The Donald and the Fake News Media: An Affair to Remember

By Tom Engelhardt

Face it: it’s been an abusive time, to use a word he likes to wield. In his telling, of course, it’s he or his people who are always the abused ones and they — the “fake news media” — are the abusers. But let’s be honest. You’ve been abused, too, and so have I. All of us have and by that same fake news media.

It isn’t complicated, really. Thanks to them, to those cable news talking heads who never stop yammering about him, to the reporters who clamor over his every word or twitch, he’s always there, 24/7. I know that it’s still called covering the news, but it’s a phrase that no longer faintly fits the situation. Yes, a near majority of Americans voted for him as president, but no one voted to make him a living (and living-room) icon, a never-ending presence not just in our world, but in all our private worlds, too.

Never, not ever, has a single human being been so inescapable. You can’t turn on the TV news, read a newspaper, listen to the radio, wander on social media, or do much of anything else without almost instantly bumping into or tripping over… him, attacking them, praising himself, telling you how wonderful or terrible he feels and how much he loves or loathes… well, whatever happens to be ever so briefly on his mind that very moment.

And if that isn’t really almost too obvious to write down, then what is? Still, just briefly, let’s try to take in the obvious. Let me put it this way: never, not since Adam or certainly Nebuchadnezzar, not to speak of Eve or Cleopatra, has anyone in history been so unrelentingly focused upon or mercilessly covered — so, in a sense, fawned upon (and, of course, “abused”). In the past, I’ve labeled what we’re living through “the white Ford Bronco presidency” because, for the last nearly three years, the media has covered him as if he were indeed O.J. Simpson in that car fleeing the police over his wife’s murder, as if, that is, there were nothing else on Earth worth gluing our eyeballs to, and not as in O.J.’s case for a relatively few hours, but for what already seems like an eternity.

In a way, this is the simplest piece I’ve ever written, because whoever you are, wherever you live in this country (or possibly on the planet), whatever you think of him, positive or negative, you already know all of this. You’ve already discussed it with your friends. You’ve certainly wondered what would happen if the mainstream media suddenly stopped attending to Donald Trump — and oh yes, I hadn’t mentioned his name until now, because why bother? You never had a doubt, did you?

My guess on the effect of such a withdrawal of coverage: he’d shrivel up and die. Your guess may be different, but it doesn’t matter because we’re clearly never going to find out. Even the recent presidential decision to take away CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta’s press pass — doctored video of his behavior and all — after a distinctly abusive press conference (“I’ll tell you what: CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them. You are a rude, terrible person. You shouldn’t be working for CNN”), was only the cause for yet another deluge of coverage. None of Acosta’s media compatriots, not even at CNN, decided, for instance, to protest by refusing to cover another White House event until he got that pass back (though CNN is suing the Trump administration). None of them evidently even seriously considered closing the door, shutting the gate, turning their backs on you-know-who. That clearly is the twenty-first-century media version of thinking about the unthinkable.

Honestly, who doesn’t talk about all this in the face of a presidency that’s in your face, all our faces, in a way that no other president, emperor, king, autocrat, dictator, movie star, celebrity, or [feel free to fill in whatever I haven’t thought of here] has ever before been. His every phrase, tweet, complaint, bit of praise, parenthetical comment, angry snit, insult, or even policy decision is reported, discussed, gnawed on, considered, reconsidered, yakked about nonstop, hour after hour after endless hour, reshown in clip after repetitive clip. This is, in short, a unique historical experience of ours and ours alone. How could we not talk about it all the time?

The Media Critic-in-Chief

Oh wait! Oddly enough, in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s one place where it’s barely talked about at all, where silence largely reigns, and to my mind that couldn’t be stranger.

Here’s the only catch in the non-stop coverage of Donald J. Trump (2015 to 2018 and beyond): that same mainstream media that can’t get enough of him, that eats up and gnaws on his every odd phrase, gesture, act, or passing thought, is essentially silent on only one thing: the coverage itself. The most obvious subject in the world — not him, but the thing that keeps him going, that keeps the whole ship of state more or less afloat at this point — the unprecedented focus on him just doesn’t seem to be a subject fit for significant coverage, even though it’s a commonplace in our conversations out here in what still passes for the real world. We may regularly roll our eyes, but the mainstream media programmatically never does. Not in public anyway. And as was true from the beginning of the Trump era, from the New York Times and Politico to the Atlantic magazine, media outfits have hired yet more people to cover… well, Donald Trump (and not just from Washington either) and ploughed right on.

