How To Be Out of Touch

Weeks away from the election, anxiety stalks the land. Americans are broke, worried about their futures, deluged on an hourly basis with bizarre and surreal news items. How to cope with this national mood is a tricky question for a newspaper: When your mission statement calls for remaining sober and rational, how do you respond to outrage and hysteria? Can the Times interpret events in a way that connects with today’s cynical, weary readers?  Let’s find out by looking at some examples.   Below is the opening salvo from a recent op/ed attempting to articulate what it all means:

Over decades of writing about politics, I’ve crossed paths with many candidates and office holders who impressed me, but few who blew me away. Chris Christie blew me away.

Yes, that’s Frank Bruni, at one of whose columns you could throw a dart from 50 paces and hit a passage this dumb, and no, they’re not really trying.  Below, I examine two closely related lines of argument with which Times writers evade the task of coming up with substantive takes on our current historical moment: It’s Not Fair to the Nice Republicans and It’s All the Democrats’ Fault for Not Being Centrist Enough.

I.

Let’s begin with the recent Frank Bruni column about Christie and Trump.  Why was Bruni so blown away? “The New Jersey governor was addressing a group of education reformers. And he did what looks easy until you try it yourself: talked without notes, slogans, stammers or any other clumsiness for close to a half-hour.”  Attention anyone who lives in D.C.: You really need to leave D.C. every so often in order to recalibrate your perceptions of concepts like “interesting” and “charismatic.” People who cover politics for a living always think they have extremely cynical, realistic takes on the machinery of government, but then they’ll end up being captivated by a glowering personification of evil who skin looks like a damp toadstool. Public speaking has been the public’s #1 fear for 5,000 years running; I’m pretty sure Bruni is misunderstanding the reason people aren’t wowed by Chris Christie’s ability to give eloquent speeches on how firing teachers is good.

“It was too specific a speech to be one that he’d pulled from memory; he was thinking on his feet, in shapely paragraphs. He radiated conviction. He oozed authority.” That was ham juice I suppose I can see why Bruni is impressed by basic displays of rhetorical competence, since he doesn’t even know that you’re supposed to use words with positive connotations for things you like, and words like “ooze” and “suppurate” and “bloviate” for things that are bad. Anyway, according to him this speech was basically the act 3 high point of Christie’s 5-act tragedy. : “What in God’s name happened to him?…I looked up two weeks ago and he was on CNN” sucking up to Donald Trump. Bruni also finds it striking that Giuliani has fallen, because “for a significant stretch of the 2008 election cycle, Giuliani was the favorite for the G.O.P. presidential nomination,” even though there are always like 20 guys being talked up as the potential next president who end up flaming out because Republicans hate all their own politicians.

“He was going to prove that a Northeastern Republican who flouted certain right-wing orthodoxies could travel a somewhat centrist path to the White House… more sensible than stringently ideological.” This is the kind of thing Beltway pundits get excited about because they inexplicably (a) love centrism, and (b) want to love the Republicans but can’t do it until they decide to be centrist too.  Every time it turns out the Republican voters aren’t ready to experience the subversive rush of supporting a candidate who flouts certain right-wing orthodoxies, they’re crushed anew.

“It’s the nature of politics to forge alliances of convenience — and to swallow some principles in the process…. But not on the scale of the ones made by Trump’s cabal.” Evidently at this point Bruni got worried readers would be outraged by his hardline anti-compromising-your-principles stance and decided to insert a disclaimer before he got accused of being in the tank for Jill Stein.  He concludes that Christie’s political prospects are poor, a fact he finds sad because “[his talents] could be put to uses so much nobler than what he’s doing now, which is the kind of charade that leaves so many Americans so cynical and sour.” Yes, that’s what’s making people cynical and sour… the fact that Chris Christie isn’t completely self-actualized. If Bruni thinks the governor of New Jersey is being prevented by the job market from living up to his human potential, wait until he hears about literally every retail and food service worker in America.

II.

It would be bad enough if the nominee had only screwed up the career of “America’s Sweetheart” Chris Christie. But there’s more: Trump is sizeist, a social justice issue surely of equal concern to his base as the ongoing debate over whether demisexual people count as LGBTQ. in “Fat-Shamer In Chief,” Timothy Egan concludes that since Trump is going to be shallow and petty, we should stoop to his level.  After all, people aren’t going to reject him on substantive grounds: “Millions of Americans don’t care that a man now within a nose-hair of the presidency may be the most prolific liar in modern political history.” And he deserves it: “With little more than a month to go until the election, the fact that Donald Trump now finds himself in a very public fight with a beauty queen tells you everything you need to know about the sick soul of this man.” This came out before “Grab them by the pussy,” proving the wisdom of the well-known adage “Never claim to have identified the one thing that shows you the sick soul of Donald trump.”  Let’s all just agree to wait until he’s dead, then pick the action that best exemplifies his blackened, shrivelled humanity.

