by Gaius Marcius
Well, I must give some begrudging credit to the Washington Post and cable news. Despite appearing mortally wounded after a year of evisceration courtesy of Steve Bannon and Donald Trump, despite losing public trust at a record rate, and despite ousting multiple iconic liberal voices in the #MeToo frenzy, the mainstream media refuses to go down without a fight. The Alabama Senate race showed just how much power the legacy media still has when every news outlet identifies the same point of attack and begins shrieking in unison. Frank Luntz, Anderson Cooper and Jake Tapper are all modern day versions of the great fictional editor Tom Towers featured in Anthony Trollope’s novel The Warden. Tom Towers edits the London newspaper The Jupiter, which is the infallible and all powerful 19th century opinion maker.
“Tom Towers compounded thunderbolts for the destruction of all that is evil, and for the furtherance of all that is good, in this and other hemispheres… Here reigns a pope… who manages his own inquisition, who punishes unbelievers as no most skilful inquisitor of Spain ever dreamt of doing–one who can excommunicate thoroughly, fearfully, radically; put you beyond the pale of men’s charity; make you odious to your dearest friends, and turn you into a monster to be pointed at by the finger!” Chapter 14 Mount Olympus.
There truly is nothing new under the sun. Trollope’s scathing satire on journalism is applicable to the SJW’s who hounded Tony Hovater out of a job and the Washington Post reporters who started the accusations against Roy Moore. The media does not operate in a vacuum; they need some viewers who feel guilty enough to accept their narrative, and the GOP establishment and parts of talk radio are only too happy to surrender at the first signs of criticism. I am certain that GOP pundits will do their best to avoid the obvious lessons of the Alabama race. For example, anyone still talking about the importance of an independent, adversarial media as a watchdog of the democratic process is pretending to live in the homogeneous White America that disappeared 50 years ago. The ideological conservatives and libertarians who think the press is a bulwark of democracy are ignoring the totalitarian impulses that have been part of the journalistic psyche for centuries.
“Were it not well for us in our ignorance that we confided all things to The Jupiter? Would it not be wise in us to abandon useless talking, idle thinking, and profitless labour? Away with majorities in the House of Commons, with verdicts from judicial bench given after much delay, with doubtful laws, and the fallible attempts of humanity! Does not The Jupiter, coming forth daily with fifty thousand impressions full of unerring decision on every mortal subject, set all matters sufficiently at rest? Is not Tom Towers here, able to guide us and willing?” Chapter 14 Mount Olympus.
For years the mainstream media was used to politicians and celebrities fawning over them just as depicted in Trollope’s novel. And why would they not feel entitled to that special treatment? Even after being dragged through the mud on a daily basis for eight years, George W. Bush was still singing the praises of the independent press to none other than the now disgraced Matt Lauer. Sadly, respectable upper middle class voters necessary for conservative electoral victories are particularly susceptible to the social pressures exerted by The New York Times. Another great novelist, Tolstoy, depicts the comfortable habit of socially acceptable liberal opinion when he describes the mediocre, empty-headed, white collar Stepan Arkadyevitch in Anna Karenina.
“Stepan Arkadyevitch took in and read a liberal paper, not an extreme one, but one advocating the views held by the majority. And in spite of the fact that science, art, and politics had no special interest for him, he firmly held those views on all these subjects which were held by the majority and by his paper, and he only changed them when the majority changed them… Stepan Arkadyevitch had not chosen his political opinions or his views; these political opinions and views had come to him of themselves, just as he did not choose the shapes of his hat and coat, but simply took those that were being worn… If there was a reason for his preferring liberal to conservative views, which were held also by many of his circle, it arose not from his considering liberalism more rational, but from its being in closer accordance with his manner of life… And so Liberalism had become a habit of Stepan Arkadyevitch’s, and he liked his newspaper, as he did his cigar after dinner, for the slight fog it diffused in his brain. Anna Karenina Ch 3.
When Donald Trump began ridiculing the media at his campaign rallies and getting the crowd to boo CNN, the journalists in the press box were amazed that anyone could think so little of their work. That slight fog that was so effective at controlling the middle class had turned into an enormous, billowing cloud over the years, and more than a few ordinary voters have noticed it. The media cannot help but fight Trump because he has challenged their place in the American political system for the first time in generations.
Unfortunately, the Roy Moore case shows that that the media can still overwhelm anyone who does not have massive funding, skillful rhetoric, and a huge personality. Trump cut right through the media fog and woke up millions of White voters, but his success may have been more dependent on his personal traits than we would like to admit. Losing one special election is not the end of the world. Trumpism is bigger than Trump, but it is concerning to consider that generic right-wingers may have trouble recreating Trump’s electoral success in the face of demographic change and a unified media attack.