But do they cover themselves? Hardly. Media critics inside those mainstream companies have become an ever rarer species. The New York Times, for instance, let go of its “public editor” in May 2017 and left it to perhaps random tweeters to handle how the paper was covering anything. And that’s been typical. Or put another way: there’s really only one media critic left in the mainstream world — and you know just who he is! (A typical tweeted comment of his: “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!”) And sometimes that criticism couldn’t be more personal. (“Loser,” he recently called White House reporter April Ryan. “What a stupid question that is,” he said to CNN’s Abby Phillip. “What a stupid question. But I watch you a lot, you ask a lot of stupid questions.”) I’m referring, of course, to America’s media-critic-in-chief now in residence in Washington, D.C., when, of course, he isn’t out in the provinces getting a little love from his adoring “base” in those endless rallies for the midterm elections and, of course, the ones for the 2020 campaign, which began long ago.

And naturally enough, the “fake news” reporters can’t cover those rallies enough or discuss them and what he says at them more often. But again, there’s one catch, one lacuna, in all this. They almost never cover Donald J. Trump’s rally of rallies in that same analytical and dissecting fashion. I’m thinking, of course, of the rallies that truly keep him going — and by that I mean his endless set of interactions with… yep, the media. After all, without being eternally in their glowing spotlight, without that endless coverage of everything him, what would he be?

In a sense, those hordes of reporters crowding into his world are his most adoring fans (even if many of them may loathe him personally). They may not literally bathe him in love (as his fans in those stadiums do), but they certainly bathe him in what he loves most, what clearly keeps him up and running: attention.  And from each of those media “rallies” of his, however small, however impromptu, however angry or insulting, no matter the nature of the words exchanged, he clearly comes away feeling clean as a new-born babe (though they perhaps feel dirty as… well, who knows what).

It may not be a love affair, but it certainly is an affair to remember. And despite the fact that his official news conferences may be rare, he manages to meet the press (to use a thoroughly outmoded phrase) constantly and in ways too numerous to mention. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that he’s taken more questions from reporters — even if he’s regularly mangled and shredded them — than all our recent presidents (except that other classic narcissist, Bill Clinton).

The Donald’s Earned Media World

Being the canny self-promoter that he is, Donald Trump knows the value of those exchanges, no matter their nature. He knows that the specifics of what the media may write or say about him matter remarkably little, as long as they cover him in this totalistic fashion, as long as they never stop bathing him in his own ultimate form of glory. They are, as he would be the first to tell you, his “earned media.” In fact, just the other day at his post-election news conference, he had this little exchange with a reporter:

“Q: Mr. President, first off, I personally think it’s very good to have you here because a free press and this type of engagement —

“The President: I do, too. Actually? I do, too.

“Q: Yes. It’s vital to democracy.

“The President: It’s called ‘earned media.’ It’s worth billions. Go ahead.”

Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is no fool. He knows that he’s got not just a knack but the knack for accruing “earned media” — that is, unpaid for publicity and advertising. Estimates were that he got a staggering $5.6 billion of it during his 2015-2016 election campaign and, exactly as he implied in that knowing aside, it’s never ended. And yes, it is “vital” to him, if not to “democracy.” Think of him, in fact, as President Earned Media.

Since we are talking about a mutual affair, however, the opposite is also true: Donald Trump is the media’s version of… at the risk of being completely repetitious, earned media. No one’s put it better than former CBS head Leslie Moonves — recently taken down by the #MeToo moment — during the 2016 election campaign. “It may not be good for America,” he said, “but it’s damn good for CBS.” He added, “The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this [is] going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But bring it on, Donald. Keep going.” And, as we all know, Donald did.

Keep in mind that the media had been thrown into chaos and confusion by the growth of the online world of the Internet, as many news businesses faltered and staff cuts were widespread. How convenient, then, to stumble upon such genuine human clickbait, someone on whom you could focus your attention so relatively cheaply and profitably. So much for covering the world, a distinctly expensive proposition! Talk about bargain basement candidacies and presidencies!