“So, in the spirit of the discourse that Trump has brought us to, let’s objectify the Republican nominee on his terms. This guy is fat. Bigly.”  Everyone who works at the Times apparently thinks Trump said “bigly” at the debates, when he was clearly saying “big-league.”  Why this perceived need to make up nonexistent gaffes?  Every single thing Trump has ever said in public has been meaningless and ungrammatical word soup that sounds like “Let me tell you, the cyber — A lot have people have said to me, ‘Donald, this is a mess.’ If we do not do something, this is gonna be the great 9/11 of history. And I will defeat ISIS.  Rod Blagoyevich, nasty guy, but he said to me ‘Hillary Clinton has bad judgement.’  And he was right. She’s weak against ISIS.  You know it, I know it, everybody knows it. When I’m president, no problem. Tremendous!” When you’re making fun of this guy, you don’t need to hang your hat on knowing which words are prevented by English morphology from taking the suffix -ly.

“He’s got an extra chin, a gut you wouldn’t want to see riding above a bathing suit, and a rear that serves no purpose but ballast.”  What other purpose would you have wanted his rear to serve, Timothy? He goes on to blast Trump because “[his] ducktail hairdo….is a complicated comb-over…. His fingers…are unusually short.” Here’s the problem with this; Trump is actually good at insults.  For all his incoherence, he has a certain crude rhetorical power at his disposal — an absurdist flair borne from lack of normal human inhibitions.

We didn't know it then, but this was a more innocent time.
We didn’t know it then, but this was a more innocent time.

Egan is more a disciple of the Frank Bruni style of humor where you just vaguely gesture in the direction of a punchline that someone else could or might make.

reeferees

He goes on to blast Trump for making fun of 400-pound hackers: “This fat-shaming episode by a man who wants to lead the country is deeply resonant because most Americans struggle with their weight. More than two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese. It’s a serious problem… Trump could express sympathy or offer some solutions.” I’m actually surprised Trump didn’t go off on a tangent about weight loss solutions for hackers. “The fats love me, believe me.  And a lot of them are great guys. I had a guy come to me, I said ‘try snorting amphetamines every day.’  The best trucker amphetamines in the world are made by Trump Industries. You will solve your weight problem… one. hundred. percent.” (5,000 reports immediately surface of people who died taking Trump brand trucker amphetamines.)

“Instead, he stuffs his puffy face with junk food for the cameras…. As for exercise, he burns most of his calories by giving speeches, he says. Seriously. Aerobic insults, the Trump diet.” Yes, by all means, let’s wish for Trump to start a serious exercise regimen, so that we can combine Americans’ two favorite things: Donald Trump, and people who talk about their exercise program all the time.  If he did go to a gym, Trump would be the guy who reads Twitter on the elliptical for an hour, then loads the bar with 500 pounds and makes everyone worry that he’s going to snap his spine trying to do a back squat.

Egan isn’t the only columnist joining the “Trump is a unique menace” bandwagon.  Thomas Friedman, in “Trump: How Could We,” asks ‘How in the world do we put a man in the Oval Office who thinks NATO is a shopping mall where the tenants aren’t paying enough rent to the U.S. landlord?  NATO is not a shopping mall; it is a strategic alliance.” Oh. That clears that up.  I assume the shopping mall thing was something that Trump said, but Friedman never gives a source for it, leading me to believe he’s been angrily stewing over it ever since he heard about it, and now believes that Trump’s daring to besmirch the good name of NATO is the talk of every household.

“How do we put in the Oval Office a man who does not know enough ‘beef’ about key policies to finish a two-minute answer on any issue without the hamburger helper of bluster, insults and repetition?” I just looked up what Hamburger Helper is (I’m from the east coast), and it’s apparently flavor packets.  It doesn’t seem like it would help create the illusion of more beef; it just prevents you from having to eat a meal composed entirely of unseasoned beef. I know I complain about these guys’ metaphors a lot, but come on.  Well, let’s read on and see if they get any better.

“Fact: We have problems and not everyone is enjoying the fruits of our economy, but if you want to be an optimist about America, stand on your head.”  Excuse me, what? “The country looks so much better from the bottom up. What you see are towns and regions not waiting for Washington, D.C., but coming together themselves to fix infrastructure, education and governance. I see it everywhere I go.”  He gives exactly zero examples of whatever he’s talking about here, but I would also like to point out that towns outside of D.C. are not the “bottom” of America, and that standing on your head makes you see things upside down, not get a better view of the bottom of your town, unless you’re 100 feet tall.

