A photo of Donald Trump with manuscripts of his conversation with Michael S. Schmidt in the background.

Gage Skidmore/CC 2.0

The Well Actually

Gage Skidmore/CC 2.0

Why Is the New York Times Normalizing the Dangerously Abnormal President?

The paper of record claims the man tweeting us into war with North Korea has "reinvented" the presidency. Which is why 2018 must be a year of reckoning for the press.

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The pundits are split: Did the New York Times go too soft on Trump when reporter Michael Schmidt caught the president for a half-hour interview at Mar-a-Lago just before the new year? Or was Schmidt’s let-the-tape-run tactic a canny jab at letting Trump trip over his own tongue? I say both—and neither.

Journalists shouldn’t—and really, literally, can’t—ignore the man, but it’s time to stop pretending Donald Trump is ever going to say anything of value in an interview. Why consign a professional reporter to a week of waiting around at a golf club for a chance to let a dude who doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground jibber-jabber into a tape recorder for a half-hour? Especially when, following whatever incoherent rambling on health care falls forth from his tongue at his Florida retreat, he’s just going to go and incite a nuclear war on Twitter, anyway?

I mean, let’s talk taxes. Is your understanding of American politics, or congressional negotiations, or the office of the presidency, enriched by knowing that Donald Trump believes himself to have a better understanding of the American tax system than “the greatest CPA,” as he told the Times? Because that’s about the most coherent thing Trump said on the subject. Here are three actual and real consecutive sentences from the interview: “The tax cut will be, the tax bill, prediction, will be far bigger than anyone imagines. Expensing will be perhaps the greatest of all provisions. Where you can do something, you can buy something.”

Do you find yourself edified? Do you see in Trump’s remarks some glimmer of what the future of American tax policy holds? Are you able to examine what he’s said here and weigh it against what you know or believe, and make a meaningful decision for yourself about where you stand versus where the president stands, and decide where that puts you on the spectrum of support for his work, his vision, or his policies?

I think the fuck not! How could you? Honestly: “One year expensing. Watch the money coming back into the country, it’ll be more money than people anticipate.” Who is expensing? What are they expensing? What money? From where? Who is “people”? And what “money coming back into the country” do they, whoever they are, currently anticipate, for comparison’s sake?

I submit to you that follow-up questions of this nature would have delivered neither answers nor insights, only more useless blather and probably a swift return to Trump’s favorite subject: his victimhood at the hands of the Democrats, or the media, or Hillary Clinton, or all three. Trump treated this interview the way he treats all interviews: He picks a key word out of the initial question, claims to know everything about the key word, intersperses uses of the key word with assertions so vague as to be impossible to fact-check, and ultimately brings the subject back to the only thing on earth he’s capable of discussing with any competence—himself.

Smart people have criticized the Times for not pushing back on Trump during the Mar-a-Lago session, but I simply don’t see how it would have made much difference. Trump will contradict himself no matter what. He is as unconcerned with coherence as any toddler, and less responsive to reason. He is wholly unbothered by intellectual and political inconsistency, and why shouldn’t he be? All the cute post-interview fact-checks in the world aren’t going to end his presidency. He has publicly accused a sitting United States senator of trying to trade sex for campaign funding, for flip’s sake. I mean this with all sincerity: No one in a position to hold the man accountable for anything whatsoever gives a single shit that Donald Trump is dim, dull, and depraved. In fact, many millions of voters love him for it, and those who hate him for it don’t need to be told again.

What in the world do folks think Michael Schmidt asking a follow-up question about the tax code is going to do, exactly? Show us (again!) that Trump is an absolute fool who thrills at every opportunity to lie with impunity? Further demonstrate the almost unfathomable depths of his self-aggrandizing conceit?

