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.
- Ben Penn reported that Labor Department political appointees spiked an internal economic analysis of a new rule governing the handling of tips received by millions of workers in the food service industry. If the suppressed report is correct, the rule the Trump administration is promulgating could cost workers billions of dollars in lost income.
- The Centers for Disease Control reported that flu hospitalizations in the United States are taking place at a record pace, while Vox’s own Sarah Kliff reported on how Congress’s defunding of Community Health Centers is creating a crisis of health care access for 26 million Americans.
- In separate CDC news, Lena Sun of the Washington Post reported that CDC efforts to halt new outbreaks of exotic infectious diseases abroad are headed for an 80 percent cut.
- Kriston Capps reported for CityLab that the Department of Housing and Urban Development is considering new work requirements for recipients of public housing assistance, measures that would impose hardship on some of the most deprived people in the country.
- Separately, Rachel Cohen and Zaid Jilani of the Intercept reported on HUD consideration of proposals to raise rents for public housing users.
- Yet another HUD story has reporters from both the Washington Post and CNN uncovering considerable evidence that HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s son, who does not work at HUD, is nonetheless intimately involved in HUD business mostly in ways designed to benefit himself personally.
- Mick Mulvaney, who is still serving as acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau while Trump fails to nominate anyone at all to fill the job on a permanent basis, stripped the CFPB’s fair lending office of enforcement powers.
- Alan Rappeport of the New York Times reported that not only has the payday lending industry won a number of regulatory favors from the Trump administration, they’ll be repaying the president personally by holding their annual retreat at the Trump Doral Golf Club.
- We had two significant train derailments, even as Trump revealed his infrastructure “plan” to be essentially a giant magic asterisk.
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.