Since Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency, the trivia quotient in the average American’s daily news feed has grown like so many toadstools in a compost heap. We’re living in Trump World, folks. Never in the history of journalism have so many reporters, editors and pundits expended so much energy fixating on one particular target, while other larger prey frolic unmolested within sight.
As diversion or entertainment — or as a way to make a buck or win 15 seconds of fame — this development is not without value. Yet the overall impact on our democracy is problematic. In Trump World, journalistic importance correlates almost exclusively with relevance to the Trump saga. To the mainstream media (Fox News excepted), that saga centers on efforts to oust the president from office before he destroys the republic or blows up the planet.
Let me stipulate for the record: This cause is not entirely meritless. Yet to willingly embrace such a perspective is to forfeit situational awareness bigly. All that ends up mattering are the latest rumors, hints, signs or sure-fire indicators that the Day of Reckoning approaches.
In Trump World, the attention given to America’s wars has been sparse and perfunctory, when not positively bizarre.
Ostensibly big stories erupt, command universal attention, and then evaporate. Remember the recent bombshell BuzzFeed report charging that Trump had ordered his lawyer Michael Cohen to lie about a proposed hotel project in Moscow? For a day or so, it was the all-encompassing, stop-the-presses revelation that would — finally — bring down the president. Then the office of special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III announced that key aspects of the report were “not accurate” and the buzz vanished.
Next, Rudy Giuliani, once “America’s mayor,” now Trump’s Barney Fife-equivalent of a personal lawyer, announced that he had never said “there was no collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russians. Those seeking the proverbial smoking gun started celebrating. But within hours, the gotcha-interpretation fell apart, and then the whole thing was eclipsed by video of white students from an all-boys Catholic high school in Kentucky (strike one!) who had just participated in the annual March for Life in Washington (strike two!) taunting an elderly Native American Vietnam War veteran using Tomahawk chops while sporting MAGA hats on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (strike three!).
The actual events on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial turned out to be more complicated than was first reported. No matter: In Trump World, all sides treat facts as malleable and striking the right moral posture counts for far more than balance or accuracy. Anyway, that controversy vaporized when the FBI arrested Trump confidant Roger Stone, and so it goes.
Do the words spoken or written in the endlessly churning Trump World news cycle result in citizens who are better informed and better able to reach sensible conclusions about our situation? Not as far as I can tell.
Trump, of course, has a particular knack for simplifying and thereby distorting almost any subject to which he gives even slightest attention, including border security and forest management. But almost everywhere in Trump World, this very tendency has become endemic, with nuance and perspective sacrificed to the larger cause of cleansing the temple of the president’s offending presence. Nothing, it appears, comes close to the importance of this effort.
Not even wars.
I admit to a preoccupation with the nation’s seemingly never-ending armed conflicts. These days it’s not the conduct of our wars that interests me — the way we fight has become all but indecipherable — but the wars’ duration, aimlessness and cumulative costs. And the way they continue more or less on autopilot.
It’s not that political leaders and media outlets ignore our wars altogether. But in Trump World, the attention given to America’s wars has been sparse and perfunctory, when not positively bizarre.
As a case in point, consider the New York Times op-ed by Michael O’Hanlon, of the Brookings Institution, making the case for prolonging the U.S. war in Afghanistan while chiding the president for considering a reduction in the number of U.S. troops currently stationed there. Any such move, warned the essay, would be a “mistake” of the first order.
I take it as a given that Trump is an incompetent nitwit, precisely as his critics charge. Yet his oft-repeated characterization of America’s post-9/11 wars as profoundly misguided has more than a little merit. Even more striking than Trump’s critique is the fact that so few members of the national security establishment are willing to examine it seriously. As a consequence, the wars persist, devoid of purpose.
I find myself wondering: If a proposed troop drawdown in Afghanistan qualifies as a “mistake,” then what term best describes a war that has cost something like a trillion dollars, killed and maimed tens of thousands, and produced a protracted stalemate? Disaster? Debacle? Catastrophe? Humiliation?
And, if recent media reports prove true, with U.S. government officials accepting Taliban promises of good behavior as a basis for calling it quits, then this longest war in our history will not have provided much of a return on investment. Given the disparity between the U.S. aims announced back in 2001 and the results actually achieved, defeat might be an apt characterization.
Yet the fault is not Trump’s. The fault belongs to those who have allowed their immersion in the dank precincts of Trump World to preclude serious reexamination of misguided and reckless policies that predate the president by at least 15 years. The dearth of attention to the costs and consequences of our post-9/11 wars is nothing short of shameful, and journalists as well as politicians are equally guilty.
Andrew Bacevich’s most recent book is “Twilight of the American Century.” A longer version of this essay appears at TomDispatch.com.