There has been a lot of teeth-gnashing over the many extreme, and extremely silly, things being said on the campaign trail this year. Few observers of this carnival of bad behavior have bothered to probe very deeply how we got here, however, and why Trump supporters, in particular, have not been more outraged by the many outrageous things their candidate has uttered.
I’ve spent my career in journalism, and my feeling is that my colleagues, the knights of the fish-wrap and the hungry microphone, have played a larger role in all the many extreme and silly things being said on the campaign trail this year than we care to admit. The fact that a character like Donald Trump has been able to control the narrative of a presidential campaign is evidence that the political cycle that began with Watergate is now thrashing about in its death throes.
I began my career in the midst of the Vietnam War. The men and women I worked under were tough birds who had lived through the Depression and war, the Red Scare and atomic terror, and had come out the other side believing that if their government had chosen to fight in Southeast Asia, then it was probably the right thing to do. History eventually swung the other way, of course. But those men and women had a modesty about their role as observers, a modesty that in the flames of student protests and the crimes of Watergate seemed out of step with the new era. After two reporters from the Washington Post brought down a president, who could blame us—even those of us who came no closer to Deep Throat than a seat in the theater for All the President’s Men—for getting a little full of ourselves? The adoration reached such a state that when Robert Redford’s character in Three Days of the Condor decided to go public with his CIA secrets, there was only one place he trusted: the New York Times. Journalists were suddenly heroes. Events convinced many of us that we were the monitors and censors of a new age, and that the people we covered were simply tools for us to use in displaying the truth.
I recall my first White House press conference, with President Reagan at the podium in the cramped, no-frills East Room. After it was over, the network pros and I, the newcomer from a regional newspaper chain on the West Coast, filed out into the humid Washington night. I hung around as the senior correspondents chatted about what they had just witnessed. I expected insightful judgments about what the president said, debates over policy questions. This was a time when the three networks were the news, so this informal bull session was likely to form the basis of what the American people would be told later that evening. But little in this impromptu debriefing turned on the content of the president’s remarks. It was all about his delivery. Did he stumble over a word? Did he look confused when he answered a question about Libya or the Nicaraguan Contras? No fact-checking, no analysis, just amateur psychology, which of course fit the narrative that Reagan was unprepared and dimwitted.
This incident and others like it have stayed with me all these years because I can't help but think that they revealed as much about us as they did about the occupant of the White House. Gone were the days of FDR’s fireside chats, when reporters avoided his physical infirmities. Some reporters knew about JFK’s womanizing, but they kept it to themselves, believing that the prurient parts of a president’s life were not relevant to understanding his approach to governance.
Watergate changed all that. By the time Reagan ascended to the presidency, the press corps was openly skeptical and ever probing. In 1987, when Gary Hart challenged the media to follow him around to check rumors of his philandering, he didn’t have to ask twice. Nothing was off-limits. We were in the bedroom, on the front stoop, crouching in the garden, riding along with the troopers who handled Bill Clinton’s “bimbo eruptions.”
I remember sitting in the press room of the Supreme Court one morning, debating with other journalists assigned to the nation’s highest court the propriety of lying in ambush for Hart. The majority opinion came down to, “Well, he challenged us”—as if that allowed us to do what we pleased. And, of course, that was the problem. By allowing ourselves excuses to push back the boundaries of what is acceptable, we gradually reached a point where everything was fair game. Melania Trump’s plagiarism, Huma Abedin’s separation from her husband, and on and on.
A few years after my Washington experience, I saw evidence of how far this adversarial and disdainful attitude had advanced while attending a meeting of the elite Investigative Reporters and Editors organization. The big draw at that event was a panel discussion of the sensational San Jose Mercury News series that had linked the nation’s crack cocaine epidemic to a drug cartel that funneled money to the Nicaraguan Contras, who in turn were linked to the CIA. The panel that day featured the author of the series, Gary Webb, and a reporter from the Miami Herald who had been working the drug beat since the days of Crockett and Tubbs. When he challenged Webb’s thesis, hisses and boos rose from the crowd—not everyone, surely, but enough to be disruptive and disquieting, at least to me. The cream of America’s investigative journalism establishment apparently found it easier to believe that their own government had played a role in allowing the poisoning of the African-American community than to accept the fact that Webb had been taken in by criminals peddling a fantasy. Webb’s story is a sad one—he committed suicide in 2004—made more tragic by Hollywood’s portrayal of his hallucinatory quest in a recent movie.