From the moment he descended that escalator in Trump Tower in June 2015, Donald Trump became the media equivalent of a freebie — someone viewers and readers just couldn’t help watching, hearing about, reading about. It was like stumbling on a gold mine in the desert. As it turned out, Americans were indeed ready to have the talking heads of CNN (now the president’s eternal punching bag), MSNBC, and Fox News yammer on hour after hour, day after day, about him and only him. It was, in its own way, a genuine miracle for news companies that had found themselves up against the wall and it couldn’t have been more real, or — as, at some level, Donald Trump himself grasped — more fake.

Put it all together and you can understand how a major Trump rally — oops, I mean that post-election news conference of his — actually worked. But first let me take a moment, in truly Trumpian fashion, to thank myself on your behalf. Like you, I watched clips of that news conference. Then I did all of you a favor and actually read the whole 17,000-plus words of it, one hour and 26 minutes worth of his and their words, so you wouldn’t have to.

And believe me, it was quite a performance as the president called on/ignored reporters desperate to get his attention, insulted them, spoke with them, spoke against them, spoke over them (“We are a hot country. This is a hot White House…”), spoke around them, described them (“I come in here as a nice person wanting to answer questions and I have people jumping out of their — their seats, screaming questions at me…”), wandered away from them, wandered away from himself, ignored or didn’t answer their questions, was incoherent for significant stretches of time, or couldn’t even hold onto a thought. And by the way, the reporters there more than matched him (“One, I was tempted to ask you why you like Oprah so much, but I think I’ll go on to the question that…”), blow for blowhard (“Based off of that, how would you say, over the last two years, God plays — what kind of a factor He plays in the day-to-day execution of the Office of the Presidency?…”).

Read the whole thing and you’d have to be struck — even by the less-than-soaring standards of past presidential news conferences — by how little (with a bow to Gertrude Stein) there there actually was there. The president’s incoherence was remarkably well matched by the dreariness of the generally expectable, largely thought-free questions he was asked on a limited set of topics.

As always, though, there were those Trumpian moments that aren’t likely to leave your head soon thereafter. There was, for instance, the exchange in which the president called on PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor, a relatively rare black reporter in that room. She began her question this way, “On the campaign trail, you called yourself a nationalist. Some people saw that as emboldening white nationalists. Now people are also saying…”

At that point, the president promptly interrupted to respond: “I don’t know why you’d say that. That’s such a racist question.” (Something he’d then repeat twice more.) The pure chutzpah of that response should have taken anyone’s breath away, but it was also a reminder of the strange sense of freedom Trump feels to say anything in the presence of the media, including mocking or insulting three black female reporters at that news conference.

And this can only happen again and again and again. It’s hard not to feel that we are all now eternally watching two sets of addicts who simply can’t exist without or get enough of each other.

Toward the end of that news conference, one of the reporters began a question (also focused on white nationalism) this way: “Thank you, sir. And I think we’d all love to have more of these, if you’re willing…”

It tells us so much about our twenty-first-century Trumpian world that anyone in that press corps would wish for more of the same. I have a feeling that somewhere in all of this someone, maybe Bob Mueller, should indict all of them for fraud. In the meantime, the rest of us remain in a world wallpapered with Donald Trump, a world in which the fake news media, which is his truest “base,” just can’t get enough of him.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands,Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2018 Tom Engelhardt

Midterm America: A Blue Wave From Another Universe

By Ben Fountain
Reprinted from TomDispatch.Com

Evil days.

The midterms were bearing down on us like a runaway train with Donald Trump in the driver’s seat and the throttle wide open, the Presidential Special hell-bent for the bottom. “Go Trump Go!” tweeted David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, as if the president needed anyone’s encouragement. There had been no slacking after pipe bombs were sent to a number of his critics; nor after two black people were killed in Kentucky by a white man who, minutes before, had tried to enter a predominantly black church; nor after 11 worshippers in Pittsburgh were murdered at the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue by a man who’d expressed special loathing for HIAS, a Jewish refugee resettlement and advocacy organization. “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” Robert Bowers posted on his Gab account hours before the massacre. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Trump, relentless Trump, went right on raging about “invasions,” left-wing “mobs,” globalists, MS-13, and “caravan after caravan [of] illegal immigrants” invited in by Democrats to murder Americans, vote illegally, and mooch off our health care system. “Hate speech leads to hate crimes,” Rabbi Jeffrey Myers told the president in Pittsburgh several days after the murders. The FBI had previously reported a large spike in hate crimes over the previous two years, and the Anti-Defamation League noted a 60% rise in anti-Semitic incidents from 2016 to 2017. Then there was this, reported in the New York Times on the day before the election: “Advisers to the president said his foes take his campaign rally language too literally; as outrageous as it might seem, it is more entertainment, intended to generate a crowd reaction.” And Trump himself, when asked why he wasn’t campaigning on the strong economy, responded: “Sometimes it’s not as exciting to talk about the economy.”

