The Difference Between Trump Panic and Trump Concern
And why it’s important
Disaffection with Donald Trump can take many forms. At the extreme end of the spectrum is pure, panic-stricken hysteria, and involves conceiving of our 45th president as a world-historical threat to decency and civilization; a terrifying, norm-violating, culture-destroying, institution-desecrating madman.
Here is an example from Tom Toles of The Washington Post:
The GOP/Trump project is simultaneously jackhammering the foundation stones beneath the entire American project. They are pulverizing basic respect for facts and scientific methodology, along with fundamental deference to truth. They are mixing the dust into a muddy slurry. …
It is not particular facts that they are out to destroy. It is the whole system of facts. … It is a policy of destroying the very idea that facts are knowable or that facts exist independently from assertion.
This is more hyperventilation than analysis.
What would dialed-down distress look like? What would a movement away from Trump Panic and toward Trump Concern consist of?
Here’s an attempt at a less apocalyptic version of the narrative.
The Trump administration is interested in projecting success rather than failure. To that end, they present their actions and decisions in a positive light. Since the media remains the most prominent intermediary between the administration and the people — in terms of both reach and influence — the Trump administration has a media strategy that involves aggressively countering failure narratives with success narratives.
Trump’s supporters have distrusted mainstream media outlets independently of Trump’s appraisal of these outlets. One study holds that pre-election, 21% of Trump supporters claimed to trust the media, with that number dropping to 15% post-election. While this suggests Trump’s stance has exacerbated a distrust of the media, it doesn’t suggest he’s responsible for his supporters’ a priori beliefs about the media’s unreliability.
The emergence of a now-ubiquitous conservative media industry is evidence of popular disaffection with mainstream coverage. Rhetoric aside, Trump’s abiding frustration is not so much that the media outright lie about him — though he surely believes this — but that they are operating with a pre-formed belief about Trump’s unfitness for office, with a concomitant agenda to see Republicans lose numbers in 2018 and Trump lose the White House in 2020, and their coverage reflects this ideological priority.
The Triumphs of Trump
A month into the Trump Era, what has our 45th president gotten right?
So what does Trump do? He utilizes his own communication channels with the people (Twitter, Sean Spicer pressers, Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders on-air appearances, etc.) and harnesses the power of conservative and alt-right media organizations to run counternarratives. What has set him apart is that he does this in a totalizing way, meaning he authorizes and at times even demands factually disputing media coverage, as opposed to merely pointing out that the media is slanted or tilted against him.
An example here might help. Whereas a standard-fare Republican president might see 4 out of 5 stories on a newspaper’s homepage as critical and require that a counternarrative casting the administration in a positive light be pushed to other outlets or be offered by the press secretary, Trump will take on the individual claims within those 4 stories and dispute them factually, regardless of their evidentiary strength.
When Trump called a federal judge in Seattle a “so-called judge” for issuing a stay on Trump’s first travel ban, Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, told Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal that he found attacks on judges “demoralizing” and “disheartening.”
What would our standard-fare Republican do? Probably say something to the effect of: “Judge Gorsuch’s remarks reveal the profound respect he has for the law. The administration is more confident than ever it has made the very best choice for who should occupy Justice Scalia’s seat.”
What did Trump do? He claimed that Senator Blumenthal “mischaracterized” and “misrepresented” Gorsuch’s comments. Since Blumenthal exaggerated his military service, Trump argued, he cannot be trusted to accurately convey Gorsuch’s words.
Our hypothetical president’s attempt at running interference puts a “spin” on the story, certainly, but does so without factually disputing the claims. Trump’s approach is to dispute the original narrative altogether.
This doesn’t have the effect of “pulverizing basic respect for facts” or of “destroying the very idea that facts are knowable.” There is nothing so philosophically momentous going on. Rather, Trump’s response comes closer to functioning this way: it represents Trump trying to counter the suggestion that his own SCOTUS pick is anti-Trump.
The Unveiling of Trump 2.0
Did Trump’s address to Congress signal the long-awaited pivot?
That’s how people interpret him. There’s not a person in America who doesn’t know that Trump is an aggressive self-promoter, and although it’s certainly true that much of what he says is taken literally by his supporters, that’s a far cry from the suggestion that he is ushering America toward an utter abandoment of the concept of truth.
In my judgment, Trump is a destructive force in American politics. But his is an opportunistic destructiveness — he relies on a decay already there. Toles, in his piece for The Washington Post quoted above, sees Trump as the original source of destruction; the defiler of Pleasantville. But the pathologies that enabled Trump’s ascent were present long before he came on the scene.
What, then, is Trump’s part in this state of decay?
By now it’s beyond reasonable dispute that Trump operates with the following principle: if a piece of information is flattering, publicly exalt both the data and the source from which it came; if a piece of information is unflattering, publicly dispute its significance or even its veracity, and declare its source to be unreliable.
This isn’t an unprecedented strategy — politicians often abide by this principle without much controversy — but what is genuinely, frustratingly new is Trump’s willingness to adapt his judgment of one and the same company, or organization, or media entity, or public personality based solely on the variable of whether they say something flattering or unflattering about him.
That is, it is transparently obvious that the only basis for Trump’s praise or Trump’s condemnation is whether the information in question is Trump Positive or Trump Negative. This posture is an utter rejection of some of our most basic intellectual norms, chief among them the public acceptance of the supremacy of reasons for guiding belief.
To a large extent, we’re obviously not guided by reasons, but this is never embraced at the norm level. We think we are, and we think it’s good to be so guided. But Trump’s behavior pokes at society’s self-conception by more obviously, and more transparently, basing his praise on positive coverage and his condemnation on negative coverage.
In other words, it’s more obvious with Trump that reasons or arguments are not what he uses to base his assessments. This attempts to normalize non-rational forms of support for positions, for judging things, but here’s the key takeaway: it doesn’t create them or introduce them. The decay has been there all along; people style themselves as guided by reasons, but in large part this is a self-deception.
Why will Trump be less disastrous than Toles and the Trump Panic school are led to believe? Because his presidency will come and go without our norms actually changing. We will continue to believe that being guided by reasons and arguments is important, even though in our actual practice we will continue to largely disregard them.