How did we get here? The dumbing of America, from Reagan to Trump and beyond

Every Trump tantrum makes headlines, while the actual president's work is ignored. This is Reagan's legacy

By Brian Karem


Published August 31, 2023 9:05AM (EDT)

US President Joe Biden speaks during a community engagement event at the Lahaina Civic Center in Lahaina, Hawaii on August 21, 2023. | Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport after surrendering at the Fulton County jail on August 24, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden speaks during a community engagement event at the Lahaina Civic Center in Lahaina, Hawaii on August 21, 2023. | Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport after surrendering at the Fulton County jail on August 24, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

"To live outside the law, you must be honest."
— Bob Dylan

How screwed are we? I'll tell you.

On Wednesday, the news was all about a big bag of wind destroying Florida and flooding the South, spreading destruction and threatening pestilence and death. 

Then there's Hurricane Idalia.

Also on Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell froze and stood motionless in front of an assembly of reporters — for the second time this summer — so that's encouraging.

But seriously, folks. Last Thursday, Donald Trump turned a 22-minute booking for a felony indictment in Georgia into a six-hour media special, complete with a larger motorcade than the actual president's — with dozens of camera lights on the runway and a chopper-talk session.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden, the aforementioned actual president, quietly lent assistance to Hawaii after the devastating wildfires on Maui, for which he was criticized by Republican members of Congress. He also met with international leaders at the White House this week, and went after Big Pharma to negotiate reduced Medicare prices for 10 common prescription drugs. 

The press? Well, we completely missed the point, as usual, and covered every juvenile tantrum Donald Trump threw in his malevolent attempt to stay in the news. The context is missing. The press is failing us, and people are too ignorant to notice the problem. That's because we're busy dividing ourselves into teams of social cheerleaders, cheering on our champions and literally booing the opposition. 

Welcome to politics 2023. One man, who claims to support Christian values, continues his run for the highest office in the land based on revenge and hypocrisy, while our president, a devout Catholic, is insulted by the likes of Ted Cruz, accused of being anti-Catholic and "the face of corruption" in a post on X (formerly Twitter). Biden, in case anyone cares, goes to church every Sunday. Trump never went once in his four years at the White House. Rumor was it would burst into flames if he did.

It would be easy to claim that all of this is new. But that would also be wrong. The seeds of today's political division and reporting began with Ronald Reagan.

While lying to the press, Reagan also set out to destroy it. He himself was quoted in the New York Times on Oct. 6, 1985, saying, "A substantial part of the political thing is acting and role playing and I know how to do that." 

Of course that's literally all it is today. 

What else is different?

Well, the press itself is different too. Reagan destroyed the FCC's "fairness doctrine" and encouraged media consolidation. Decades later, as social media rose to take the place of the corporate media's diminished role in providing vetted information, the slide accelerated.

People hiding behind anonymous handles rather than their actual names hurled insults and threats. Twitter offered "verified" names as a way to combat that, until Elon Musk took over and turned the verification process upside down, once again making anonymous insults and trolls fashionable.

Every tool used to legitimize and verify information in the last 40 years has evaporated under the push to make money. Fewer companies own most of the corporate media. Fewer independent news platforms exist — and they often get lumped in with bloggers and trolls.

The end result is chaos. Confusion.

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That's how America became stupid. Neil deGrasse Tyson, while trying to address how the U.S. is being left behind in areas such as physics, math and engineering (not to mention infrastructure), observed in a recent speech that "Science illiteracy is rampant in our culture." When he addressed the problems of journalism, he pointed out a headline that read, "80 percent of airplane crash survivors had studied the locations of the exit doors on takeoff." 

As Tyson noted, there are quite a few things wrong with that headline, including this: Did they manage to interview those people who didn't survive plane crashes? Another headline reported that half the schools in a certain district were "below average." No kidding: That's what "average" means. (OK, technically that would be the definition of "median," but to insist on nuance now is pointless.)

Our inherent, vapid stupidity in the news business makes us sound more like characters in the 1970s novelty song "The Streak" than the diligent investigative reporters played by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in  "All the President's Men."

That's right. We're just as proud as we can be of our anatomy and we're inviting public critique.

Too arcane? Try it this way: We don't get it.

The justice system's current big play is the last bid for accountability I'll see in my lifetime for Donald Trump, and by extension all those who hold power and are willing to break the law to keep it.

Donald Trump faces 91 felony charges in four different jurisdictions, brought by approximately 100 American citizens sitting on four different grand juries. This major play by the justice system is the last bid for accountability that I'll see in my lifetime for Donald Trump, and by extension for those who hold power and are willing to break the law in order to keep it. If it fails, then, quite literally, God help us. There will be no holding the rich and the powerful accountable — for anything, ever. 

Meanwhile, Trump himself is desperate. He smells of it as surely as a "Supernatural" demon smells of sulfur. Yet we continue to give him a thin veneer of credibility by allowing him to claim that a legitimate prosecution is political persecution.

