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The Trump Show is addling our brains and blinding us to what matters

A dozen stories with real impact on people got ignored during the memo fracas.


Like many American political journalists, I spent much of last week entranced by the drama surrounding Devin Nunes’s memo about the origins of court-ordered surveillance of Carter Page. Then when the memo’s text was finally revealed, I found myself surprised by what a pile of risible nonsense it was. And then I found myself moderately surprised that I’d been surprised about this — somehow suckered into believing for a minute that there was a shred of merit to this dog-and-pony show.

Meanwhile, Friday evening I got around to reading the Wall Street Journal’s exhaustive review of FBI agent Peter Strzok’s text message exchanges with government lawyer Lisa Page, which concluded there was no anti-Trump bias or conspiracy there after all.

When I caught up on the rest of my tabs from the week I noticed something else. There were a bunch of articles published recently about things happening in American politics that are making a real difference in actual people’s lives. Stories that haven’t attracted nearly as much discussion as the GOP’s bad-faith pushback on Robert Mueller and the counter-pushback from Democrats, but that have the virtue of not being total nonsense. Stories that, frankly, paint a frightening picture of the direction in which the country is heading.

Here’s a bunch of stories that actually matter

Obviously on a superficial level between the State of the Union, the Nunes drama, the collapse of the Strzok conspiracy theory, and the apparent evidence that Rick Gates is now cooperating with Mueller, it was a very eventful week in the Trump Show.

But a huge number of stories about things that have a real, concrete impact on people’s lives came to light.

It would be wrong to say the media didn’t cover these stories — I read about all of them in the media, and most of them were broken by major mainstream outlets. What’s true is that none of them got a lot of play in the press. They didn’t land on cable news, for example, or spur tons of follow up and aggregation from competing outlets. And that, in turn, seems to reflect genuine audience interest (or lack thereof) — Vox garnered far more clicks for our various memo-related stories than we did for Sarah’s excellent article on the Community Health Centers.

The Trump Show is great for ratings, but it tends to crowd out other stories. Worse, not only does the Trump Show miss a lot of important points it actively impedes understanding of what’s happening in American public policy along a number of dimensions.

America needs to get a grip

Back in mid-January, Congress passed an update of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that actually somewhat expands the federal government’s surveillance powers. Devin Nunes, of memo fame, not only voted for the bill, he was one of its main authors. The bill was strongly endorsed by the Trump administration and backed by the vast majority of GOP members of Congress. They combined with a minority of Democrats to pass it over the objections of most Democrats joined by some dissident Republicans.

Yet a casual news consumer watching the Nunes memo would end up with a completely erroneous perspective on the actual state of the surveillance debate in America:

  • Republicans are not opponents of the surveillance state; they are, rather, aggressively pushing for more surveillance power.
  • Surveillance issues are not hotly contested in partisan politics, and even though most Democrats voted “no” on the bill, leaders including Nancy Pelosi and the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Community voted “yes.”

The Trump Show’s actual impact on partisan politics is difficult to discern. At times, Trump turns the spectacle of politics to his political advantage. At other times, it seems to overwhelm the White House’s own communications strategy.

But either way, it’s an absolute disaster for the understanding of public affairs. Looking back on the 2016 campaign, I’m struck by how little sense of the actual stakes in the election a person would have obtained from a political debate that overwhelmingly focused on Clinton’s emails and Trump’s wild rhetoric. Over a year into Trump’s actual presidency, we seem to still be struggling with the reality that he is actually holding office and that paying attention to the banal ongoing operations of the federal government is important.

These stories, though somewhat less exciting than Trump’s Twitter beefs, also broadly implicate the common good and raise the basic question of whether or not Trump is good at his job, rather than casting him as a symbolic totem of America’s ongoing culture wars. But politics is important primarily because of its real impact on real people’s real lives, and not as a reality show drama. Somehow we, as a country, need to find a way to remember that more consistently.