In what already seems like a lifetime ago but was actually only June 5, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Heather Nauert explained to reporters: “Tomorrow is the anniversary of the D-Day invasion. We obviously have a very long history with the government of Germany, and we have a strong relationship with the government.” When I heard this, two bells went off in my head.
The first took me back to 1985 when President Ronald Reagan visited a war cemetery in Bitburg as the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II was approaching. Before going he proclaimed of the dead SS soldiers buried there, “They were victims just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.” Back then Reagan’s fondness for Nazi soldiers was considered part of the president’s charming “disengaged” quality—his ability to live inside a fantasy world based on alternative facts, like the one he made up when he claimed that he had participated in the liberation of the concentration camps, despite the fact that he spent the war comfortably ensconced in Hollywood. Now we know it was the beginning of the Nazi-friendly phase of the Republican Party; a line that led directly to Trump’s calling the Charlottesville thugs “very fine people.”
The second bell had to do with Nauert, herself. I recall 20 years ago when she came into prominence as one in an endless series of blond, conservative “pundettes” of the Clinton era. Like Monica Crowley, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham (thanks, MSNBC!), and countless others, Nauert hopped around various networks before finally settling down at Fox, where, as Paul Farhi noted in a perspicacious Washington Post profile, she pontificated on gun control, foreign policy, and the latest Dixie Chicks video. Thing is, while most of the pundettes were thin in the résumé department, Nauert’s qualifications were entirely imaginary. Fox would bill her as a ”GOP consultant” or a ”GOP strategist,” but she had never consulted nor strategized for Republicans at any time in her then 30-year life. ”From the time I was 16, I knew I wanted to do something on TV,” she told Farhi in for a profile in May 2000. The only problem, was: “Reporters are so serious that I have a hard time connecting with them.”
During that June 5 press conference, Nauert was being asked by a bunch of super-serious reporters why it was cool for Richard Grenell, Trump’s ambassador to Germany, to tell Breitbart that he didn’t like the current German government and wanted to “empower” European conservatives instead. In response to this egregious violation of diplomatic protocol, to say nothing of Grenell’s undermining his own ability to work effectively with America’s most powerful ally, Nauert said the exact opposite of what anyone who knows anything about diplomacy knows to be true: Ambassadors have “a right to express their opinion,” she told reporters, and appears to believe. “Regardless of whether or not you all like it, sometimes these things are what ambassadors say,” she adds, no less ridiculously. “I think Rick was pointing out a fact that some conservatives have done better in other countries, and I’ll just leave it at that.” Again, give us a break.
Evil, stupid, or both? That is always the question with this administration. Which is it with Betsy DeVos? With Scott Pruitt? With Jared Kushner? With all of them?
In the now almost-forgotten Grenell case, you had an incompetent, malevolent ambassador doing something no ambassador should do and an ignorant, incompetent State Department spokesperson defending his statements with new statements that were transparently nonsensical. But, of course, this is true everywhere you look in this administration. Could any sensible person defend DeVos’s refusal to examine the problem of gun violence in her recently appointed commission on school safety? And what of the combination of venality, corruption, and incompetence on display in Pruitt’s everyday actions? And Jared Kushner? (Don’t get me started on his spectacular failures and the sea of corruption in which he and Ivanka swim every day.) And Donald Trump himself?
I’ve said this before: The problem with this administration is that everything it does is a distraction from everything else it does. Trade? Immigration? Economic equality? Education? Environmental protection? Workers’ rights? Women’s rights? Diplomacy? Whatever it is, to borrow from Groucho Marx, they’re against it. And they will also lie about it. And they will complain about being asked about it. (Dismayed about the fact that reporters were questioning the wisdom of Israeli soldiers’ shooting unarmed Palestinians on the other side of the separation fence in Gaza, US Ambassador David Friedman told them to “Just keep your mouths shut until you figure it out.”)
I don’t blame journalists for feeling overwhelmed. Journalists have a set of standard practices of how to go about their jobs with a degree of professionalism and self-respect, and none of that works with these people. Offer to allow them to give their “side” of an issue and they will, virtually without exception, tell a lie and call you a “liberal elitist” if you don’t swallow it. Stick to your guns by digging more deeply into the morass they’ve created, and they will sic their violent minions on you to harass you, dox you, and, occasionally, threaten you with physical violence on social media. And their lies will be repeated literally thousands of times, on Fox, on talk radio, on Breitbart, on Drudge, on Facebook and Twitter, and often, with only the weakest caveats, on CNN, MSNBC, the networks, and the rest of the national news media.
Trump supporters and their media apologists complain that news coverage of this administration is overwhelmingly negative. In fact, it’s nowhere near negative enough. That’s because it is piecemeal and professional, and cannot help itself from trying to be fair to “both sides,” bending over backward to treat Trump as somehow normal. How else to explain this insane opening paragraph by The New York Times’ Mark Landler?
When President Trump declared that he did not really need to prepare for his legacy-defining meeting with North Korea’s leader, he drew sighs or snickers from veterans of past negotiations. But he had a point: In his own unorthodox way, Mr. Trump has been preparing for this encounter his entire adult life.
Steve Bannon is surely right when he said, “Trump understands the overwhelming power of modern mass communications.… Trump gets what the media itself has forgotten about themselves.”
The scale of the Trump threat is beyond our journalistic resources to expose it, much less thwart it. What’s more, Trump’s genius for distraction, self-pity, and entertaining idiocy succeeds not only in normalizing his psychopathic behavior and malevolent prejudices but also in hiding the fact that institutions that protect our freedom and democratic rights are teetering beneath a ferocious assault. We fiddle; they burn.