I’ve spent much of the past two weeks in Iowa and New Hampshire covering the Democratic presidential nominating contests—hours upon hours of talking with Democratic voters, meeting with volunteers and activists, going to campaign rallies and field offices, and generally immersing myself in the chaos and consternation of the Democratic primary.
Because I work for a right-of-center publication, that means talking to people all day long who fundamentally disagree with me about politics, and often much else. In some cases, I know that my views are repugnant to the person I’m talking to, and that if they knew what I thought they would openly despise me, maybe call me a bigot. Maybe worse.
But because my job is to report on the Democratic primary, the onus is on me to be generous and empathetic with Democratic voters. I want to know what they think, and why, and it doesn’t matter whether I agree with them. It actually doesn’t matter what I think at all, even if I find some of their views repugnant. That means I have to defer to them, I have to be respectful, I have to be patient.
The thing is, once you begin doing this, even for a little while, you find it’s easy. If you really listen and take people at their word, it’s not that hard to see where they’re coming from, how their experiences and circumstances inform their politics and worldview. Before long, being generous and empathetic toward them comes naturally, even if you still disagree with their politics.
I’ve been thinking about this, and about many conversations I had with people in Iowa and New Hampshire, in the face of a mainstream political press whose core ethos seems to be a seething contempt for the tens of millions of Americans who support Trump. The establishment media have no desire, and put forth no effort, to understand people with whom they disagree, and are therefore incapable of the generosity and empathy that good reporting requires.
Media Hate Trump Voters, and Don’t Even Try to Hide It
This isn’t the only reason so many Americans distrust the media, but it’s a big one. Trump supporters know exactly what the media think of them, in part because the media are constantly proclaiming it.
Consider an article that ran this week in Vox about Trump’s Monday night rally in Manchester, New Hampshire. At one point the crowd, responding to Trump’s complaint about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi mumbling behind his back during his State of the Union address, began chanting “Lock her up!” as they did for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
For anyone who’s ever been to a Trump rally, chants like this aren’t something to take all that seriously. I’ve been to more than a dozen Trump rallies, and from what I can tell most people are there for a good time, which accounts for the generally joyous and positive atmosphere at these things. Trump’s rambling monologues and inevitable jabs at the press pen, like the chants, are all part of the harmless fun—politics as a WWE spectacle rather than an actual blood sport.
Not for Vox’s Aaron Rupar: “The moment was a cruel reminder that even if Clinton has temporarily faded out of view, Trump and his fans seem to enjoy the pipe dream of imprisoning progressive women — in this case, for the imaginary crime of speaking quietly.”
Imagine the hostility and disdain you must have for Trump supporters to conclude from what amounts to a joke at a rally that Trump supporters literally want to imprison leftist women. It’s beyond parody.
So was a recent CNN segment featuring former GOP strategist Rick Wilson and someone named Wajahat Ali breaking into bad southern accents and mocking the president’s “credulous Boomer rube demo” while host Don Lemon keeled over in a fit of unrestrained giggling.
“Donald Trump’s the smart one, and y’all elitists are dumb!” drawled Wilson. Ali, not wanting to be left out, chimed in with, “You elitists with your geography and your maps and your spelling!”
It was the perfect example of what James Carville touched on in a recent interview with Vox, a follow-up to his rant on MSNBC about how Democrats need to wake up and stop talking about things that alienate most voters. Carville cited a series of tweets by New York Times columnist Benyamin Appelbaum, who criticized LSU for canceling classes for the National Championship and then said, do the “Warren/Sanders ‘free public college’ proposals include LSU, or would it only apply to actual schools?”
To this, Carville replied:
You know how f-cking patronizing that is to people in the South or in the middle of the country? First, LSU has an unusually high graduation rate, but that’s not the point. It’s the g-dd-mn smugness. This is from a guy who lives in New York and serves on the Times editorial board and there’s not a single person he knows that doesn’t pat him on the back for that kind of tweet. He’s so f-cking smart.
Appelbaum doesn’t speak for the Democratic Party, but he does represent the urbanist mindset. We can’t win the Senate by looking down at people. The Democratic Party has to drive a narrative that doesn’t give off vapors that we’re smarter than everyone or culturally arrogant.
Carville’s right that Appelbaum doesn’t speak for the Democratic Party, but he does speak for the mainstream media.
As we move further into the 2020 cycle, you’re going to see a lot more of this sneering contempt for Trump voters from the media, especially for voters in rural and exurban areas. When you do, know that of all the reporters and pundits traveling the country to cover the election, very few are doing the relatively easy work of trying to understand and empathize with the people they’re writing about.
The media wasn’t interested in why so many people were drawn to Trump four years ago, and despite all that’s happened since then, they still aren’t interested. That’s why so much of the political reporting you’ll see this year will be flat and colorless, lacking any real insight or nuance, and dripping with a condescension bordering on hatred.