I don’t know about y’all, but I’m pretty well convinced on the subject of Donald Trump’s steaming incompetence. His contempt for the American people and his wholesale lack of respect for democracy and his entire inability to tell the truth are well documented. His chauvinistic egotism, enthusiastic ignorance, and unchecked bigotry have been caught on tape, again and again. I’m ready—I’ve been ready—for somebody to do something about it.

Reporters should neither waste their time letting Trump bleat nor waste their intellectual energy pressing him with tough questions. There is no such thing as a tough question for a guy who thinks talking itself, content be damned, is its own reward. The time for talking to Trump is over. Certainly the press should keep an eye on what the president says—and tweets—but seeking him out and attempting to make sense of his bewildering nonsense is pure foolishness. There is no point in verbally running Trump down on taxes, or health care, or immigration. Trump knows nothing, believes nothing, and will say anything.

Going forward, 2018 must be a year of reckoning for the president and the press. We cannot afford to continue treating the man like any other politician, and neither can we continue treating him as if he’s simply a wacky non-traditionalist—as the Times did in a New Year’s Eve retrospective wherein Peter Baker posits that Trump’s contribution to American politics thus far has most significantly been his transformation of the presidency, writing that Trump has “shattered boundaries” and “revolutionized” the office. (Baker’s evidence for this ripe understatement includes quotes from wealthy donors, politicos and pundits, some of whom find Trump “refreshing,” as if the man’s racism, misogyny and nuclear misadventures are matters of personal taste.)

Trump is poised to usher in the apocalypse because he watches too much cable news. He is not an edgy iconoclast; he’s a man who’s so ravaged by insecurity that he’s actually trying to start a nuclear war just to prove his dick is bigger than Kim Jong-un’s. The Schmidt interview might be excused as a sure-why-not grab for clicks during an otherwise slow holiday news week, but Baker’s Times piece is mind-bogglingly ill-framed, and dangerously so. It is the Times-iest of Times pieces about these times, presenting Trump and his legacy-thus-far as something akin to a controversial rock album, or racy book of popular fiction, the merits of which critics dispute, rather than a threat to democracy itself, not to mention planetary security.

This graf just about sums it up: “Mr. Trump is creating precedents that may outlast his tenure. He is making the presidency more authentic or more autocratic, depending on the vantage point. Either way, it may never be the same.”

Authenticity versus autocracy? Give me a break. Trump isn’t revolutionary—he’s retrograde. It’s right there in his slogan: “Make America great again.” Sameness is exactly what Trump wants, and it’s what he’s selling to millions of people who are actively angry about the prospect of an increasingly diverse, multicultural America. A major part of Trump’s appeal is that he promises to stave off change, to return things to the good old days before the Civil Rights Act and before women got so salty with their objections to sexual harassment.

Moreover, autocracy isn’t a matter of opinion—or of “vantage point.” It’s a measurable, documentable phenomenon whose effects can be quantified and qualified. It can be evaluated by looking at the court system, at the criminal justice system, at the uses (or abuses) of the Constitution. History and sociology can help us understand and situate the extent to which Trump is dismantling democracy, and good reporting can ground and contextualize the damage. To treat the truly terrifying reality of Trump’s presidency as a casual disagreement among people who simply see things a little differently is irresponsible in the extreme.

The only defense rational people—for whom the press must act as representative—have against an aggressively deceptive administration allergic to reality is old-fashioned pavement-pounding reporting and robust and transparent investigative work. Not another chance for Trump to run his mouth at his country club, or more gotta-hear-both-sides analysis that takes Trump’s bloviating incompetence as “authenticity”—a better example of the phrase “giving too much credit” will never exist.

Trump is a threat to national security, and to the health and well-being of tens of millions of people. Better to treat him as a natural disaster than a politician. We need stories on the effects of Trump’s policies, shored up with scientific and sociological data. We need to hear the voices of people most affected by the biggest issues of our day—health care, immigration, systemic racial violence, sexual harassment and assault. We need the press to hold up a mirror to America—not a microphone to the president.

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