Triumph of the Shill–Trump’s Hundred Daze, Part 3

by Mark Lause, editorial board member on May 21, 2017

By the very fact of its existence, the Trump’s presidency has arguably marked a qualitative new phase in the American presidency.  Before we had politicians who could get away with a lot because they looked good on TV.  Then we had media figures who took up political careers.  Trump’s election marked the the triumph of celebrity as the most important consideration–indeed, that alone was sufficient.  Review the coverage of the campaign and one can’t help but see how the the media that made Trump a celebrity also made him the president.

It is no accident that this took place within a larger American context–the greatest polarization of wealth in the history of civilization.  The poor can only get so poor, while the rich in the U.S. are astronomically wealthier than any ruling class anywhere at any point in human history.  This has happened with remarkably almost no concessions from above.

Part and parcel of this has been the emergence of new technologies of communications and the intense capitalization that required.  There have always been close individual relations between the people who exercise power and those who are reporting on them.  In recent decades, scholars and journalists produced piece after piece on the corporate control of media–none of which have had much effect on it.

It is a commonplace observation, the meaning of which is repeatedly understated.  In 1983, 90% of US media was controlled by 50 companies; today, 90% is controlled by just 5 companies. (Ashley Lutz, “These 6 Corporations Control 90% Of The Media In America,” Jun. 14, 2012.).  The technology (and its control) integrated those top five—Comcast, Disney, News Corp, Time Warner and Viacom.

This corporate consolidation of information and entertainment created Donald Trump as surely as it did the Kardashians.  His self-promoting arrogant sense of entitlement gets viewers.  As with other celebrities, those who watch because they despise him are just as good for the media as viewers who tune in because they love him.  It all goes to ratings and advertising revenues.

Neither Trump’s Republican opponents nor the Democrats ever seemed to learn this.  Negative coverage was still coverage.

Of course, the same holds true for this expanded and consolidated media itself.  The same owners can put up a conservative outlet for that viewership and a liberal one for another.  It will rake in the money from both.  Media makes money by reporting a problem to crisis, by reporting on the crisis, and by explaining how best to resolve the crisis to which they’ve contributed.

It is true that the Glenn Becks and Bill O’Reillys–as well as some of those special in-depth talk news shows–have always denounced the liberal biases of the media . . . but they do so from the platform of that very media.  In fact, it has been unimaginable for a Bernie Sanders or a Michael Harrington to have an hour news show every day . . . much less a Peter Camejo.  The dominant ideology of the media is the industry’s right to make as much money as they can as fast as they can.

Media’s coverage of the Trump presidency has pretty much represented an extension of how it covered his presidential campaign.  Simply put, at a certain point, media has to regard presidential approval ratings as something like their ratings for one of their reality TV shows.  So, it report all the failures, all the madness, and all the chronic ineptness of the Trump White House, but, at a certain point, as that approval rating drops below a certain point,  media has every institutional interest in scrambling to keep a collapse in his popularity from becoming terminal.

After Trump took office with record low levels of rating, media coverage further crumbled under the media coverage until he gave his address to Congress, which seemed uncharacteristically planned and rehearsed.   Bounding from channel to channel, the media proclaimed that he had become “presidential” and declared a “reset” for his administration.  This bounced his approval rating back into reasonable bounds.

Then, the President tweeted that Obama tapped his phone and the ratings fell again.

Subsequently, Trump opted to blow up some foreigners.  In the last half century, media never met a war it didn’t like,  War gets people watching the news and media is as invested in those activities as thoroughly any of the more traditional merchants of death.  Then, too, when things go bad, media can profit just as well by reporting on that.  So media once more did what came naturally, resulting in the raising of Trump’s approval rating.

Right now, we are listening to MSNBC working assiduously to lower the bar for presidential success in an effort to save what is, for them, their most-watched reality TV show–as surely as it is for CNN or Fox or any of the other 24/7 news outlets.

