Rachel Maddow and the Graceful Art of Playing Yourself
Rachel Maddow was probably the first pundit I looked up to. I wasn’t around for the Air America days, but then again not many were. However, in the heat of the 08 election, hers was the one show on cable TV I turned to get my news and analysis. She was smart, she was angry, and she was right. Come for the incredibly detailed and wonky explanations of the big stories, stay for the incredibly polite yet unflinching take downs of squirming politicians. I like to think that there aren’t many celebrities I would feel butterflies for if I met them in real life. For a long time Rachel was my ideological and intellectual hero. I would totally “squee” if had met her.
This was during the end of the Bush years. Just calling yourself liberal felt like an act of defiance. MSNBC was never as liberal as they claimed to be but it was still the only game in town if you wanted to see progressives get any sort of airtime on mainstream media. Something changed after the election though. Being liberal became less about arguing for policy and more about arguing for politicians. But only the right politicians. And questioning a democratic president and his democratic senate was out of the question. Things that we hated under Bush we sort of just didn’t talk about under Obama. The progressive pundits that criticized him from the left were branded fringe and were only invited on to do battle with wingnut conservatives. As if the two sides were equally as crazy.
I understood why Rachel never went after Obama. It just wasn’t the way things worked at 30 Rock. She was an upstart progressive radio host who found herself hosting a primetime slot on a major cable news network. And she was still doing amazing reporting. She was still educating audiences and schooling politicians. If giving the Obama administration a pass was the price for having someone like her on the air, I could live with it. Of course this was during the rise of the progressive blogosphere and podcasting network. I had the Young Turks and Rachel’s former Air America station mate Sam Seder to call the balls and strikes on Obama.
It during the run up to this past election between She Who Will Not Be Named and The Tangerine Dream, that I noticed something wasn’t the same on the Rachel Maddow show. It started becoming less and less about educating you on obscure facts and how policy works and more about attacking ridiculous republicans. Which is fun. I love laughing and getting mad at republicans as much as the next snowflake. But it gets old kind of quickly if you never make the case for why democrats are better. And to be fair, that case is kind of hard to make when the democrats spent the last 8 years trying to be republican.
I stopped watching her show every night. When I found that she put the program out as a podcast every day, I tried to listen on my way to work. But even then, I realized I just wasn’t that into it anymore. I wanted to hear about the issues and all that was left was the horse race. The horse race is definitely interesting but without policy, it’s extremely hollow. It had happened. Rachel Maddow had become establishment.
I say all this to you now so when you read my next sentence you know it’s coming from a place of upmost respect and at one point adoration.
Rachel Maddow played the fuck out of herself last night.
So here’s what we know. Someone mailed President Prejudice’s 2005 1040 tax form to journalist David Cay Johnston. According to Johnston, Trump might have even leaked this document himself. The 1040 tells us a few things. We know that in 2005, the Orange Panther made about 150 million in revenue and paid about 38 million in taxes. We know that he only paid about 5.3 million in personal income tax and the rest of his tax bill was made up by something called the Alternative Minimum Tax. (Just a coincidence but President Funny Money Bags wants to repeal this Alternative Minimum Tax) And we know that he and the all new Kia Melania filed jointly.
Annnnnd that’s about it.
It’s newsworthy. It should have been covered. Covering it was not how Rachel played herself. This was:
How does that sound to you? Does that sound like someone leaked a small part of Donald Trump’s tax returns from one year, which in turn doesn’t really tell us much about his finances other than that he actually has paid taxes for at least one year?
No that sounds likes a smoking gun. That sounds like they caught Trump coming out of a seedy hotel in little Moscow, with two russian hookers and briefcase full of non sequential bills. And Rachel knew this because the responsible, intellectually honest adult in her followed up that first tweet with this:
There’s no way that Rachel and her staff didn’t look at this document before they went to air. She went to the (very) White House for a response and they ended up just releasing it themselves to take the air out her sails. Here is their statement:
Are you ready for the shocker? They aren’t completely wrong. Well I mean they are wrong about Trump being successful or having an agenda or that publishing unsolicited tax returns is illegal. But the part about being desperate for ratings…..
We all know Fox News is conservative, and MSNBC is liberal, and CNN is just trying to patch the bugs in Wolf Blitzer’s software so he doesn’t glitch out and start trying to eat the fancy TV he has to present news from. But what all three of these networks have in common is that they are establishment. By that I mean they are only really allowed to represent certain views from certain people on the right (Fox News), the middle (CNN), and allegedly the left (MSNBC). These certain people are usually donors to one or both of the political parties, or at least someone whose opinions do not threaten these donors in any way. Donald Trump for all his many, many, many faults, is not establishment, and thus is a problem for all three networks. Fox News helped to create this problem and is dealing with it by leaning into the curve. They are letting their most unhinged hosts go to town and having Roger Ailes grope the rest until they leave. CNN and MSNBC, having been labeled fake news and being constantly attacked by Melissa McCarthy’s stunt double, have decided to take up the good fight against this administration, thus cementing in the minds of average Americans their incurable liberal bias.
