Donald Trump is weak on book-learning but extremely canny about attention management. The challenge for reporters and editors is to maintain attention on the “yesterday’s news” items that will matter tomorrow—in the state of the economy, in America’s standing in the world, in the structures of democratic governance. It is to see things steady and see them whole. (That is: Be more like Matthew Arnold, less like a cat chasing a laser dot.)
When a presidential confidant who has been convicted of felonies—one of several in that category—and then spared punishment by Trump’s direct intervention calls for “martial law” if election results go against Trump, that should not be just a one-day story. Roger Stone, who made that call last week, is known for histrionics. But if we have learned anything about Trump and his colleagues, it is to question their facts but be deadly earnest about their intent. (Take him “seriously but not factually,” we might say.) So too with Trump’s efforts to delegitimize in advance any vote count that does not go his way. His endless harping that “it’s rigged, folks, rigged” is so destructive that it has only one obvious precedent in modern U.S. history. That was Trump’s insistence on the same point four years ago, until the Electoral College swung his way. We can’t be sure now which is more destructive: a president openly encouraging much of the public to mistrust the democratic process, or that same president openly welcoming foreign interference in the process. Both are steps toward authoritarianism and danger, and awareness of them should shape coverage every single day.
“History will not judge us kindly,” Margaret Sullivan wrote recently, about this weakness of the media. But there is time to adjust.