Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 13 March 2024


Demo­cracy dies in Trumpian bore­dom

Edward Luce

Call it the banal­ity of chaos. Here is a check­list of Don­ald Trump’s recent activ­ity. He prom­ised on day one of his pres­id­ency to let Janu­ary 6 con­victs out of jail, close the US-Mex­ico bor­der and “drill baby drill” for gas and oil. He feted Viktor Orbán in Mar-a-Lago as the best leader in the world and assured Hun­gary’s strong­man that he would not “give a penny” to Ukraine. He took out a $91.6mn surety bond to pay defam­a­tion dam­ages to his sexual assault vic­tim, E Jean Car­roll.

He purged the Repub­lican National Com­mit­tee with 60 staff fir­ings — the open­ing move by his daugh­ter-in-law, Lara Trump, who he hand­picked as RNC co-chair. He did a U-turn on Tik­Tok, now say­ing its Chinese par­ent com­pany should retain own­er­ship. He mim­icked Joe Biden’s stut­ter, insisted that Amer­ica’s true infla­tion rate was 50 per cent and attacked Jimmy Kim­mel as the worst ever Oscars host. It seems almost trivial to add that new detail emerged about Trump’s appar­ent soft spot for Adolf Hitler.

All this happened since last Fri­day. Now mul­tiply that by 47, which is the num­ber of five-day slots between now and the gen­eral elec­tion. Even the most dili­gent Trump observer would feel cata­tonic after a few such incre­ments. It is thus little sur­prise that most of his recent epis­odes did not hit the head­lines. In another time, with a nor­mal can­did­ate, any single one would hijack the news cycle. Trump’s can­did­acy is so far off the charts it is almost paranor­mal. That is the essence of his polit­ical appeal. It means he is judged by a dif­fer­ent stand­ard to Biden, or any other politi­cian, Demo­cratic or Repub­lican.

Katie Britt, an Alabama sen­ator, hogged the air­waves for two days last week after giv­ing the Repub­lican response to Biden’s State of the Union address. On top of Britt’s oth­er­worldly deliv­ery style, her blun­der was to have misled view­ers with an anec­dote about a Mex­ican sex traf­fick­ing vic­tim. Every time Trump gives a speech, he dis­penses a min­imum of sev­eral full-blown lies. His untruths merit a shrug; every­body else’s qual­ify as a scan­dal.

This dual stand­ard is to a large extent sub­con­scious. In 2018, Trump’s then chief strategist, Steve Ban­non, described his media tac­tics as “flood­ing the zone with shit”. The more bizar­re­ness Trump gen­er­ates, the less people notice. Eco­nom­ists would call this hyper­in­fla­tion, except that the item being deval­ued is our capa­city to be shocked. A good example is the gap between how Biden’s syn­tax is meas­ured versus Trump’s. Biden often con­fuses dates and names and he has never been artic­u­late. Yet the point he is try­ing to make is usu­ally plain. His mix-ups merit front-page treat­ment.

Trump issues reg­u­lar flights of gib­ber­ish that might trig­ger a primary chal­lenge if they came from Biden. This was Trump’s reas­on­ing about real infla­tion earlier this week. “And let’s take a look at out­side of the stock mar­ket . . . we’re going through hell,” he told CNBC’s Squawk Box. “People are going through hell. They have — I believe the num­ber is 50 per cent. They say 32 and 33 per cent. I believe we have a cumu­lat­ive infla­tion of over 50 per cent. That means people are, you know, they have to make more than 50 per cent more over a fairly short period of time to stay up . . . And they have been treated very very badly with policy.” Good luck try­ing to fig­ure out his infla­tion policy.

After Trump was elec­ted in 2016, the Wash­ing­ton Post adop­ted the slo­gan “Demo­cracy dies in dark­ness”. But that was incom­plete. No mat­ter what approach Amer­ica’s media takes to Trump, con­tro­versy is assured. Ignor­ing what he says is neg­li­gence. Run­ning his speeches live is an in-kind sub­sidy.

The same applies to he-said-she-said tra­di­tional report­ing. Fact-check­ing is for losers. The beauty of the media’s quandary from Trump’s vant­age point is that whatever it does will trig­ger inhouse con­tro­versy. Ban­non described the main­stream media as the “oppos­i­tion party”. The ideal oppon­ent is one that is always at war with itself. In grat­it­ude, Trump routinely calls journ­al­ists “crim­in­als”.

The 2024 elec­tion’s odd blend is to be equal parts dull and fright­en­ing. If Trump is true to his word, 10 months from now he will be round­ing up mil­lions of illegal immig­rants for deport­a­tion. Ukraine’s war against Vladi­mir Putin’s Rus­sia will be over. The same fate would befall Trump’s fed­eral crim­inal tri­als. His Depart­ment of Justice would be invest­ig­at­ing his oppon­ents. And he will have invoked the Insur­rec- tion Act to shut down civil­ian pro- tests with US troops. Ban­non’s zone would have long since over­flowed. Amer­ica would have arrived there in broad day­light.

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