The Public Has Trump's Number

Despite journalism's troubles, most of the people have figured him out.

I highlighted a conundrum in Thursday’s newsletter facing journalists: When covering a president whose word is worth less than the paper it’s written on, how does a political reporter function properly? In a normal setting, she’d ignore a discredited source. But that’s not possible with a president, much less this president.

The concern is that Donald Trump’s lies are so voluminous that the people can no longer tell if they are being lied to. Their critical thinking is exhausted. Public opinion is the keystone of self-government, but if the public can’t tell what’s up or down, then what? George Orwell said he feared this more than bombs, and I do, too.

But honestly, this isn’t new. Ignorance, propaganda, anti-intellectualism and magical thinking—not to mention con men, hucksters, frauds and swindlers—these things and more have been with us so long it’s hard seeing them as anything but normal.

Regular readers know of my interest in Walter Lippmann, the most influential columnist of the 20th century. He was deeply concerned about the fundamental weakness of, and threat posed by, public opinion: If the people can be made to believe anything, he thought, the people themselves can be said to imperil democracy.

His solution was for a managerial, or “technocratic,” elite to “manufacture consent” of the governed in order to protect the governed from themselves. If that sounds like using the “right kind of propaganda” to protect the American people from believing the “wrong kind,” you’re right. In Lippmann’s view, this was entirely normal. The elite are the best by way of being elite. The best, therefore, know best.

John Dewey saw through this. He had much more trust in the American people. They might make mistakes (they do make mistakes), but given enough time, and given the strength of our founding documents, institutions and abiding democratic faith, the American people can change course. His book, The Public and Its Problem, was an answer to Lippmann’s Public Opinion. Dewey didn’t necessarily disagree with Lippmann. Indeed, he saw his argument as democracy’s greatest indictment. But Dewey saw as much reason to hope for the best as he did to expect the worst.

I do, too.

As I said, I don’t know the answer to our current public-opinion problem. As they did after Watergate, reporters will need to reinvent journalism after the Trump presidency comes to an end (however it comes to an end). But 17 months into Trump’s tenure, everyone who’s a Walter Lippmann at heart, which is to say, everyone who doubts the public’s ability to see through Trump’s lies, and who is wondering what the people are going to do amid this crisis of journalism—you should check your head.

Look at the evidence. The American people are doing fine. So is the press. Seriously.

Trump remains unpopular and will likely become more so the more we know. The opposing party is gathering strength. The rule of law still prevails. Our institutions, though straining, have not yet broken. Even if Trump were to hold on, to win reelection, I don’t see reason to despair. Not yet. Like Dewey, I still have hope.

True, the Republicans have no spines. I doubt their patriotism. The president has no scruples. I know he’s no patriot. People on the margins of power are seeing dark times. Trump’s policies—from purging “illegal” immigrants to damaging trade relations to banning Muslims from entering the country—will hurt for years. All this matters.

But these are matters of normal politics, not of a public that can’t make heads or tails of what’s happening. Indeed, it’s the opposite. Despite a social media plague of ignorance, propaganda, anti-intellectualism and magical thinking—and the demagogues who exploit them—the public has had 17 months to get used to this president, and most of the people most of the time have Trump’s number.

This is not say we won’t have a coup or something equally bad (though I doubt it). This is to say that journalism has its problems, just as the public does, but all things considered, we’re doing OK. Indeed, better than OK. In the past, elites marginalized the insane from the center of power. They failed. Now it’s the people’s turn.


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