Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, a possible turning point in the Trump presidency and the rebuilding of our nation’s newsrooms.
After the most transformative week the country has seen during his presidency, Donald Trump’s public approval is slipping in a wave of new polls, and a number of prominent Republicans have begun to publicly withhold their support. Have we reached a turning point?
“Trump is flailing like an overturned turtle,” wrote the Times columnist Jennifer Senior last weekend, hoping against hope like many of us that maybe, just maybe, this time is different. There is no shortage of evidence. Trump has lost white eminences of the NFL like Roger Goodell and Drew Brees. He has lost the Episcopal and Catholic leaders of Washington after the photo op in which he manhandled the Bible much as he did those women he bragged about grabbing on the Access Hollywood tape. And he adds further proof daily, if any were needed, that he has lost his mind. A man who feels he gets away with lying about anything up to and including the weather thought America would disregard video showing troops under his administration’s order violently attacking peaceful protesters in front of St. John’s Church. Trump thought we’d look at a video of burly Buffalo cops pushing over a rail-thin 75-year-old protester in broad daylight and still buy into his theory that the victim was an “Antifa provocateur” who staged the bloody cracking of his own skull.
No wonder that yesterday the flailing, overturned turtle had his lawyer demand that CNN retract and apologize for a poll showing him with a 38 percent approval rating and 14 points behind Joe Biden. Calling bad news “Fake News” wasn’t enough to curb his anxiety anymore.
But as grim as things may seem for (and to) Trump, if there’s one lesson we can learn from American history — from all of it, from the birth of the nation to this very minute — is that white supremacists will fight with everything they’ve got to preserve their power. And they have done so successfully more often than not, Robert E. Lee’s surrender notwithstanding. Though Trump is trailing in all legitimate polls — if not always by as large a margin as in CNN’s — those same surveys show that one data point hasn’t changed: He retains the near-total loyalty of his own party. His approval rating among the GOP rank and file in CNN’s poll is 88 percent. It’s nearly unanimous among Republicans on Capitol Hill, Mitt Romney and (occasionally) Lisa Murkowski excepted.
Trump knows he has that base’s blessing to run a full-out white supremacist campaign. He isn’t wasting any time. Even as NASCAR banned the Confederate flag yesterday, he declared that he would refuse to rename American military bases named after defeated Confederate leaders. Trump also announced yesterday that he would not only hold his first pandemic rally on June 19 — Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery — but would do so in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where, in 1921, rioting whites massacred as many as 300 people and incinerated all but a block of the city’s prosperous black neighborhood. This isn’t any old racial dog whistle, it’s the screech of a pack of vicious dogs like those Trump threatened to sic on Black Lives Matter demonstrators.
Of course, Trump doesn’t know Tulsa’s history, but those around him do — including Stephen Miller, who, at one point according to reports this week, was being tasked to write a Trump speech on racial relations. Miller and his cohort would also know that Ronald Reagan had set the GOP template for such a political provocation in 1980, when he opened his general election campaign by giving a speech on “states’ rights” in the same Mississippi county where three civil rights workers had been notoriously slaughtered during the Freedom Summer of 1964.
Reagan won in a landslide. Trump can’t and won’t repeat that history in 2020. The current numbers suggest that he can’t eke out his narrow Electoral College victory of 2016. But there is another way to win that doesn’t require getting the most votes — and it’s the same way that the forces of white supremacy have always won. You suppress black votes. If you can do that, you don’t have to care what CNN pollsters say.
What happened in Georgia’s primary election this week is as handy a preview as any of what’s in store. Georgia is turning blue. It has an anomalous two Senate seats up for grabs this year, when Mitch McConnell’s slender majority is on the line. It may be in play in the presidential contest as well. Since 2018, when Stacey Abrams lost Georgia’s governorship by 55,000 votes in a midterm election blighted by voter suppression, some 700,000 new voters, many young and nonwhite, have been added to the rolls.
The white supremacist party’s game plan to counter that threat was made clear this week: utter chaos. There was a breakdown in voting machines (purchased from a vendor with close ties to the Republican governor, Brian Kemp) that centered on black neighborhoods in Atlanta (including the one where Martin Luther King grew up), and a breakdown in mail voting that led to even Abrams herself receiving a defective ballot.
