Engelhardt, Which Hunt? Who Knows Which Witch?

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[Note for TomDispatch Readers: The next piece will be posted on Sunday evening, December 1st. Have a fine Thanksgiving! Tom]

Après Moi, le Déluge
The Age of Trump, the End of What?
By Tom Engelhardt

French king Louis XV reputedly said, “Après moi, le déluge.” (“After me, the flood.”) Whether that line was really his remains unclear, but not long after his death did come the French Revolution. We should be so lucky! Our all-American version of Louis XV, Donald I, is incapable, I suspect, of even imagining a world after him. Given the historically unprecedented way he’s covered by the “fake” or “corrupt” news media, that “enemy of the people,” I doubt they really can either.

Never, you might say, have we, as a nation, been plunged quite so fully not just into the ever-present, but into one man’s version of it. In other words, for us, the deluge is distinctly now and it has an orange tint, a hefty body, and the belligerent face of every 1950s father I ever knew — my own, in his angrier moods, included — as well as of redbaiting Senator Joseph McCarthy. Of course, you have to be at least as old as me to remember that Trump-anticipating political showman and his own extreme moment. After all, in distinctly Trumpian fashion (though without Twitter), he accused President Truman’s secretary of defense, George Marshall, and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, of being Russian agents. As McCarthy said at the time, “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster?” McCarthy (whose aide, Roy Cohn, was once Donald Trump’s mentor) offers a reminder that Trumpian-style personalities were not unknown in our history and that, in the case of McCarthy, their antics were, however minimally by twenty-first-century standards, actually televised.

Our very own Louis XV is, of course, something else again: a deluge of tweets, insults, self-praise, lies and false claims, and strange acts of almost every imaginable sort. In other words, thanks in significant part to the media and social media, Donald J. Trump is indeed the definition of a deluge and we, the American people, are — thought about a certain way — present-day Venice; we are, that is, six feet under water, even if we don’t quite know it.

And here’s what may be the strangest thing of all: while HE — and, given the last three-plus years, those caps are anything but an exaggeration — is dealt with by the media in deluge fashion, there’s one story that’s in our faces everyday and yet, in some sense — a sense that drives me bonkers — is simply missing in action. To be clear: since 2016, Donald Trump has been covered in our ever-shrinking yet ever-expanding media universe like no other individual in history from Nebuchadnezzar’s moment to our own.

You know that. I know that. Everyone knows that — and yet, in case you haven’t noticed, the fact that HE’s in all our faces like no king, no emperor, no autocrat, no president, no entertainer, no performer ever is hardly being covered, hardly even acknowledged from day to day, week to week, month to month, or even sadly, given how long the Trumpian moment has already lasted, year to year. In other words, HE is eternally there, but the media, omnipresent as it may be when it comes to him, in some sense isn’t.

Winter Is Coming in Trumpian Fashion

The way that omnipresence is linked to his omnipresence must, I suppose, be obvious to everyone. Still, no one is really covering the coverage, not the way it should be covered in all its mind-boggling strangeness. Take the other day, a perfectly typical passing moment in my life in the age of Trump. On my way into the men’s locker room at my local gym, I stopped to have a sandwich in a room with a giant TV screen and a few tables and chairs. On any day as I wander through, the TV is almost invariably on — tuned in to (where else?) CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News — and if you-know-whose angry face isn’t on screen, then there are almost invariably several talking heads discussing HIM or something related to HIM anyway. 

That particular day, when I sat down to eat my sandwich, CNN was on and the story being covered concerned an unscheduled visit the president had paid to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The White House claimed that Trump was simply getting part of his yearly physical early because he happened to have a free weekend in Washington. But the visit was (gasp!) “unannounced” and evidently unexpected by the hospital staff — as if much that Donald Trump does is announced and expected — and who knew what that meant. 

In truth, the answer was: no one about to be onscreen yakking had much of anything to offer. The only news, beyond the visit itself, was that there was no news at all about HIM. Still, medical experts were interviewed and, by the time I had finished my sandwich and headed into the locker room, the talking heads were still discussing… well, essentially the same nothing much because nothing much was known. 

