We in the commentariat complain about President Donald Trump, but we’re locked in a symbiotic relationship with him.
News organizations, especially cable television channels, feed off Trump — like oxpeckers on a rhino’s back — for he is part of our business model in 2018. As long as our focus is on Trump, audiences follow.
It’s not optimal to have as president an authoritarian who denounces journalists as enemies of the people, but he has given us a sense of mission and a “Trump bump.” Every time he denounces us we get more subscriptions.
(If you’re reading this, Trump, I’d appreciate a good thunderous, excoriation. You’ve gone after Maggie Haberman, Don Lemon and Chuck Todd, but you’ve publicly denounced me only once — and so incoherently that I couldn’t print out a quote to impress my kids. Next time you’re on Twitter, how about firing off something concise like: “Crackpot Krisitofff is the WORST lying reporter at the FAILING NYTimes EVER!!!”)
Yet I worry that our national nonstop focus on Trump is helping to usher America into a hole: a Trump obsession. The danger is that Trump sucks up all the oxygen, so that other issues don’t get adequate attention.
In America today, it’s all Trump, all the time. We’re collectively addicted to him. The nonstop scandals and outrages suck us in; they amount to Trump porn.
As president, Trump is enormously important, but there’s so much else happening as well. Some 65,000 Americans will die this year of drug overdoses, American life expectancy has fallen for two years in a row, guns claim a life every 15 minutes and the number of uninsured is rising again even as a child in the U.S. is 70 percent more likely to die before adulthood than one in other advanced nations. Those issues are rather more important than the question of whether Stormy Daniels slept with Trump.
Or look abroad. In Myanmar, the government is engaging in what many believe to be a genocide against the Rohingya minority. Gaza is erupting, and there’s heightened threat of a new war in the Middle East. The U.S. has been complicit in Saudi Arabian war crimes in Yemen. The carnage in Syria continues.
The world’s progress against malaria, which kills almost one person a minute, has stalled. A fifth of children under five worldwide are stunted from malnutrition. Bill Gates and others warn that one of our top risks is a pandemic for which we are ill prepared.
Progressive snobs like me bemoan Trump’s inattention to these global issues, but the truth is that we don’t pay attention, either. At cocktail parties, on cable television, at the dinner table, at the water cooler, all we talk about these days is Trump. So we complain about Trump being insular and parochial — but we’ve become insular and parochial as well. We’ve caught the contagion that we mock.
I’m addicted myself, which is why I write so much about Trump — or catch myself on a date night with my wife engaging in horrified conversation about Trump.
In fairness, there’s good reason we’re all Trump addicts: Trump truly is THE story in America today. He is systematically undermining American institutions and norms that underlie democratic government: courts, law enforcement, journalism, the intelligence community, truth. He is also being investigated for possibly obstructing justice and colluding with a foreign power’s attack on our electoral system. Epic battles will follow.
Two thousand years from now, historians may be lecturing on Trump the way they now discuss, say, the challenge to Roman institutions from Caligula.
So I’m not arguing that we avert our eyes from Trump or mute our criticism. Far from it. But we have to figure out how to spare bandwidth for genocide in Myanmar, opioids in America and so on.
It would also be useful if we recognized that the biggest Trump scandals are not what he says, but what he does.
His tweets against immigrants may be cruel, but his actions are crueler, particularly the pattern of tearing children away from their refugee parents at the border and sending them to foster care. And his efforts to curb reproductive health programs, which will leave more women dying agonizing deaths from cervical cancer. And his lifting of environmental regulations, causing more infants in farm states to suffer brain damage from the Dow Chemical Co.’s nerve gas pesticide.
In other words, the biggest Trump scandals aren’t those unfolding in Washington, but those devastating the lives of the poor and vulnerable in distant American towns.
There’s some danger, I think, that progressives come to care primarily about issues where Trump is involved, allowing him to define the agenda. For example, the best single way to break cycles of poverty is probably with early childhood programs for at-risk kids, but because Trump doesn’t care about this, liberals don’t seem much interested, either. That’s pathetic.
We can cover Trump and other things as well, and the best evidence is #MeToo. The #MeToo cascade drew on anger at how Trump prevailed even after boasting about sexually assaulting women, but it shined the spotlight elsewhere and had astonishing consequences that are still reverberating around the world.
In short, think of this as a multifront war. Trump is mounting one assault on our values, institutions and policies, and we have to fight back. But if we battle only on that front, we are in effect surrendering everywhere else.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2017 New York Times News Service