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Two Cats Looking At The Same Bird
And seeing entirely different things
“The surprisingly good Confidence Man actually makes sense of Trump’s rise and his ability to twist the media to his will.”
“Maggie Haberman’s Trump Biography Buys Into the Myth”
That’s Eric Alterman1 and Chris Lehman,2 respectively. Alterman was a long-time press critic at The Nation, and fills the same role now at The American Prospect. Lehman heads The Nation’s D.C. bureau and serves as contributing editor at two publications he once helmed, The Baffler and The New Republic. His review is published in The Nation.
Lehman says Haberman takes the wrong on-ramp early in the book by ascribing Trump’s narcissism and rage to his hunger for fame, rather than the reverse, and rather than relating Trump’s promotional and political success to failures of the press and other social mythmakers.
[W]hat aspirant to the American presidency wasn’t driven by an outsize hunger for public attention? Like any single-minded foray into politically tinged pop psychology, it blots out a good deal of the background forces in American political, cultural, and economic life that culminated in the great man’s rise to power. Assigning Trump the life mission of seeking more and greater recognition leaves much of the causation behind the book’s tabloid-style subtitle—The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America—unexplained. America has been broken, apparently, because it’s just collateral damage in Trump’s lifelong ego rampage—and so the conservative movement’s broader embrace of anti-government nihilism, white nationalism, and militant conspiracy-mongering rates scarcely any notice.
Much as the D.C. palace-intrigue dispatches of Bob Woodward function as a sort of glorified theater criticism, as Joan Didion memorably observed, so does the elevation of CEO trickster gods like Trump serve to relieve the national business press—and the mediasphere more broadly—of the unwelcome pressures of critical thinking and reporting in the actual public interest. The resulting infatuation not only elevated Trump out of all imaginable proportion to his actual scale of accomplishment; it also fuels presidential boomlets for business executives like Lee Iacocca, Carly Fiorina, and Howard Schultz, while furnishing raw materials for the actual presidential runs of Ross Perot Jr. and Mitt Romney. (To say nothing, of course, of the unseemly bro-worship cult of Elon Musk.)
Until we can take full account of the untold destruction wreaked under this media-sanctioned conflation of business predation and civic virtue, the American system is poised to churn out a long regress of Trumpian strongmen-in-the-making. And personality-driven accounts like Confidence Man will avail us nothing in this onslaught.
You can’t go wrong slagging Bob Woodward, in our view, which is a small part of what makes Lehman’s the superior understanding of the book. What really distinguishes his review from Alterman’s is his understanding that the press and the society which allowed Trump to thrive were both broken long before the 2016 election.
Are you experienced?
Alterman, who is a good press critic in the moment, remembers attending a sitting with Maureen Dowd, who was then still a reporter rather than a columnist.
I have an imperfect memory from 1984 or 1985 of attending a "Master’s Tea" at Yale, in which Maureen Dowd and another reporter gave a talk and were asked (by me, I guess) about what was then a remarkably generous Times Magazine Trump profile. They did not pretend that the story was accurate in the larger sense. Rather they explained that their subject had ended up getting something of a free pass because nobody had any interest in going on the record about someone so hypersensitive, vindictive, and unrestrained by truth or even the law.
Those of us who make our living in even remote proximity to the New York/Washington/politico/media/corporate world of back-scratching (and backstabbing) all expect a certain amount of personal corruption to go unmentioned to the great unwashed. This can involve killing stories as a personal favor (or writing them), or not looking too deeply into matters that might complicate one’s life or one’s job or interfere with a favor one either needs now or might one day. Almost no institution is immune.
We’re inserting ourselves into this discussion, and then returning to Alterman. This is something we wrote on the occasion of Ronald Reagan’s death in 2004.
I miss Richard Nixon. He was an evil motherfucker and everyone knew it, even his friends and family and die-hard supporters, with the possible exception of Bill Safire, the exception who proves the rule. Nixon was responsible for one of the great advances in political culture, the removal of the concept of “shame” from the moral glossaries not only of politicians, which would have been no big deal, but, during the course of his “rehabilitation,” of journalists as well. The real heyday of moral relativism began with Dick.
I won’t miss Ronald Reagan, even though his contribution to political culture, government by hallucination, probably outstrips Nixon’s in import. One of the results of employing an Alzheimer’s victim as president was that it came to seem first impolite, and then cruel, and then downright treasonous to make public note of the discrepancies between rhetoric and reality. We’re still reaping that whirlwind, and it’s that, more than his support for muggers and thieves, murderers and genocidal dictators, more than his perhaps inadvertent surrender to and glorification of government by unofficial means, for which I’ll never forgive him.
