April 1, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Trump’s Tone Is a Fetish of the Occult

Why can't reporters believe their own eyes?

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I was telling someone yesterday I’m worried about sounding too cold-blooded here at the Editorial Board. There’s enough literal death happening, given we’re in the middle of an Old Testament plague. I don’t need to pile on with a fatalist tone, I said. I should express more optimism, because Americans need hope in times like this, right?

Well, yes, but Americans must also contend with White House press corps that will not recognize empirical observable reality. It will not, or cannot, come to a moral conclusion about a president who will not, or cannot, put the nation’s interests above his. In the past, I said this isn’t just amoral. It’s anti-moral. It’s hostile to morality.

Until that changes, here I am, saying what needs saying, in plain English, so normal people can see what they need to see. The result, unfortunately, might sound fatalist.

The president really does not value human life.

There’s something else going on, though. When it comes to the presidency of Donald Trump, or any presidency, the press corps behaves as if the office contains a great mystery ordinary mortals can’t possibly understand. Reporters act as if the Oval Office itself were a kind of sanctum sanctorum, a holy place in which every decision has world-changing significance and every word uttered rings with multiverses of meaning.

This is not what you’d expect from highly educated and, for the most part, highly affluent professionals who dedicate their lives to gathering facts and seeking the truth without fear and favor. But then again, why not expect that? History is rife with characters who denied empirical observable reality in light of The Truth. History is rife with celebrants who turned anything, even the presidency, into a fetish of the occult.

There is, in fact, no mystery. The president really is preventing governors from getting enough coronavirus testing in order to lower the official number of sick and dead. The president really is trying to keep the stock market from crashing more than it already has, therefore jeopardizing his chances of getting reelected this year, by shoveling billions in cash into the economy. The president really does not value human life. He does, however, value what human life can do for him. As Sarah Kendzior wrote: “Everything to Mr. Trump is transactional, and you—all of you—are the transaction.”

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To be sure, none of this is kind. None of this is charitable. All of this, however, is based on empirical observable reality, variations of which have been repeated ad nauseam for four years. As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes wrote Tuesday: “HE WILL NOT CHANGE AND IS FUNDAMENTALLY INCAPABLE OF DOING THE JOB. That’s the story. I know it’s fun to watch the bouncing ball, but it doesn’t change. That’s it” (his emphasis).

Hayes was commenting on a press briefing in which the president said his “goal” was keeping the body count from the COVID-19 outbreak from surpassing 240,000. That “goal” would exceed the number of Americans who died fighting in the Korean and Vietnam Wars combined. That “goal” would rival the number of Americans who died fighting in World War II’s European and Pacific theaters. That “goal” was not the most important fact, evidently. The Times’ Peter Baker could not help but notice “Trump sounding different today. Scale of death appears to have changed his tone, at least.”

Tone is what Hayes means by “bouncing ball.” Two weeks ago, Trump declared a national emergency. The press corps reported en masse the president’s new “somber” tone. Then came the week in which he moved to “reopen” the country despite the mounting death toll. That was nuts, but not disqualifying. Reporters continued to believe he’d act presidential and when he did, it was not a bug but a feature—not of his administration but of their faith in the the power and the glory of the presidency.

Maybe reporters trust their own eyes less than their true faith in the power of the presidency.

“Fetish” is the right word to describe the press corps’ approach to the office. A fetish a thing, or idea, that represents something that it is not. A hand is a hand, but a hand fetish has more to it than a hand. The hand represents something the fetishist projects onto it. Trump’s tone may represent something the press corps projects onto him.

That something may be natural fear that our leader is terrible and that lots of people are going to die from a global pandemic in which the US is now the epicenter. Maybe reporters, who understand the dire circumstances we face, are trying to will him into taking appropriate action and proper responsibility. But then again, maybe not.

It may be the press corps can’t believe an American president would undermine the nation’s effort to combat a disease. It may be reporters can’t believe a president would favor friends and punish enemies in the middle of an Old Testament plague. It may be they can’t believe what their own eyes are telling them and trust instead their true faith in the mysteries of a sanctum sanctorum only they have the power to understand.

History is rife with celebrants who turned anything into a fetish of the occult.

Now may be no different.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Donna Gratehouse on July 30, 2021 at 8:09 am

    Agree mostly with this except it’s not an abiding faith in the office of the Presidency in the Beltway press, since they’d never give any Democratic President this much benefit of the doubt, it’s a cultish adherence to the infallibility of important white men. This is a large part of why Biden is winning the primary, with core Dem voters correctly recognizing he is at least a safer choice, as a white man, with both large segments of the electorate and the media. “Both sides” coverage is really thinly-disguised anti-Democrat bias – we rep women, PoC, LGBTQ, other marginalized groups AKA “the help” – and it is so much more about demographics than ideology.

  2. hw on July 30, 2021 at 8:09 am

    I refuse to attribute any charitable explanation for the abject horror that describes 99% of the political media. They have had 3.5 years and untold human suffering to adjust their thinking and manner of reporting. Instead, they refuse to hold this president accountable (with a few notable exceptions). Peter (“I don’t vote”) Baker is one of the most egregious but hardly stands alone in his stenographical reporting and insistence on neutrality in the face of corruption and death. Just as Trump refuses to step back and allow health experts to lead, political reporters refuse to step back and allow health reporters to lead during this national crisis. I can only hope that more of us will focus on independent journalists, subject matter experts, and true investigative journalists in the months and years to come. This will be one of the few silver linings to emerge from these dark days.

  3. David Mikulec on July 30, 2021 at 8:09 am

    IMO – they’re deathly afraid of losing access and therefore their paychecks. And probably deathly scared of angering his NRA loving cult who are quick to respond with threats of violence.

  4. Thornton Prayer on July 30, 2021 at 8:09 am

    I think the White House reporters have developed a culture of accommodation to GOP presidents. For a variety of reasons, today’s reporters don’t have the resolve to hold GOP presidents and press secretaries truly accountable in real time and in their press briefing analyses.

    There is also a parallel fetish of both-siderism because, again, in trying to accommodate the right-wing propaganda that the media has a liberal bias, the mainstream media has bent over backwards to swallow much of the nonsense spewed by this president. The White House press corps can therefore delude itself that there exists some normality when it’s bluntly evident that there is nothing normal going on here. It’s also a reason why the mainstream media and the White House press corps in particular is overly harsh toward Democratic presidents.

    One more thing to consider is that because this individual is so totally incompetent, the bar for adequate performance is really low. When he demonstrates even the slightest bit of focus that would be typical for any previous president, the media and frankly, some center-left pundits fall over in praising him.

    • LJR1626 on July 30, 2021 at 8:09 am

      Excellent analysis. All the comments here are insightful and state what so many of us can see yet they refuse to. One has to wonder just how much pressure they are getting for corporate HQ.

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