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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Keeping Our Eyes On The Ball

It’s important not to get too distracted by Trump…

A reader from California, Joe Carroll, writes with an update on political goings-on in his state:

Our governor and legislature have been quite active, passing new bills to confirm our Supreme Court decision that Uber-style employment arrangements do not qualify for independent contractor status, curb spurious vaccine exemptions, set a statewide rent control cap, limit the NCAA’s right to keep student-athletes from being paid for endorsements, somewhat strengthen oversight of charter schools, limit police officers’ ability to legally use deadly force, ban private prisons (eventually… probably…), and possibly even limit payday loan rates to a merely-obscene 36% + the federal funds rate. (We’ll see if that one’s too hot for the governor, as reinstituting the Obama administration’s rules on for-profit colleges apparently was.) All laudable liberal advances, all breaths of fresh air compared to what we’re seeing from the federal government, but also so frustratingly, painfully incremental and notable for their omissions: the governor campaigned on a fracking ban that promptly evaporated; our cap-and-trade program appears to be creating incentives for industry to pretend that they were considering development so that they can sell the credits from deciding not to; cities remain free to determine that a low-income housing development or apartment complex is “out of character with the neighborhood” and insist that it be relocated to someone else’s backyard, while my growing city is closing elementary schools because people increasingly can’t afford to live here while they’re young enough to have school-age children. 

So, pretty mixed: some encouraging, some discouraging, but a lot happening that will have major consequences for people’s lives and for the planet generally. I’m grateful for Joe’s update, because I think he has a strong sense for what actually matters and is worth paying attention to. The top three stories on the New York Times right now are “Trump Publicly Urges China To Investigate The Bidens,” “Democrats’ Subpoena Threat Is Latest In Rapidly Unfolding Inquiry,” and “Trump Does It All Himself, And That Worries Republicans.” And the New York Times remains one of the most substantive publications in the world. (The next story is a terrifying piece of reportage about ICE’s use of new surveillance technology.) If you visit, nearly every story is about Trump. On the main page right now, you’ll find the following stories:

  • ‘A president alone’: Trump lashes out amid inquiry
  • Trump tries again, publicly recommends Ukraine and China investigate the Bidens
  • Trump grows emotional as impeachment takes aggressive steps ahead
  • MaddowBlog: Report implicates VP Pence in intensifying Trump scandal
  • Analysis: As impeachment war turns hot, Trump sounds partisan rallying cry
  • There is ‘clear obstruction’ from Trump admin.: Rep. Max Rose on supporting impeachment inquiry
  • Trump, GOP accuse Schiff of orchestrating whistleblower complaint
  • Fmr. CIA head: Whistleblower complaints should be closely held
  • Trump grows emotional as impeachment takes aggressive steps ahead
  • How important to the impeachment inquiry is Kurt Volker?
  • Clinton: Ukraine ‘the canary in the coal mine’ on Trump schemes
  • Clinton to Trump officials caught in impeachment: Tell the truth
  • Conspiracy theory packet may have supplanted US foreign policy
  • Giuliani admits he provided some docs the State IG flagged to House committees
  • Pompeo admits he listened to Trump-Ukraine phone call
  • Oversight Committee member: We’ll have to ask Pompeo about Giuliani revelation
  • Pushed on Ukraine, Trump menacingly asks reporter, ‘Are you talking to me?’
  • The other whistleblower controversy dogging Team Trump
  • Trump falsely claims that Adam Schiff helped write whistleblower complaint
  • Day 986: A swearing and ranting Trump refuses to answer the key Ukraine question
  • Allied leader subtly presses Trump to preserve American democracy
  • McCarthy calls for Pelosi to suspend impeachment inquiry
  • Trump’s Nickelback meme gets taken off Twitter for copyright violation
  • Chris Hayes on Trump’s desperate attempts to obscure his corrupt abuse of power
  • Raskin: Pompeo circulated propaganda packet at State Department
  • President Trump and the President of Finland have a bit of a complicated relationship
  • Kamala Harris: Trump’s ‘trying to intimidate’ whistleblower
  • Rep. Slotkin: Trump should allow admin. to listen to Constitution
  • Matthews on Trump’s M.O: Trash the media so no one believes them
  • Impeachment jitters: prosecutor says ‘rats’ are jumping ship from Trump WH
  • Trump’s ‘in trouble’: Bush staffer on Pence tossing Trump under bus
  • Trump Ukraine call rings “alarm bells” with evidence of cover up
  • ‘That’s nonsense’: Nicolle Wallace fact checks Trump’s ‘BS’ about the whistleblower’s complaint

I’m about 1/3 down the page. I give up. You get the point. (You’re also told that if you want to “Keep up with the fast-developing impeachment story… Subscribe to the MSNBC Daily newsletter”) There are a few news stories on MSNBC unrelated to Trump. (There is, for example, a piece of climate change news: “Watch London climate change protest involving 1,800 liters of fake blood go horribly wrong.”) But for the most part, it’s utterly obsessed with the latest micro-developments in the plot of the Trump Show.

Ok, before we go any further: I am not saying that an impeachment inquiry into the President of the United States is not important. I am less concerned, however, with what Rep. Slotkin from Michigan’s 8th Congressional District thinks, or with whether Trump violated Nickelback’s copyright on Twitter. Certainly, since I hadn’t heard about half the things Joe told me about, I rather wish our news organizations had spent a bit more time on what states are doing about payday loans and fracking and a bit less time on what Donald Trump did or did not tell the president of Ukraine.