And when I walked through that same room on my way out after my swim, another set of talking heads was, of course, discussing the president’s unscheduled visit to Walter Reed. Several days later, when I began writing this piece, the issue was still being chewed over by columnists and on TV and, as with so much else about this president, days after Trump’s “mysterious, unannounced visit to the hospital,” as the New York Times put it all too accurately, there remained “a torrent of speculation” about it. Then again, such a description could be applied endlessly to stories about Donald J. Trump.  

Now, there would be nothing particularly wrong with any of this, story by story, if it weren’t seemingly our only media present, past, and future in the Trump era. But the historically unprecedented nature of all this yakking, writing, interviewing, speculating, tweeting, Facebooking, discussing, arguing, reporting, and perhaps, above all, the 24/7 talking heads on cable news going on and on about everything faintly related to one distinctly over-present personage (who was evidently God’s gift to them in 2016) has yet to truly sink in.

At some level, it’s not even complicated, especially in this impeachment moment. The shambling body of that president of ours — thanks to a set of media decisions about what truly draws eyeballs on this planet — simply blocks out much of the rest of the world, everything but HIM and anything or anyone faintly relevant to or associated with or ready to attack him and his strange imperial solar system. In media terms, he is now something akin to a force of nature, a Category 5 (or maybe 6) hurricane, but so, of course, is the coverage of him.

There’s obviously a unique history to be written of how King Donald I, still officially “president” of the United States (though he often acts as if he were something far more than that), proved so capable of drawing every camera, every bit of media attention to himself alone, how he kept “the red light” of those cameras and their social media equivalents ever on. It’s a feat for the ages and, it seems, a successful gamble in a media world that found itself in a scramble for ad dollars, for existence and eyeballs, a world that made some hard, if seldom publicly delineated, decisions about what, in the twenty-first century, the news was becoming.

After all, in a world in which so much is, in fact, happening (and going wrong), other decisions, though hard to imagine today, might have been possible and Donald Trump’s all-enveloping, all-absorbing presidency, under less of a media glare and stare, might have taken quite a different turn.

Right now, it doesn’t matter what the subject is: Sports? It’s him. Movies? It’s The Godfather Part II, Roger Stone, and him. And believe me, if there’s an expert on the Godfather films — and I know one! — he’ll be interviewed. Or if you were truly curious about how former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley managed to remain “all in” with the president as her new book comes out (despite a misstep or two and thanks to some advice from Ivanka and Jared), no problem. Hey, believe me, winter is coming and winter, it turns out, is HIM, too. It’s all him, all the time.

This is not, of course, the only way this world could be covered.

The Donald as a Perspective Problem

I remember the first moment I saw this kind of coverage and I was living in a very different world. It was Friday, November 22, 1963, and President John F. Kennedy had just been gunned down. I was 19 years old and, in those days when you didn’t have a screen in every room (or every hand), I was in the basement of my college dorm (along with so many others), near a pool table, watching the only accessible TV around. It was the closest we would come, except perhaps in the O.J. Simpson White Ford Bronco moment, to the sort of 24/7 coverage that has become the norm of the post-9/11 world.

In that case, of course, a president had been assassinated, something that hadn’t happened in my lifetime, not in fact in the lifetime of the TV set. And the reportage on the three major networks of that moment went on without commercials for four days — from soon after the fatal shots were fired that Friday, through the on-camera shooting of suspect Lee Harvey Oswald during a perp walk in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters that Sunday, until Kennedy’s funeral the following Monday (when 81% of home TVs were reportedly on). According to Nielsen, 93% of Americans were watching, “more than half of them for 13 or more straight hours.” But a president had been murdered and the coverage, while unique for its moment, did end.

