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Big Brother Isn’t Watching You, You’re Watching Him

Photo by Michael Pereckas | CC BY 2.0

A record? Come on! Don’t minimize what’s happening. It’s far too unique, too unprecedented even to be classified as “historic.” Call it mega-historic, if you wish. Never from Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar to Soviet despot Joseph Stalin, from the Sun King Louis the XIV to President Ronald Reagan, from George Washington to Barack Obama, has anyone — star, icon, personality, president, autocrat, emperor — been covered in anything like this fashion.

In our American world, the only comparison might be to a few days of media coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan or, in more recent times, a terror attack like the one in San Bernardino. Keep in mind, though, that such coverage has been going on for more than two and a half years now.  So here’s another possible point of comparison, though it only lasted a couple of hours almost a quarter of a century ago. In fact, it may be the most appropriate comparison of all in a landscape in which shrinking media outlets have been scrambling to glue eyeballs to page or screen in an otherwise dazzling landscape of distraction. Think of Donald Trump’s White House sojourn so far as our first white Ford Bronco presidency.

Imagine that, in June 2015, The Donald hadn’t swept down that Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race to the sounds of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” but had instead slipped behind the wheel of O.J. Simpson’s infamous white Ford Bronco and headed off on the nearest highway, the one leading directly into all our brains. The two hours that Simpson spent armed in that vehicle in 1994, four days after the murder of his wife, with the police trailing him and TV news helicopters hovering overhead, would prove to be our first experience of the reality TV version of the “news” in which we’re now immersed. If you remember, it seemed to unfold in something like slow motion as roadside crowds turned out to cheer the “Juice” on. It would essentially be two hours of nothing whatsoever that nonetheless seemed to supersede everything else on Earth, two hours during which Americans ordered record amounts of home-delivered pizza, while watching traffic flowing on a highway to nowhere. In the process, a vision of mayhem that might otherwise have passed for boredom was etched permanently into the media’s DNA.

Think of Donald Trump as the O.J. Simpson of our moment and those hours on that highway as a preview of what media life (which, with the arrival of the handheld screen, has become more or less all life) turned out to be. Think of Donald Trump’s presidential run and now presidency as a never-ending white Ford Bronco ride, and if you accept that, all that remains to be asked is who was murdered (democracy?) and did he do it?

All Trump All the Time

Here, in my opinion, may be the strangest thing of all. Who doesn’t sense just how unprecedented the media spectacle of our moment is? Every single day is a new Trump dawn, a new firing or appointment at the White House, a new tweet storm, a new outrageous statement or policy, a new insult, a new lie or misstatement, a new bit of news about Stormy Daniels or other women who — your choice — had affairs with, were groped by, defamed by, or silenced by him, and so on down an endlessly repetitive list of what has become “the news” more or less 24/7 or perhaps more accurately 24/365 (with not a holiday in sight).

Who wouldn’t agree with that? And yet have you noticed how little such coverage is itself actually covered?  At least during the election campaign you could get some overview numbers on the blitz of attention the media was giving candidate Trump.  It was regularly said, for instance, that he had gotten $5 billion in free advertising in those endless months in which his face, rants, tweets, nicknames, his… well, you name it… was eternally front and center in our media lives.

Post-election, nothing has really changed and yet when was the last time you saw a mainstream news article on such an unprecedented phenomenon?  When did anyone front page the fact that no human being in history has ever been covered in this fashion, a fashion that gives the very word “cover” a grim new meaning?

I mean I’m just one guy. My resources are slim. I have no studies commissioned on this subject and little to draw on except my own experience of everyday life.  So here’s the closest I can come to catching the nature of that coverage for you. I go to the gym almost every day. There’s a waiting area I pass through on my route in and out of the men’s locker room.  On one wall is a large-screen TV. Sometimes, it’s tuned to sports, but mostly it has the cable news on. Basketball games aside, it really doesn’t matter what time I arrive, or whether it’s MSNBC, CNN, or even on the rarest of occasions (this is New York City, after all!) Fox News, here’s what’s always the same: on screen are those ever-present talking heads yakking away about, well, Donald Trump or something related to him (the Mueller investigation, the steel and aluminum or Chinese tariffs, Stormy Daniels, the president’s Putin bromance… you know the list) and under them there’s that crawl, that news ticker, the one that, day in, day out, is always — and I mean always — scrolling away on subjects about or related to Donald Trump.

Recently, I started jotting down samples from my brief moments passing through that waiting area and here’s what I got: “Trump turning to key allies to fill top cabinet posts”; “Daniels’s lawyer: Trump pursuing $20 million in bogus damages”; “Poll: Trump gets bump but Dems widen midterm edge”; “McCain slams Trump for congratulating Putin on reelection”; “Polygraph: porn star truthful about unprotected sex with Trump”; “Lawsuits putting new attention on Trump’s past deals to silence accusers”; “Trump Russia probe lawyer John Dowd resigns”; “Trump turns to Bush-era Iraq War architect who advocated military strikes on Iran, North Korea.”

And it’s not just cable news. Take my hometown newspaper, the New York Times. Never — of this I have no doubt — has it covered a president, his doings, and those of his administration this way. As it cuts its copyediting staff (and grammatical errors become a more regular part of its news reports), it has assigned a staggering number of reporters to Donald J. Trump and his doings.

Consider, for instance, the Times front page of March 8th.  The two articles atop its right side dealt with Trump’s steel and aluminum tariff decision (“More than 100 Republican lawmakers implored President Trump to drop plans…”) and the firings and departures plaguing his White House (“Aides’ Exodus Leaves Trump to His Instinct”).  The mid-page story under a photo of a New Yorker with an umbrella in “thundersnow” was headlined “Porn Actress’s Trump Claims Shift, Noisily, to Legal System.” And to the left of that was a piece on a Trumpian attack on California’s immigration policy (“Attorney General Jeff Sessions sued California this week for not doing enough…”).