Who cares what Donald Trump thinks? 

When Charles Manson went on trial for orchestrating a series of gruesome murders, we did not dance on the head of a pin for his demons. Is Trump a lesser demon? No. If anything, he's worse. His criminal activity has caused the suffering of millions, if not billions, across the planet and the fallout has only just begun.

We give his illegitimate political spawn, like Vivek Ramaswamy and Marjorie Taylor Greene, ample opportunity to propose bombing our allies for supplying drugs that millions of our citizens demand, while claiming climate change is a hoax. These minor demons are drafting off Trump while creating whole new lanes of lunacy.

In the corporate media, we keep fighting over competing inaccurate narratives while members of Congress contribute to the mayhem by "playing a role," as Ronald Reagan put it 40 years ago.

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The stupidity of the press is actually harder to decipher than the pandering of our politicians to constituents whom they view as fans of their fictional personas. Most of us are vaguely aware of the danger posed by Donald Trump. Some of us are acutely aware of it. But we're also insecure and ignorant and not sure how to write or speak about him. If we simply call him a liar and a charlatan, we risk being called partisan. If we don't show respect for "both sides," then we are sullying our reputation — unless of course we are overtly partisan, and in that case we don't care. 

Either way, we flail about because of our inexperience. Everyone — even corporate news managers — say they wish we had more Walter Cronkites than Tucker Carlsons in the profession. You know, people with experience and common sense, rather than clowns chasing shadows. 

Even corporate news managers say they wish they had more Walter Cronkites than Tucker Carlsons. But no one in TV would hire or promote someone like Cronkite today.

The very same managers who wistfully wish for the "good old days" do not hire or promote people like Walter Cronkite, particularly not in television. The grizzled beat reporter with vast experience has been replaced by smiling, blissfully ignorant and much cheaper talking heads who can either entice or enrage an audience with their good looks while sounding knowledgeable. They definitely aren't. We too have chased the Reagan model, and cover politics the same way politicians conduct their business: flash over substance.

You don't have to look at political reporters. Just look at how we cover natural disasters, like the hurricane in Florida. How many times have you heard a reporter tell an anchor during a live shot, "Great question!" That's usually a self-congratulatory comment, since the reporter has likely scripted the question for the anchor. The routine descriptions of all hurricanes, since I began covering them in the 1980s, include cliché phrases like, "Never seen anything like this before" and "unparalleled destruction," while the reporters wade through flood waters trying to look brave. 

Please. TV reporters have covered hurricanes and major weather events the same way since Dan Rather waded into the flood waters while covering Hurricane Carla for KHOU in 1961. His stunt reporting eventually led to him replacing Cronkite as the anchor of "CBS Evening News." Rather is revered today, but his contemporary peers often did not see him that way. He was a product of television, seen as a performer in his earlier years. He grew into his role and earned his stripes, but he was also the anchor who critics argue ushered in the new era of flash over substance. The fact that he's so respected today speaks not only to his growth as a reporter, but perhaps also to our lowered expectations of reporters. 

But please: It's all about the Barbie movie! Or the horse race of politics, or the polls.

We can report on numbers and fictional characters. They are simple and clean. People are not. Covering people takes a lot of experience, an ability to understand nuances of speech, actions and culture. We have none of that today — either among the press or among politicians.

Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill said of Reagan that "he knows less than any president I've ever known." The joke that circulated around D.C. during his presidency was that Reagan had tried to defect to the Soviet Union but was sent back because "he didn't know anything." As a performer playing Reagan in the off-Broadway show "Rap Master Ronnie" put it, "If you're right 90 percent of the time, why quibble over the remaining three percent?" 

John Wayne, a notorious conservative and longtime ally of Reagan's, wrote him a blistering letter in 1977 telling Reagan to stop misinforming people about the Panama Canal treaty. "I'll show you point by God damn point in the treaty where you are misinforming people. This is not my point of view against your point of view. These are facts," Wayne wrote.

Reagan didn't care. He played to the crowd he helped create, which has proliferated since he won the presidency in 1980. "You'd be surprised how much being a good actor pays off," he told the Washington Post in 1984.

Now you understand how Donald Trump and his minions can spout limitless hypocrisy and get away with it. And you understand how the press, which was once able to accurately point out the lies and hypocrisy, today cannot.

"Floating down the stream of time," George Harrison once told us, "makes no difference where you are or where you'd like to be."

Yes. It is all too much.

We are led by aging and frail men and women who should step aside, or by grifters who con their constituents because they don't know or don't care about anything better.

And all of this is being reported by indifferent, insecure, ignorant and incompetent journalists whose only goal is to fill time, gain ratings and pretend they know what they're doing. 

That's how screwed we are.

The only consolation is that if the Justice Department remains sound, then Donald Trump will likely spend his remaining years behind bars, staring at himself in the mirror with no access to the outside world.

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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Atlanta Commentary Donald Trump Hawaii Indictment Joe Biden Republicans Ronald Reagan