Donald Trump exists in a very different universe, one in which the screen is with you, day and night, in which HE and you and it are often alone together for what seems like forever. At 75, I’m not quite as screened in as much of our world. I still read an actual newspaper, the New York Times, in print. (Who knows how much longer that will even be possible, as the paper newspaper continues to shrink?) And the truth is that, for me, it’s become a kind of daily nightmare. I have no doubt that the paper, which got rid of a number of its copy editors (and now has visible typos and errors daily), has assigned more reporters to cover you-know-who (& company) than it has ever assigned to cover anyone or anything long-term before. (Back in March 2018, for instance, I counted a typical day on the Trump beat and found “15 reporters, three op-ed writers, and the unnamed people who produced those editorials.”)

On some days, as in the week the impeachment hearings began, it’s no longer uncommon to have up to six interior pages of the paper covered with Trumpian “news” — at least two or three of those pieces continuations from the front page and many of them filled with material that’s distinctly repetitive. Think of it as the newspaper version of those endlessly talking heads on cable TV.

To take a recent example, on November 21st, the morning after U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testified in the impeachment hearings, of the six columns that normally make up the Times’s front page, three were devoted to giant quotes from Sondland’s testimony in large white and yellow print against a dark background. The other three atop the page were articles on the same subject, all under a single giant headline, another quote from Sondland, “We Followed the President’s Orders.” One was headlined “A Witness Places Pompeo Firmly ‘in the Loop’”; a second, “Democrats Detect Watergate Echo”; a third, “Sondland Names Top Officials in Ukraine Push.” At the bottom of the page was a piece on the Democratic debate of that night, headlined “Democrats Soften Disagreements and Sharpen Attacks on Trump.” Only a single piece, Sabrina Tavernise’s “Moving Vans Idle as Migration Stalls in a Reshaped Economy,” snugly lodged at the bottom right corner of the page, and one of the eight reporters involved in front-page coverage, had nothing to do with the president or his possible impeachment.

On the editorial pages, there was a giant editorial, “Implicating the President and His Men,” while three of the four op-eds opposite it had Trump in their titles (“Should Trump Tromp Rudy?,” “The Cowardice Behind Trump’s Vaping-Ban Retreat,” and “Trump Is Doing What He Was Elected to Do”). Inside the paper, there were another 5½ pages of pieces with Trump in the headline or on subjects related to the impeachment process, involving 11 more reporters. More than 20 reporters, op-ed and editorial writers, in other words, were dealing with the world of Donald Trump on that single day.

And yet that kind of coverage itself is never front-page news, even if he invariably is. In a sense, what that means is that you can neither see him for what he is nor see around him. Once upon a distant time — it was the 1990s, just after the Cold War ended — I wrote a book that I called The End of Victory Culture. In it, I explored how, “between 1945 and 1975, victory culture ended in America” and traced it to “its graveyard for all to see,” the disastrous war in Vietnam,” or as I put it: “It was a bare two decades from the beaches of Normandy to the beachfronts of Danang, from Overlord to Operation Hades, from GIs as liberators to grunts as perpetrators, from home front mobilization to antiwar demonstrations organized by ‘the Mobe.’”

And in truth, despite the dreams of Washington’s political elite in the immediate post-Cold War moment and then of top officials of the Bush administration in the post-9/11 moment, “victory” has turned out to be a truly lost cause for the planet’s most “indispensable” nation, as our never-ending wars of this century have made all too clear. Whether we know it or not, we are now in a distinctly post-post-triumphalist American world. Otherwise, of course, there’s no way Donald Trump would be in the White House.

But here’s my question for someone who isn’t 75 years old and is ready to write a new book: What exactly are we at the end of now? It must be something, mustn’t it? What does the Trump phenomenon really represent? And far more important, what lurks behind all the attention paid to him (other, of course, than a climate-changed planet)?

He’s our “witch hunt” president and, if nothing else, he’s presented us, Escher-style, with a remarkable perspective problem. Thanks to certain essential media decisions about what matters (especially when it comes to gluing eyeballs to screens), we’re eternally in close-up. It isn’t just that Donald Trump is somewhat overweight. He’s the sumo wrestler as president. He fills the screen. Every screen. All the time.

Thanks to the media, he’s impeaching us. But really — and I’m just asking — which witches are we actually hunting these days?

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2019 Tom Engelhardt