These allegiances have entirely severed corporate media from any of the allegedly high ideals and duties of professional journalism.

Nobody’s poured through this gap as eagerly as the media personalities, major and minor that have emerged in recent decades.   Supporters may see Trump and his team as demonstrating how common sense is preferable to well-trained experience in doing things badly and wastefully.  This sounds very democratic, but a democratic faith rests on the potential of people to develop the skills necessary to govern themselves effectively.  The Trumpian version of this bespeaks a general contempt for labor–for any people who have cultivated an expertise in how to make things or do things poisons their xxx.

This scorn for doing things applies to everything from ship builders to civil servants who’ve spent a lifetime developing a skill.  In reality, Trump, his team and, to a great extent, his supporters believed that all experience and skill could be reduced to the coin of the realm. As what happened with H. Ross Perot a generation ago, many Americans see Trump’s wealth–or his claimed wealth–is the best common measure of expertise and his presidential qualifications.

This has opened the door to a remarkably flexible notion of “truth” in general.  Most notably, of course, Sean Spicer and others countered the reporting of unfavorable facts about the Trump administration with entirely dishonest contradictory “alternative facts,” as Kellyanne Conway called them.  It is remarkably easy to attribute this to the mental laxity and adolescent exaggeration, but it wasn’t invented by this administration or this president.  One need only recall the systemic lying by adherents of both Clinton and Trump in the election campaign or the government’s endemic and almost religious addiction to lying in matters of war and peace.

What’s important here is that the media put itself into a continual reset mode and continued to showcase president’s spokespeople–whether interviews with individual administration figures or the formal press conferences with Spicer–as though they hadn’t purveyed the most bare-faced lies in earlier discussions.  Indeed, when they deign to note that Spicer might be fibbing, they usually hasten to add that he is just doing his job.

The notion that reality is going to be whatever the government says it is may be disturbing to many, but large numbers of Americans find it stabilizing, if not comforting . . . particularly because they aren’t necessarily going to have to think it about it much.

Even when reporting that something said by Trump or the Trumpies isn’t true, the media has taken pains not to describe it as “lying.”  The news media regularly notes that when people in power tell us things that aren’t true, they aren’t really lying unless you can prove that they intended to say something that isn’t true.  I first heard this on a mass commercial network and, in a matter of a few weeks, National Public Radio began belching this same stupifying mantra.

On one level, this is just one more way in which there are two standards in the United States, one for the rich and powerful and another for the rest of us.  The courts have long denied that discrimination or despoiling the environment is a crime unless we can prove that those who did the act–and benefited from it–intended to do it.  On the other hand, can you imagine the justice system letting off someone who robbed a gas station or a corner store on the grounds that they can’t prove that the perpetrator intended to do it.

A few hours ago, I heard a Republican Congressman explaining that American citizens don’t have a right of privacy, while–in the next breath–he defended the president’s failure to release his tax information as he promised on the grounds on the grounds that the president still had a citizen’s right to privacy.   And the interviewers stay submissively quiet.  In the interest of fairness, of course.

If American civic culture is now in a truly deplorable state, media has been the single major force in getting it here.  It has never been more consolidated into the wider corporate world.  It has reshaped the structure of politics and power in the United States, and is institutionally wedded to its creation.

Consider the talk about getting money out of politics.  In America, corporations are people, too, and entitled to as much free speech as they can buy . . . just as poor people are.

Every once in a while, we hear a few peeps of protest about this, but usually translated into calls for overturning the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  As if that decision didn’t simply ratify what had long been becoming the practice.

Simply put, what has made politics dependent almost entirely on big corporate donors has been the cost of advertising.  And almost all of that goes to the mass media.  We will no sooner see the that industry fostering a serious discussion of how to minimize its revenue than we could expect the oil companies to promote for eliminating fossil fuels.

