A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1902
January 1, 2018

Out of Ammunition

MONTPELIER – January is about as well-chosen a name for the first month of the year as there possibly could be. It was no accident. Janus, its source, is a Roman god with two faces that look in opposite directions, one forward and one back, who often adorned imperial gates and portals. Two thousand years later, media worldwide use the first week of the month to take a look back at the year just completed and cast an eye forward in an effort to be hopeful about the untrodden one lying before us.

After reading a few dozen op-ed pieces about the year just past, I think it’s safe to say that it’s been unlike any in our recent history. After promising to “drain the swamp” of Washington, D.C., Donald Trump scored a startling electoral college victory over a candidate widely considered a shoo-in for the presidency. Then, rather than moderating his populist campaign rhetoric once he’d gained the office, he continued to batter at the walls of long-standing convention, even urging criminal investigations of his recent adversary and claiming, without a scintilla of evidence, that millions of votes in her favor were fraudulent.

The media were caught flat-footed. Those of us who remember the run-up to the Iraq War recall the quandary of those caught between patriotism and skepticism (the International Atomic Energy Agency, experts in the field, had certified the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq). It took a while – too long, as it turned out – for organized opposition to the war to coalesce and be expressed in the media. Those of us who smelled a rat from the beginning were left yelling at a parade that’d already passed.

Well, now it’s happened again, and it’s still happening. The media’s first reaction to some of the most obvious falsehoods – like the fraudulent votes – was , “That’s simply not true; there’s no evidence.” There wasn’t much else they could do. The closest metaphor for what happened is, say, a fourth-grade argument on a school playground. A bully shouts, “You’re stupid-looking, and so’s your mother.” The poor kid being assailed can – unless he’s got a baseball bat – muster only, “She is not!” It escalates from there. The bully has dictated the level of discourse, and the respondent can operate only at that level. This is the rhetorical quagmire in which the media currently struggle.

On the day of General Pickett’s famous charge at Gettysburg, the Union artillery quit firing before the end of the Confederate bombardment, and it was tempting for General Lee to conclude they were out of action. It was a grievous error. But in this current case, we have shot off all our ammunition; we’re totally out of adjectives to describe each day’s news. Once you’ve used up all your outrageouses and pathologicals, you’re perilously close to being outgunned by whatever comes next. On top of which, the media now spend a lot of their energy crying, “Are not!” to the endless fourth-grade-level “fake news” attacks.

The Washington Post notes that in a recent half-hour interview with a New York Times reporter at Mar-a-Lago, the president “made 24 false or misleading claims.” That’s without counting the parts of the interview that were off the record. An astonishing statistic (note how I’m digging for an adjective myself). But it’s raised no eyebrows or elicited any howls of protest. Regarding, for instance, his endorsement of Luther Strange, who was defeated in the Alabama Republican primary by Roy Moore, he says, among other things, “When I endorsed him, he was in fifth place. He went way up. Almost 20 points.” An incredible achievement; there were only three candidates in the primary. But nobody’s even blinking.

Which means, dear friends, that he’s won, at least for the time being: He’s so degraded public discourse that no one seems to have what it might take to restore it. Certainly not the impotent Democrats, who insist on defining themselves by what they’re not; and certainly not the Republican Congress, who – whatever they may say to each other in private – are deeply complicit by their public silence.

Most of us have read dozens of opinions: He’s a confidence man who knows just what he’s doing, and is taking us chumps for millions, from the repeal of the inheritance tax to the vacations at resorts he owns. He’s a tool of the Russians, who are sitting on compromising secrets. He’s a narcissist with an insatiable need for affirmation. He’s a thin-skinned bully who can’t resist retaliation. He’s a loose-lipped airhead requiring constant monitoring. He’s an elderly man existing on fast-food burgers and Diet Coke and exhibiting signs of advancing dementia.

Personally, I think he’s been a great boon to the republic. Following the barely suppressed racism of the Obama years, he’s let those horses out of the barn, and we’re getting a better look at ourselves. More of us than ever before are conversant with the details of our founding documents. It’s even possible that the Democratic Party will remember, just in time, its past claims to be the party of common folks in need of a few little things: health care insurance, retirement stability, and probity in those who make decisions for us.

Photo by Willem lange