It somewhat frightens me when I realize how many people watch and enjoy MSNBC, because it shows just how distracted people are getting from what are fairly obviously the most important issues in the world: climate catastrophe, the increasing power of the plutocracy, the threat of nuclear armageddon, the 2 million people in our prisons and the tens of thousands committing suicide each year. These are, to be sure, extremely depressing, and watching Trump is like watching an insane alternate universe version of The West Wing where everybody is pure evil and has a screw loose. Hard not to want to stay glued to that. I understand why MSNBC, as a profit-seeking company, has chosen to focus on this bullshit rather than all the depressing stuff no one wants to hear about.

This is, of course, why I love Bernie Sanders so much. He has a way of hyperfocusing on what matters: people’s medical bills, the need for a Green New Deal, the rebuilding of the labor movement. He has this very satisfying contempt for issues that do not directly affect the conditions of working people’s lives. Yes, impeach the president, but can we talk about Medicare For All?

The alternative to this is something that vaguely resembles politics but is more like the internal drama of a royal court. Read this incredible New York Times profile of Rachel Maddow and you’ll see what I mean. It details how Maddow has become obsessed with Trump, and how her audience has grown and in turn become obsessed with her. (And I do mean obsessed with her. The profile includes a description of one fan who “had a Maddow-themed birthday party, at which her friends and her two young sons put on big black glasses and slicked their hair to the side. Also in attendance was a life-size cardboard cutout of Maddow, which is now in storage so as not to startle guests.”)

The profile describes how the Maddow show now devotes itself to the weaving of conspiratorial webs about Trump. Maddow “carries her viewers along on a wave of verbiage, delivering baroque soliloquies about the Russian state, Trump-administration corruption and American political history.” In the show’s office, “on the wall is a poster of ‘Trump Organization Projects and Partners,’ over which has been tacked the image of Carrie Mathison, the Homeland C.I.A. officer known for her paranoid conspiracy walls and unhinged (but often on-point) investigations.” In fact, Maddow is rather honest about where her interests lie and what kind of show she is doing: “I’m happy to admit that I’m obsessed with Russia. I realize it’s controversial, and people give me a lot of grief for focusing on it. But I make no apologies.”

Interestingly, the profile shows the degree to which Maddow has become a mirror-image version of FOX News, the only difference being that they are pro-Trump and she is anti-Trump. The profile’s author suggests that Maddow and Tucker Carlson “are parallel-universe versions of each other,” an idea Maddow doesn’t object to. In fact, she admits that she has learned a lot from Roger Ailes, a man who was as close to a human Satan as we are likely to see in our time. While Maddow admits that he was conspiratorial, paranoid, and right-wing, we also find out that:

At the 2011 Obama White House Christmas party, she struck up a conversation with Ailes. She asked him for tips, and he gave her notes on her angles, her affect, her presentation… I still think that there is some Roger Ailes special sauce there that nobody has quite figured out and that I used to ask him about all the time,” she said. “There’s this annoying word, ‘authenticity’: That’s part of it. There’s trustworthiness: That’s part of it. There’s likability: That’s part of it. There’s humor: That’s part of it. There’s gravitas: That’s part of it,” she said. Ailes died in 2017, and, she told me, “I regret that I never figured it out before he passed.”

Okay, first: why the fuck did Obama invite Roger Ailes to his Christmas party? But also: the thing Roger Ailes mastered was producing the kind of television that keeps people watching but also keeps them stupid. Scaring the crap out of them with conspiracies, distracting them with irrelevant nonsense, sucking them in to a high-volume, edge-of-your seat drama that made it impossible to actually pay attention to issues of substance. That was the only thing Roger Ailes knew how to do. If Maddow is trying to learn from him, then that is the kind of television she is trying to produce. And it doesn’t matter whether that stuff comes ostensibly from the “left” or the “right,” if its effect is the same: keeping people scared to death and glued to their television.

Maddow also admits that she’s not really any kind of journalist, she’s just speculating wildly based on the same publicly available material everyone else has. “People think I have secret information… I definitely get the instant, like, But what’s the real story?” But, she says, when she predicts, for example, that some candidate or other will drop out, “I am just surmising from publicly available data!” It should alarm all of us, then, when the profile says Maddow “is viewed as the central avatar of both her network and her ‘side,’ which is the broadly defined left, or at least the slice of it that watches the news on television.” My God, if that’s the left, what hope is there for us?

Fortunately, that’s not the left. It is just the set of left-identifying people who are hooked on cable news. The real left are climate activists, DSA members, Black Lives Matter, Keystone pipeline protesters, and the smart, energetic young people running for office all over the country. They have their eye on the ball: they all hate Trump, of course, but they recognize that Donald Trump is not the center of the universe, and there is more that needs to be discussed and dealt with. I’d like to think that here at this magazine, we do our part to help people keep from getting drawn inexorably toward the Trumpian black hole, from which no light can escape. Joe, in his nice note, says he thinks we do manage to do that:

The current election is driving so much of the conversation, and it will indeed have great consequences for the future of the world, but I’m so glad that you recognize that there’s so much more to the country than its elected leaders – and so much we can do and build that isn’t through national electoral politics… I’m very glad that you are not Extremely Online as a whole and that you recognize that the latest Twitter controversy du jour has zero influence on the lives of the vast majority of the world.  Yes, it’s important to strongly rebut the Ben Shapiros of the world; no, it isn’t as important as basic moral truths, the struggle to transcend the oppression and racism of our past, how to remind ourselves that government should be of and for us, and where our food and water come from.

I’d also say that Jacobin is doing a fantastic job at this. Look at their front page and you’ll find stories on: the need for universal dental care, the impending Chicago teachers’ strike, the protests in Haiti, how to change the way we build environments, and U.S. intervention in Latin America. This is the stuff that determines what will happen in people’s lives: who will suffer, who will prosper, who will gain more power, who will lose it. It takes hard work to keep your eye on the ball, but it’s what you’ve got to do if you’re going to stand a chance of winning.

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