Not as exciting as, say, hate and xenophobia. And so one was led to wonder: Do countries have souls — with all the moral consequence implied by the concept of soul? If the answer is yes, then it follows that the collective soul can be corrupted and damned just as surely as that of a flesh-and-blood human being. In this election, as in all others, grave matters of policy were at stake, but we sensed something even bigger on the line in 2018 — nothing less than whether the country was past redeeming.

Lower, Smaller, Meaner

“I’m on the ballot,” Trump declared at a rally in Mississippi, and so he was. For the first time in two years, the country would render its verdict on the garish aggressions of his politics, though it bore noting that many members of his party had already voted with their feet. In the preceding months, more than 40 House Republicans had resigned outright or announced that they would not seek reelection, among them the relatively moderate chairs of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Appropriations Committee, and, most significantly, House Speaker Paul Ryan. It was an extraordinary exodus by any measure, especially for a party holding both chambers of Congress and the White House — a party possessed, that is, of the kind of power that pols dream of. Yet here were Republicans bailing out in droves.

The usual reasons were given: the desire to spend more time with family, to confront new challenges, and so forth, but the party’s scorched-earth politics of the past 30 years, the ones that had put Donald Trump in the White House, undoubtedly had something to do with it. The hyper-partisanship championed by Newt Gingrich when he was speaker of the House in the mid-1990s, the embrace of fringe elements like the birther crowd and the alt-right, the systematic trashing of longstanding institutions and traditions (like the weaponizing of the filibuster, to name just one) and now the ultimate scorched-earther in the White House: it’s easy to imagine how the more self-aware members of the Republican caucus could see no viable future for themselves in politics.

Ryan, in particular, furnished food for thought. Like John Boehner before him, he couldn’t tame the far-right beast that was the Freedom Caucus and he had Trump to deal with too. How many nights had the Speaker tossed and turned in his bed secretly pining for rational Obama? And then there was the massive contradiction of Ryan’s own politics. Eager for Republicans to get credit for the economic expansion that began in June 2009 and was now in its 100th month, Ryan studiously ignored the fact that — predicting rampant inflation and worse — he’d opposed Obama’s program of fiscal stimulus and easy monetary policy that had produced the longest expansion in the country’s history. But Ryan’s contradiction cut even deeper. As House Speaker, at the very pinnacle of his career as a supply-side disciple and deficit hawk, he had shepherded into law a legislative agenda that was projected to start producing trillion-dollar-a-year deficits by 2020.

Paul Ryan had played out his political string. To proceed further could only monsterize his psyche, twist it into a Jekyll-and-Hyde-style schizophrenia, a form of madness not unknown among twenty-first-century American politicians. With Trump as their leader, Republicans had no place to go but lower, smaller, meaner — and so they went.

Trump praised and reenacted a Montana congressman’s criminal assault on a reporter, and suggested that U.S. troops open fire on any aspiring immigrant so bold as to throw a rock at them. In Georgia, robocalls described Stacey Abrams, a black woman and the Democratic nominee for governor, as a “poor man’s Aunt Jemima.” Congressman Duncan Hunter put out an ad characterizing his opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, as a terrorist sympathizer. Ron DeSantis urged Florida voters not to “monkey this up” by electing Andrew Gillum, a black man, as their governor, while in Kansas, a Republican official called congressional candidate Sharice Davids (a Native American and graduate of Cornell Law School) a “radical socialist kickboxing lesbian” who should be “sent back packing to the reservation.”

Antonio Delgado, who is black, a Rhodes scholar, and a Harvard Law School graduate, was repeatedly characterized as “a big-city rapper” in ads supporting his opponent for a congressional seat in New York’s Hudson Valley. Representative Kevin McCarthy, jockeying to replace Paul Ryan as leader of the House Republicans, loudly revived the push to fund Trump’s border wall, and Representative Steve King fantasized at a rally that Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor “will elope to Cuba.” Pro-GOP flyers featuring anti-Semitic caricatures were distributed in opposition to Jewish Democratic candidates in Alaska, California, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Washington, and elsewhere.

