Presidents are not heroes

On Presidents Day, Jonah Goldberg writes about how he  …

… watched the reaction to President Trump’s press conference. My friend Mollie Hemingway captured a very widespread sentiment out there:

“I would watch a @realDonaldTrump press conference at any time of any day. It’s just so entertaining.”

And I agree with her: It certainly was entertaining in parts. In other parts, not so much. But the problem is that entertainment value is one of the lowest standards one can hold a president to. … And it may be entertaining to watch a president of the United States spill out his id on national television like a torn net full of mackerel on a dock. But if that’s a standard for how to judge a presidential press conference, why didn’t we elect Charlie Sheen?

I keep hearing from conservative pundits that a lot of people out in the “real world” thought this press conference was awesome. I’m sure this is true. But I wonder how many conservative pundits realize that the people who thought it was awesome are already in Trump’s amen corner (and that these are precisely the folks that conservative pundits are most likely to hear from — and depend on?). Does anyone seriously believe that Trump persuaded significant numbers of people who didn’t already love him?

I’ve written a bunch about the MacGuffinization of American politics in recent years. Ace of Spades coined the term to describe how the media covered Barack Obama. They cast him as the hero of a drama and the only goal was to see how he overcame problems. It didn’t matter if he was wrong on policy — including the Constitution — what mattered was whether he emerged victorious. “In a movie or book, ‘The MacGuffin’ is the thing the hero wants,” Ace explained. “Usually the villain wants it too, and their conflict over who will end up with The MacGuffin forms the basic spine of the story.” Further on, Ace writes:

Watching Chris Matthews interview Obama, I was struck by just how uninterested in policy questions Matthews (and his panel) were, and how almost every question seemed to be, at heart, about Obama’s emotional response to difficulties — not about policy itself, but about Obama’s Hero’s Journey in navigating the plot of President Barack Obama: The Movie. As with a MacGuffin in the movie, only the Hero’s emotional response to the MacGuffin matters.

It was the MacGuffin dynamic that first made me realize that Trump could defeat Hillary Clinton.

Now the MacGuffin thing is just a useful metaphor or analogy. But the dynamic it captures goes to the very core of humanity. While working on my book, I’ve come to believe more than ever that man is a story-telling animal and that stories are what give us meaning, direction, and passion. Hume’s point about reason being a slave to passion should be more properly understood as “reason is a slave to narrative.” But we can talk more about that later.

The relevant point here is that Trump was right when he said yesterday that he didn’t divide America, it was divided when he showed up. What concerns me is that vast numbers of conservatives who lamented the MacGuffinized presidency and media of the Obama era have grabbed with both hands the MacGuffinized presidency of Donald Trump.

It is entirely true that the press served as an eager participant in the story of Obama. It is also entirely true that much of the mainstream media is playing the reverse role in the story of Trump’s presidency. And, it’s also the case that much of the conservative media is now playing the role they once decried in the MSM. The same people who rolled their eyes at every clickbait headline blaring “Watch as Jon Stewart DESTROYS” this or that Republican now cheer as Trump rails against the “Failing New York Times” or “Very Fake News.” It doesn’t matter that Trump’s arguments are as bogus, selective, or disingenuous as Stewart’s. What matters is to cheer the “butt hurt” of Chuck Todd or Jim Acosta or some other enemy. …

Sean Hannity has taken to calling Chuck Todd a leader of something called “the alt-left,” a thing that is not a thing except in Hannity’s studio. (The “alt” in “alt-right” refers to a desire to replace the traditional Right with a new tribalist-nationalist Right. What “Left” is Chuck Todd trying to replace? This is weak-tea Alinskyite distraction.)

I’m reminded of that old saying, “Die a hero or live long enough to see yourself defending Chuck Todd.”

Now, that’s not entirely fair since I’ve always liked Todd, despite our fairly frequent disagreements. But you know what I mean. And I also agree with Mollie that the mainstream media has a lot to answer for when it comes to how they’ve treated conservatives and Republican presidents. I’ve written literally tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of words on this very point. And while I think Mollie is being unfair to Chuck here, I also think she misses the point.

When Donald Trump says any — and I mean any — negative coverage of him is fake, he’s making a very, very different claim than that of traditional bias. He is saying that news stories — with multiple sources from his administration, sometimes on the record — are simply fabricated. And just because the self-loving press idiotically takes the bait every time, handing him the mallet to bludgeon them with, doesn’t change the fact that the president of the United States is not only wrong, he’s lying. Yes, the New York Times gets stories wrong (News flash!), but it is not a work of fiction.

The argument one often hears from anti-anti-Trump conservatives is that they’re just holding the mainstream media accountable. Fine. Do that. But if you don’t show much interest in holding a president — who is the leader of the Republican party and maybe the conservative movement — accountable, then you’ve become an accomplice to the hero in a MacGuffinized presidency. One can see this most clearly when you hear radio- and TV-show hosts dismiss an argument by noting it comes from some alleged “Trump hater.” It’s the exact same tactic liberals used against those of us who criticized Bill Clinton. My animosity for Bill Clinton didn’t make him play football-coach-and-the-cheerleader with an intern. Likewise, my alleged feelings about Trump don’t make me wrong when I point out he’s lying when he says he won in a historic landslide or when he insists that his administration has been humming like a well-oiled machine.

Whether he understands what he’s doing or not, Trump’s goal is to delegitimize any critical voices. I think he’s motivated more by narcissism than by some evil-genius scheme, but it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is truth. We are entering a phase where everything is measured not by veracity, but by feeling: If certain facts make us feel like “our side” is losing, then those facts aren’t real. If certain fictions make the other side feel bad, then they are facts. Again, Trump didn’t create this sorry dynamic, but he is accelerating it at blistering speed. I’m less concerned about “fake news” than I am by fake opinions — by which I mean the widespread tendency to score political arguments based upon how much applause they will get from your team.

Reading Kevin Williamson’s terrific essay on President’s Day, I’m of a mind to think the presidency has always been MacGuffinized. But just because a problem has a long pedigree doesn’t mean the problem can’t get worse. I know I use this line from Orwell too much (and I’m eager to hear suggestions for substitutes), but it captures the dynamic of the moment so well: “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.” Collectively, we’re all getting drunk on our feelings and then failing all the more completely for it.

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