What to Do if a Debate Breaks Out

The coverage of the entire episode points to how feeble our political life has become.

Journalists and some Americans expressed amazement at the impromptu debate that broke out in the Oval Office on December 11.  The President was meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer in the hope of coming to an agreement to keep the government funded into the new year.  To the surprise of the Democratic leaders, Trump opened up the meeting to the press, who then scurried into the crowded space to record the conversation taking place inches away.  For the next 17 minutes a sometimes rancorous discussion unfolded, especially after Trump indicated he would prefer to shut down the government than accept a bill without financing for the five-billion dollar folly of a border wall.

Trump “temper tantrum”: President spars with Pelosi, Schumer in Oval Office border debate

An Oval Office photo op with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer descended into a back-and-forth on the likelihood of President Trump winning votes in the House & Senate on government funding, and the effectiveness of a border wall.

Pelosi and Schumer were not pleased.  For them, “debate” usually means reading prepared remarks to empty chambers.  They expected a private discussion rather than an event that gave the impression that they had been sandbagged. Trump professed his pleasure for the open meeting, noting with a half smile that it was an example of “transparency.” And so the bickering continued, with both democrats claiming there was very little legislative support for his project.

The President and former reality television star seemed to love the moment. But in truth he’s not a very good debater; in this instance he gave up too much to his opponents. Using his preferred style of bluster, he overreached by taking full responsibility for any eventual government shutdown. He said it would be worth the price of improved American security.

Aside from this bogus false choice, Trump clearly had forgotten what misery that closed government facilities can cause in a holiday season when the need for them is near its peak.  Want to visit a national monument? Think again.  Want to get information on medical and social security services? Not if the government is mostly closed.

The coverage of the entire episode points to how feeble our political life has become.  We welcome the shelter of like-minded folks on the news channels that many of us watch.  In these polarizing days even our choice of who to spend time with is weighed based on the known political views of the others.  Moreover, as a nation we are less likely to entertain a full debate on the merits of an idea unless a member of the press is present to change the topic when things begin to get interesting.

              The Prime Minister in the House of Commons

At the same time  that there was this momentary public airing of differences, British legislators were still engaged in a nearly continuous public debate–much of it within the House of Commons–exchanging pleas to move beyond the self-inflicted morass of Brexit. To be sure, it is a mess; few are interested in throwing Prime Minister Theresa May a lifeline.  However this quandary is resolved, it is likely to cost Britain a great deal in terms of its national prestige and economy.

But here’s the point: though we may be justified in giving our British cousins a rap on the head for this quagmire, give the country credit for airing the issues fully, and with the expectation that the Prime Minister will participate in days and and many hours of open debate with her opponents.  Britain and other parliamentary democracies have woven debate into their system.  True to form, May has been a dutiful if uninspired advocate throughout this exhaustive process.

The British expect that a public official should be able to answer questions about key facts, the likely effects of policy actions, and best estimates of the consequences of a changed relationship with the European Union.  Public debate is a fixed expectation.  In the United States it is such an unexpected event that it gets its own “Breaking News!” graphic and an excited cadre of talking heads.  All of this in an age where we have convinced ourselves that we are more connected than ever.

Fake News?

It’s disheartening to hear a president use “fake news” to dismiss the very best of American journalism.

It’s the President’s favorite theme.  If the phrase had a history prior to his administration, “fake news” has been reborn as the mantra of the Trump insurgency.

         A worrisome sign of  Trump’s legacy

Anyone who has been paying attention knows that the President uses the term to mean news coverage he does not find to his liking. When he took that famous escalator ride to the lobby of Trump Tower to announce his candidacy several years ago he must not have understood that his words and checkered business would be under intense scrutiny.

Trump’s frustration with the news media is hardly unique. Most presidents and many mayors and governors have gone through rocky relationships with the Fourth Estate.  At the same time, Americans understand that good journalism is sometimes going to make the powerful uncomfortable.  Witness the sentimental heroics displayed in films like The Post (2017), All the President’s Men (1976), Frost/Nixon (2008) and Good Night and Good Luck (2005).

A reasonable description of this moment in our national politics is that, indeed, the American leader is getting terrible press.  No doubt about it.  He and his administration are at the center of a cable news cycle intensely focused on miscues and misdeeds. Evidence of malfeasance is also the subject of most of the negative coverage in the legacy print news media, including the New York Times and Washington Post, and in public policy publications like The Atlantic, The New Republic and, increasingly, The New Yorker. If that were not bad enough for the West Wing, reports from conservative outlets are only marginally more positive, with the important exception of Fox News. The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard are far from positive.  In addition, important conservative journalists like Max Boot, George Will and Bill Kristol are not fans.  Even Tucker Carlson is wavering.

The term has become its own reality, obliterating distinctions between rigorous journalism and ill-considered rants.

Reality television and social media have proven to be bad models for the President. Anyone with a knowledge of American civil life will understand that “news” can take many forms and be shaped from a variety of perspectives.  Phoney journalism has a long history in supermarket tabloids and reality shows not known for treating news gathering as a serious profession.  And, of course, internet sites and social media largely ignore the rigors of traditional reporting. Most websites do little more aggregate stories from other sources, while issuing polemics to like-minded partisans. Indeed, there’s enough fake news around for everybody to lament.

Even so, it is disheartening to see a president dismiss the very best of American journalism from our legacy media.  Among his followers, at least, this bogus indictment has the effect of undermining a cornerstone institution in American life. “Fake news” has become its own reality, obliterating distinctions between rigorous reporting and ill-considered rants. The phrase has also become a poison in the American body politic, slowly infecting every policy decision and utterance.

What is traditionally celebrated by a President now exists under a cloud of wild allegations.

It seems like Trump or his instructors at the University of Pennsylvania badly missed the mark many years ago. One wonders if a Wharton degree includes courses in American history and politics. How could he have missed the lessons of Jefferson, Franklin, Oliver Wendell Holmes and so many other defenders of the free press in an open society?  Why is the language of human rights and press freedom hardly visible even at the margins of his limited lexicon?

Some of us occasionally have to pinch ourselves to realize that we are witnessing the use of the nation’s highest office to persecute a core institution of civil society. Among other things, Trump’s relentless attacks mimic old Soviet habits of fueling distrust for any sources not under the thumb of the state. Rather than celebrating a core value of the great American experiment, this administration seems intent on discrediting it.