Nixon killed shame, and Reagan killed reality. It’s no wonder so many of the latter’s former loyalists now worship Bush, who has far outstripped his mentor at the art of living exclusively inside his own mind.3
(Little did we know what worship looked like, or living exclusively in one’s head.)
The point being that the press had made themselves the perfect patsies for Trump before he was more than a blip on the national radar, never mind a presidential candidate, and that their evident frailties went far beyond what Alterman mistakes as casual corruption in his encounter with Dowd. Her feature on Trump was a situation in which neither the reporters nor the subject were telling the truth, and the story still somehow wound up in the Times’s prestigious magazine with both parties fully aware of what had transpired.
That’s not casual corruption, or the corrosive effect of access journalism: it’s fiction. So why did they run the story? Well, they ran it because truth was already a non-factor in reporting on, or building up, figures with mythic appeal to the public. It simply didn’t matter, and in many respects it still doesn’t matter post-the Trump presidency. Balance, comfort and propriety are important, and fear and favor are not chopped liver.
Alterman remarks at the head of his review that he was a consumer but not an admirer of Haberman’s “often eye-popping” scoops “that often lacked the necessary context to explain why they mattered.” He also quotes Haberman as having warned her colleagues in The Times Washington bureau on the night Trump won the 2016 election that “You have no idea what’s coming.”
Well why the fuck didn’t they? Big newspapers are rarely big on context; every story has a budget and a word count, and reporting something all the way out can blow both. But the context of Trump is that he’s a narcissistic, misogynist, racist, lying, bullying crook, and a significant number of reporters at The Times during the campaign and after the election — reporters on the entertainment desk, on the business desk, on the real estate desk, on the opinion desk and, like Haberman, on the politics desk — had evidently known this in some instances for decades. One could even describe it as institutional knowledge.
Alterman closes his review with an acknowledgement that looking to Haberman and her colleagues for answers regarding how a society gets so warped that a Trump can take power is pointless, which is true, but we’re not the first society in which that’s happened or in which the press were partners, if sometimes junior partners, in the process.
The real question that Trump’s rise raises is: How in the world did we become a country where 70 million-plus people ever thought that this dangerously evil lunatic should be trusted with the most powerful job in the world, and apparently still do? Haberman’s narrow focus on Trump’s career tells that part of the story more fully and comprehensively than you’ll find anywhere else.
But given that Donald Trump is as much a symbol of what’s wrong with this country as he is its cause, we’re going to need a great deal more. And given their investment in the system that gave rise to Trump and helped to invite the abuses that led us to our current, precipitous moment, you can bet we are not going to get those answers from the mainstream media.
We’re not clear on Alterman’s meaning here. Is he saying Haberman’s biography can explain how Trump inspired a cult or became president? We don’t think it could do either of those things without recognizing all the other players and threads which were part of that process, and neither review suggests she does that. Maybe there’s an unfortunate paragraph break.
We do have reporters in the mainstream media (a term we hate) who are capable of doing the work necessary to dig out and synthesize “those answers” in at least substantial if not full part, but who would pay for them to do that? It’d take years, it’d take a gazillion dollars, and it wouldn’t earn even half that time or money back.
And if Haberman doesn’t highlight those questions, or even recognize them as questions, what good is her book?
Don’t buy the book, don’t steal the book, don’t boggle over the excerpts, don’t piss on a copy if you see it on fire.
We mentioned yesterday how much we appreciate the Guardian photo galleries. We neglected one featuring Dawoud Bey in connection with a museum retrospective of his work in Harlem.4 Beautiful work it is, and it touches on the ethics of street photography.
Your baby so ugly …5
Art Pepper isn’t invariably the most soulful of players, but that doesn’t matter. We listened to his “Waltz Me Blues” to get in the mood for this edition, followed by “The Art of the Ballad,” which is all soul. We then stumbled upon bassist Curtis Counce and his group’s “Pink Lady,” and we’re out with The Avalanches and their most recent album, “We Will Always Love You,” which is also their first album without a single overtly absurdist tune on it (except maybe the Morse code one). To gain a full understanding of just how weird these guys can get, check out the 2016 video for their hit song, “Frankie Sinatra.”6 You'll thank us, really.
That’s all we got, comrades. Be well, take care.