Fake News and Real Dead Children: Why the U.S. May Never Bounce Back from Trump

Fake News and Real Dead Children: Why the U.S. May Never Bounce Back from Trump
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It’s been over a year since the shocking Electoral College victory that gave the wholly unqualified, dangerously unstable Donald Trump the highest office in the nation. Considering the inexplicable way he has so far survived scandals, public embarrassments and incompetent governance that would have brought down any previous administration, he seems bound to pass the one-year mark still sitting in the Oval Office. And once he gets to that point, a full term seems probable.

It’s difficult to imagine the wreckage he will leave in his wake if he finishes out his four years, considering the immense damage he has inflicted in less than a year in office. Every month of his presidency has seemed like a full term’s worth of disasters, as the world has endured his hypocrisy, blatant disregard for the truth, frighteningly random actions, and of course his endless childish tweets.

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It should never have come to this. However flawed and/or corrupt any past presidents may have been, the office has never sunk this low before (yes, including Nixon). And we – the citizens of the U.S.A. – all share the blame, whether we voted for the man or not, for allowing even fleeting consideration of Trump as Commander in Chief and for letting him serve this long without being impeached and removed from office.

Putting aside every other offense he has committed as candidate and President – a staggering list indeed – one name should have disqualified Trump from being elected dog catcher, let alone leader of the free world: Alex Jones.

Our media landscape is so multifaceted, splintered and devoted to “narrowcasting” now that you can be forgiven if you have never heard of Jones – a radio and internet host who gained notoriety as an espouser of wild and slanderous conspiracy theories. He is a screamer who sells rage as patriotism. The best description I have heard of Alex Jones is “a walking, talking thrombosis.”

Jones began his career as a public access broadcasting novelty in Austin, Texas. His abrasive style was so cartoonish that even creative, lefty types there kind of liked him…or at least enjoyed him. (He shows up briefly in rotoscope animation form in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.) His popularity and reach grew significantly through the years, but until he was embraced by Trump, many still felt Jones was so far outside the norms of public discourse – even the hate-fueled field of political talk shows – that his brand of theatrical madness was largely harmless.

Turns out, that was not the case.

Jones’ audience included Edgar Welch, now serving four years for firing a military-styled assault rifle in the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C. back in December of 2016. While thankfully no one was hurt, the potential tragedy of the act should have terrified the nation, though that reaction may be impossible in a country where mass shootings are now so common they are met with a depressed, collective shrug rather than outrage.

Welch brought his weapon into the pizza joint to “investigate” a supposedly secret child sex slave ring being run out of the restaurant – a monstrous operation rumored to have connections to high-ranking politicians, including those in Hillary Clinton’s circles.

Jones was not Welch’s only source for the conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate (hilariously, he told the New York Times he thought Jones “goes off the deep end on some things”), but it’s safe to assume his media intake was, umm, on the extreme side.

If Pizzagate wasn’t on your radar before that incident, good for you. That indicates you are someone whose definition of news excludes ape s–t crazy nonsense. However, this may not be true of many of your neighbors, co-workers or family members.

While the mainstream may still be somewhat oblivious to it, Jones’ following is considerable. His listening audience is probably over three million and he has over two million subscribers to his YouTube channel. That’s a lot of people who feel the need to hear what this nut-job has to say.

And while his messy divorce case led Jones’ lawyer to claim last spring that his client’s erratic, violent behavior is just him “playing a character,” it’s certainly not clear most of Jones’ audience see it that way. Certainly, Donald Trump gave no indication he thought the host was some kind of right-wing Andy Kaufman when interviewed by him in December of 2015.

Yes, as a candidate, the current President of the United States granted a 30-minute interview to the man who not only helped promote Pizzagate, but who also claimed the 2012 Sandy Hook school shootings were a hoax (giving Welch’s act of terrorism a pitch-black irony).

The hopes for reasonable gun control laws seemed to crumble when absolutely nothing was done in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, when 20 children (just six and seven years old) and six adults were murdered. Similarly, the era of a “post-truth” America may have been cemented when a man who symbolically spat on the graves of those victims, by claiming the shooting was staged, became a genuine influence in American politics. (Jones would ultimately back away from the conspiracy fiction, but he neither fully retracted his statements nor apologized for them.) I can’t imagine how the parents who lost children in the shootings felt, having to see this cruel joke of a theory made “acceptable,” via Trump’s endorsement of Jones as a “nice guy” with an “amazing” reputation.

Even if Trump had said he views Jones’ rants as some kind of gruesome satire (no indication he does), in earlier years any association with those kinds of comments would have immediately erased any candidate’s hopes of winning public office.

But the age of reason seems to be over. Not only did Trump’s interview with Jones not eliminate him from the race, it probably helped him win it. Certainly, Trump adviser and longtime right-wing smear campaigner Roger Stone thought the appearance was important enough to make it happen.

If a loon on the fringe like Jones can be embraced by the Commander-in-Chief, then naturally a sensationalist, hate-mongering outlet like Breitbart.com can be accepted as real journalism. Any outlet less outrageous than Jones’ InfoWars now has a claim to legitimacy. So, why not appoint an extremist like Steve Bannon as chief advisor to the President? And bombastic, far-right screamers like Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge and Mark Levin? They seem pretty tame now, no? And a traditional, flag-waving propagandist like Sean Hannity? My god, Jones makes him look like Edward R. Murrow.

A much more believable conspiracy theory than Pizzagate would be that this is all intentional. The more “alt right” craziness that is allowed into public discourse, the more the Republican Party’s agenda for the wealthy looks like healthy politics by comparison.