This is just a glimpse of what will be a national effort. Trump and his party will use any means they can to abridge the right to vote — whether it be this week’s vote by the Republican-majority senate in Iowa to restrict mail ballots, or White House inaction on Russian election interference, or the administration’s ongoing enabling of a COVID-19 second wave that can be exploited to sow further chaos into the electoral process right through Election Day.
Trump may or may not be at the tipping point. The country is.
The resignation of James Bennet from the New York Times’ Opinion section, alongside similar turmoil in other newsrooms, seems to mark a recognition at the highest levels that many of the inherited conventions of mainstream journalism are out of step with the times. Moving forward, what do they need to do to refocus?
I agree with the press analysts, among them Ben Smith of the Times, that the greater issue raised by this institutional debacle is not the question of what opinion pieces should be published, but the broader one roiling the news operations of all major mainstream media in the Trump era. As David Roberts of Vox put it succinctly, these newsrooms are “habituated to a notion of ‘objectivity’ that makes telling the real story impossible.” The real story that gets short-changed is not the administration’s bottomless corruption that the press, often led by the Times, has often exposed with first-rate investigative reporting, but is, in Roberts’s term, the “racialized authoritarianism” of the Trump movement. As the Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones said last weekend, news organizations “are really struggling to cover in a way that appears to be nonpartisan a kind of political landscape where one political party has in many ways gone rogue.” By targeting journalism itself as an enemy, Trump and his party have mocked and destabilized the press’s traditional “two-sided” approach to news coverage and have been relentless in exploiting its weaknesses with propaganda and distracting, provocative stunts.
The truth is that neither the Times nor any other news organization has ever been scrupulously “nonpartisan.” Just look at how 99 percent of the mainstream press tilted its news coverage to lend credence to the Bush administration’s fictional case for war in Iraq. Decisions about what’s important and what’s not are made daily. The Times (and not just the Times) was similarly flummoxed by the racialized authoritarianism of Nazi Germany during World War II, and relegated the Holocaust to tiny articles on inside pages.
Perhaps more Jewish editors with clout in the newsroom would have made a difference then. Certainly more black editors would make a difference now. This week the Times’ chief White House correspondent wrote a piece aptly comparing Trump to the virulent segregationist and presidential candidate George Wallace in 1968, but then threw the “other side” a crumb by ahistorically asserting without evidence that Trump “does not share Wallace’s most extreme positions.” A news story that abutted it in the print edition that day described the Republican “Southern strategy” as being an effort by which “candidates sought to win over onetime Democrats by portraying themselves as tough on crime and disorder.” Perhaps a different editor might have asked why, perchance, this strategy was called “Southern.”
A non-racial issue that illustrates the press’s dilemma involves covering Trump’s tweets. They are covered profusely, but with rare exceptions — his tweet about the Buffalo demonstrator being a prominent one — they are played as side shows to the larger narrative of administration and congressional events. But don’t we know by now that these tweets are the main events for this presidency and its base? When the president of the United States repeatedly accuses a television personality of murder or tweets out a video attacking the memory of George Floyd before 80-million-plus followers, that is banner-headline news, not to be lost in the middle of a news story or to go unmentioned on a Sunday morning talk show. Somehow we’ve fallen into the habit of normalizing such actions by filing them away under the heading “that’s just Trump being Trump.”
Make no mistake that the big winner of the Tom Cotton debacle was Tom Cotton in particular and Trumpism in general. The Times’ disowning of his incendiary opinion piece has allowed him and the usual suspects on the crybaby right to liken the paper to Mao’s China and the groupthink of PC college campuses. Some of the loudest voices sounding this gong were at Murdoch outlets like Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, who allow only occasional and ineffectual liberal dissenters (remember Alan Colmes?) to sully their party line. They don’t even pretend to give a damn about “both sides” as they enforce their own political correctness.
Mitch McConnell’s former chief of staff, Josh Holmes, told the Washington Post that Cotton has emerged at the top of front-runners for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024. Whatever happens to Trump in 2020, his white supremacist cause isn’t going anywhere, and Cotton’s rise fulfills my long-held nightmare that its next leader will be far more effective than his predecessor.