GELFAND’S WORLD--What a remarkable coincidence. A few days after Nancy Pelosi was outed for getting her hair cut inside a building (instead of on the sidewalk), President Trump was outed for insulting our nation’s war dead.
The former was a nothing story on a fairly slow news day. The latter is big enough to turn a couple hundred thousand potential voters into actual voters, and anti-Trump voters at that. The news media have referred to it as a bombshell.
Wonder of wonders, it has even made its way onto Fox News.
There is a fun little prediction to be made from all of this.
We’ll start with the obvious: Trump has been bullying the news media since his first campaign. He would rile up his audiences not only against protesters, but against the reporters and television cameramen. His famous remark about anybody waving an anti-Trump poster was, “Get him out of here!” Then he would continue to rile up his audience, but this time against reporters. He was good at provoking.
And it developed from there. Trump started using the term “fake news” whenever he was confronted with an unflattering story. A lot of his followers fell for the line.
But think about how professional journalists have had to put up with this slander. For the most part, they weren’t being put in fear of their lives the way they would be in some other countries (think Saudi Arabia and Russia). But it has been a chronic, irritating attack on their personal and professional integrity.
It has also been an unending attack on the journalistic profession as a whole. It isn’t all that different from the attacks by the anti-vaccine crazies against doctors. For both of these, it has been a case of the swamp rot that never goes away.
But something has been developing on my television screen recently. The newscaster reports on what the president said about something, and then immediately explains that the president’s statement is not true!
It’s long overdue since it is, after all, factual reporting at the most elemental level.
But there is one other element to this story that is worth considering. As many analysts have pointed out, Trump functions at the level of revenge. Say something in print about his temper or lack of mental concentration and he will call you a failing publication. Ask him a probing question at a White House press briefing and he will call you a bad reporter. Resign from his cabinet and he will find fault with your capabilities and integrity.
We’ve been seeing it again and again.
But the journalistic profession is not incapable of its own revenge. It’s just a matter of timing and having a verifiable story. We might, therefore, expect that we will see revenge stories against the president, because this is the time.
It’s not too difficult to imagine that we will see a concerted bit of getting even by and for the journalistic profession over the next two months. All the while that we on the anti-Trump side have been worried about an October surprise, the newspapers and magazines and writers by the dozens have been accumulating their own blockbuster stories. For the profession and the business of journalism, the timing is, if not quite the perfect storm, at least a pretty good storm. We’re counting down this month to the presidential debates, and we’re counting the last two months until election day.
So think about that Nancy Pelosi story about a haircut – the story that Trump and his people pounded on. The television networks dutifully reported on it, although they tamped down the story by giving Pelosi a chance to make excuses. But before this story was allowed to run its natural cycle, we got the big one.
Making fun of our war dead is just not done, at least if you are a normal politician who hopes to have normal chances of getting elected. But Trump made the statement about dead soldiers being losers.
The important point to consider right now is that he made the remark a couple of years ago. He must have been feeling awfully bullet proof (politically) at the time. It seems that he was, kind of, because the story wasn’t published any time in the ensuing two years. It must outrage Trump that all of a sudden, in the midst of lousy polling numbers, this story finally comes out. To Trump, it must feel like the press is taking revenge on him, because that is the way he thinks.
And what’s amusing is that, to a certain extent, it is true.
The other thing to remember about Trump is that he says outrageous things all the time. And for the next 60 days, he won’t be able to predict which old outrages of his will hit the front pages. Worse yet for the Donald, there are multiple books full of insider confessions that reveal Trump’s personal limits. I would guess that most of us haven’t read the books by John Bolton or Mary Trump or any of the former cabinet officers. But their revelations are available to the journalistic profession, and we will be hearing them on the evening news – along with similar revelations – between now and the debates.
Then we will hear them as questions during the debates.
Between now and the end of September, we will be told how the Trump campaign and the Russians are trying to smear Joe Biden. We will be reminded about the disinformation factory in Moscow and we will be reminded about Trump’s personal use of disinformation against Obama.
It’s not exactly a journalistic conspiracy. It’s just that trending stories are self-perpetuating and self-amplifying. In this case, the trending story is Donald Trump’s utter boorishness. It’s also his frank dishonesty. And finally, as so many writers have been stating, it’s Trump’s lack of empathy. Any reporter who has an unpublished story that goes to Trump’s lack of empathy will be delivering it to the editor immediately, because this is the time that such stories are current.
Trump has, over the past 4 years, made this month’s attacks easy. He’s done it by saying things in front of the tv cameras that are in the vaults and on the editing reels, being cut into tomorrow night’s stories even as we speak. When Trump predictably claimed that his remark about the war dead was fake, the news media simply dusted off Trump’s public remarks making fun of John McCain. Trump actually kidded McCain about being captured. Considering that McCain’s fighter was shot down over Viet Nam, that remark didn’t play well at the time. Now, it is being used to bolster the story about Trump’s insensitivity towards our nation’s war dead.
What should we expect over the next four to eight weeks? We are in for half a dozen (or maybe a dozen) successive news stories on every aspect of Trump’s nastiness, lack of character, and rudeness.
And there’s one other story that fits the revenge scenario perfectly.
It involves Trump’s personal health, both physical and mental. Trump and his supporters in the right wing media have been trying to play up Joe Biden as old, slow, a bit senile, and generally on his way out. The best interpretation (going way back) is that Biden was the candidate that Trump feared most. Trump could land a few zingers against Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton, but the Biden armor is harder to scratch. The attacks on Biden began with the “sleepy Joe” campaign and continued with the rumors and innuendos about senility and dementia.
Guess what? Revenge can be sweet. Questions started circulating in the press and on the internet about whether Trump has had strokes, or suffers from tertiary syphilis, or has lordosis, or whatnot.
Now we’re hearing about “strokegate,” based on a rumor (without a lot of substantiation) that Trump’s sudden nighttime trip to Walter Reed hospital was due to some serious ailment. The fact that Trump and his people started denying he had had a stroke was particularly amusing, since the rumor mill wasn’t even nearly that specific about transient ischemic attacks or the like. Trump and his handlers immediately started a sort of reverse-projection where, instead of accusing Joe Biden of having a stroke, simply started denying that Trump had had a few. It was right out of the playbook of political dirty tricks and political dirty jokes, particularly the one that ends, “But we’ll get him to denying it!” (If you want the unexpurgated version, send me a note.) Trump is now denying it.
The old line goes, “turnabout is fair play.” In this case, it’s as simple as Trump suddenly being on the receiving end of the kind of assaults he has been dishing out. This summer’s approach by the Trump side has been to insinuate that Joe Biden is showing his age when it comes to his brain capacity. So all of a sudden, Trump has to defend the way he walks down a ramp or lifts a glass of water. Between now and the first presidential debate, I suspect that we will see repeated clips of Trump having trouble pronouncing words, stumbling down that ramp, and saying altogether inane things. Because that’s what he does, and the press are going to enjoy reminding the American people that this is the case.
One final point. It is not escaping notice that Fox News is loosening the reins just a bit in terms of its support for the Trump presidency and for Trump’s reelection. Fox is not only a propaganda factory for right wing causes, it is a business. And observant businessmen at Fox will have noticed that there is about a two-thirds chance that Trump is going to lose. What we may be seeing is that Fox is putting a little bit of distance between its editorial policy and the near future.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)