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Donald Trump And The Tabloid Trap

Vanessa Trump and Donald Trump Jr. walk out together after attending church service at St. John's Episcopal Church across from the White House in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Vanessa Trump and Donald Trump Jr. walk out together after attending church service at St. John's Episcopal Church across from the White House in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

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Last week, Vanessa Haydon Trump, the wife of Donald Trump Jr., filed for divorce. This news was greeted by a predictable spasm of schadenfreude from Twitter folk.

I get it.

The president’s oldest son has a long history of troubling behavior, one that roams from joyously shooting elephants to fomenting conspiracy theories to nearly getting indicted for fraud to sending creepy, bacon-themed direct messages to a model. Oh, and that little matter of meeting with Russians who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton during the election.

The jokes are pretty easy to make. The bacon fetishist doesn’t fall from the pig! I thought Eric was the dumb one! Ha-ha-ha.

But from where I’m sitting, succumbing to this temptation — to mock, to humiliate — is playing the president’s game, and surrendering to his agenda. Trump’s entire rise to power has been predicated on our willingness to stoop to his level of gutter politics.

When we’re fighting, he’s winning. When we’re yelling at our screens, we’re not advocating or organizing or campaigning. We’re not trying to compromise, we’re trying to pick fights. We’re not focused on the common good but the common enemy.

In this Sept. 22, 2017 photo, President Trump speaks at a campaign rally in support of Sen. Luther Strange, in Huntsville, Ala. (Brynn Anderson/AP)
In this Sept. 22, 2017 photo, President Trump speaks at a campaign rally in support of Sen. Luther Strange, in Huntsville, Ala. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

In his remarkable 1985 book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death," the cultural historian Neil Postman argued that America’s future was far more likely to resemble the dystopia of Aldous Huxley’s "Brave New World" than Orwell’s "1984."

“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information,” Postman wrote. “Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”

Which, oddly, brings us back to Donald Trump Jr.’s divorce. When we treat this event as fodder for mean-girl jibes, rather a private struggle endured by a family with five kids, we’re following Huxley’s script.

So, too, when we choose to focus on the garish tabloid aspects of Trump’s candidacy and his presidency — the demagoguery, the affairs, the trollish tweets — we’re turning ourselves into that captive culture.

When we’re fighting, he’s winning. When we’re yelling at our screens, we’re not advocating or organizing or campaigning.

We begin to treat the sacred duties of self-governance as merely another form of entertainment, something we can sit back and consume, rather than authoring. We become the objects of history, rather than the subjects.

There are signs that Americans, even among Trump’s loyal base, are getting fed up with this cynicism. Much of the reason the Democrat Conor Lamb won last week’s special election, in a Pennsylvania district Trump carried by 20 points, is because a significant swath of Trump voters grew tired of the president’s politics of rage and division.

Lamb didn’t run against Trump. He spoke to his constituents about their concerns, the issues that affected them, and promised to go to Washington to solve problems, not to engage in partisan brawls.

Beto Rourke is running the same sort of campaign in Texas, visiting all of the state’s districts to talk with Texans about their struggles, and what sort of help they need from their elected officials.

The fact that such an approach sounds old-fashioned speaks to the monstrous cynicism of our moment.

The most troubling aspect of Trump and his regime isn’t his incompetence or corruption or even his cruelty. It’s that he simply doesn’t care about solving the problems Americans are facing. In the case of health care and climate change and income inequality and wage stagnation and gun violence, he has made problems worse.

I’m not suggesting that we should look past the investigation into the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia, which now includes scrutiny of his shady financial dealings. If he or his family or staff broke the law, they should be prosecuted. Nobody is above the law in a democracy. Trump should be held to account — by Congress, the courts and his constituents.

But impeaching Trump won’t fix America’s problems.

To do that, we need to find and support and campaign for candidates who don’t just rake bucks from special interests, then rage against Nancy Pelosi — or Trump.

Facing the depth and scope of our crises, as a nation and a species, isn’t fun or easy. And it’s nowhere near as sexy as hate-watching a tabloid presidency. But it’s the only way we’re going to restore faith in ourselves and our democracy.

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Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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