In his 1981 essay, “The Precession of Simulacra,” French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard famously argued that the mainstream American press’ coverage of the Watergate scandal, as opposed to highlighting the endemic corruption of American government, had the opposite effect. By singling out Watergate as a uniquely flagrant violation of the law and a broader set of political norms, the media instead fostered an idealized conception of government, one that portrayed its default character as one of transparency and upstanding public service. Watergate could only be a “scandal” insofar as the routine operations of the American state were not already scandalous in themselves. In Baudrillard’s words, “the denunciation of scandal is always an homage to the law.”
If mainstream media outlets succeeded in portraying crime, corruption, and espionage as novel in American politics during Watergate (just a year after the COINTELPRO revelations no less), they are undoubtedly doing something similar with the dishonesty, racism, and general brutality of the Trump administration.
It is undeniable that outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN have covered the Trump presidency with exceptional disdain. As political analyst Thomas Frank writes in the Guardian, “the people of the respectable east coast press loathe the president with an amazing unanimity.” A variety of politicians, commentators, and journalists such as Harry Reid, Al Hunt, and Joe Scarborough, have condemned Trump as either the worst president in their lifetimes or of all time. Likewise, a wide range of outlets were quick to report that 170 presidential historians ranked Trump dead last in “presidential greatness” in a survey conducted by professors from the University of Houston and Boise State University. There are partial exceptions to this trend of course. Fox News, for instance, which averages more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined, has been heavily criticized for its relatively positive coverage of Trump by commentators from more left-leaning outlets. That being said, this is primarily a result of coverage from a few shows like Hannity and Fox & Friends, which are part of Fox’s programming division, not its news division. Analyses isolating for news coverage alone during Trump’s first 100 days in office by both the Pew Research Center and the research firm Media Tenor found that, across the spectrum of media outlets, coverage of Trump was overwhelmingly negative, even on Fox News.
The problem, of course, is not that Trump has been the subject of negative coverage. Someone who has made as many overtly racist and misogynistic remarks as he has, or whose administration is repealing dozens of critical environmental regulations, of course deserves to be heavily criticized. But, as with Baudrillard’s criticisms of the coverage of Watergate, the question is not whether coverage should be negative, but whether it should be uniquely negative and how that negativity should be framed. A concerning effect of the media’s unprecedented disapproval of Trump is the prevailing impression that his and his administration’s brutality is itself unprecedented. In reality, it is all too common, a fact borne out by a cursory look at the administrations of Obama, Bush, and Clinton.
Of these three, President Obama is probably most analogous to Trump in terms of perpetrated harm, though it’s not difficult to argue he may have been even worse. Take immigration for example. Popular media outlets’ coverage of Trump’s immigration policies has been relentless, which might imply that they have been historically severe. Surveying Obama’s record, however, proves this isn’t necessarily the case. Obama deported twice as many undocumented people as Trump during peak years and, though he did not make it standard practice like Trump, also separated children from their families. Similarly, and again despite the framing of recent media coverage, the CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) under Obama also regularly tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed migrants at the border. In addition to his poor record on immigration, Obama also presided over one of the most serious foreign-policy failures in recent memory, the 2011 intervention in Libya. As Professor Alan Kuperman of the University of Texas documented in a 2013 policy brief, the intervention aimed not primarily at humanitarian relief, but at regime change (in large part motivated by French economic interests in Northern Africa), and achieved this goal at great cost.
“NATO’s action,” Kuperman writes, “magnified the conflict’s duration about sixfold, and its death toll at least sevenfold.”
Conservatively, the NATO intervention spearheaded by Obama created conditions that led to at least 8,000 additional deaths, though some estimates range up to 48,000. In the past couple years, however, this monumental failure has been conveniently forgotten and has instead given way to stories about Obama’s favorite books or his feature on a ‘Hamilton’ remix. This is not to say that the media should still be insistently covering something that happened in 2011, but rather that it is unsettling that Obama, given his role in the pointless death of thousands of people, is now treated as an entirely uncontroversial celebrity figure: the refrain from vast swaths of liberals since Trump’s inauguration has been “take us back,” the subheading of an actual Huffington Post article titled “Remember When All We Cared About Was President Obama’s Tan Suit?”
