Never before has half a nation developed post-traumatic stress disorder over the elevator plunge of a single night. It was like a bloodless 9/11, the blue-state edition. The night was November 8, when the returns flooded in from the presidential election and—you know the rest. Less than a week earlier, the Chicago Cubs had won their first World Series since Teddy Roosevelt was president, breaking an ancient mummy curse and splashing the country with champagne foam. Then this. And here we are as the inauguration nears, reckoning with the unreality of an orange Rorschach test occupying the White House for the next four years or until he is impeached (as political historian Allan Lichtman, one of the psychic few to predict a Trump victory, speculates), or perhaps keels over from stupefaction and cognitive overload. (In the week after the election, the victor didn’t look jubilant and ready for action but indigestive.) Election-campaign histories covering the 2016 race will brandish no resemblance to the heroic chronicles of yore, solid thumpers such as Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President series. Nor are we likely to see heavy-lifting prose feats of perception and imagination to stand proud on the shelf with Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes, or Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. This election wasn’t a classical narrative arc or a roller-coaster ride but a Situationist collage, smeared with ketchup and Pan-Cake makeup.
TRUMP’S REALITY-DISTORTION FIELD MADE STEVE JOBS’S LOOK LIKE A MODEST TEST-DRIVE.
Cause and effect were not merely uncoupled but cast aside like cheap thongs. This was a campaign where not a single question about global warming was asked during the presidential debates. And foreign policy? Forget it. The star of the idiotic town hall of undecided voters—America’s greatest nitwits—was Ken Bone in his cutesy Santa-red sweater. Conservative cultural critics railed for years against the rise of postmodernism and relativism in our godless academies, but it was conservative politicians who turned pomo relativism into political witchcraft. Trump’s reality-distortion field made Steve Jobs’s look like a modest test-drive. It was fortified by the weaponization of WikiLeaks and a disinformation-operation plastering of fake news across Facebook that sowed delusion. Gaffes, scandals, slurs, and belches of ignorance that would have sent any other candidate tottering off the stage didn’t make a dent in the performing bear the Republican Party put forward. Meanwhile, The New York Times flooded the zone (to evoke its former executive editor Howell Raines, who had opened the dike on such non-earth-shattering stories as the men-only membership of the Augusta National Golf Club, host of the Masters Tournament) with so many Hillary Clinton e-mail articles that it swept all proportion aside and resembled a scavenger hunt. So much excellent investigative work was done, all in vain. The journalistic heroes of the campaign must wonder why they even bothered. Yes, many of them will win deserved awards, such as David Fahrenthold, of The Washington Post, who revealed what a scam Trump’s charity posturing was, and Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald, whose exposé of why and how Putin’s Russia was backing Trump’s candidacy gains relevance each new darkening day, but those awards will be bestowed by colleagues who still respect dedication, sleuthwork, and detail, a dwindling band of information gatherers and artisans. The silver age of All the President’s Men and Spotlightrecedes into the bloodshot sunset as the reality-based readership shrinks in numbers and influence while online becomes a teeming continent of trolls and their dupes.
Perhaps I’d been naïve, but it only now dawned on me, in the final week of the campaign, to my great horror, that the real reason they put us in the pen was so they could turn us into props. We were a vital element in Trump’s performance. He never once failed to invite his crowds to heckle us. He was placing us on display like captured animals. —Seth Stevenson, Slate (November 11, 2016).
Political reporters on TV fared even worse in this campaign, because they were out there amid the heaving tattooed flesh of the beast. They deserved combat pay. NBC’s Katy Tur and her colleagues were treated like Christians being carted into the Colosseum as they covered Trump rallies, corralled off and subjected to abuse, threats, and apoplectic spasms from Trump supporters, often punctuated with raised middle fingers. Some of the hazers looked as if they had gone off their meds and never intended to return. These weren’t the melodramatic theatrics of a crowd at a WWE event; this was the real, raw lynch-mob overture. None of this was discouraged by the candidate—quite the opposite: he singled out Tur from the stage to sic the haters on her. (She had to be escorted to her car by the Secret Service after one Trump-incited episode.) It is the shame of many news organizations that they allowed reporters to be penned up and bombarded with hostility at rallies that were already being broadcast live on cable TV, making their jobs superfluous and dangerous. The networks aired them as if they were rock concerts conducted by General Zod. Equally unconscionable was the executive privilege accorded Trump back in the network studios. Every craven courtesy was extended to the candidate, who was allowed to do “phoners,” spout uninterruptedly, and exhale lies in giant word clouds.
No cable-news organization disgraced itself more comprehensively than CNN. No one expects better from Fox News, but CNN used to stand for something—professional standards, stuff like that. Jake Tapper, Anderson Cooper, and Van Jones aside, it was slumming on the job. The president of CNN Worldwide, Jeff Zucker, was instrumental in the rise of Donald Trump as a media brand in his earlier role as head of NBC Entertainment, which gave us The Apprentice. Under Zucker’s tenure, any remnant of integrity and impartiality CNN once prided itself on is now scrap metal. CNN hired Corey Lewandowski, recall, after he was fired as Trump’s campaign manager, and Lewandowski proceeded to make no pretense of offering independent commentary on countless useless political panels—he functioned as an in-house hammerhead shark for the Trump operation. “CNN president Jeff Zucker repeatedly defended Lewandowski’s hiring,” wrote Ben Dimiero in Media Matters, “even as it became clear that he was still drawing large ‘severance’ checks from the campaign, advising Trump on strategy, helping to prep him for the debates, and flying on the candidate’s plane while working for the network.” His eventual successor as Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, tweeted a photo of Lewandowski posed between herself and press secretary Hope Hicks with the hashtag #Teamwork. A few days after the election, Lewandowski jilted CNN for what was widely speculated to be a role within the Trump team, stubbing one last lit cigarette into CNN’s reputation. As MSNBC host Chris Hayes tweeted with acid irony, “For continuity’s sake, CNN should keep paying him while he’s in the White House.”
“Sucking up does work,” America’s greatest late-night host, Johnny Carson, observed, and the cable-news triumphalists after November 8 were those who had put their lapping tongues and puckered lips to work on behalf of their hero and, undeterred by the polls and any sense of decency or proportion, tasted the sweet cherry of vindication. Fox News host Sean Hannity and Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs (whose immigrant-bashing during his stint at CNN set the martial tone and tempo for Trump’s “Build the Wall” drumbeat) can now retire—though they won’t, these guys never do—knowing they helped elect a travesty. And then there’s the egregious reporter/political analyst/television host/super-schmoozer Mark Halperin, who was temporarily suspended by MSNBC in 2011 for calling President Obama “kind of a dick” and emerged in this cycle as Trump’s pre-eminent media-establishment buddy-boy. Posed next to each other on the campaign trail, Trump and Halperin flashed matching fraternity grins, and Halperin cheekily wore a Trump-esque red hat one night on the air. MSNBC’s Brian Williams, whose fall from journalistic grace need not be dredged up here, rehabilitated himself in my weary eyes when he called Halperin a Trump shill to his face, erasing the trademark Halperin smirk. Going forward, we will need more like Brian Williams and fewer of the hucksters, and, even if you’re not the praying sort, let us pray.