[Press Rogue] A Million Turning Points | Harper's Magazine

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At the moment the Trump Administration reaches the point of no return, when the president’s erstwhile Republican allies join arm in arm with their Democratic brethren in Congress to remove him from office in a paroxysm of bipartisanship, at that precise moment, it is a sure bet that a New York Times reporter will be sitting in some diner in North Carolina or Nevada, asking a sample of Trump voters whether they still stand with him. We can be sure such man-on-the-street reactions will be integral to the Times’ coverage of the righteous future so frequently slavered after by its opinion writers, if only because the paper has already spent two years taking the temperature of the president’s supporters, asking the same question, again and again: has anything changed?

So far, the answer has been no. “A Deal Breaker for Trump’s Supporters?” a Times headline asked after the president claimed that anti-white supremacist protesters bore responsibility for the violence that left one of them dead in Charlottesville. The answer: Nope. Not this time, either. The paper checked in again following the president’s bizarre, deferential press conference with Vladimir Putin last summer. “Trump Voters Mostly Digging In,” it determined.

In the wake of Michael Cohen’s appearance before the House Oversight Committee last week, the Times gave it another go. The opinions of the latest panel of typical Americans—a retired Baptist pastor, a law student, an antiabortion conservative, a businessman, a gym teacher, and a handful of black barbers—range from bland (“It’s very hard to assess—is there criminal wrongdoing here?”) to incomprehensibly off-topic (“Whether you believe in the wall or not, he’s doing it”). Yet no interlocutor baffles quite like the business owner from Florida who vehemently rejects Cohen’s accusation of Trump’s racism: “I have been to his properties such as Mar-a-Lago and the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C., where I have seen plenty of African-Americans on staff. He would not be hiring and appointing African-Americans if he was truly a racist.”

In an “America reacts” story like this, such statements are not to be contextualized, rebutted, or mocked. Readers are simply offered distillations of public opinion, the words of one man (who just so happens to be a Trump donor), which they are meant to weigh against those of the barber in Georgia who believes, “[H]e’s going to get impeached.” By offering these quotes together, the Times hopes to conjure for its readers an understanding of how the nation’s mood has shifted. Or we can just read the headline: “Cohen’s Testimony Does Little to Change Minds.

That may be true. But the fact that five of the nine minds consulted here are either Trump voters or identified as conservative significantly skews how the reader interprets the invariability of their sentiment. By stating that no minds were changed, the Times has confirmed public opinion as both stagnant and sympathetic to the president. Meanwhile, two years of polling has consistently demonstrated that a sizable majority of Americans disapprove of Donald Trump. The article creates the misleading impression that, since no change in public opinion has occurred, Trump’s ability to govern with impunity continues unabated. Given what we know from the polls, such framing is ludicrous. No change in his popular standing serves to further undercut Trump’s leadership, not bolster it.

Then again, the point of these stories isn’t necessarily to replicate an infinitely more rigorous poll. It is to figure out if the dissolution of the Trump Administration has, at long last, begun. “Only time will tell whether Michael Cohen’s testimony to a congressional committee on Wednesday was a blip or a major chapter in the story of Donald Trump’s presidency,” this latest installment begins, but who can wait for time to tell? Indeed, identifying major chapter headings as they arrive has become something of an obsession at the paper.

“Is Trump Doomed?” asked columnist David Leonhardt—by far the most dutiful scanner of the horizon for storm clouds presaging Trump’s downfall—after Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison in December. Days into the new year, while itemizing the case for impeachment proceedings to begin immediately, he wrote, “Trump is vulnerable to any erosion in his already weak approval rating … When support for an unpopular leader starts to crack, it can crumble.” When the government shutdown over funding Trump’s border wall chipped away at his numbers a few weeks later, Leonhardt leapt for the throat, admonishing readers not to “assume that his approval rating has some kind of guaranteed floor. It doesn’t.” Predictably, support for the president rebounded as soon as the shutdown ended.

