September 2, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Pundits enable Trump’s political fictions
Half of them still think it's 1968.
After Joe Biden’s speech Monday, during which he destroyed the president’s “law and order” message, Ed O’Keefe reported something that has since stuck with me. The CBS News political correspondent said Donald Trump prefers “law and order” as the dominant theme of the election, and that his team “was quite happy today to see Joe Biden scramble to put together this speech and make this quick trip” to Pittsburgh.
That stuck with me, but honestly, I’m understating. I was shocked. How on earth can the president’s advisors think Biden’s dismantling of his favorite message was yippy-skippy? The former vice president, as I wrote Tuesday, said that Trump had not only failed to maintain law and order; he’s actively fomenting chaos. And by the way, he said, I’m not president. When I am, though, I’m going to maintain law and order.
The point is that national, and therefore personal, crises focus the mind such there’s no room for political fictions the president is depending on for his reelection.
I was shocked, because thinking Tuesday was a good day is so very stupid as to be inconceivable coming from highly compensated professional campaign strategists. Then I thought about it some more. You could say, on the one hand, that the president’s campaign succeeded in pushing Biden into focusing on something other than the triplets of tribulation: pandemic, recession, and white supremacy. Trump is the incumbent. History suggests the electorate blames incumbents in times of trial and tribulation. I suppose getting Biden to talk about something other than the triplets might be, by a terrible president’s terrible standards, the equivalent of yippy-skippy.
On the other hand, that can’t be right. Biden destroyed Trump’s message. A new Morning Consult survey suggests I’m not alone in thinking that. Forty-seven percent trust Biden in matters of public safety. “No one will be safe in Biden’s America,” Trump said, yet only 39 percent believe him. (Thirteen percent had no opinion or didn’t know.) It seems Biden has most people’s confidence no matter whom they blame for recent “urban unrest.” That’s a terrible place for a “law and order” president to be. My guess is his advisors understand his liabilities well—most people don’t trust him—and are searching for ways to please him. And let’s be frank, Trump would be perfectly happy if what he accomplished Monday was the equivalent of “Ha! Made you look!”
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The president isn’t the only one confusing things that get the television media’s attention with things that get the electorate’s attention. (Sometimes they are the same, but not during a pandemic.) Covid-19 is still slicing its way through the populace. Nearly 190,000 have died since March. That’s about 63 times the number of dead in the US on Sept. 11, 2001. That’s about 47,500 times the number of dead in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012. I’d guess the biggest thing on your mind right now is getting back to work, getting your kids back to school, getting your adult kids to act responsibly at college, getting your parents the eldercare they need, or maybe a combination of all of these. The point is that national, and therefore personal, crises focus the mind such there’s no room for political fictions the president is depending on for reelection.
Someone needs to tell half the pundit corps what’s going on, because it is so captive of the television media’s focus, and therefore the Trump campaign’s focus, that it keeps thinking in terms totally fresh in 1968. Half the pundit corps comprises baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) who still think of a 52-year-old contest between Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Republican Richard Nixon as the benchmark by which all elections are measured. And since 1968’s “urban unrest” was the backdrop for Humphrey’s undoing, 2020’s “urban unrest” must be the backdrop for Biden’s. Punditry on the lookout for the emergence of a white backlash wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t so stubbornly quadrennial. No matter how many times pundits get it wrong, they keep at it, as if it’s only a matter of time before the times prove them right. The result is an electorate hugely misinformed, an outcome befitting of Donald Trump.
As a result of pundits seeing politics through the lens of 1968, James Fallows’ essay, “Why Americans Hate the Media,” remains as relevant today as it was the day it was published 24 years ago. Such pointless predictions, he wrote in The Atlantic, build “the impression that journalism is about what’s entertaining—guessing what might or might not happen next month—rather than what’s useful, such as extracting lessons of success and failure from events that have already occurred. Competing predictions add almost nothing to our ability to solve public problems or to make sensible choices among complex alternatives. Yet such useless distractions have become a specialty of the political press. They are easy to produce, they allow reporters to act as if they possessed special inside knowledge, and there are no consequences for being wrong” (my italics).
Biden has moved on. Today, he’s back to talking about health care and the likelihood of an economic depression. That’s what most Americans are thinking about, even if they love them some Trump. Will half the pundit corps give its attention to the calamity facing us? Or will it continue doing what it’s done? You know the answer.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.