David Brooks is the pre-eminent voice of conservative patricians. He strains to find reason in unreasonable people, and his political analyses typically apportion blame to both sides.
So it was on the PBS NewsHour recently when the New York Times columnist was asked about the furious debate over President Trump’s decision to close large parts of the federal government until Democrats relent and hand him billions for a wall on the Mexico border — a victory he can brag about.
To many of us, Trump made a petulant, unilateral decision to shut down government to force Democrats to capitulate, lest he suffer the wrath of far-right commentators like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, which to Trump is apparently worse than harming millions of Americans.
It’s seemed clear that the wall had little to do with underlying immigration policy, as former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote in The Atlantic: “Trump has never wanted a solution. He has wanted a divisive issue and a personal monument.”
But in Brooks’ view, reasonable politicians from both sides have been negotiating border security in good faith. It’s that darn Nancy Pelosi, the inflexible House Speaker, who shares something approximating equal blame with Trump.
“We now have two towers of ego who can’t give,” Brooks said, referring to Trump and Pelosi. So, because Pelosi won’t cave to the most disingenuous, untrustworthy politician in modern American history, she is the co-villain.
That Brooks analysis illustrates one of three themes I think the border wall debate exemplifies about how the Trump presidency perseveres, and they are connected to one another.
The first is the media conundrum of “false equivalency,” which contributed mightily to Trump’s victory and has been rampant since.
For all of Trump’s whining about fake news and his continual running to Fox News to be coddled, the mainstream media has been playing by fairness and balance standards that seem outdated, even quaint, in Trump’s era of pathological lies.
Frank Bruni, another New York Times columnist, recently cited a Harvard analysis that found Trump got far more positive coverage from the nation’s most influential newspapers and major newscasts than did Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign. Bruni’s column had the chilling headline: “Will the media be Trump’s accomplice again?” in 2020.
Bruni wrote: “We interpreted fairness as a similarly apportioned mix of complimentary and derogatory stories, no matter how different one contender’s qualifications, accomplishments and liabilities were from another’s. If we were going to pile on Trump, we had to pile on Clinton — or rather, keep piling on her. And in this quest for a theoretical fairness and balance, journalists are still overcompensating.”
That’s the definition of false equivalency.
So, even if the media falls into the equivalency trap on the border wall and government shutdown, why does Trump choose to gin up such a divisive spectacle?
That’s the second theme. More than any politician I can recall, Trump has a knack for changing the subject. He’s mastered the politics of distraction.
Whatever political price Trump is paying for the shutdown, it is likely less than allowing news cycles to be even more dominated by revelations about his connections to Russia.
Almost daily, some investigative report sheds new and troubling light on Trump’s relations, whether it’s the story that the FBI investigated the possibility Trump was acting as a Russian agent, or another that he sought to prevent anyone from learning the substance of his buddy-buddy conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Perhaps Trump correctly reasons it is better to change the subject and have headlines focus on the pain and suffering of 800,000 federal workers missing paychecks than to allow the drip-drip — or rather gush-gush — of revelations about Russia to dominate newscasts, front pages and websites.
Besides, it once again shows his base of supporters that he’s a fighter, even if the fight is a charade of his own making.
His GOP allies enable him, pretending Russia is a non-story.
Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texan who has joined fellow Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham as a prominent Trump critic-turned-sycophant, claimed recently that most voters do not care about Trump and Russia.
“There is an incredible divide between Washington and the rest of the country,” Cruz told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “When it comes to (special counsel) Bob Mueller and the Russia investigation, the mainstream media, Washington, is obsessed with it. And when you get outside the Beltway, I don’t find anybody concerned with this at all.”
Once again, change the subject and avoid the substance.
But then, why don’t Trump voters seem to care?
During my adult life the Republican Party has stood primarily for two things — protecting white male economic and social privilege and posturing as the political home for patriots, the kind of folks who presumably want a strong defense against avowed enemies like Russia.
I recall the “My Country Right or Wrong” and “America, Love It or Leave It” signs and bumper stickers. Their owners were always quick to tell us that they, not we, were the true patriots.
So how is it that when Russia attacks us — not with bombs but with technology — Trump’s supporters are said not to care?
That’s the recurrent third theme in this month-long build-the-wall spectacle.
And it’s this: Many Trump supporters overlook his immorality and lies not because of what he is accomplishing for them, but because they like how he tries to hurt the rest of us. As long as those city types with their fancy degrees and credentials are suffering, we’re good. Is that it?
Take the 38-year-old Florida prison employee working without a paycheck, who told the New York Times she was rethinking her Trump support.
“I voted for him, and he’s the one who’s doing this. I thought he was going to do good things. He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.”
Maybe in 2020, “Make America Great Again” should make way for “Trump — He Hurts Those I Want Hurt.”
In his world, it’s the new American way.