Self-interest shapes it coverage of every question.  This has always been a subtext of their coverage.  Even setting aside the commercial media, the PBS New Hour regularly covered all sides of an issue with a penal of corporate mouthpieces, government officials and “environmentalists” employed by corporations or the government.  From the onset of the so-called “Reagan Revolution,” media both reported on and actively advocated its own deregulation, along with that of other large concentrations of capital.

But mass media isn’t just more intimately associated than it has ever been with the corporate power structure and the status quo.

It is today media rather than government that addresses the people, sets the nation’s priorities, frames the discussion of acceptable policy options.

When the American media decides who will will not be a “serious” candidate.  This almost always reflects which candidate is raising the most money, and they will never identify a candidate who does not get serious corporate support.  It presorts whatever options are placed before the voters, preselecting for those who’ve won by the present rules and have no interest in changing.  Although Bernie Sanders drew some of the largest campaign rallies of 2016, his public reception received remarkably little serious coverage, while Jill Stein’s Green Party effort was virtually uncovered.  In contrast, Trump received vastly more time and attention.   (See, for example, Becket Adams, “CNN gave Trump outsized coverage. Now it’s concerned about him,” Washington Examiner, Jan 18, 2017.)

The media also decides which differences will or won’t matter in an election and how much they will matter.  The noisy and presumably entertaining coverage of emails and twitter feeds filled the 24/7 news cycle covering the election, while any substantive policy differences  (if any there were) between the parties merited very little attention.

News also redefined what is “liberal” and “conservative,” tending to think of these as merely synonyms for Democratic and Republican party affiliations.  This has virtually destroyed what “liberalism” once meant.  For example, Ted Kennedy and other “mainstream” Democrats of the past openly advocated a government health care system, a position for which the Obama White House would have had him arrested had he showed up to its “health care summit” in which, the president said, “all points of views would be considered.”

It is hard to imagine the corporate political shift to the right since the 1970s without the coaxing and prodding of the media.   Yet, it retains the old terminology.

The Cold War rationalized the continued tributes paid from the public treasury into the coffers of that “military-industrial complex” that grew from the World War.  And, with the collapse of the U.S.S.R., media played a vital role in finding other enemies and promoting “the War on Drugs” and “the War on Terror”–essentially amorphous foes of a largely undefeatable character that mandate universal and limitless state of war.  No more than in a real war are the causes and wisdom of the policies up for serious news treatment and rational discussion.

Right now, the MSNBC blurbs for its various shows are less advertisements for TV programs than suggestions for the day-to-day priorities of the governing cliques.  In these, the hosts looking earnestly into the camera and chiding the current Washington power structures for their failure to set aside “ideology” and work together for the good of the nation.  These implicit appeals to “the good old days” are very slick and seemingly reasonable.  However, what “compromise” means in the present context is for Republicans to stop waging their “culture war” and for Democrats to go along with the Republicans on more tax cuts for the rich.

This panders to the knee-jerk responses of the “responsible” elements of their intended viewership, but they’re also defining the character of the “legitimate opposition” to Trump.

More than anything, the most liberal of “the liberal media” not only ignores independent political action but actively and consistently disparages demonstrations.  Mind you, the news might like them, particularly on a slow day where they can be treated as an oddity and the ratings might need a bump.  Remember the Women’s March on the Inauguration weekend?  Or the fate of Occupy and other mobilizations?  Restoring the “natural” flow of power meant demobilizing people engaging in responsible and practical options like electoral politics.  Media is no less terrified than any other institution of power that people might organize themselves and find ways to force their concerns to the center stage of the civic discussion.  Based on experience, those concerns will never get there any other way.

Their predisposition will be to encourage people to restrict their “activism” to “social media,” predisposing the discontented to vent together without establishing a viable, public presence in the streets and their real communities.