But whether bringing fringe political voices to the mainstream was engineered or not doesn’t really matter since there has long been more than enough evidence of their crackpot beliefs. No, conspiracy or not, this all falls on us. We get the democracy we deserve.

Journalism and media are massive, incredibly varied enterprises in this country, yet somehow American political debate has come down to simplistic bashings of “the media,” as if it was one entity. Liberals are guilty of this too, letting legitimate concerns about troubling media consolidation by a small group of massively oversized companies color their opinion of any source not safely ensconced in non-commercial corners. While some of those corners (National Public Radio and ProPublica in particular) are proven sources of sound, outstanding journalism, there are others as dubious as Breitbart. And just because a “one-percenter” owns a media outlet, it doesn’t mean there isn’t good reporting coming from it.

Good investigative journalism often requires deep financial resources and there has long been a tug-of-war between business interests and editorial freedom, even within respected news organizations. Sometimes journalistic integrity loses in that tug-of-war and that needs to be challenged when it happens, but liberals write off the few large news outlets with well-funded reporting staffs remaining at their own peril. The more narrowcasting becomes the norm, the more policy can be built around the “alternative facts” Kellyanne Conway is so fond of.

Of course, when it comes to blanket statements about the media, the right wing dominates. Trump largely built his campaign around it, but this strategy began decades ago. The great irony is, of course, that the war on “the media” has been waged mainly by the media. Fox News, Limbaugh, Hannity and an army of conservative talk show hosts have made careers out of lambasting a mainstream media they increasingly dominate.

Failures, and yes, occasional scandals within legitimate news organizations have fueled this successful smear campaign against any media outlet that might not kneel at the same political/corporate/religious altar as Fox, Salem Media Group, Sinclair Broadcasting and other major players in the news/opinion biz.

Whatever perceived biases conservatives see in The New York Times, The Washington Post and other frequently demonized sources can’t stack up against the ideological mission Fox was created under, not to speak of the outright lies from Breitbart and other “alt right” bomb throwers.

But by successfully making outlets like the Times and Post (and others with long histories of important reporting and speaking truth to power) viewed as arms of a broad liberal conspiracy by much of the country, the right wing media has helped diminish journalism’s standing. And so now we live in a world where a not-insignificant portion of the public can chuckle at a t-shirt like this one worn by a Trump supporter at a campaign rally:

Photo from Reuters Instagram page (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst). All image rights remain with REUTERS and/or the credited photographer.

Photo from Reuters Instagram page (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst). All image rights remain with REUTERS and/or the credited photographer.

It’s also a world where a candidate can body-slam a reporter for asking questions he did not like, as Montana Republican Greg Gianforte did, and still get elected to Congress. When legitimate journalists are viewed as fair game and the public picks and chooses “news” it agrees with, instead of trying to decipher the most accurate sources, tyranny is at the door knocking. With Trump’s election, we may have invited it in.

I’m up front about my politics…they lean pretty far left. However, 30 years ago, they would have been considered much more moderate. (Don’t forget, the Environmental Protection Agency – a government arm painted as far-left overreach by so many modern conservatives – was created under that well-known “pinko,” Richard Nixon. I don’t have much respect for Tricky Dick and his paranoid, oppressive reign, but the EPA was a pretty damn good idea.)

As journalism has lost respect and virulent partisanship has become the nation’s ideological blood sport, what the conservative media defines as “left” has encompassed more and more of the middle. Not coincidentally, the income gap has grown tremendously in that same, post-Reagan period. The uber-wealthy who run enterprises that give airtime and internet bandwidth to traditional right-wingers and extreme “alt right” personalities alike have benefitted by this shift. It’s why they work so hard to get the working class and working poor to vote against their own interests.

And how can we ever hope to address dire matters like climate change, a deteriorating infrastructure, gun violence, a debtor’s society, budget-crushing healthcare costs, and widespread corporate malfeasance when the public grows increasingly insular and ignorant? Trump attracted huge blocks of voters with his promise to build a wall across the Mexican border to stop a non-existent immigration problem (undocumented immigration has been declining for the past decade). As president, he claimed the U.S. murder rate was its highest in 47 years, when in fact, almost the opposite was true (high murder rate cities like Chicago are the outliers). He tweeted an incendiary statement that the Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower, which his own Justice Department found to be untrue. Trump rallies his populist troops by decrying “fake news,” even as he acts as the most prominent promoter of it.

But it doesn’t seem to matter. “Alternative facts” are now permitted. Journalists are our enemy. A billionaire with, at best, a checkered past is viewed as a man of the people. And dead children are just actors in an elaborate hoax. Anything goes in post-truth America.

The American public doesn’t seem to have the interest, energy or education (or all of the above) to do the hard work to dig out of this insanity. There have been protests…but they have died down and made few ideological conversions. Political hopes have already been placed on the 2020 election, as if the broken system that allowed Trump to ascend to the White House will magically reform when government is so controlled by corporate money. Campaign finance reform – perhaps the single most important action we could take to fix our democracy – is not even on the table.

I’ve heard more reasonable Trump voters express regret for their choice, but also cling to a defense that goes something like, “as bad as things are, we had to try something totally different.”

Sorry, that doesn’t cut it. Yes, we need outsiders to come into government. We need reform-minded people who do not bow to the influence of donors and lobbyists. But they need to be smart, principled and above all, steady. Trump does not meet any of those standards.

Electing Trump to reform American government was like choosing an arsonist to fix a lousy fire department. No matter how hungry for change we may have been, it made absolutely no sense. But common sense has been on life support for decades and the plug may have been pulled with the normalization of things that should never be considered normal…things like Sandy Hook, Alex Jones and the Trump presidency.

Bullets, bile and bull…welcome to today’s America.

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