January 17, 2017
Last week, when Trump announced his plans to deal with conflicts of interest with regards to his business empire during his presidency, it was promptly criticized by ethics experts. The media went nuts. The nation shrugged. This, along with a similar response to his refusal to release tax returns during his presidential campaign (without even going into “grab them by the pussy”-Gate), have got me wondering whether Trump may be the first scandal-proof President. It seems that no matter how big a story the media makes out of Trump’s scandal du jour, it rolls off him, and I think the reason this is likely to continue is simple. People already know Trump is despicable, they voted for him despite it, and so any new information confirming this isn’t really doing anything to change opinion.
The tax return and conflicts of interest stories demonstrate how this work. First off, these stories fail to catch on in the media the same way the Access Hollywood tape or John Lewis feud have for the simple reason that they are boring. Most people don’t even want to file their own taxes. They aren’t interested in hearing about someone else’s. As much as Trump’s political opponents and the media want to make it a story, the only people it catches on with are people who already oppose Trump and are looking for another reason to do so. His public feuds with John Lewis and the intelligence community only hurt those who engage with the soon to be President, as they drop to his level. The President-Elect may act like a child on Twitter, but we’ve come to expect that. The American people made a decision in November to vote on their economic grievances even if the voice of those grievances was a little less than perfect.
In addition, Trump may well be shielded from scandal by the proliferation of “fake news”. The decentralization of information via the internet has created an information market where made up news stories can spread quickly, being believed and disseminated by those whose political agendas they support. This, along with sensationalism and mischaracterization on the part of the media with real news stories, has blurred the line between truth and fiction and made it very difficult to tell which stories to take seriously and how seriously to take them. Because President Obama and the media jumped so quickly on the “fake news” bandwagon, it has become easy for partisans on both sides to dismiss stories they don’t like as “fake news”. It will be equally easy for the incoming President to do so.
For the record, I’m not necessarily saying that this is a bad thing. Scandals tend to be distractions from the work that needs to be done to govern, and as much as I hate to say it, we did elect a president, not a priest. By all (fair) accounts, in their personal lives, both President George W. Bush and President Obama were decent, upstanding men. Yet over the last 16 years, we’ve seen the deficit grow, America weaken on the world stage, and partisanship and polarization escalate to the point where the division in this country is not just a mere un-pleasantry, but an issue we need to address. Having a President who can focus on governing rather than fending off his latest scandal may be a good thing. If, that is, he can focus on governing rather than Twitter.