In his hastiness, Leonhardt shares his reporter colleagues’ misapprehension about the speed at which Trump’s fortunes are destined to turn, even if he refuses to accept their insistence about the lemming-like loyalty of his supporters. Leonhardt, like the rest of the Grey Lady commentariat, is fond of comparing Trump’s situation to Nixon’s, and in his case for impeachment he was careful to mention that “most Republicans—both voters and elites—stuck by [Nixon] until almost the very end.” Leonhardt went on to argue that Democrats will only be able to drag down Trump’s current, sterling numbers with his base by conducting a “series of sober-minded hearings to highlight Trump’s misconduct.”

He’s getting his wish: on Monday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler issued a headline-grabbing eighty-one document requests to government agencies and associates of the president, a move that led Leonhardt’s fellow editorial jockey Michelle Cottle to draw her own parallels to Watergate. “With his investigation,” Cottle wrote the next day, “Mr. Nadler is looking to build a case for impeachment so compelling that it will have enough bipartisan support to survive the Republican-controlled Senate.”

Yeah … good luck with that. Considering that comparisons between Trump and Nixon have become so entrenched that another of the barbers asked by the Times to react to Cohen’s testimony proclaimed, “I think he’s going to resign—like Nixon,” it’s worth pointing out that Nixon was not, in fact, the only unpopular American president, nor the only one incapable of escaping an aura of scandal. Lyndon Johnson declined to stand for reelection, so direly had public opinion turned against him, and Jimmy Carter was no more popular two years into his presidency than Trump is today.

The Times’ inability to acknowledge any other antecedents for the Trump presidency stems largely from the paper’s obsession with identifying a turning point that will be branded into history as boldly as John Dean’s testimony that Nixon directed the Watergate cover-up. Indeed, the role of Dean in Nixon’s downfall figures so centrally in the parallel narrative the Times is attempting to construct that, last week, the paper trotted the man himself out to advise Cohen on how to best challenge “authoritarian presidents of the United States by revealing their lies and abuses of power.” Cottle certainly sees Cohen’s role as akin to Dean’s, and his testimony as the beginning of the end for Trump. “If you thought the past two years of inquiries into possible misbehavior by Trumpworld were brutal,” she writes, “brace yourself. Phase 2 is about to heat up.” This “phase,” in her imagining, will unspool over the next few months and will constitute “a nonstop pageant of subpoenas, hearings and court challenges.”

Setting aside Cottle’s styling of a congressional investigation into a thrill ride akin to a Fast and the Furious movie, her insistence that Cohen’s testimony has triggered a new phase of the Trump presidency betrays an urge to do Leonhardt one better: rather than anticipating the turning point, she has declared it to have already arrived. With bated breath, the Times’ readership now awaits the next “America reacts” story—only by interviewing a handful of barbers, business owners, and stay-at-home moms will they be able to learn if Cottle is right and the tide has finally and conclusively turned.

Unheeded by Cottle or Leonhardt is the possibility that the history of the Trump Administration, when it is over and can be examined as a whole, will not mirror that of Nixon, but rather George W. Bush. After all, the slow, overdue slide of Dubya’s numbers amid the failure of the Iraq War, the debacle of Katrina, and a destabilized economy provides as plausible a vision for the future of Trump’s presidency as any other. Even as Trump has veered wildly from misstep to scandal to relative calm, his average approval ratings have bounced only between the high thirties and low forties. The idea that some combination of Leonhardt and Cottle’s beloved hearings and the release of the fabled Mueller report will pry loose even the most purportedly “reluctant” Trump voters is laughable—but then, so is the notion advanced by the paper’s man-on-the-street reporting that nothing matters. It all matters. It matters so much that Democrats now control the House and untold senators, governors, and Starbucks CEOs are chomping at the bit for the opportunity to knock off the most vulnerable incumbent the Oval Office has seen in decades.

Rather than constantly searching to identify the turning point of the Trump presidency, the Times’ opinionators and reporters would be wise to prepare their readers for two more years of the status quo: a deeply polarized electorate characterized by an abiding majority distrust of the president. Cathartic though some final reckoning might be, there’s hardly a guarantee that such a moment will arrive. This isn’t 1974, and Trump isn’t Nixon. More than a thrill ride, the next two years will likely be a long, frustrating slog. The sooner the Times wakes up to that reality, the sooner its readers will, too.

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