“I am not enamored of Clinton’s stale, liberal, centralized view of politics, but she is sane and responsible.”  If Friedman doesn’t want Clinton to be either “liberal” or “central,” this can only mean that he’s upset at the failure of the Democratic presidential nominee to be a far-right Republican.  We all have to do what we can to defeat the Trump menace, even if it means supporting a candidate who lacks the freshness that only hardcore conservatism can provide.

III.

It’s not just Trump who has problems. The Democrats are imperfect too.  People are feeling uninspired and underwhelmed by their message, and it’s clear why: The party is just too anti-Wall Street. That’s the conclusion Thomas Friedman presents us with in “How Clinton Could Knock Trump Out.” Friedman had a bad time watching the convention because “We heard from first responders, veterans, grieving parents and victims of terrorism, rape and various forms of discrimination. There was just one group that was conspicuously absent: the people who drive our economy by inventing things or by borrowing money to start companies that actually employ people.”   We can no longer stand idly by and let job creators be silenced by the rape victim lobby.  “Watching the convention, you would never know that what also makes America great is that generation after generation, people full of ideas risk their savings to start companies that provide work and paychecks.” What are these companies?  Are they even providing us with stuff we need, or is it mostly Soylent and apps that disrupt the way thermostats work?  America is where Creedence Clearwater Revival is from, and Friedman thinks the best thing about us is the tendency of inventors to risk becoming penniless so they can bring us dumbbells you can drink out of?

dumbbells
If it were up to Hillary Clinton, this would not exist.

“The only things that were remotely growth-related in her speech were glancing references to a government-led infrastructure investment program (Go for it!) and her vow ‘to give small businesses a boost,” so, all the stuff in there that was growth-related, but Friedman says she didn’t really hammer on the point: “To do that… would run smack into the anti-bank sentiment of the Democratic Party.” Ah, the incredible power of the anti-bank Democrats, a fearsome political juggernaut thanks to whom the banking industry is on the verge of extinction.  No one’s ever crossed the anti-bank Democrats and noticed that there was someone there.

“Mind you, I hope Trump remains in his total whack-job mode, because it distracted attention from the latest economic news — that was perfectly set up for Trump to take political advantage of — that the economy grew an anemic 1.2 percent in the second quarter.”  Did a professional journalist just say he hopes the news cycle stays focused on stunts, gaffes and distractions so everyone will ignore statistics about what he just claimed is the most important issue facing the American public?  Maybe Clinton’s speech should have mentioned something about journalistic ethics.

“And that leads to my second reason for pushing Clinton to inject some capitalism into her economic plan.”  Yes…capitalism…if only the world would give capitalism a shot. It’s the one thing we haven’t tried.

“There are a lot of center-right, business Republicans today feeling orphaned by Trump. They can’t vote for him — but a lot of them still claim they can’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary, either.”  Least relatable dilemma ever! He says trying to win them over “makes sense politically: Take Trump on at his self-proclaimed strength.” The more difficult it is to tell the difference between the candidates, the more excited and enthused the voters will become. “If Trump continues to melt down into a puddle of bile, more and more Republicans will be up for grabs.”  Conversely, the less good a job your opponent is doing at winning over their base, the more you need to do to take their voters away from them, for some reason.

“Sanders had no plan whatsoever for growth.”  Sanders’ big mistake was focusing his campaign on social democracy and entitlement programs instead of on the completely opposite things Friedman thinks are important. Having already stated that Clinton should run a centrist campaign focused on growth, he is now arguing that Sanders, too, should have run a centrist campaign focused on growth.  And in another recent article, he says that the current “version of the Republican Party has to die because “America needs a healthy center-right party that offers more market-based solutions to problems.”  In other words, Thomas Friedman thinks American democracy would be better if all three of its major factions — Republican, mainstream Democrat and leftist/progressive — were focused on centrist, pro-business, trickle-down policies.  He has conjured up a vision of a world where voters get to choose between multiple version of the exact same thing — a sort of electoral Being Michael Bloomberg.

IV.

The Democratic party hasn’t just distinguished itself by not continuously praising banks; they’re also always criticizing the Republicans.  This is bad, as Frank Bruni tells us in “Crying Wolf, Then Confronting Trump” (yes, we’re back to Frank Bruni, the authentic voice of Timesian mediocrity). “Republicans often brush off denunciations of Donald Trump as an unprincipled hatemonger by saying: Yeah, yeah, that’s what Democrats wail about every Republican they’re trying to take down…. ‘Did Democrats cry wolf so many times before Trump that no one hears or heeds them now?’ That’s a question being asked with increasing frequency, though mostly in conservative circles and publications.”  You know things are becoming serious when conservative circles start blaming things on the Democrats.  It’s ironic that Democrats spent all this time warning that right-wing ideology was getting more extreme and dangerous, and now that there’s a candidate who everyone can see is extreme and dangerous, they’re barely helping.

