In President Barack Obama’s exit interview on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, he admitted that he did not believe Donald Trump could win the presidency because he was living in “the bubble” of the White House. Obama’s admission is an honest and a welcome one. But he has the excuse of occupying the most unique job in the country. For members of the media, political, and public policy spheres who are tasked with knowing and recognizing trends in the country, there is less of an excuse for the utter failure to recognize what was truly going on in 2016.
The acknowledgement of these bubbles, and the importance of breaking out of them, ought to be part of everyone’s resolution on how to approach the Trump era in 2017 and beyond.
In his 2012 book Coming Apart, Charles Murray offered a “bubble quiz”, a test intended to indicate how close or far one is from the typical experience of life for mainstream white Americans. The test is available online, and with the addition of a query about takers’ zip codes, Murray has now amassed an enormous amount of self-reported data which marks the distance between the experiences of those who thought a Trump election was inconceivable and the white middle and working class voters who elected him. According to Murray, of the 100 zip codes with the “thickest bubbles”, New York City represents 34, with Manhattan accounting for 18; San Francisco is second with 29, followed by Boston with 15. And for those seeking to escape the bubble but can’t afford to fully break from the tenor of those cities, there’s always college towns.
The Trump election is not just explained by Murray’s warnings from the right, but of earlier works such as Chris Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites from the left. The nation’s coastal elite, which produces so much of our political and media class, has surrounded itself with a cultural, economic, and educational bubble which skews perspectives. The bubble allowed some to believe they controlled the arc of history, not that they would be subordinated to it. The shock of Trump’s election offers us an exhibit of an entire current of American life caught in its own eddy – unfamiliar with religious life, gun ownership, or the most ubiquitous vehicle in the nation, the Ford F-150.
The collective freakout by many journalists when asked by John Ekdahl whether they know anyone who drives a truck is an amazing illustration of how thick bubbles can be – just as this report does from yesterday where a Washington Post journalist maintains .22 long rifle ammo is “high powered”. Yet conservatives should remember that the threat of bubbles is not just confined to the nation’s elite, nor is it a problem only for American liberalism.
Trump represents a marked break from the historical past of Republican presidencies, and he arrives in Washington in a context that is very different from the last Republican president’s arrival in 2001. So as conservatives and the media consider how they ought to respond to Trump and his administration in 2017, they ought to work to avoid the glaring mistakes made in allowing their bubbles to thicken in the past 16 years.
When George W. Bush arrived in Washington, he did so as someone explicitly branded as a conservative. This led many in the conservative movement, including far too many think tanks and activist groups, to essentially become house organs of the Bush White House. Ultimately many of those entities came to regret this close relationship, leading as it did to an inability to criticize policy decisions they weren’t sure about.
Today, much of Bush’s domestic policy agenda is viewed by conservatives as a failure. No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and a host of economic policy decisions in Bush’s second term were anathema to limited government conservatives. His decisions regarding foreign policy are openly denigrated by members of his own party, none moreso than the president-elect. This dissatisfaction planted seeds that ultimately flowered in the 2006 election and aided the rise of the Tea Party and Trump himself.
When Barack Obama arrived in Washington, many in the media welcomed him with optimism as a historic figure focused on progressive change. But their overwhelmingly favorable treatment of him ultimately turned Americans who disagreed with Obama’s policies away from traditional media sources they came to distrust. They came to view much of the media as fundamentally unfair and out of touch with their concerns.
This thickened bubbles on both sides. Trump’s rise was contingent on wide swaths of the country completely tuning out so-called mainstream media sources, while all too many outlets did a poor job covering 2016. Much of the media failed to anticipate the potential Trump represented as a disruptive populist force, understand why his supporters trusted him, or offer honest reporting on the underlying trends that made his rise possible.
Engaging in a sycophantic way with any politician in the short term is tempting. It offers the lure of access and the promise of influence. But ultimately it can lead to misreading the environment, giving too much of an ear to the politician’s circle, and confining your audience to partisans.
This problem was significant under Obama, and could potentially be worse under Trump, who arrives in a very different media environment than his predecessors. There are now entire media entities with tens of millions of monthly readers that did not exist, indeed could not exist, even a decade ago. The temptation among some insurgent right-of-center media properties will be to embrace Trump fully, providing readers with a churn of daily content dedicated to supporting him and his agenda. Already we are seeing the impact in some corners – it is highly unlikely that Sean Hannity would be welcoming the likes of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange on his program absent Trump’s rise.
This is understandable. There is a natural inclination for ideological media figures to get overly excited about candidates. It is easy to be influenced by the adoration of a politician’s fans or be swept along by the panic of his detractors. But being guided by core beliefs becomes all the more important in such a moment, lest a bubble mentality set in where a politician can do no right or no wrong.
Perhaps the biggest question moving forward for the nation is whether our bubbles can be made thinner – which is really a sloppier way of saying whether we can learn to treat each other with respect, breaking down the cultural barriers that prevent us from seeing the world through eyes not just our own. Particularly in a time of political realignment, bubbles allow us to become more tribal, more distant from commonly shared experience, and view the opposite side of politics not as opponents, but as enemies. We cannot address problems we refuse to acknowledge even exist.
As the Trump era begins, media entities and conservatives alike should resolve to avoid bubbles – the former in order to cover this White House fairly, and the latter to respond to its policies in ways consistent with American conservatism’s philosophy of laissez faire economics and individual rights. This starts with taking a hard view of our prior assumptions about our neighbors. G.K. Chesterton wrote that “What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism.” In 2017, let us resolve to look to the beam in our own eyes before citing the mote in the eyes of our fellow Americans.