How should the press cover Donald Trump? Faced with a veritable “blizzard of lies,” inside-the-Beltway journalists are struggling to document the newly-installed Trump administration. The list of facts to check—from the size of inaugural crowds to the numbers of illegal votes cast in the past election—grows longer with each press conference, each indiscretion, and each Trump tweet.
Some veteran journalists have urged their peers to steer clear of press briefings, which have always been a delivery mechanism for the government’s official story. In the past, the media’s work was to separate the truth from the spin. Given the Trump administration’s predilection for “alternative facts,” however, a recent New York Times op-ed argued that reporters should focus on Trump’s actions and not his words. Don’t be distracted by dazzling pyrotechnics, this theory goes. Acknowledge that the verbal fireworks are meant to divert attention. Focus on the deeds.
This is a false dichotomy. The fireworks provide flashpoints of illumination, rare glimpses of the emerging structures below. The foundations on the ground catch the light above. The press should watch—and chronicle—both. We all should.
Yet even as we scrutinize the fireworks and the rebuilt landscape for meaning, we should also stop trying to figure out what Trump is, and start tracing the material impact of his presence and his policies outward. To ask, “What does he really mean to do?” is to treat his presidency as a sequel to his reality television career. The importance of what Trump does can only be measured through an accounting of the suffering he produces at the margins. We should take the White House out of the center.
Shaking the curtains for secret details about the inner workings of the Trump administration is pointless. We could spend the next four years attempting to understand exactly what Trump wants, the motivations behind his volatile actions, and why it is that his brand of white nationalism has resonated with so much of the country. But we already know enough about him.
We know that the new president of the United States is a narcissist and a bully, beholden to no political organization and to no group of big donors. We know that he has surrounded himself, intimately, with carnival barkers and shallow thinkers. We know that they have encouraged an atmosphere of self-congratulation—standing on the sidelines of his press briefings to applaud and cheer his disparagement of the press—and that his cohort feels, much like white nationalists in general, profoundly aggrieved.
We know that Trump has no steady team of skilled, sharp people to help him manage the country. We know that he does not realize that he needs these people. We know that he believes his patchwork, rag-tag team of close allies, enablers, and supporters is the very best.
We know already, less than a week into his administration, that there is no reason to believe that the Republican-led Congress will use the mechanisms of good governance to control or contain Trump. It defies rationality to think that the men and women who refused to take up a sitting president’s nomination for the Supreme Court, who threatened to continue to do so in the event of a Trump loss, and who have contorted themselves in an effort to “give him a chance,” will suddenly become the guardians of tradition or principle.
We know, too, that Trump cannot control himself. That he is base and vulgar and driven by his need to dominate and control, to shame and to humiliate.
We know that freedom of speech is already under threat. Federal scientists are receiving gag orders that prevent them from discussing their research with the public. The press is threatened with punishment, beguiled by false gestures, or given questions as a reward for good behavior. There is no reason—save for the crumbling myth of American exceptionalism—to believe that people who speak out, challenge facts, or even ask questions will go unpunished in Trump’s America.
We know that we can quantify Trump’s racism and sexism. We can count the numbers and the votes, plot them onto a national map, and identify those places where men and women who earnestly believe themselves to be good, God-fearing Americans voted into office a beacon of white supremacism and sexist patriarchy. We know, as well, that this demographic seems determined to resurrect the 1950s. We know that “dog whistle politics” are dead. We know that everyone who voted for him—yes, everyone—implicitly endorsed his racism, and that everyone who supports him now—everyone—is doing the same.
We know that a single party controls all of the branches of government, and we know that a tidal wave of change is forthcoming. We know that there are walls to be built, immigrants to be exiled, refugees to be turned away at the door, and perhaps, down the road, political opponents and journalists to be jailed.
We know that we cannot expect him to release his tax returns or unplug from his business interests.
We know that this isn’t normal. We know we’re at the end of the history of the republic. We know that what comes next has no precedent. We know what the age of Trump will demand of us: a willingness to sit by and watch as, piece by piece, our collective humanity is compromised. And, of course, as Alexandra Petri noted this morning with sarcasm, our endless applause.
These are the facts—if such facts matter any longer. There is nothing left to learn about Trump.
So the question, then, is not how the press should be covering Trump, but rather: How it should cover everything else? And how should all of us—as thinkers and citizens—be a part of the effort? How should any of us watch and write about and critique this moment in history?
I propose that we turn away from Washington, DC, to chronicle the end of the republic as we know it. Let’s take his spotlight away. We know his routine.
What we need now is to understand how people are enduring, surviving, and fighting back. We should find those impacted by Trump—and by Trumpism more generally—and share their stories. We could use our platforms to amplify their voices and focus on their struggle to survive in the age of white nationalism, tracing the material impact of Trump’s autocratic racial regime.
We might document as citizens, journalists, and citizen-journalists what happens to the world around us, broadcasting what we learn through blog posts, social media, editorials written for our small town and big-city newspapers. We should start archives in local libraries and keep records of town meetings. Store protest signs—and pro-Trump signs—in our basements. We should start a clippings file, either old-fashioned or digital. We should make a record, for the future, of who sat still and who got up to do the heavy lifting, of who was erased or contained, complicit or co-opted.
This is much bigger than dissecting press briefings. It is about making sure that when the history of our time is written, there will be no getting around the truth. We must compile the evidence.