“In Commentary, Noah Rothman has repeatedly examined this subject. He wrote back in March that when ‘honorable and decent men’ like McCain and Romney ‘are reflexively dubbed racists simply for opposing Democratic policies.” They weren’t criticized for “opposing Democratic policies” in the abstract, though; they were criticized for opposing them, never suggesting anything more effective or even anything at all to take their place, denying that the problem that the policies were designed to alleviate actually existed, and then telling black people to pull their pants up.  Other than that, though, you can’t deny that McCain is one of the good Republicans who’s extremely honorable and decent.

mccain
I’m crying. This is just like Hamilton.

“Today,” he added, “they point and shout ‘racist’ into the void, but Democrats only have themselves to blame for the fact that so many on the right are no longer listening.”  Did they listen the first time Democrats shouted “racist”?  Was there, like, one election that was a huge blowout for the Democrats because they called people racist for the first time, and if so, do the effects of hearing the word “racist” automatically wear off over time, like when you go outside on a sunny day and your eyes adjust to the light?

“The sad truth is that we conduct the bulk of our political debate in a key of near-hysteria.”  Editorial writers will write panicky articles about Pokemon and Tinder every 5 minutes, but the fact that the last time we had a Republican president 500,000 people died in the war he started isn’t a good enough reason to put a word in italics.

Democrats were also “dire about Romney, even though many of them, including President Obama, now speak of him fondly, as a Republican whose prescriptions might be flawed but whose heart is true.” Obama has to say stuff like that.  Being diplomatic is sort of in his job description, but that doesn’t mean we have to believe him.  Frank Bruni is the kind of guy who would feel genuinely flattered by one of those job rejection emails where they tell you they had a hard time making a decision because there were an unprecedented number of qualified applicants.

“Romney was supposedly out of touch with reality — never mind that he had governed a blue state, Massachusetts, without cataclysmic incident.”  Living in the governor’s mansion in the country’s fifth-richest state may not be easy, but it gives you an up-close view of the hardscrabble lives of real Americans. “— just as McCain was described, in some quarters, as a combustible hothead who couldn’t be allowed anywhere near the nuclear codes. He was Trump before Trump, which makes Trump less Trump.”  The thinking behind this is so convoluted. Bruni expects Democrats to have looked at McCain, compared him to a hypothetical future candidate who wasn’t yet running, compared the two candidates, and concluded that since McCain was less of a hothead than the hypothetical guy, he wasn’t a hothead at all, based on the logical principle that there can only be one politician in the world with a given trait.  This is dream logic.  It actually makes less sense than the Marx Brothers scene where Groucho says a stolen painting is hidden in the house next door, Chico says there is no house next door, and Groucho replies “Then we’ll build one!”

Anyway, with the Trump menace looming, we can no longer afford to be picky about who gets their hands on the nuclear codes. “And those are just the presidential candidates. Plenty of other Republicans have confronted charges of florid racism and incipient fascism that apply to some of them infinitely better than to others. Gradations disappear. Distinctions vanish.”  The Republicans who were only kind of racist and fascist got a really rough deal.  How will we fight the danger of our country sinking into Nazism, if we’re not willing to let it slide when people start to get just a little Nazi?

“Important words are hollowed out, so that they lose their precision and their sting.” Sounds like a personal problem.  These columnists are dimly aware that their critiques of Trump are failing to be land, and instead of asking themselves why they don’t have a handle on what would persuade voters, they cast around for someplace else to lay the blame — on John Kerry, on TV pundits, even on themselves four to eight years ago. Bruni’s big takeaway from all of this is that everyone was too hyperbolic in attacking Bush and Romney, a notion that might come as a surprise to voters who were genuinely alarmed by those people’s calls to ban abortion, cut every social welfare program and let the uninsured die in the street.

V.

Yes, it’s hard to find the public’s outrage and alarm reflected in the page of the Times — but not impossible.  Recently there appeared a glimmer of hope:  Dustin Lane’s “Don’t Blame the Insane Clown Posse for Rumors of Maurauding Clowns,” in which the JuggaloNews owner defended ICP and their fans. Lane quotes some recent political commentary by band leader Violent J: “From keystone-cop clowns shooting unarmed citizens, to racist clowns burning down Islamic centers or clowns in the NSA spying on us through our cell phones and laptops, America has turned into something far more terrifying than Insane Clown Posse’s Dark Carnival.”

In these words, we see reflected the  fears and frustrations of ordinary people.  It’s true: The politicians are society’s real clowns. But so too, perhaps, are the editorial writers.

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