Let’s save attention for things happening beyond what Donald Trump is spewing on a given day — including what he would rather have us ignore.
Here in Connecticut, one of our U.S. Senators has stopped following Donald Trump on the President’s favorite social media platform. “I’m unfollowing the President of the United States today on Twitter,” Chris Murphy announced, “because his feed is the most hate-filled, racist, and demeaning of the 200+ I follow, and it regularly ruins my day.”
If only more people in the news business and on social media would follow Murphy’s example, in spirit if not literally. We really ought to stop allowing Trump’s toxicity to dominate and inflame the national conversation — and stop inadvertently spreading it.
Whether he’s venting on Twitter, on stage or in regular media, whether he’s slapping derogatory nicknames on political rivals like “Sleepy” Joe Biden or media figures like “Fredo” Chris Cuomo, whether his rants are racist or just plain mean and untruthful, Trump’s thought stream is often a toxic sludge. It can bring out the worst in people — the very worst, as witnessed by the Trumpian echoes heard in the manifesto of the El Paso mass murderer.
We must stop amplifying Trump
A recent Washington Post op-ed headline declared, “We must confront Trump’s racism every time — no matter how often he spews it.” It’s true that calling out racism is crucial in stopping it from becoming normalized, and that Trump’s rhetoric has real-world consequences. But we must accept some important realities.
Such as the fact that the sheer volume of gunk oozing out of the White House makes it nearly impossible — and quite unhealthy — to respond to each instance. Not to mention unhelpful. Once a pattern or truth is established, is it really necessary to seize on each example of it? When you already have 1,000 case studies, is there any great value in the 1,001st? Better to reserve the alarm bells for offenses that break new ground and pose the greatest danger.
What journalists and social-media sharers do to expose something, over and over and over, can cause their audiences to become desensitized to it. And it can have the unintended effect of propagating the foul stuff we are ostensibly trying to contain.
As Syracuse University communications professor Whitney Phillips argues, calling something out does more than rally people against it. When Trump opponents identify and condemn hate-filled and inflammatory invective from his or is fans, we also give it legs. Some of the people we reach will not join us in our hand-wringing and face-palming. They’ll celebrate the ugliness and, possibly, act on it.
‘Hurts or helps Trump’ is wrong frame
Journalists have long argued that shining a light on rot can serve as a disinfectant. Valid point. But as Phillips points out, light also makes things grow. By paying attention to trolls and extremists and circulating their venom, even in the act of condemning them, we play into their hands. “At a certain point you have to realize that you’re promoting them,” one anonymous journalist said in an interview with Phillips for a study she published titled “The Oxygen of Amplification.”
Focusing too much on the problematic president, and in the wrong way, clouds our judgment and distorts our vision. Must media coverage be framed in terms of how a given news event might help or hurt Trump’s re-election prospects or activate his already activated base?
Case in point: A recent New York Times headline announced, “U.S. Economy Slows, Denying Trump 3% Talking Point.” Strange that Trump’s precious talking point is the most important consequence of a slowing economy — not the jobs lost and lives and communities affected.
In the run-up to the 2012 election, I joked with friends that media were so fixated on Obama’s re-election chances that if there were news of an impending meteor strike, one certain to wipe out the human race, the headlines would say, “Human extinction dampens Obama election prospects.”
Such election mania seems even worse now, and the vote is still 15 months away.
Ration your bandwidth carefully
Trump opponents need to beware of the temptation to hope for bad news because it will hurt him politically. Will they cheer if manufacturing plants close in Trump country? Or if the “patriotic” farmers absorb even more economic hardship and destructive weather because of Trump’s tariffs and the climate chaos he refuses to face?
Despite some of the media treatments of the subject, Trump’s inflammatory words and actions matter not primarily in terms of how they help or hurt him with his base (and swing voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania). They matterbecause of the damage they do to human dignity and our democratic system. Because of the influence they can have on his devotees’ behavior. And because they are wrong.
I was one of those who argued before the 2018 midterms that the consequences of the election were enormous, and that all fair-minded and democracy-loving people were compelled to vote regardless of how excited they were about the names on the ballot. I will no doubt say the same in the fall of 2020.
But in the meantime, let’s save some attention for important things happening beyond what Trump is spewing on a given day — including a lot that the president would rather have us ignore. Our gun violence epidemic, for instance, and the failure of the Trump-owned Republican party to respond. The fact that July was the hottest month on record. Ever.
It’s a big world out there and a dicey time to be in it. Ration your bandwidth and influence wisely.
A member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors, Tom Krattenmaker writes on religion and values in public life. His latest book is Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower. Follow him on Twitter: @TKrattenmaker.
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