The Decision to Preempt Programming and Broadcast Trump: The Reflexive and Dangerous Deference to Conservative State-Building

Here’s a simple test to help understand American politics and political economy. When is an idea, a policy or institution, or a request inherently valid? When it’s conservative. When are these things subjected to scrutiny, even a bad-faith, fault-finding appraisal? When they are not.

Accept this, and much that seems inscrutable will be legible, even predictable. A case in point: as The New York Times reports this afternoon, when President Barack Obama requested airtime from television networks to discuss immigration reform, the networks turned him down. Yet, in 2018 and now weeks into a government shutdown, the networks ceded to Trump’s request for eight minutes of prime time television to discuss the imperative of a “wall” on the country’s shared southern border with Mexico.

I’m putting the “wall” in quotes, not just because we have no idea what sort of barrier Trump has in mind (or whether he himself knows what he has in mind), but because it’s a preposterous policy idea that no well-regarded expert, even one determined to limit immigration, would ever propose or endorse. As research has shown, the physical barriers already in place on the southern border, many of them introduced since 9/11, have not slowed or deterred migrants bound for the US. But they have altered migration routes to more dangerous terrain, and kept itinerant migrants from returning to their home-country. So if you like to inflict needless suffering, or keep the numbers of undocumented workers in this country artificially high, then by all means, build more physical barriers.

So what we really have is a president who identified a problem and proposed a set of policy solutions, and a president who manufactured a crisis to insist on an idea (a metaphor?) that enjoys no credible support. Guess who the networks chose to air live?

The contrast between how the networks handled the respective requests from Obama and Trump is striking — and for me, extremely familiar. In many ways, this is a distinction I’ve been drawing attention to my entire adult life: first with a book on the World War II GI Bill, which was, alongside all of its accomplishments, a scandal-ridden program that escaped a reputation as such; then with a book on drug prohibition, a scandal-ridden and counterproductive approach to a problem that nevertheless remains intact and for the most part unquestioned; and numerous other writings — some peer-reviewed, others intended for a wider audience — on conservative state-building projects or places like the FBI, the proliferation of criminal law, the hidden punishment imperative behind big data, and our handling of the opioid crisis.

My most recent piece on conservative state-building, which appeared in Vox, makes a number of points that I would gladly regard as career summations. Among them: that conservative state-building is never judged on the basis of results; and that the execution of its mission tends to reside in departments incentivized only toward applying greater amounts of enforcement. While the policies of the “gun and badge” avoid real scrutiny, they enjoy a passive support, in part because dissent is well-policed (as I can attest) and rarely platformed.

And then we have those instances of active platforming, as we see from the decision of television network executives today. More subtle, but even more important, is the role such platforming plays in establishing a narrative context. By virtue of this decision, network executives tell us that Trump’s message is urgent and a matter of national interest; Obama’s message is arbitrary, optional, and perhaps unimportant. This inherent signaling will prevail over and above any attempt to “fact check” or counter Trump’s message with pundits whom no one likes, and to whom no one listens.

The disparity in how the networks chose to handle Obama and Trump also bears a relation to what I have elsewhere called the “A Tale of Two Narratives,” or media coverage of violence deemed to be “political” in nature. And naturally this entire constellation of issues has an even deeper to connection to “whiteness,” the assumed valid predicate of white identity, with all else regarded as a departure that must prove itself, often as compliant, and generally judged according to exceedingly high or bad-faith standards.

I don’t want to end these thoughts on an abrupt and cryptic note, but I am serious (and in the places referred to above, more deliberative) when I say that our future as a country will be determined by our willingness to recognize and remove the unearned advantages enjoyed by conservative state-building — including its roots, its multiplying progeny, and its most valued instruments, ones that are used not so much defend its institutions and policies against criticism, but to suggest that that these lie beyond criticism’s reach. As we already knew, and today has only underscored, television executives fall in the last category, and many of the benefits their corporations enjoy as a result of performing “public service” ought be reexamined, since the predicate upon which they were originally conferred no longer seems tenable.