The loudest hysterics were reserved for the bedraggled, footsore “caravan of invaders” inching its way north through Mexico, several thousand desperate souls bringing, according to Trump, crime and terrorists. On Fox Business, Chris Farrell, a conservative activist, promoted the ongoing right-wing allegation that George Soros, who is Jewish, was paying migrants to come to the U.S. Kris Kobach, GOP candidate for governor of Kansas, declared that Democrats had “open-border psychosis.” Ted Cruz, fighting for his political life in Texas, led chants of “Build that wall!” at his rallies.

The final TV ad for Scott Wagner, the GOP nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, asserted that “a dangerous caravan of illegals careens to the border”; this same Scott Wagner had previously urged his Democratic opponent to wear a catcher’s mask because “I’m going to stomp all over your face with golf spikes.” Trump deployed some 5,600 active-duty troops south “to secure the border,” at a cost projected to be as high as $200 million, and his final campaign ad — deemed so blatantly racist that Facebook and major TV networks, including Fox, refused to air it — featured scary music, images of brown-skinned people, and a cop-killing undocumented immigrant with no known link to the caravan. The ad’s final image urged: “Stop the Caravan. Vote Republican.”

It was crude. It was dumb. It was all basically nuts. The question was: how much of America would buy it?

Record Numbers

The day after the election, Trump appeared before the media to proclaim “very close to a complete victory.” Then he proceeded to riff on the size of his crowds.

It would take days — a week and then some — to measure properly the scale of the electorate’s repudiation of Trump. Despite surgical gerrymandering and voter-suppression measures that strongly favored the GOP, Democrats took control of the House by flipping 43 seats, for a net gain of 40. It was the biggest Democratic gain since the Watergate midterm of 1974, when Democrats picked up 49 seats, and the Democrats’ 9.4 million lead (and counting) in raw votes this year was the largest margin ever by a party in a midterm.

Overall turnout was the highest in 50 years: 116 million, or 49.4% of the voting-eligible population, compared to 83 million in 2014. Democrats won women — who are not only the majority of voters but the most reliable of them — by 19 percentage points. Particularly in the suburbs, where 50% of voters now live, white women with college degrees broke hard for Democrats, but House Democratic candidates also increased their national vote margin among white working-class women by 13 points.

Young voters and minorities (think: the future) turned out in unprecedented numbers and voted overwhelmingly Democratic. The Democrats also won independents by 12%, and voters who had opted for a third-party candidate in 2016 by 13%. Trump’s misogyny, racism, and xenophobia helped elect a new House majority that will be nearly half women, a third people of color, and include more Muslim Americans, Native Americans, and LGBTQ members than ever before.

Republicans increased their razor-thin majority in the Senate by two, but even there evidence of the Trump repudiation was strong. Democrats were defending 26 of the 35 seats in play and, in almost every race, the Democratic candidate outperformed the state’s partisan lean (the average difference between how a state votes and how the overall country votes) while racking up a nationwide total of 50.5 million votes, to the GOP’s 34.5 million.

Yeah, Beto lost. He also came within 2.6 points of knocking off a well-financed, highly disciplined incumbent in a deep-red state and was instrumental in making Texas newly competitive at both the statewide and local levels. In governors’ races, Democrats flipped seven states to the Republicans’ one and achieved a net gain of more than 300 legislative seats.

State ballot measures on politically charged issues also trended blue. Arkansas and Missouri voted to raise their minimum wage. Utah, Nebraska, and Idaho voted to expand Medicaid and, with the election of a Democratic governor, Maine will follow through on last year’s winning referendum to expand Medicaid. Florida voters approved a referendum to restore voting rights to former felons. Arizona defeated a Koch brothers-backed measure to privatize public education by a two to one margin.

Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — states crucial to Trump’s Electoral College success in 2016 — swung dramatically back toward the Democrats in 2018.

Putting Real Issues Front and Center

This thing Trump was selling, this white-nationalist-freak-out-throwback special, played well enough to the base to flip Senate seats in North Dakota, Indiana, and Missouri, all states Trump won by big margins in 2016, as well as Florida’s closely contested Senate seat. But here’s the real shocker, the development that made this midterm “transformational,” as reported by Stanley Greenberg in the New York Times, based on a Democracy Corpselection night survey: the Democrats’ biggest gains in 2018 came in rural America. Greenberg also relied on an Edison exit poll for CNN that showed the Republican margin in rural areas shrinking by double digits and a Catalist poll indicating a seven-point shrinkage.

