Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Why COVID Was Never Going to Produce National Unity

The presidency of Donald Trump is often treated as if it represents a dramatic new development in American politics, but it's likely that future generations looking back on this time in history will be somewhat surprised, or even amused, by the prevalence of such a view. In many ways, Trump is more interesting, or important, as a fulfillment of existing trends reaching back decades into the past than he is as an innovator in his own right. In retrospect, a Trump-like figure rising to power within the Republican Party can, and probably will, be seen as a completely natural development.

The current historical moment is merely the point at which the barrier previously separating the increasingly-dominant media wing of the American conservative movement from its traditional officeholding wing suffered a serious structural buckle, catapulting many of the media types—with their distinctive preoccupations, motivations, and rhetorical styles—into positions of governing power. Put another way, the Trump administration is more or less a real-life simulation of what would have happened if Rush Limbaugh had been elected president. Journalists and attentive citizens often gasp at this or that example of "unprecedented" Trumpian behavior and marvel that they can't picture Barack Obama—or George W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan—ever saying or doing such a thing. But if the question were instead "can you imagine a President Limbaugh saying or doing that?" the answer is nearly always yes.

Many observers have expressed amazement at how quickly the nationwide public health crisis of COVID-19, itself not inherently an ideological or divisive issue, has evolved to conform to the outline of familiar culture-war conflicts. But to the media outlets that now exercise substantial influence over the national Republican Party, culture war is what politics is all about. In the world that they construct for their audiences, conservatism is in the position of defending America itself against ceaseless attack from Democratic politicians, liberal interests, and a mainstream news media all bent on its destruction or catastrophic transformation. In this constant state of emergency, there is little room to prize non-ideological values such as governing competence or policy expertise, and any form of compromise with the political opposition is tantamount to capitulation.

Even during periods of Republican rule, the content of conservative media programming focuses more on criticizing Democrats and the non-conservative media than on celebrating conservative electoral or governing successes. An emergence of national unity, with the leaders and members of both parties agreeing to implement public policies developed by non-partisan experts to address a widespread threat to the well-being of all citizens, wouldn't just undercut the arguments that liberals are wrong about everything and that government power cannot be leveraged productively for universal benefit. It's even worse than that: what would the conservative media talk about every day?

Trump's own instincts lie in the same direction. Unlike previous leaders of both parties, he ran for the presidency not by vowing to bring the country together but instead by promising constant conflict with an array of perceived enemies inside as well as outside its borders. Intermittent expectations that Trump might seek to "rise above" mere political warfare were thus unrealistic: in his view, the warfare is the whole point. The idea of approaching the current crisis with a bipartisan spirit is as incomprehensible to him as it would be to any Fox News host, and both Fox and the White House have quickly reverted to their common comfort zone of the partisan firing range: questioning the need for social distancing restrictions and even the severity of the disease itself while accusing Democrats, journalists, and scientists of using the crisis as a cover to sabotage the president.

But an important difference remains between officeholding conservatives and media figures: talking heads don't need to win over a plurality of eyeballs to build long and successful careers, but politicians can only stay in power by attracting more votes, whether popular or electoral, than the other side. The all-culture-war-all-the-time attitude is more reliable as a means of building a loyal audience in a splintered media marketplace than as a national campaign strategy. Trump is openly envious of the governors who have received a post-COVID boost in personal approval ratings that has eluded him, but the facts-first, inclusive governing approach that citizens have rewarded across party lines at the state and local level is simply not in his nature to adopt regardless of its potential electoral benefits.

Trump's current situation is reminiscent of the time that ESPN hired Rush Limbaugh to provide commentary on its highly-rated "NFL Countdown" pregame show. Limbaugh's tenure only lasted about a month, ending abruptly after he used his new platform to argue that mainstream sports media analysts were reluctant to criticize the performance of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb because McNabb was black. Limbaugh, a lifelong sports fan, undoubtedly recognized what a valuable opportunity he was being provided, and that his new bosses would be expecting him to justify their controversial decision to bring him aboard by showing that he was capable of being more than an incendiary political warrior. But, like Trump, Limbaugh just couldn't help himself once the camera was pointed at him. His life’s purpose is to say these things, and these are the only kind of things he knows how to say.