Blowhards and News Clowns: Can They Learn to Win?

Crocker-Wheeler Electric Gatling Gun

Crocker-Wheeler Electric Gatling Gun (public domain)

In a post on August 4, 2016, I posited Donald Trump as Indiana Jones faced with a scimitar-twirling attacker (his Republican primary opponents). He, of course, pulls out a pistol and shoots the attacker dead. Someone in the crowd (Hilary Clinton?) picks up the dropped scimitar and runs off with it, thinking they have a shiny new weapon for combating Trump.

Three years and two months later, and no one has found a way of countering Trump’s weapon, not a politician and, for that matter, not a journalist. Plenty have been suggested; all have been ignored. Following old patterns, each politician tries to create a contrast with Trump—but can’t, for Trump immediately mimics them, accusing them of whatever evil they might say he has committed, sometimes even before they manage to make their own charges.

Who is corrupt? Why, whoever might say Trump is, that’s who. Who should be impeached? Whoever might say Trump should be, that’s who. Even Mitt Romney.

Adding insult to injury, Trump calls out his opponents for doing to him just what he has done to them, leaving them dazed and confused, unsure where to turn as Trump’s lack of substance, smoke in a whirlwind, makes him seem everywhere and nowhere at once.

Journalist fare no better. Still trying to adhere to a professional ethos anchored in assumptions about the solidity of the statements of those they cover, they try to ignore the difference between smoke and mirrors and substance, treating both with equal seriousness and, as a result, making them look like fools in funhouse mirrors. Instead of laughing at the outrageousness before them, today’s journalists take what Trump says seriously, making themselves look like fools by responding without laughter to clownish comments, doing so for no other reason than that the clown wields power.

They might as well put on red noses and fright wigs themselves. Then the news shows, as they are currently constituted, would at least be honest entertainment instead of the clearly faux journalism we see today.

Both politicians and journalists are continuing into a firearms world armed with swords and still believing, all evidence to the contrary, that their swords are sufficient—as long as they wield them with skill. The lesson of Jones and the Cairo Swordsman (who was obviously skillful) has been completely ignored.

*****

The situation is frustrating to many of us watching: politicians can pull forward a few of the weapons of the past yet they don’t. “Keep It Simple, Stupid,” a Clinton-era bit of advice, can still be trusted and acted  on, yet few do. One of the problems Trump creates is distraction. Confusion, in his hands, is a great weapon, his opponents usually reduced to trying to respond to nonsense so spasmodically that it is they who look foolish and incompetent, not Trump. Keeping it simple means ignoring most of what Trump says and sticking to a singlee point. That’s hard for a politician to do; rather than trying to look at the whole picture, they need to be looking one step ahead only. Stop, to use another Clinton-era concept, triangulating. That only lets Trump corner you.

Right now, the necessary step for concentration is the impeachment inquiry—not what anyone else did and not what Trump did if it is not part of the inquiry—and not the election. The weapon that can match Trump’s is the U.S. Constitution. To fight it, Trump will have to tear down more than two hundred years of American tradition and be sure that he can count not only on the courts but on the military. His weapon may not be strong enough for that—and he doesn’t know if it will prove so. In a sense, his bluster is a bluff. The only way to call it is to refuse to be distracted from it–exactly what Trump is trying to get everyone to do.

Journalists also need to develop new weapons, one of which takes a lesson from Judo. Rather than running after Trump, they need to force Trump to go after them—not just with insults but with his own needs (requiring him to ease up on the insults, an added benefit). That’s easy enough to do when you stop running at him, for he lives for media attention, but few are doing it. It may take guts to refuse to be part of the gaggle, but it’s the only intelligent response to an unreliable interviewee. When such a person is forced to come to you, you control the conversation and can also more easily deconstruct the message the other wants to convey, sharing the truth behind the bombast. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has been advocating for something like this since the start of the Trump presidency. Though sensible and even an obvious move, few journalists have shown the strength of character needed for breaking from the crowd and from the way things have always been done.

In the meantime, what journalists in the gaggle and scrum can do, at the very least, is replace their questioning tool with a sharper and quicker one. Instead of asking Trump the kinds of questions they might ask of more stable personalities, they need to spend a great deal more time developing questions that do something more than contribute to the Trump circus. Most journalists know that what they get from Trump is news like a car crash, not real information. That is, the drama that holds audiences, the show, nothing else. Journalists, if they want to be more than news clowns (thank you, Philip K. Dick), need to tailor their questions to information, even if it requires that they be careful and even oblique in their phrasing. They need to create questions that will surprise Trump, ones that he will want to answer truthfully, instead of batting them away. That takes careful preparation and refusal to be distracted by the circus, but it certainly can be done—even without courage. And it is a new weapon, much like a rapier picked up in place of a broadsword.

What bothers me is how little either politicians or journalists show willingness to change when confronted with the changed environment we are living in. They keep acting as though the president will somehow start adhering to old norms for the office. He will not. The only question is just how far he will go.

I mentioned Philip K. Dick earlier. His news clown, Jim Briskin, is (like Trump) an entertainer who becomes a politician and, finally, president (through the story “Stand-By” and the novel The Crack in Space). Like Trump, Briskin is something of a shapeshifter. During his first election campaign (in “Stand-By”), he says to his huge audience, “I think I’m risking my life to speak to you, because this we must face: we have a President who would not mind employing murder to obtain his objectives. This is the political tactic of a tyranny, and that’s what we’re seeing, a tyranny coming into existence in our society.” Trump would willingly say the same about his opponents (and probably did say similar things about Obama and Clinton)—and, of course, the same could be said about him–one of the very things that so flummox his opponents and the media.

Which, of course, is the core of the problem; Trump’s arsenal is something only new types of weapons can defeat. That neither Democrats nor journalists have yet to develop them (though they  have been suggested continually for the last three years) leads one to think that the likelihood of defeating Trump is about that of a Boy Scout with a buck knife conquering a Gatling gun.