A New Year challenge
WASHINGTON — The nation faces a new year with an immense challenge. It is somehow to find a way to restore faith in its political system and leaders after one of its most divisive and bitter years, marked by a breakdown in the national conversation.
Radical changes in the means of communication that have broadened the public debate have shattered the old monopoly in the private distribution of news and opinion by the press and television. The advent of social media, which allow anyone and everyone to contribute and spread their views, has lumped together everything from unvarnished truth to manufactured falsity and intentional lies.
Social media can enrich the public dialogue, but they also can be a means to pollute the stream of information for personal gain and power. Traditional media such as newspapers, magazines, journals, radio and television have had to make way for independent vehicles open to all, the professionally trained journalist and the free-wheeling fabulist alike.
In politics, social media have given voice to influential conveyers of ideas, policies and movements who have mastered the arts of persuasion for the good of the society. At the same time, social media have provided the same platforms to mobilize masses in service of destructive objectives contrary to the common good.
America today is in the throes of combat between these two tendencies, with a president who has demonstrated a talent and a willingness to make use of social media to entrance millions of voters and promote his vaguely articulated objectives. His pledge to “make America great again” presupposes that it is not already great and implies that his predecessor in the Oval Office was an utter failure, despite his having helped pull the country out of the Great Recession.
In a real sense, Donald Trump wages through social media an attack on the history of an undeniable political success story, undermining the patriotic fervor that has always marked the nation’s spirit. He has made strides in hijacking American patriotism in the service of feeding his own self-aggrandizement.
His crude bluster and bullying of leaders of his own party has reduced them to subservient toadies. They have largely abandoned their own conservative principles in swallowing his only legislative achievement, a tax reform bill estimated to expand the national debt by $1.5 trillion. It is a mockery of the Grand Old Party’s longstanding lip service to fiscal responsibility, underscored in his staged self-congratulatory White House lawn to which the party faithful in Congress obediently flocked.
This president had pledged at campaign rallies that, if elected, he would abandon his beloved golf passion and stay in the White House attending to the public business. Yet he spent much of the holiday interim at one of his properties away from it.
The White House press corps that has been his nagging target over the last year has ungraciously toted up and reported he has spent about a quarter of his presidency on one golf course or another, a presidential record. One network had the effrontery of running serial film of him delivering his pledge to stay in the White House attending to the people’s business.
Every president for his own sanity is entitled to recreation of his choosing, and one might have expected he wouldn’t promise otherwise. But then he gave television reporters the means via film to reveal and display his difficulty with truth-telling.
American presidents so free with lying about trivial domestic behavior unfortunately also are heard and evaluated globally in matters of great significance to a world enmeshed in perils of nuclear war. All Americans can only hope that in the new year they will be led by a president who becomes more dependent on the truth than on deceptions, major or minor, to keep us and the world beyond safe and sound.
(Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.)