More importantly, the news people will sit with the pundits and politicians celebrating their smug assertion that nothing has any meaning outside the marble halls of power and wealth, that the the only real input of citizens must be the picking between the pre-selected alternatives offered them.  The tendency to self-dramatization and the exaggeration of what we face as “fascism” has been part of the tactic for stampeding us into a desperate embrace of whatever reactionary the Democrats opt to run.   So Keith Obermann’s militantly liberal podcasts for “The Resistance” boils down to urging the discontented top vote for whichever Democrats run against the canddiates of Trump’s party in 2018. (See “So, You Wanna Have a New Election?”)  The standard lesser-evil dogmatism that helped deliver us into the hands of those who will over only the most formal, symbolic, and meaningless opposition to Trump would be wise not to do the sort of things that got us here.

In fact,, the Democratic response to Trump has been not really been to challenge him so much as to follow his example.  Sanders, Warren, etc. can introduce bills for Single Payer health care or anything else they want in full confidence that their Democratic colleagues will not have to actually vote on such measures so long as they are in a minority.   That means that such gestures are no more than gestures . . . . It means nothing more than Trump talking about breaking up the banks.

Both corporate parties aer concerned exclusively about polishing their brand.  This is not to say that issues of image are unimportant, but it is as much the be-all and end-all for the Democrats as for the Trumpeteers.

In practical terms, in order to prevent a government shutdown that could have further discredited the administration, the Democrats made major concessions.  In particular, they agreed  to increase the budget for the war machine and to split the difference on the tax cuts for the wealthy.   That’s worth repeating: rhetoric aside, those so-called cosmopolitan and enlightened Democrats are pushing that bigger military budget right alongside the Flat-Earthers among the Republicans and they are winning breaks for the richest Americans.  Trump’s main concession was not to force Congress into an immediate initial funding of his idiotic wall.

Remember this when all those self-defined “pragmatic” characters try to coax you out of the streets and off the picket lines to just go home and vote Democratic.

To state the obvious, we need to see the Democratic Party for what it really is and has become.  It is time to put down the burden of lesser-evil dogmatism born in the middle of the last century  . . . .

A Trio of Democratic Movers and Shakers schmoozing in the 1980s–Donald Trump, Ed Koch and Roy Cohn (if you don’t know, google him).

At the same time, we can no longer rest contented by merely going through the motions of pro forma demonstrations or merely going through the motion of fielding independent electoral campaigns.  We have little time or energy to waste on self-indulgent pseudo-parties running episodic protest campaigns to persuade the corporate-funded Democrats to get out of bed with the Republicans.  And we have had enough of demonstrations that mobilize no more than dozens around issues that should be mobilizing tens of thousands.

Neither demonstrations nor serious independent electoral campaigns can be satisfied with going through the motions–with accepting their exclusion from the public discourse by the corporate mass media, particularly at this point when there exists only the most tiny and feeble alternatives.

We need to learn how to make it impossible for the media not to cover our concerns.   If movements mobilize the numbers, they don’t need to accept it if the media decides not to cover a demonstration . . . or an independent political campaign . . . Mobilize those numbers and pay them a friendly, noisy visit.  Since such an action would be about them, media will find covering it irresistible.

There are creative alternatives.  Try them.

Use what works best in your area and discard what doesn’t.

Share the results.  Discuss these things with each other.

Above all, we cannot accept a civic culture that requires apolitical life in a deferential culturally-induced daze.

The real experience of the first hundred days of the Trump presidency has repeatedly demonstrated that he is actually nothing more or less than a particularly vexing symptom of the deeper problem that made him who he is and put him where he is.  (As a last minute note here, the news that Trump has fired FBI head James Comey, charged with investigating the Great Dealmaker’s connections with Russia will surely make some sort of action against the president more likely.)

Getting rid of the cardboard cutout of a human being that is Donald Trump will be mean little in the long run if we cannot defeat the trends that put him into the White House and are certainly capable of generating even worse candidates.

Trump must go.

His party must go.

The “respectable” alleged opposition that has actually posed no alternative to him or his predecessors must go.

. . . And we must not forget that the world does not really have yet another hundred days to waste relearning what we already know.





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