“For Trump, the Reality Show Has Never Ended.” So The New York Times, forever behind the curve, headlined an article by its reporter Peter Baker the other day. Trust The New York Times to report as “news” what everybody on the planet has known since at least January 20th of this year and most of us have known since well before that time. It’s not that they don’t know we know this, of course, still less that they are just waking up to the fact themselves. It’s that Mr Trump seems to have driven them literally crazy — crazy in the sense that they keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
For the “reality show” trope is one that has often come up in the media generally and The New York Times in particular over the last eleven months. As long ago as last December, Mark Leibovich was writing for the Times of “The Trump Transition Reality Show,” while an editorial of the previous July sought to besmirch Mr Trump’s vice-presidential choice by headlining: “Donald Trump and Mike Pence: The Political Reality Show.” It’s just one of many ways the media have of calling attention to what they regard as the President’s “unpresidential” behavior. If we keep doing that, the Times editors appear to be thinking, eventually people have got to start being outraged about it.
So far, however, it seems to be working only for those who were already outraged. Maybe it’s time for the Times to get “woke” to the fact that the world outside their little New York-Washington media bubble now has, for better or (I would say) worse, a somewhat different idea of what constitutes presidential behavior than they do. If so, however, it shows no signs of happening any time soon. On the same day as Mr Baker’s piece, the paper ran one by Greg Weiner blasting the President for, of all things, disregarding a due Burkean regard for custom and tradition in presidential behavior.
When Mr. Trump drains language of its normal meaning, the law can do nothing about it. His ridiculing of the United States senator who leads the Foreign Relations Committee, his repeated use of the word “fake” to describe news coverage when he actually means “unpleasant” and his style of rhetoric in front of the United Nations, where he called terrorists “losers” and applied a childish epithet to the head of a nation in whose shadow tens of thousands of American troops serve and with whom nuclear war is a live possibility, are all cases in point. There is no way to formalize conventions of maturity and dignity for presidents. Custom fills that void. Mr. Trump’s prodigious abuse of language violates the custom according to which presidents use words to convey serious meanings.
By the way, he doesn’t mean “unpleasant” when he says “fake.” He means fake. But sure. Serious meanings, check — perhaps like those of the “rapper” who calls himself Eminem and whose meaning-lite (to put it kindly) spewings of hatred against the President received appreciative notice in the same day’s edition of the Times by Bari Weiss. Or could Mr Weiner have had in mind something more like the serious meaning of the words of the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, who is now reported to be accusing Mr Trump of “genocide” for not putting everything destroyed by a devastating hurricane on the island back to rights quickly enough to suit her.
For there is this little difficulty with attributing the breakdown of custom and civility in our political culture to Mr Trump alone. These things can never reside only in one man or one office but are shared by us all, on both sides of the political dialogue, and when they have perished — as we see they have perished under President Trump — cannot but have done so long before he ever came into office. The debasement of our political language is what produced him, rather than he it, and the real fault lies with the media who have long allowed such rhetorical wildness a free rein, so long as it has been directed against those to whose politics they have been hostile. Why should they think that they would be able to keep any such “prodigious abuse of language” all to themselves?