In the opening pages of Frankly, We Did Win This Election — Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender’s new book about the shambolic final year of the Trump presidency — readers are thrown headlong into the manic, terrifying chaos that unfolded in Washington DC on January 6th of this year. The book’s opening scene: A secret hideaway, protected by armed Secret Service agents, where Vice President Pence is hunkering down with his wife and eldest daughter after a mob stormed the US Capitol. Pence is on the phone with top military officials at the Pentagon. “I want them down here — and I want them down here now,” he orders, a reference to the National Guard. It reads like a scene from one of those pulpy thrillers you find in airport bookstores. No need to guess how this one ends, though.
The eccentricities and extremes of the 45th president and his administration may not have been conducive to stable governance, but they apparently still make for revelatory copy. Indeed, the book publishing industry is in the throes of an all-new Trump boom, as a wave of new titles hits stands in an attempt to unpack the hurricane of madness that gave us all of the following last year: There was the disastrous coronavirus response, of course, followed eventually by Trumpworld refusing to accept the outcome of the November election. We also got the unhinged rhetoric from Trump himself that inspired his supporters to violence, plus Trump’s ban from social media as well as all those outlandish lawsuits challenging the November election results. Lawsuits, by the way, alleging the kind of operatic conspiracy theories usually born in the darker corners of the web.
At the same time, it’s also worth pausing to consider the corollary to all the head-spinning revelations packed into these new books — like Michael Wolff’s newly published Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump Presidency. As well as the upcoming I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year, being published July 20 and written by Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker.
To cover the Trump administration, lurching from one crisis to the next, was to take a 4-year ride on a packed train to nowhere. One that still, somehow, ended up getting derailed. Trump’s successor, no matter who it turned out to be, was always going to resemble the dictionary definition of boring, compared to what came before. Turning the page, though, at least seemed to portend that we would, if nothing else, have four years of the political altimeter leveling off again. That the reality show would be over. Or, at least, no longer concentrated in the Oval Office, right?
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Well, not necessarily, because wouldn’t you know it — right on cue, the media is doing that thing again. That thing where its practitioners offer up Very Serious Punditry about the wrapping paper, instead of what’s actually in the box.
Basically, Trump has apparently done such a number on certain Stockholm Syndrome’d members of the Fourth Estate, that they now sort of miss the more entertaining POTUS (which is to say, the one who was more fun to write about). And now, just six months into the new administration, some are openly complaining that President Biden is too “boring.”
“The White House press briefing room,” opined a recent WaPo story, “has been a little more boring over the last six months.”
And, this headline from The New York Times: “Voters Chose Boring Over Bombast. They Got Biden’s Penchant for Pontificating.” Heck, the story even begins with Biden himself judging one of his own speeches to be too boring. From the piece:
“‘I know that’s a boring speech,’ the 46th president said at the end of 31 minutes and 19 seconds filled with statistics (2,374 Illinois bridges), academic studies (on-site child care increases productivity), global gross domestic product comparisons (China used to be No. 9, but is now No. 2) and predictions of 7.4 percent economic growth.”
Elsewhere, that piece adds along these same lines: “What can seem like high-stakes drama to those inside the Washington Beltway often feels like the stuff of PBS documentaries to the rest of the country.” Which seems to be accusing everyone else — you know, out there — of being far too consumed with how politicians look strutting down the DC catwalk. Because those folks are not concerned enough with, you know, the serious stuff.
This is, no surprise, a line of attack that Trumplandia as well as the former president himself gleefully uses as a cudgel. In Wolff’s Landslide, for example, there’s a moment at one point where Trump intimated that they’d all be back “in four years and beat this sleepy bastard.”
The Biden people, at least some of them, are leaning in to this narrative about the president, almost as if it’s a badge of honor. Here’s the Biden White House chief of staff’s reaction, for example, to the effect that the disappearance of Trumpian controversy in DC is having on more partisan news media outlets:
Still, much more illuminating than all of this are the anonymous comments that some journalists shared recently with Julia Ioffe, which she recounts in a recent installment of her fantastic newsletter Tomorrow Will Be Worse. Some excerpts from this particular edition:
“The mechanics of reporting have changed so much,” one reporter told Ioffe. “It was just this really aberrant period in which you could almost guarantee that, with enough effort, you could find out what’s going on in the Situation Room. Now you can’t — and it’s infuriating.”
“I mean, it wasn’t just the fact that Trump was a gravy train. It’s also juxtaposed to the most boring administration in modern history. You go from a circus with flaming chainsaws to … what? An old man watching his dog?”
“I loved covering Trump. It was a great and fascinating story. It wasn’t just about him; it was about his movement and the institutions and America. The story was always so dramatic and had these larger than life characters. The stakes often felt very high. I like covering Biden, too, but it just doesn’t feel as dramatic.”
Media critic Eric Boehlert, writing in his own newsletter Press Run, justifiably eviscerates all of this as theatre criticism pretending to be political journalism.
To consider the Venn diagram intersect of politics and media today is to eventually find yourself struck by the notion that truth isn’t so much the sun around which certain categories of journalism orbit anymore, as much as it is just one giant MacGuffin. It’s the difference between talking about a thing, and actually interacting with the thing. The way reporters covered Trump was certainly the apotheosis of this phenomenon. But, as we’ve seen, it now extends to Biden, too. Stories about the new president thus become stories about “the story” about the new president. Which is why so many Americans eventually lose interest in the reality show altogether, and wonder what else is on.