Already Happening: Media Normalization of Trumpism
In the children’s short story “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” by Hans Christian Andersen, what kept the fiction of the naked emperor’s sartorial splendor alive was nothing in particular about the emperor. True, he was vain and plainly foolish; easily tricked by the false flattery of swindlers into paying a kingly sum for a cloak so fine and magical that only the wise and true could see it. But it was the people of the kingdom, including his trusted advisers, who maintained the absurd notion that he was splendidly clothed, because none – the emperor included – wanted to admit that they were so unworthy as to not see the bright colors and fine threads.
Only the characteristic bluntness of a child, who proclaimed the emperor’s nudity as he paraded through the streets humiliating himself and his kingdom, threatened to break the spell. But when the boy spoke out he was quickly rebuked by his father, who assured the gasping public that the child was clearly soft in the head. So powerful is the compulsion to normalize the powerful.
With Donald Trump about to ascend to the White House, the media risk being tamed by their devotion to access and the belligerencies of the notoriously vengeful resident of Trump Tower and his right-wing wrecking crew of a team. We face a singular test, both as a profession and as a country: will we allow ourselves to see what we see, or will we mentally drape the naked emperor in our midst?
Trump is beset by clear and alarming conflicts between his international business concerns and the national interest. In just the two weeks since the voters delivered him a narrow Electoral College victory, he has openly met with his Indian business partners; put his daughter on the phone with foreign leaders; dangled an unavailable ambassadorship to his UK political doppelganger Nigel Farage and simultaneously pushed Farage to help kill a wind farm project that would mar his Scottish golf course view. His leased D.C. hotel inside the old Post Office has become a prime destination for those seeking a way to curry favor with the incoming president by sliding their credit cards at checkout time.
Real questions are being raised about possible violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, and there’s more to come. Trump is battling Washington D.C. over taxes owed by the hotel, which he leases from the same federal government he will soon lead. The LPGA will in months host a golf tournament on a course branded with the president’s name. Trump remains the subject of numerous lawsuits, ongoing questions about his self-dealing “charity,” and an alleged IRS audit (he will soon appoint the head of the agency). He only recently (and allegedly) divested himself of a substantial investment in the Dakota Access Pipeline that he will soon have a hand in resolving through his command of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And there are lingering questions as to whether he sexually harassed or assaulted women, and perhaps more to the point: how many.
And these are just a handful of the personal and legal quagmires he faces.
Add to that the alarming consensus of experts regarding extensive Russian interference in the U.S. election through the pumping of fake news and propaganda into the country’s digital bloodstream, and the unprecedented intervention of the FBI within two weeks of the voting, and serious questions of basic legitimacy shroud the incoming president, who lost the popular vote by more than 2 million votes and counting.
And despite Jill Stein’s self-promotional foray into machine-rigging conspiracy theories, which happen to distract from real questions about voter disenfranchisement and suppression, Trump is likely to survive the three-state recount challenges. The Electoral College is unlikely to take the advice of legal scholars who have called on them to choose the person who got millions more votes to be the president.
Trump will, barring circumstances that are at this stage unforeseeable, be sworn in as the country’s 45th president on January 20.
The worst case scenario for the next four years is daunting: a country sinking into kleptocracy, with its natural resources, parks and lands carved up and sold off by Trump and his billionaire cabinet to the highest bidder with fat tax credits to boot; Medicare and other beloved social safety net programs dismantled along with Obamacare and its protections for 20 million people; a Justice Department sowing fear rather than confidence in communities of color; terrified immigrants and Muslims relying on Democratic mayors as their only shield; and an international community left horrified by an America that seems to have lost both its soul and its mind.
If that’s what’s coming, beware of the fictions that are sure to come with it; little lies that salve your discontent, but that obscure the realities that become more and more unpopular to speak of.
Donald Trump will enter office as the most unpopular incoming president since Gallup began keeping track with Harry Truman; and the only one to enter with a negative approval rating. For comparison, Barack Obama entered office with an approval rating of 68 percent and a +41 positive spread. George W. Bush, even after the disputed 2000 election, came in at 59 percent favorable. That was one point higher than Bill Clinton managed in 1992, and with just 36 percent viewing Bush unfavorably. Had Hillary Clinton been on her way to the White House, you would have been reminded of her negative approval ratings – which were not as bad as Trump’s – every day.
Instead, you will be told that Trump’s “improvement” from a historically dismal 34 percent favorability to an equally unprecedented 42 percent favorable, 55 percent unfavorable is “good news.”
Trump is reviled around the world. British television openly derided him as the “pussy grabber” when I visited there last week. He is the object of mockery and loathing. While Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both inspired confidence across Europe, Trump did and does not. Under President Obama, America’s image in the world improved dramatically, and he maintains high ratings at home and abroad. Much of the world looks on in horror on what America’s undemocratic system has wrought, and they’re clinging to Germany’s Angela Merkel as the new leader of the West.
You, however, may be told that the international community is coming around to Trump; a few foreign trips by him or his secretary of state and he’ll be fine. You may be asked to believe that somehow and suddenly, an inner statesman who hasn’t shown himself in 70 years will crawl out of Trump’s enormous frame.
Over time, Stephen Bannon, who turned a right-wing website that was merely angry and dishonest when founder Andrew Breitbart was alive into a home for white nationalists, may be allowed to morph into a perfectly innocuous adviser. No notice will be taken when he smirks beside Nikki Haley, Ben Carson and whatever other practitioners of pure self-interest choose to stand unironically at his side. You may be presented with the idea that his presence does not befoul the White House, when it does. The racially hostile views of Sessions, Kobach, Giuliani, and Trump himself may begin to fade into bland obscurity.
You may be asked, over the next four years, to accept things you never dreamed would be acceptable, and to turn a blind eye to vulgarity and hypocrisy and failure. You’ll be sold the pageantry of presidential succession, along with lighthearted stories about Melania’s New York shopping sprees or Ivanka’s parenting tips. Long forgotten will be questions about the former’s immigration lies or the fact that potentially any world leader has seen photographs of the first lady naked; or about the many times the latter has been the object of prurient commentary by her father. Religious leaders will grin and embrace the Trump presidency as if it was blessed by God almighty, even as they hover over bill signings designed to consign women and gays back to second class status and ignore the Biblical admonition to see to the poor, the widow and the orphan.
You may be asked to look away; to pretend it’s all good, as foreign interests feed Trump with flattery and graft. Russia’s Vladimir Putin will likely be first in line to ooh and ahh at our emperor’s brilliant new clothes; the better to have his way around the world.
To be sure, some media, traditional and not, will also present you with the unvarnished truth; there are good, solid journalists out there still doing the work. But traditional media are bending under the weight of fake news and meme culture. And the tug of normalization is powerful; even pleasing, when reality is unthinkable. The urge to look away, to pretend to see fine threads when the king comes strolling by, with his bare belly jutting out, can be irresistible.
For the good of the country, here’s hoping enough people resist.