It’s difficult for us to believe we are part of the problem. Maybe that’s human nature or, maybe, in a reflection of the deep American cultural and political rifts, it is just a byproduct.
We hope that the other guy changes, but believe that none of it involves us.
So, when Trump addressed a campaign rally crowd in Wisconsin on Wednesday, the same day that Americans of all political stripes seemed to suggest that sending real or fear-inducing pipe bombs around the nation aimed at a series of individuals who find fault with this president, he called for a somewhat more civil public discourse.
That sentiment lasted only a short time, of course, before Trump was once again criticizing “the media” essentially for helping to incite the would-be bombings — without ever suggesting that his own tone, insults, falsehoods and rally cries had a role in creating divides. This is the same president that a week ago promoted a convicted congressman for body-slamming a reporter, who has called at his rallies for scattered beatings, but who is saying in public that the Saudis erred badly in killing a journalist.
In the light of morning, the president tweeted, “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!”
Meanwhile, the crowd, while awaiting Trump, once again took up its “Lock her up” cries about Hillary Clinton, and kept calling out for a Wall to stop immigrants. It seemed a demonstration that even if the president himself was feeling a need to soften his tone that did not extend to the acolytes.
Nor does it seem to apply to those who take to social media daily, calling out the president in even-more harsh curse words and dismissive language.
For myself, I have taken pains since starting these essays after the 2016 election to focus as much as possible on governmental actions that Trump is taking, looking often at the contradictions of policy-making and the effects of his actions rather than his words alone. I may not always succeed, but that has been the intent. For me, journalism has been about storytelling that bears witness.
What’s missing in Trump’s criticisms of the press and what’s missing in his seeming view of what constitutes a kinder, gentler debate are his actions as president.
In straight policy terms, this president highlights continuing improvements in an economy that began eight years earlier; he celebrates a tax cut that is unpaid for and never acknowledges the deficits it has created; he wants credit for jobless rate reductions that do not reflect wage increases. He is quick to credit himself for defusing nuclear standoff with North Korea while that country has resisted taking action to de-nuclearize; he has attacked American allies on a variety of fronts, while pursuing an isolating America First policy; he has embraced autocratic governments and has supported a sheaf of policies that have unleashed racial and economic schisms. He has attacked consumer and environmental protection for the sake of increased private corporate profit.
These are the policies he has pursued. Beyond them, he has trampled on ethics concerns, fanned the fires of misogyny and enmity for same-sex and transgender rights, has tried to undercut the special counsel investigation of Russian influence in our elections.
What exactly does Trump want from “the media”?
He apparently wants simple fawning, a propaganda machine that spits out only the words he speaks, a political “ally” that helps to sell his own programs. That is not what “the media” do, any more than it is the job of “the media” to oppose everything this president does. We need an independent report on what was said, what was done, how it fits or not with what has come before, and what effects the actions will prompt. At least that was my interest in pursuing a former career as a journalist.
But independent reporting on the effects of his tax policies — to say nothing of how he garnered his own fortune — are not “attacks.” They are a requirement for the media to determine the context of current events.
It is not fair for the president to say he wants a quieter debate and then use campaign rally speeches to whip up anti-culture crowds. More to the point, however, the president’s choices in style and policy-making are leading necessarily to independent actions, including insane choices like sending pipe bombs, by those who take the words and act on them. Trump is not to blame for the crime, but he is responsible for tone-setting.
From the start, Trump, perhaps because he did not win the popular vote, has chosen to be the leader of his faction of the nation, not of the nation as a whole. He should not be surprised to see that results in deep division.