“Exciting” the base seems to have come at a cost: a 13-point swing by white working-class women, a 14-point swing by white working-class men, and a 7-point swing among all men. While Trump’s Twitter account was acting like the social media equivalent of a spastic colon, Democrats were pushing a decidedly non-hysterical message focused on health care (coverage for preexisting conditions, preserving Obamacare, and protecting Medicare and Medicaid) and basic economic fairness. As for Trump’s manifest unfitness for office, smart Democrats assumed the president himself would pound home that message.

Yes, there was a blue wave in 2018, and the “centrist” establishment Democrats who have steered the party for the past 30 years are trying to claim it for themselves. Don’t believe them. These establishment centrists — the ideological heirs of the defunct Democratic Leadership Council who now ply their trade at the Third Way think tank in the capital, along with the big-donor class, the top-dollar Washington consultants, and the data mills that comprise the Democratic election industrial complex — stand for something far different than the blue-wave centrists who powered the party in 2018.

For more than 30 years — ever since the rise of the “New Democrats” and the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1980s — establishment centrists have practiced the top-down politics of neoliberalism, a politics founded on the free-market gospel: deregulation of banking and finance, friendliness toward corporate monopolies, limited support (at best) for labor unions and workers, the endless “liberalization” of global trade, and reflexive antagonism for the social safety net. As all the numbers show, corporate America and the One Percent reaped the lion’s share of neoliberalism’s benefits, while the Democratic Party’s once-traditional constituencies — poor people, and the working and middle classes — fell further and further behind. The party itself — once the dominant force in national politics, and in the majority of states — gradually slid into minority status, culminating in the wipeout of 2016.

2018’s blue-wave centrists are made of different stuff. This year’s energy came from the bottom up, thanks to widespread local activism and grassroots organizing, much of it led by women newly politicized in the wake of 2016. The party’s small-donor base became increasingly powerful, enabling candidates like Beto O’Rourke to run robustly financed campaigns while refusing PAC money and the strings that come with it.

This same small-donor and activist groundswell made Democrats competitive in regions long ago written off by establishment centrists who have long been less focused on the concerns of working people than on cherry-picking just enough Electoral College votes to win the presidency every four years. In 2018, however, we saw Democratic candidates running and winning in deep-red areas while talking up labor unions (Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania), slamming the “rigged system” that neoliberalism produced (Max Rose on New York’s Staten Island), and pushing for common-sense gun control (Lucy McBath in Georgia).

Democrats interested in taking back the Midwest should look to the example of Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, one of Bernie Sanders’s closest allies in the Senate. A strong voice for labor and the middle class and a longtime skeptic of international trade deals, Brown won reelection by seven percentage points in a state otherwise trending Republican. The same was true for Senator Amy Klobuchar, who has prioritized the interests of working people her entire career. She won reelection by 24 points in Minnesota, a state Trump almost won in 2016.

The blue-wave centrists put real issues front and center: housing, wages, access to health care, basic fairness and opportunity for working people. Whatever name you want to put to these issues — centrist, progressive, populist, lunch bucket, kitchen table — these haven’t been the priorities of the establishment centrists of the past 30 years. For a clue, look no farther than the Third Way’s close ties to K Street, the epicenter of corporate lobbying in Washington, and to the investment banking industry.

Trump lost in 2018, but he remains nearly as powerful as ever. He’s a sitting president with a ferociously loyal base, a Senate majority that’s about to get bigger, and a federal judiciary that hews further to the right with each new raft of appointments. In the days since the election he’s shown no moderating tendencies, instead threatening the incoming House Democratic majority with a “warlike posture,” firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, illegally“appointing” a sketchy acting attorney general, further defying the Refugee Act of 1980, banning a CNN reporter from the White House, and defending Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the state-sponsored murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Trump is still Trump, and America is still America. In the days after the election, wildfires raged through northern California, leaving scores dead and many thousands homeless, and in the country’s 307th mass shooting in the first 313 days of 2018, a gunman killed 13 people at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California.

Welcome to the struggle for the country’s soul. We haven’t seen anything yet.


Ben Fountain’s Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution has just been published by Ecco/HarperCollins. He is the author of a novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which received the National Book Critics’ Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award, and a story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, which received the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize for Fiction. He lives in Dallas.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2018 Ben Fountain

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