Democrats might be better advised to urge any lackadaisical millennials in their families to vote — or bribe them to do so — and not for Gary Johnson.

I have a theory about the election that is probably as wrong as every other theory, but here it is: At this late date, there isn’t a single Clinton voter who can be persuaded to vote for Trump, and there isn’t a single Trump voter who can be persuaded to vote for Clinton. I also have another theory that is not a theory but a fact: People don’t change, especially as they hit 70. Trump is going to continue to be a bigot and a bully with no qualifications to be president or even any intellectual curiosity about the issues at play in a presidency. Clinton is going to continue to be an earnest, plodding representative of the status quo, presiding over an incompetent campaign that can’t even come clean in a timely fashion about her bout with the eminently treatable ailment of mild pneumonia.

The voters know these candidates, two of the most overfamiliar personalities in American life, all too well. The only question is whose voters will show up on November 8. Demographics and poll numbers suggest there are more Clinton voters than Trump voters. But are there more Clinton voters than Trump voters who are motivated to get to the polls? Or if not, does it really matter, given that the Democrats have (we keep being reassured) a crackerjack, well-financed get-out-the-vote operation and the Trump campaign has almost no ground game whatsoever? All the smart money, all the savviest poll analysts, almost all the political pros (including those of the Republican persuasion) say that Clinton will win. They also said that Trump couldn’t win the GOP primary. If you are a Clinton supporter sleeping soundly at night, you know something I don’t.

Watching Jimmy Fallon’s softball Donald Trump interview, one viewer noted that Fallon seems to have created a show aiming only “to make wacky celebrity clips go viral online.” Fallon, seemingly in agreement, has responded to criticism by asking simply, “Have you seen my show?” Was Jimmy Fallon just doing his job?
Fallon was doing his job as a late-night talk-show host as he sees it — to generate lighthearted, late-night comedic fun. This did not stop him from looking like a fool toadying before a racist thug. Which raises the larger question: Can entertainers engage in business as usual when someone like Trump, who threatens the Constitution and national security, has a real chance of securing the White House?

Samantha Bee is now arguing that not just Fallon but Saturday Night Live, which enlisted Trump as a host, have contributed to his rise. Further complicating the matter is that both Fallon’s Tonight Show and SNL are on NBC, which promoted Trump for years on The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice. NBC is also the network that fielded the notoriously unbalanced prime-time forum on national security where the Today show host Matt Lauer roughed up Clinton but not Trump, and it’s the network that allowed Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski to promote Trump shamelessly during the crucial early primary campaign. (The MSNBC breakfast-show hosts turned on Trump later, but, according to a report by Dylan Byers of CNN this week, are cozying up to him again.) In all of these cases, it was lightweight entertainers or talking heads, not journalists, who allowed Trump to preen in the best light. It’s not in their job description to do otherwise. Can we hold them responsible?

To a small extent, sure. And we can also blame cable-news networks that have lavished airtime on Trump when he doesn’t merit it (while at times neglecting Clinton when she does), and we can blame journalists who were slow to challenge Trump’s incessant lying (though most major news organizations have been crying foul from the start). But what we don’t want to face is the fact that there are millions of Americans who know exactly who Trump is and want to vote for him regardless. Few, if any, of them likely watch Fallon or SNL or Morning Joe. The media didn’t create these voters, and they are not going to deter them now.