Donald Trump delivered his much-anticipated address to a Joint Session of Congress on Tuesday night after his first month in the Oval Office proved to be an unmitigated disaster marked by near-daily scandal, a cast of villainous appointees and potentially compromised advisors, lingering questions about what he knew about Russia, and a botched anti-terrorist raid in Yemen that killed 25 civilians, including 9 children, and an American Navy SEAL.
The usual cast of pundits took to their respective news networks on Tuesday night likely expecting another token bombastic Trump offering. But something unexpected happened after Trump’s speech. No matter what channel you were watching, or to what website you were tending, a general consensus about the speech seemed to emerge by evening’s end: Donald Trump was “surprisingly presidential.”
On the traditionally conservative front, Chris Wallace gushed live on air that Trump had just delivered one of the best speeches a president has ever given to Congress. Conversely, there were no snowflake tears to be found on the liberal front as Van Jones declared with authority that this was the night that Donald Trump became president, “period.” NBC News correspondent Katy Tur tweeted out this definitive review:
By Wednesday morning, “New Trump” was even trending on Twitter. All of it begs the question: what planet are we on and were we watching the same speech?
The big moment that earned Trump much of his praise occurred when, in a dramatic call for unity, he acknowledged a tearful Carryn Owens, the widow of Navy SEAL William Ryan Owens, who was slain in the Yemen raid in late January and became Trump’s first military casualty.
Donald Trump does not get brownie points for acknowledging the widow of a Navy SEAL who was killed in a botched military operation that was authorized for no known reason and that accomplished no known results. Indeed, the raid in Yemen did not take out any intended Al-Qaeda targets, yielded no actionable intelligence (despite the Administration’s previous misrepresentations that it had), and ultimately resulted in what appears to be the needless death of an American Navy SEAL and 25 local civilians. Of those civilian casualties, nine were children under the age of 13, with the youngest being a 3-month old baby.
Of course the most troubling part of this quagmire is that Donald Trump has ultimately refused to accept any responsibility for Owens’ death. Trump spent a year and a half on the campaign trail dishonestly blaming Hillary Clinton for the deaths of four State Department officials in the 2011 Benghazi attacks, and the news media completely failed to rebut the prevailing false narrative that she was responsible, at least not in any meaningful way.
But Trump morbidly props up the grieving widow of an American soldier whose preventable death he may be responsible for and the media not only gave him a pass but praised him for being presidential. This is the same routinely excoriated press named “the enemy of the American people” by the very man they are now praising. The same man who ruthlessly labeled them “fake news” just days ago. The same man who just delivered a speech before Congress in which almost every major claim asserted has been proven to be false, making it remarkable only by virtue of being a series of lies and distortions that exploited the grieving widow of a deceased American Navy SEAL to try and hide from political culpability.
Democrats have called the entire experience surreal, and with good reason: During the speech, from the floor of the House of Representatives, Trump was met with ravenous applause from Republicans suddenly struck with amnesia over their very public disdain for the man not even one year ago.
Hearing various media personalities from differing ends of the political spectrum reach such consensus might have ordinarily given viewers hungry for an end to partisan squabbling a reason to celebrate. Instead, it served as a disquieting reminder of the growing tendency towards false equivocation to achieve balanced political narratives and story lines that sell at the expense of effective, thorough, and holistic reporting.
The normalization of Donald Trump has been in the works for some time. In May, after Trump cleared the Republican primary field to become the GOP nominee, Vox’s David Roberts intuited that the media would lift Trump up and tear down his eminently more qualified Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton. The “whole superstructure of U.S. politics [is] built around two balanced sides,” Roberts wrote. With entire media systems, support networks, and coalitions built to support one side or the other, Roberts predicted “a tidal pull to normalize this election, to make it Coca-Cola versus Pepsi instead of Coca-Cola versus sewer water.”
In other words, our entire political and cultural discourse is framed by differences in binaries, a concept that social theorists have described as “binary opposition” since the 19th century. The theory posits that creating complementary structural foils helps us give value or meaning to the world around us. We contextualize and compartmentalize discourse into good versus bad, Democrats versus Republican, and our understanding of one these binaries informs our understanding of the other and vice-versa. We gravitate naturally towards placing our world into these boxes because otherwise we live in a world without meaning.
Therefore, despite being viewed as a stunt, abnormal, a joke, and not a viable candidate, when Trump won the Republican primary it became all but inevitable that our media structures would start on the work of normalizing him. By March of 2016, he had already received $2 billion worth of free media coverage.
Fast forward to Tuesday night’s dog and pony show, wherein Donald Trump, the crass, orange-skinned, loud-mouthed reality television star who bullied his message of white nativist protectionism straight to the White House without a mandate, all the sudden was speaking in trite poetic platitudes, more subdued and restrained than usual, reading from a teleprompter in a monotone voice meant to portray seriousness.
“Believe in yourself,” he told the American people.
“Trump has hit the reset button!” replied the American news media. “The best speech of his career!”
Donald Trump may have acted the part more carefully, spoken in a more mature “tone,” and substituted children’s poetry for diatribe, but the words in his prose are still lies no matter how he packages them. It is crucial, now more than ever, for the American news media to return back to it’s traditional function as the “Fourth Branch of Government.” We need a well-functioning and independent news media to ensure government accountability as well as establish a system of checks and balances on government. In order for democracy to flourish and even survive, we cannot normalize or overlook Trump’s lies, conflicts of interest, or diversionary tactics.
Praising Trump’s propaganda is dangerous, and frankly, perhaps it warrants its own #FakeNews designation.
Alex Mohajer is a Political Writer and Commentator for The Huffington Post and the Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Bros4America, a political advocacy organization formerly known as Bros4Hillary. You can tweet him @alexmohajer.