In other words, across the top of that front page, there was no world but a Trumpian one, or put another way (which is why I happened to save that front section), leaving aside the actual thundersnow storm that hit New York (page A25), there were two other “stormy” articles that day: the Stormy Daniels piece, obviously considered the far more newsworthy and front-paged, while left for page A20 was a piece on a new report suggesting that, given the impact of climate change and “land subsidence” in the San Francisco Bay Area, significantly more of that region than expected was likely to be underwater or subject to disastrous flooding in 2100.

The reportorial effort involved in all of this was striking.  Two of the four front-page Trump pieces were the work of two reporters, so five reporters — Peter Baker twice, Adam Liptak, Maggie Haberman, Jim Rutenberg, and Ana Swanson — get credit for producing the group of them.

Of the nine pages of national news inside the paper, approximately five were dedicated to Trump-related pieces (G.O.P. doubts about the president; unease on Wall Street over the departure of economic adviser Gary Cohn; the way Trump campaign workers scored jobs in the new administration; reaction to the Trump tax cut in Ohio; the latest on Trump and the Mueller investigation; former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg’s agreement to testify for that investigation; and more on Sessions, California, and immigrants).  Those pieces absorbed the time and attention of 10 more reporters (and Maggie Haberman a second time).

Two more reporters and another half-page should be added for a piece in the international news section (“Kushner Goes to Mexico, A Shift in U.S. Diplomacy”), and both of the editorials on the opinion page that day (“Gary Cohn Joins the Exodus” and “The Race-Based Mortgage Penalty,” which started, “As the Trump administration begins to gut federal enforcement of civil rights laws…”) were Trump-focused. On the op-ed page, the very headlines of two of its four columns (“Mr. Trump, Here’s a Hero; It’s Your Turn” and “Is Trump About to Start a Trade War?”) were similarly oriented, and a third column dealt with the president at least in passing.

That’s 15 reporters, three op-ed writers, and the unnamed people who produced those editorials. And on any given day of the Trump era so far, you stood a reasonable chance of finding something similar in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere across the shrinking world of American newspapers and far more of the same, hour after hour of it, on cable news. And yet you already know that this seemingly overwhelming media reality goes largely unnoted and unacknowledged in those same papers and news shows.

An All-American Cult of Personality

Believe me, if this were happening in Russia or China (The cult of Putin! The cult of Xi!), it would be a major news story and treated as such.  After all, thought of a certain way, what we’ve been watching is indeed the creation of an all-American cult of personality (quite literally so when it comes to Trump’s “base,” as any of his rallies suggest).  And yet that and the media’s role in it isn’t news.

Admittedly, Donald Trump is a hell of a story.  And for a media filled with shrinking news staffs and desperate to find ways to hold onto or increase readership or viewership, he’s a godsend (as well as a monster). After all, his greatest skill — the one he’s spent a lifetime perfecting — is undoubtedly his unerring instinct for just how to attract the camera under more or less any circumstances.  The result, however, is a picture of the world that’s deceptive in the extreme.  These days, if you only watched TV and read mainstream papers, you would be excused for thinking that we were in a world of Donald Trump and little else.  By now, he’s all but blotted out the sun itself.  In this sense, for instance, he isn’t so much a climate-change denier in an administration filled with them and dedicated to the promotion of fossil fuels as a climate-change obliterator.  (Hence, p. A20 is the only spot left for that “little” story on the sinking of San Francisco.)

And doesn’t all this suit him to a T? Yes, he hates and excoriates the “fake news media.”  Can there be any doubt that the negative treatment he regularly receives from all outlets except Fox News does indeed get under his skin, big time. But above all, good news or bad, who can’t feel that his deepest desire is simply to be the news, any kind of news, all kinds of news — and in this he has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings?

Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, with the help of a thoroughly controlled party press, Communist Party leader Mao Zedong developed a remarkable cult of personality that blotted out just about everything else in China. He, his face, even the mole on that face, loomed over the landscape in an unprecedented way. He was literally looking at you wherever you were in that country.

Donald Trump is evidently our upside-down version of Mao, a major difference being that the media that rushed to create his all-American personality cult did so without either official approval or the threat of a draconian state forcing it to do so. As Trump himself insists almost daily, our “crazed” media has not been brought to heel at all.  And yet, the effect is in some ways eerily similar. These days, you can’t really escape that big, ambling, shambling, rambling body, that pugnaciously jut-jawed red face topped by the iconic orange comb-over (his equivalent of Mao’s mole).

Back in 1948, George Orwell imagined a society 36 years in the future in which, no matter where you went, “Big Brother” was watching you. That certainly fit the desires, if not the capabilities, of totalitarian governments in that twentieth century moment. It even fit with certain tendencies Orwell believed he saw in western capitalist society. And he wasn’t wrong: the urge to surveil populations has only grown in our American world in the years since in ways that would have blown the minds of the Communist leaders of that past era.

Seven decades after Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 was published, we in the United States do indeed find ourselves in a full-scale surveillance society — and that world, as Edward Snowden let us know in such a memorable fashion back in 2013, preceded Donald Trump.  But when it comes to Trump, here’s the curious thing that Orwell himself couldn’t have imagined: Big Brother isn’t watching us, we’re forever watching him.

Donald Trump, the president we meet in the media every hour of every day, blots out much of the rest of the world and much of what’s meaningful in it.  Such largely unexamined, never-ending coverage of his doings represents a triumph of the first order both for him (no matter how he rails against the media) and for an American cult of personality that will take us who knows where (but nowhere good).

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Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

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