"Both sides are equally guilty!": Why the media's favorite narrative is downright dangerous in the age of Trump

When we can't agree that there's something scary about declining to disavow the KKK, something's wrong

Published March 3, 2016 12:58PM (EST)

Donald Trump (AP/Dennis Van Tine)
Donald Trump (AP/Dennis Van Tine)

When future archaeologists from a far-off planet pick through the remains of our civilization to reconstruct its downfall, they will find one phrase written again and again in our archives that will hold a key to understanding our political culture in the Age of Trump: “Both sides are to blame!”

If you are not familiar with the concept of both-sidesism, it is the animating lifeblood for a certain type of political pundit who is absolutely terrified of accusations that he is a human being with a partisan point of view. His lofty position requires that he appear to be above the grind of day-to-day politicking, of blaming one party or another for the failure of a bill or an initiative, because everyone knows (everyone being the people they drink with in the bar at the Mayflower Hotel) that partisans on both sides of the aisle play games to sabotage each other. So to suggest that it is a fact that a major cause of gridlock in Washington these days is unprecedented obstructionism by Republican members of Congress towards President Obama’s agenda would be gauche. The president must also somehow be to blame because he didn’t invite Mitch McConnell over for the Obama family’s trivia night.

I have been thinking about this plague of both-sidesism a great deal lately as some of our worst pundits and media outlets have used it as a guiding ethos to explain how a loutish vintage Pippi Longstocking doll could become the frontrunner for the presidential nomination of the Republican Party. Granted, columnists have word counts to hit a couple of times a week. So we can’t expect them to write the words “Republicans have gone bug-fuck insane” a couple of hundred times and call it a day. But wouldn’t that be sweet if they did?

The poster boy for this sort of punditry is Ron Fournier, onetime Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press and columnist for the National Journal. Fournier has long been infamous for his complaints throughout the Obama era that bargains could be struck if only the president would lead. He has lately been making a play for the position of Elder Statesman of the D.C. Press Corps who will explain why both sides have given rise to Donald Trump while he, Ron Fournier, floats above it all as the sole member of the Disruption Party, admiring how Trump is shaking up the system, even if Fournier disagrees with his rhetoric.

(That Trump might be a garden-variety racist demagogue of the type that America has regularly produced for a couple hundred years and the only thing special about him is the size of the audience he has attracted never seems to enter Fournier’s thoughts.)

Take, for example, this tweet from Tuesday.

Fournier has been arguing that Americans feel so disconnected from the political process that it was inevitable many would cotton to a fast-talking huckster like Trump, with his vague promises that his election will result in America “winning” again. But he can’t note that some of Trump’s support springs from the deep well of racial bigotry that has poisoned so much of the nation’s history. If only one party benefits from that support, it screws up Fournier’s entire thesis.

So he goes with this tortured construction that essentially says, "Hey, Democrats, the bigots might be supporting the Republican guy, but there was a time when they were all in for your party." To which we might respond that, (1) we’re not just talking about garden-variety bigotry here. Trump is drawing support from, to give one example, actual neo-Confederates who still mourn losing the Civil War. And, (2) so what if people contain multitudes? Once you check that “racial bigotry” box, why should any of the other boxes even matter?

In other words: If the GOP wants to try winning this election with the apparently heretofore-underrepresented white supremacist vote, they are more than welcome to try. Why Democrats should care that these people are so disaffected they would try to attract them by actively working against the broad coalition of minorities that make up much of the party’s base is beyond me.

Or take the dust-up that erupted between CNN’s Van Jones and Jeffrey Lord during the network’s Tuesday night coverage. The fun began when Jones tried to make a point about Trump’s egregious history of race-baiting throughout his public life and tied it to his cutesy attempts this weekend to pretend he didn’t know anything about David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan. Lord spent the first exchange repeating the tired conservative trope that the KKK is a leftist organization because Democrats founded it back when the Democratic Party was the one filled with reactionary racists. (That the KKK’s aim to prevent the march of racial justice, which changes society in ways once thought radical, fits a conservative vision, not one that indicates progress, never appears to register with philistines like Jeffrey Lord.)

Wednesday morning, the two men went back on the air to continue the debate. That there even is a debate over Lord’s ahistorical gibberish and blame-shifting is bad enough. But then during Wednesday’s conversation, CNN anchors Chris Cuomo and Alyson Camerota said this as the statements got heated:

CUOMO: You know, Van, sometimes when you guys are actually in something it's a little harder to see what's going on because you are focused on making these counterpoints. I think I have one for each of you that I think is what's coming out here.


CAMEROTA: Ok, I like the exercise that Chris is doing where it's like couples therapy that Chris and I are in, where you have to mirror each other. So, Jeffrey, do you understand Van's point that Donald Trump needed to give a much more passionate, vociferous response to the question about disavowal the KKK and David Duke?

You see? Some people think the KKK has long been a terrorist organization that murdered thousands of black people in the name of white supremacy and still today holds noxious views on race that should have them cast out forever from decent society, let alone a presidential election. Other people think the KKK is a leftist, progressive organization that should be hung like a millstone around the Democratic Party forever because their tribal loyalty to the GOP and the need to score points for one’s team supersedes the facts of the last 60 years of American history, to say nothing of any sense of decency, assuming there was one there to begin with. Gotta hear both sides!

But organizations like CNN are terrified of being accused of liberal bias. So to avoid it, the network will use its airwaves to entertain the views of a talking Twitter egg. Sure, it makes for good television and you can’t fault a network for chasing ratings. But you can fault it for refusing to pick a side.

By Gary Legum

MORE FROM Gary Legum

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Donald Trump Elections 2016 Gop Primary Media Criticism Van Jones