If the poor records of Trump and Obama at least appear comparable, they look disturbingly tame next to that of George W. Bush, a figure who has received incredibly positive media coverage since Trump’s election. The negative consequences of Bush’s invasion of Iraq alone exceed those of every harmful policy action of Trump combined. Not only did Bush’s administration knowingly lie about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs and ostensible support for Al Qaeda, but did so in pursuit of a war that led to the deaths of an estimated 655,000 people as of 2006. One NGO, Just Foreign Policy, has estimated that as of 2011, the death toll had ballooned to 1.46 million. Of Trump’s 6,420 “false or misleading claims,” not one has come close to enabling as much suffering as the few told by Bush. There is something seriously wrong with American public discourse when, at the same time as Trump is repeatedly skewered in the press, a war criminal like Bush, despite committing a crime of genocidal proportions, routinely appears on popular talk shows to copious laughter and applause. George W. Bush was and is in every way a more abhorrent president, policy-maker, and person than Donald Trump could ever be.
In many ways, the same is true of Clinton. Though his tenure in office was not quite as destructive as Bush’s, it was certainly more so than Trump’s thus far. Clinton’s most vicious and inhumane policy was his choice to maintain George H.W. Bush’s aggressive sanctions on Iraq for the invasion of Kuwait, despite mounting evidence of the humanitarian crisis they were creating. As a direct result of the sanctions regime, the Iraqi people fell short of food, drinking water, and medical supplies, resulting in the deaths of at least 300,000 children under the age of five, ten times the number of Americans that died on 9/11. Domestically, Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill and 1996 welfare reforms decimated poor and marginalized communities across the country. The former created new capital crimes, instituted infamous “three strikes” laws and authorized large grants for state prisons and police forces. The bill saw prison admissions for drug offenses in 2000 reach 26 times their level in 1983. As if this wasn’t vicious enough, Clinton drastically cut welfare two years later, effectively eliminating the cash welfare system in favor of types of assistance like food stamps and housing vouchers. In doing so, Clinton pushed about 700,000 children alone into poverty. Again, there is no comparison. Clinton, like Bush, and arguably like Obama as well, caused significantly more suffering than Trump probably ever will.
All this being said, a few important clarifications are in order. First, though it’s convenient to refer to individual presidents in ascribing blame or criticism, this is of course an oversimplification. The crafting and implementation of policies associated with any president requires the contributions of congress, cabinet members, and an endless number of bureaucrats and private contractors. None of this, however, means individual presidents are not culpable, or should not be treated as such. Second, these comparisons are not meant to minimize or dismiss the experiences of people who have suffered or been marginalized in various ways under the Trump administration. Nor should they draw attention away from the tangible consequences of his rhetoric. These comparisons are instead meant to call the attention of those who, like me, have the privilege not to feel personally threatened by the American state, to the unwavering brutality of our politics and policies, and moreover to the role of the media in lionizing current and former presidents and more broadly legitimating our political state of affairs.
The mainstream media’s problem with Trump is not that his policies are uniquely harmful or inhumane, but that his rhetoric, repeated scandals, and general ignorance are unbefitting of the presidential office. Given these indiscretions, it has been impractically difficult for the media to glorify Trump as a statesman, so instead we have seen a strategic shift. Whereas once sitting presidents received outsized praise from the media, now one is openly delegitimized, but only in the service of re-legitimizing the presidential office and its norms. The subtext of the media’s coverage of Trump is that aesthetics and decorum, not good policy, are paramount. As long as you aren’t too obvious about it, as long as you don’t say things that make you look ignorant or racist, you may brutally repress, murder, and marginalize whomever you please.
By treating Trump as if he is an anomaly in an otherwise long line of honest, principled men, the mainstream media has revealed its overriding interest in appearances over the impacts of policy. In their denunciations of Trump, they secure and recuperate the reputation of whoever comes next, provided they appear to be an improvement.
Nathan Witkin is a member of the Class of 2020 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.