MSNBC’s particular avenue of attack has been Russia. It’s almost all they talk about at this point and that is not an accident. The establishment left does not like Trump. They really wish he would just implode or get impeached already. They spent the entire election cycle mostly just broadcasting everything he said and thinking that being an incredibly racist, sexist moron draped in ill fitting suits would be enough to turn the American public off. And it worked for more than half the electorate. Just not the half that lives in the rust belt.
And yet losing an election to the first patient to undergo successful asshole to mouth transplant surgery was not enough to convince them that this wasn’t a winning strategy. A winning strategy does indeed exist and the person who came up with it couldn’t get the time of day from MSNBC or any other establishment outlet. You know who I’m talking about. Uncle Bernie. And I’m not mentioning Bernie because I preferred him to Hillary Clinton (shit I said her name), or because I think his policy positions are better for the American people. I bring up good old saint Bernard because unlike the establishment, his campaign was centered around giving people something to vote for instead of something to vote against.
Here’s an interesting tid bit from a study done by the Wesleyan Media Project (awkward). Only 25 percent of Hillary’s adds during the campaign had some element of policy in them. Even better, 90 percent of Hillary’s attack ads went after Trump as a person and not his policy. Trump, to his credit, had some sort of policy discussion in 70 percent of his adds.
As with anything, there is a reason for this. The establishment on the left knows that the little people that support them hate the right. So as long as they can broadcast how much they hate the right too they expect the masses to keep voting for them and tuning in during primetime. I mean, what else are you going to do? Vote for Rand Paul? Watch Bill O’Reilly? But while they can attack the people on the right and heartlessness of their agenda, they can’t really offer a substantive alternative. Because while the establishment left and the establishment right disagree on social issues and role of government, the dirty little secret is that they aren’t that far apart on everything else.
The best way to beat the Trump and the conservatives propping him up is to offer a real alternative. Yes Trumpcare sucks but it’s just a irresponsible version of Obamacare, which is a conservative health care plan in the first place. Bernie drew large crowds and energized voters because he offered a real alternative. Something that people could see directly benefiting them. Instead of defending Obamacare to people who were still in pretty bad shape when it came to health insurance, he was honest about its flaws and made a strong case for single payer. Hillary and the establishment couldn’t do this because insurance companies are major donors.
And this brings me back to Rachel Maddow. She wants to resist Trump. This is good. She has a very large platform to do it. This is also good. But because her platform is provided to her by the establishment, the only way she can do it is by trying to make The Great Orange Hope look bad. Whether it be his connection to Russia, or his tax returns, or his connection to Russia, or something in his tax returns that connects him to Russia, she and the rest of the mainstream media are desperate to find that smoking gun that finally makes people realize how much of a dangerous pile of moldy potatoes Trump really is.
And this is how you play yourself. We of the liberal persuasion already know that Trump is full of whatever shit does when shit goes to the bathroom. Rachel knew this return didn’t reveal much, so even though she devoted her entire program last night to the reveal, much of the discussion was about what the document didn’t show and how badly we need to find it. This was echoed by much of liberal twitter. They made sure to point out even at even at 25 percent, his tax rate was much lower than the average American. But over in conservative land they are loving this. Not only was there no clear evidence of wrongdoing uncovered last night, it actually proved that Trump does pay taxes. Who cares about the rate, 38 million is a lot of money to pay in taxes. It actually gives credence to the idea that the (pure) White House leaked the return themselves to take some heat off of the awful Paul Ryan health care bill and make the mainstream media look a little foolish. And being the top dog at MSNBC of course it fell to Rachel to make a fool of herself hyping up the reveal only to reveal there needs to be more reveals.
I think there is something to the Russia story. You don’t lie as often and as needlessly as the Trump administration does unless you have something to hide. You don’t refuse to release your tax returns unless you have something to hide. And I don’t think it will stay hidden. This administration is too full of incompetence and infighting for secrets to be kept forever. But by chasing every bit of smoke not matter how thin and wispy, Rachel and her cohorts have all but guaranteed that by the time the real bombshell drops, people won’t really give a shit. Trump supporters already don’t give a shit. They aren’t blind, they know Trump is a corrupt liar. They just hate the establishment left more. They are immune to personal attacks on their savior because their love for Trump isn’t about Trump, it’s about saying “fuck you” to all the people telling them they shouldn’t love Trump. Why should they listen to the establishment left? Thems the bad guys.
The story deserved to be covered. No doubt. Give it a segment. Make it the subject of “The Interview” (play sound effect of papers shuffling), but to give it a whole show and multiple guests to come on and do their best excited outrage face, just confirms what the other side thinks of you. That you are just angry that Trump won and no one likes your liberal policies. If your goal as a liberal pundit is to convince people that liberalism will benefit them, then you kind of have to try to convince people that liberalism will benefit them. There is no point in trying to convince the other side that their team is the bad guys. That’s what they already think about us. If it turns out that someone has a tape of Trump having a threeway way with Putin and a Capuchin Monkey, then so be it. But if bragging about sexual assault or running a ponzi scheme isn’t enough to make people doubt a person’s qualifications to president I don’t know what will.
I still have respect for Rachel Maddow. I still feel like I would be just a bit intimidated if I ever met her. I hope maybe one day she will leave MSBC and get back to being the liberal firebrand she used to be, and sometimes still is when she’s on Bill Maher. I just hope that if I ever do meet her in person, she will have read this piece first so I don’t have to tell her to her face how badly she played herself.