What is it about covering Donald Trump that causes Mainstream Media figures to lose whatever judgment and common sense they may possess? Whatever the answer, if you doubt how completely thrown off their game they get when reporting and commenting on the Republican presidential front-runner, check out the recent high profile Trump features on 60 Minutes and in The Atlantic.
The most egregious example was provided last Sunday by Scott Pelley in his 60 Minutes feature on Trump. The CBS News anchor and managing editor may indeed be “one of the most experienced reporters in broadcast journalism” and a recipient of many of his profession’s leading awards. He was also clearly loaded for bear for his Trump interview. Yet his performance made painfully clear that he hasn’t the vaguest clue when it comes to U.S. trade policy and Trump’s critique of its failings. Moreover, Pelley obviously was so cocky that he didn’t even ask 60 Minutes‘ research staff to investigate either his known or his unknown unknowns and fill him in.
Thus Pelley dredged up the specter of launching “a trade war,” when Trump proposed tariffing Chinese imports to offset the impact of currency manipulation – which of course Washington has failed to respond to effectively for years. But when was the last time Pelley heard of a business declaring war on an indispensable customer? Why does he suppose China would be much different, especially given that its slowing economy makes Beijing more dependent than ever on selling to the United States – and not only for growth but for the jobs that are crucial to political stability, not to mention the leadership’s very survival?
Pelley seemed no more aware that – as Trump tried to remind him – like all treaties, trade agreements have “out clauses” and don’t bind signatories to their terms in perpetuity. So he couldn’t have been more wrong when he insisted that Trump would “have to live with” the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) even though he considers it “a disaster.” (Maybe Pelley relied for his information on Paul Solotaroff’s Rolling Stone Trump portrait earlier in the month, which took the same erroneously fatalistic view?) Further, apparently no one told Pelley that the decisive economic leverage the United States enjoys with China is positively dwarfed by its influence over Canada and Mexico, since it represented nearly 86 percent of the North American market as of last year.
And here’s an interesting historical footnote that was also missed by the vaunted 60 Minutes staff. During the 2008 presidential campaign, one of the candidates promised to renegotiate NAFTA using “the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced.” His name was Barack Obama. (And he ultimately backed away from this position.) But do you think Pelley, or CBS News, tried coming down on him like a ton of bricks? In fact, the organization’s main treatment of this subject was decidedly respectful.
The second example of Trump Disorientation Effect comes from The Atlantic and a new post from contributor Ester Bloom. Her Pelley-like determination to show up Trump entailed chiding his core constituencies for forgetting that the 1950s they seem to hold up as an example of the “national greatness” Trump promises to restore “were a time of Big Government. And Big Labor.” (Along with much higher marginal tax rates.) Cackled Bloom, “If bigger government, stronger unions, and higher taxes on the rich are what it takes to make America great again, Republican primary voters might be surprised to learn that the candidate who truly shares their values is not Donald Trump, but Bernie Sanders.”
Actually, as I’ve written, Bloom is onto something when it comes to overlap between the Sanders and Trump platforms. But her picture of the 1950s economy is even less accurate and more naive than that she attributes to Trump’s supporters, because it misses two defining features. First, the United States and its middle class-job creating industries faced no significant foreign competition. And second, much of the Big Government Bloom lauds consisted of a gargantuan Cold War-era national security complex.
The author actually hints at the Pentagon’s prominence with a reference to the decade’s “war-induced solidarity.” But her suggestion that Sanders and his backers (as well as Bloom herself?) would be just fine with this outsized military growth and employment role makes clear that her insight was intellectually isolated.
To be sure, Trump himself could help his own cause immeasurably if he defended his trade (and immigration) positions more cogently when establishment journalists try to savage them. He could invaluably educate the public as well. Because he hasn’t, voters seeking information on these critical issues are stuck with a Hobson’s Choice between an almost defiantly imprecise and mercurial office seeker, and arrogant, know-nothing reporters and pundits.
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