Donald Trump feeds on human vanity — and as always, the media can't resist

Kristen Welker's NBC interview wasn't "news" — just another overconfident media pro falling into the Heffalump trap

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 18, 2023 11:36AM (EDT)

Donald Trump (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Donald Trump's widely publicized interview with Kristen Welker, the new host of NBC's "Meet the Press," was simply too boring to watch all the way through. One can feel compassion, in an abstract sense, for media professionals or would-be informed citizens who felt that perhaps it was important to try to understand what Trump is "thinking" at this juncture in history, or who rode along for some distance with the argument made by Peter Baker of the New York Times in an apologia tacked onto the end of Welker's interview: The media can't stop asking questions of a major presidential candidate just because that person is a soul-destroying black hole of anti-information who sucks in everyone and everything in his orbit and reduces them to tiny, stupid caricatures of themselves. (That's not exactly how Baker phrased it, to be fair.)

But it was a bad idea for Welker and NBC News to do this interview in the first place, a bad idea to broadcast it and a truly terrible idea to spend any of your one wild and precious life absorbing it. As media critic and NYU professor Jay Rosen observed in an X/Twitter thread, there was "zero innovation" visible in the way NBC's producers approached and structured this entire experience, and zero indication that any of the so-called lessons supposedly learned by the mainstream media over the course of the Trump ordeal — how long has it been? Seven years? Seventeen? "Seven-seven"? I can't remember — have actually changed anything. 

Nothing Trump had to say was even remotely surprising: Nancy Pelosi was to blame for Jan. 6, the 2020 election was rigged, illegal immigrants are coming for your daughters, he might pardon himself and then again he might not. But to characterize any of that as news is to debase the concept even below the chronically insulting Pavlov's-dog chyrons on CNN, which inform viewers during every single minute of every day that there is "breaking news" about a "Real Housewives" contestant and fake elector who've been caught groping each other in a crowded theater on security-cam footage captured on Hunter Biden's laptop. (It's possible I don't have that one quite right.) 

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Even to describe the things Donald Trump says as "opinions" or "positions" that justify debate or discussion is once again to fall into the Heffalump trap the media has constructed for itself, in the impossibly naive belief that this time it will outsmart its quarry. (If you've forgotten the source of this metaphor, Pooh and Piglet build a trap to capture a mythical beast, then follow their own footprints in a circle and tumble into it themselves. Too perfect, right?) Every journalist, it would seem, not-so-secretly believes that in an interview with Trump, their integrity and independence of mind will lead them to triumph where all others have bitten the dust. That kind of hero's-journey arrogance is virtually a professional requirement; I will not claim that I or any other journalist I know would turn down the opportunity.

If we conceive of Donald Trump as a dark enchanter whose power to warp the texture of reality and cloud men's minds must be resisted or overcome, we've already gotten it backward. As every parable about the devil and every horror movie about teenagers who find a forbidden book make clear, the real adversary is human pride and human vanity, not some demonic entity. Trump is a mind parasite, who only has the power we willfully allow him to drain from us. He feeds on the vanity of the media, which believes it can capture and study him; the vanity of Republican leaders who believed they could ride him into a new era of political hegemony and then cast him aside; the vanity of his millions of supporters who believe they're in on the joke and that Trump's nihilistic fantasies of revenge against the privileged classes can never hurt them. 

Facing the fact that everything Trump says amounts to chum thrown into the water to attract sharks, and that allowing him to throw more of it accomplishes nothing beyond expanding the shark universe, will not magically repair the psychotic dysfunction and division of American politics and American culture. That long preceded Trump, and fixing it will take decades, if it can be done at all. But even Pooh and Piglet eventually grasped that either the Heffalump never existed in the first place, or they were never going to catch him.


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

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Commentary Donald Trump Kristen Welker Media Meet The Press