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Rolling Over for that State of the Union

George Salamon
March 7, 2017


by George Salamon

THERE WAS ONE LESSON to be learned BY progressives from the media’s coverage of President Trump’s February 28TH State of the Union Address: they must build a media network across the United States to rival the one conservatives already have in place.

Without such a network, they lack the means to deliver their message to the broad coalition they’ll need to forge and gain enough political power to bring about the “transformational” change liberal Democrats promised but failed to deliver.

Mainstream media’s coverage of the address, watched by 48 million Americans, produced millions of words and commentary that offered the usual outpouring of cliches thinly disguised as expertise or analysis. Among mainstream journalists, Brian Beutler’s view in The New Republic stood alone: Trump’s softer tone, compared to the past Trumpian attack-dog style, suggested to Beutler that Trump could “adjust to the realities of his job.” “The worst performance of Trump’s presidency now belongs to the press corps,” he wrote. “. . . [T]he media’s reaction to his speech to Congress was shameful.” Not for failing to focus forcefully enough on the president’s empty promises and paucity of details, but for failing to recognize Trump as “presidential.”

Beutler was clutching at the one straw he could conjure up for a positive piece of spin. The New York Times found another: “At precisely the moment he needed to project sobriety, President Trump delivered the most presidential speech he has given.” The paper of record failed to tell its readers that projecting sobriety merely revealed Trump’s ability to play politics on both halves of our two-party-system-owned playing field. As Hannah Arendt taught, “half of politics is ‘image making’, the other half the art of making people believe the image.”

OTHER PUBLICATIONS, while assuring us of their “abiding faith in our democratic process,” competed to sound like Frank Sullivan’s “Cliche Expert” in his mid-20th-century pieces for the New Yorker. Slate shouted that “Trump’s speech to Congress was as amoral as the man himself,” telling its readers what they have known since he declared himself a presidential candidate. His supporters don’t care, and his liberal and progressive opponents already recognize Arend’t words: “official political reality is now being enacted by the modern capitalist businessman.” To put it on the scale this observation deserves: For decades, in both of the major parties and thus in every administration and every president, politics and economics have been indivisible.

Arendt was not the first to understand this. In 1890, at the start of our nation’s first gilded age, Henry Adams wrote: “We have a single system, and in that system the only question is the price at which the proletariat is to be bought and sold, the bread and circuses.”

Our media tolerated exposures of this system’s amorality -- the market has no moral compass, just a spreadsheet for return on investment -- but only the few “radical rags” pointed out that the system has been successfully marketed to the American people as their democracy, their enviable freedom of choice, their path to social and economic well-being. Never was this done better than in the corporate advertising campaigns during the 1950s and 1960s on the vast new networks of radio and television.

Bread and circuses, then and now, created as ideals for the working class and poor tempting images of abundance and endless consumption -- mirages in their desert of misery when the post-World War II economic bubble burst and wealth inequality set in like mold shortly after.

Nothing has changed since, including the media’s unwillingness to confront the truth embedded in our economic and class history. Instead they present the role-playing theater of liberal heroes battling conservative villains.

WHILE LIBERAL mainstream media giants like the New York Times and Washington Post protest Trump’s vulgar rightwing populism, his disdain for civil rights, and his bigotries of all flavors, they do not tell their readers that he supports rapacious finance capitalism and the forces that have been enabling its expansion and hegemony globally, as his five predecessors did. Indeed, Trump might just increase the American share of the global pie, and create some jobs in the process . . . But telling the people all that would be be telling Americans what they don’t want to hear. Yet it’s not the liberal elites of New York and Los Angeles who have sniffed the truth about what’s caused the misery in West Virginia and Ohio and Michigan that got Trump elected. It was a Trump supporter in one the most environmentally devastated areas of Louisiana who told a Berkeley sociologist: “Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism.”

As the professor noted, she might have added to pollution shorter life expectancy, worse health and health care, rotten housing, lack of opportunities for work, lousy educational facilities, and, much more.

The coverage of Trump’s speech to Congress confirms that leftwing critics are not wrong in calling the mainstream media “establishment whores.” Nobody but an establishment whore in the Washington Post could write “Trump is right in spending more on defense. Here’s how to do so wisely.” The military-industrial complex is hungry, let’s feed it some more! And what about those people in McDowell County, West Virginia, whose few groceries offer nothing but processed food? Tough, but they should have packed up their belongings and moved to Silicon Valley and followed in the footsteps of the Beverly Hillbillies.

So it will go, for Trump and his fellow billionaires in his Cabinet. There will be media outrage at their illiberal social outlook, and media resistance to their racial and ethnic indifference and cruelty, but no tying their attitudes and actions to how those attitudes and actions have been an integral part of our governance, of the “democratic process” that the media will protect and preserve.

TWO MEDIA ICONS of the new liberal class, Rachel Maddow from MSNBC and historian Doris Kearns Godwin, discussed the prospects of a Trump presidency a week before the election in the October 30, 2016 New York Times (“Yes, This Too Shall Pass”). Goodwin suggested: “There’s something about the office. In 2000 there was fear that George W. Bush would never be a legitimate president. But he was, despite that incredible election and how it looked like it would shadow him. Something happens when they get in the presidency.”

Oh, please! Tricky Dick remained Tricky Dick of the Helen Gahagan Douglas campaign. Slick Willie from Arkansas remained Slick Willie. The former didn’t turn into Honest Richard, the latter didn’t become William Jefferson. And Dick Cheney acted as George W. Bush’s president.

The progressive movement, once it is ready to form a genuine opposition party alternative to the two capitalist ones embedded in Washington and our state houses and legislatures now, need to build a national media network to talk to and tell the people -- not just the anti-Trump marchers, but the union guy in Toledo and the woman in Louisiana and the wife of an unemployed coal miner in Kentucky.

For the mainstream media, the ratings and the money are in preserving the entertainment of our bread and circuses, of the “system” in place now. And even now, the “fun” and horror of the 2020 presidential campaign has already been floated before us: the benign Democratic clown Al Franken from Saturday Night Live vs the malevolent Republican clown from The Apprentice. Let the ratings crumble where they may.

George Salamon taught German at Harvard, Haverford, Dartmouth and Smith colleges. After leaving academe he worked as a business reporter, as editor of a defense journal, in corporate public affairs and organizational consulting. For the past five years he has contributed to the Gateway Journalism Review, the New Verse News and Jewish Currents. He lives in St. Lois, MO.