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing so important to democracy as a vital, skeptical press. What began to concern me was the habit of disdain and pettiness, along with a lack of interest in the nuts and bolts of governance.
Dismissive attitudes in the media have produced an understandable reaction among candidates and officeholders, who have become so defensive and fearful of the media police that they dissemble and smoke-screen reflexively. Their speeches are scrubbed for hints of plagiarism and for the possibility of offending constituents. And by that I don’t mean the voters, but the interest groups that have come to dominate campaigns. With both hands out—one filled with money, the other clenched into a fist—teachers unions and minority groups, the NRA and corporate donors, have turned officeholders into servile toadies.
What do politicians really believe? Who knows? George H. W. Bush told everyone to read his lips, that there would be no new taxes—a promise he abandoned after taking the oath of office. Ronald Reagan campaigned against big government while con tributing to its growth. There were good reasons for Bush the elder and Reagan to do what they did. The problem was that they couldn’t afford to tell the truth for fear of offending their sharp-elbowed supporters, as well as the journalists who monitored their every word for evidence of racial bias or gun-control squishiness. Knowing that what politicians say on the stump, when they say anything at all, will not match what they do in office, voters have increasingly had to engage in tea-leaf reading or crystal-ball gazing—choose your own fortune-telling metaphor—to try to figure out what a candidate really believes. And with the candidates and their surrogates constantly carping at the media for its sins, real and imagined, the media has been reduced in the minds of voters to just another interest group.
America’s elites, the top 10 to 20 percent, generally understand how the game is played. They know Bernie Sanders can’t make tuition free and that Ted Cruz won’t intimidate Putin with Texican bravado. Over the decades, they have learned how to translate coded messages about the environment and taxes.
Left out of this choreographed dance were the average Joes and Janes, who knew that their futures depended on the results of elections, but also believed they had no hope of having any effect on the candidates. Then along came Donald Trump, who said whatever seemed to flutter through his fevered brain at the moment. Banning Muslims, building a wall, refusing to defend NATO states, urging Putin to hack Clinton’s e-mails: All of it was so far outside the norm that the media expected people would be as horrified as they were by his refusal to play the game by the rules that had been established in the decades after Watergate. When Trump’s poll numbers stayed high, pundits couldn’t explain it. It couldn’t be anything about them. They concluded that Trump’s followers were racist or stupid, and probably both.
What really happened was that the so-called masses joined the game and started playing it differently. To people who had seen their jobs and medical insurance and pensions disappear, Trump was refreshing. The wilder his comments, the more they cheered—but not because they trusted that he would do the things he said. Rather, they sensed quite correctly that by being willing to offend anyone and everyone, Trump was tearing down the façade of a political structure that had become as much a lie as a movie set. They applauded Trump, not as a change agent, along the lines of Barack Obama, but as a living IED that has been lobbed over the tall gates and barbed wire of America’s political green zone.
I have more than a passing familiarity with the Trump voter; several members of my family support him. When I ask them what they like in Trump, they say what Trump supporters have said all over the country: He tells it like it is. Of course, they don’t mean that he tells the truth. What they mean is that he doesn’t give a damn about playing the game according to the rules set by the political and media establishment.
Contrary to what most pundits say, this election is not a test between one candidate striding confidently into the future and another wanting to turn back the clock to the 1950s. In fact, the reverse is true. Hillary Clinton represents the focus group-tested product of several decades of political sausage-making. The real harbinger of the future—a future that is as yet unrevealed—is the uninvited guest at the dance, the gate-crasher whose only purpose is to overturn the tables and jump on the bandstand to sing an out-of-tune version of “My Way.”
John Johnson Jr. is a writer in Southern California and was formerly a journalist for the Los Angeles Times.