When Donald Trump launched his recent racist attack on four congresswomen of color, much of the punditocracy focused on the question of whether he was deliberately creating a distraction and, if so, from which of his other outrages. One Washington Post writer theorized that it was an attempt to overshadow speculation about his possible sexcapades with Jeffrey Epstein, the financier and Trump acquaintance charged with trafficking underage girls for sex. Another denied that it was a distraction from the reporting on the administration’s migrant mistreatment. New Yorker columnist Susan B. Glasser called it “a calculated political play” to preempt stories that would otherwise receive much more coverage—including the Epstein arrest, the border concentration camps, and Robert Mueller’s upcoming testimony—and credited Trump with “the extraordinary ability to get Americans to talk about what he wants them to talk about.” But in the same magazine, John Cassidy insisted there was “nothing strategic” about the attacks, citing reporting by The Wall Street Journal’s Michael C. Bender, who cataloged Trump’s day watching Fox News and playing golf.
However, arguing about whether Trump said or did something as a distraction is pointless. The president of the United States is simultaneously a liar, a racist, an accused rapist, a con man, a tax cheat, a sadist, an egomaniac, a brownnoser of murderous dictators, quite possibly a traitor, and quite definitely a dunce who knows virtually nothing about history, politics, or economics. Because he has no filter or focus and does not listen to his advisers (except for those telling him how wonderful he is), Trump manifests all of these qualities all of the time. Every outrage or crime that he commits is, in this respect, a distraction from the previous one until the next one.
A debate over distraction is therefore itself a distraction. It doesn’t matter whether Trump meant something this way or that; whether tweeting, bloviating at rallies, or bragging to the know-nothings on Fox News, he can hardly stick to one topic for more than five minutes. What matters is why, after years of falling for his stupid shtick, the allegedly intelligent men and women of the mainstream media keep chasing after it. Glasser has no business crediting Trump with getting “Americans to talk about what he wants them to talk about.” How would she know? I sure don’t. This scribe of the Beltway beat does, however, know what her friends and colleagues are talking about, and that would be Trump. The attraction between Trump and the media is, unfortunately, mutual.
The thing is, there’s an awful lot of important policy-related news that could use some attention. Moreover, these under-the-radar political machinations help explain why only four House Republicans could bring themselves to condemn Trump’s poisonous tweets telling the four congresswomen to “go back” to the countries they came from and why the GOP continues to support him even though he’s making a mockery of almost everything the party used to say it stood for. And—surprise, surprise—the answer involves rewarding Republican donors.
For instance, while the punditocracy was playing distraction/no distraction, Joel Clement, the director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the Interior Department until his recent resignation, testified to the House Science Committee about a “culture of fear, censorship, and suppression” that is undermining scientific investigation and analysis in the government. According to ThinkProgress, he said the department canceled a study on the health and safety of offshore oil rig workers just as the White House was removing many of their labor protections. The Trump administration nixed another study, this one devoted to the health effects of surface coal mining, at the same time the White House and congressional Republicans were working to repeal regulations in that industry. A third study, on the effects of PFAS in drinking water, temporarily got the kibosh because, according to Politico, its release would have caused a “public relations nightmare.” The ThinkProgress article also mentioned a March New York Times piece revealing that the recently promoted Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist against the Endangered Species Act, intervened to quash a study that found pesticides threaten 1,200 endangered species. At the same time we were being distracted by Trump’s racism, the Environmental Protection Agency was refusing to ban chlorpyrifos, which the Times described as a widely used pesticide that government “experts have linked to serious health problems in children.” The EPA also declined, yet again, to ban the cancer-causing substance asbestos, ignoring just about every reputable scientific recommendation, including ones made by its own researchers. This kind of thing is almost certainly happening in every government agency but receives an infinitesimal amount of attention relative to Trump’s verbal vomitus. (Read Michael Lewis’s invaluable book The Fifth Risk if you doubt this.)
Trump presents us with a conundrum. We can’t ignore a president who spews Ku Klux Klan–level rhetoric that could get people killed and maybe already has. But neither can we allow him to colonize our collective imagination. Elizabeth Warren put it well in tweet: “This president is desperate. Calling out his racism, xenophobia, and misogyny is imperative. But he’s trying to divide us and distract from his own crimes, and from his deeply unpopular agenda of letting the wealthy and well-connected rip off the country. We must do more.” She’s right. We must demand more of our media and ourselves—more clarity, more balance, and more time focused on what the Trump administration is actually doing to our country than on his latest stupid, racist tweet. Democracy is not a reality show, and our media needs to stop treating Trump as if he’s still a TV host, lest we end up, in the late critic Neil Postman’s prescient phrase, “amusing ourselves to death.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstates the title of a Michael Lewis book about government agencies under the Trump administration. The title of the book is The Fifth Risk, not The Undoing Project.