The Media and Global Leaders Still Missing the Mark on Trump

| Rafael D. Frankel
Rafael D. Frankel
Vice President, BowerGroupAsia

The elites still don’t get it.

Brexit, Trump, surging right-wing nationalism on both sides of the Atlantic; and yet time after time, the media and global leaders who helped steer the U.S. and Europe into the current morass of broken politics miss the forest for the trees in trying to play “gotcha” with flame throwing populists rather than focusing on the issues that impact working people.

The longer liberal politicians and established media organizations allow themselves to be goaded into fighting political disrupters on these terms, the more unraveling of the neoliberal order we should expect.

Over the last month, two confrontations between President Donald Trump and his detractors highlight that the media and liberals still have not assimilated the lessons of his stunning election victory: the “mess” Trump says he inherited and the wiretapping claims he made via Twitter.

In his first press conference as president, the media came out swinging and Trump punched back. Among the many possible story lines that could have emerged from the session, the one the media made its main narrative was Trump’s claim that he “inherited a mess… at home and abroad.”

It was a serious mistake. Once again, the media allowed one bombastic comment to dominate the political discourse rather than serious, substantive issues –Iran, North Korea, ISIS, to name a few—that required addressing. But more importantly, in taking pains to dispute Trump’s characterization of the domestic and foreign arenas he walked into (see articles/videos in The Associated Press, The Washington Post, CNN, NPR and CNBC as easy examples), the mainstream media once again demonstrated that it is the same creature of the coastal, upper-middle class America that completely misread the 2016 election.

For that segment of Americans, the country was clearly better off in 2016 than it was in 2008. Yet in 2016, 63-percent of their countrymen and women were one pay check away from economic ruin. That the media still does not understand how perilous life in the U.S. has become for most of our people, or that it continues to overlook that reality, is shameful. And in a political sense, it provides a massive space for Trump to continue to occupy with the coalition of the disaffected that he assembled to win the presidency.

The same is true of the global political elite that helped usher in the neoliberal order that saw a shocking percentage of wealth transferred from the middle class of developed countries to their ultra-wealthy compatriots and to the middle class in the developing world.

In his recent defense of the neoliberal order, Tony Blair, one of its chief architects in the modern era, correctly diagnosed recent political trends as a reaction to the intense socio-economic anomy of the early 21st century and made a number of policy recommendations for how to modernize the center-left platform to account for these distortions. But “New Labor” Blair was also tone deaf.

As one of the two people most closely associated with the policies that got the West to where it is today (Bill Clinton being the other), the former UK prime minister made no apologies. Nor did he write at all on a human level, which might demonstrate some genuine empathy for the travails experienced over the last 25 years by Britons who once voted for him and last year voted to exit the European Union.

Rather, Blair regurgitated the same Clintonian talking points about “how we educate, skill and equip our work forces for the future; how we reform tax and welfare systems to encourage more fair distribution of wealth” that we’ve heard from leaders of both the right and left since NAFTA was first debated in the early 1990s, but that turned out to be scarcely more than aspirational political one-liners, like moon shots to cure cancer.

The media and political opposition have now moved onto Trump’s latest self-generated controversy—tweets accusing former President Barack Obama of wiretapping him during the campaign.

While reporting on the tweets is certainly called for—serious accusations deserve serious treatment—the obsessive compulsiveness the media and Democrats are demonstrating in regards to this small element of the larger Russia story once again plays into Trump’s hands.

Rather than spending the last three weeks continuing to delve into the Trump team’s connections with Russia, the media and center-left politicians dizzied themselves pining for a Trump apology that will almost certainly never come; as if an apology would somehow extricate the United States from the fact that Russia perpetrated an act of war against us that, until now, has gone unanswered for all intents and purposes.

And while Congressional testimony from FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers cast further doubt on Trump’s wiretapping allegations, what if some type of surveillance of Trump and/or his campaign staff was undertaken by a U.S. government agency during the election? Based on what we already know of Russia’s effort to undermine the election, such surveillance might have been an entirely justifiable exercise as a means of protecting the country from a nefarious threat.

But in picking this particular fight with Trump, were it ever to emerge that surveillance of him was ordered, the story would then be about how he was the aggrieved party, and how the U.S. “deep state” is working against him, rather than the fact that law enforcement was so concerned about Russia’s actions that it took the extraordinary, but potentially justifiable step of spying on a presidential candidate.

Salena Zito observed a month before the election that Trump’s detractors take him literally but not seriously, whereas his supporters take him seriously but not literally. After everything that has happened since then, somehow, this is still the case. On both sides of the Atlantic, wherever that equation continues to rings true, right-wing nationalists will gain ground.

The Western elite can re-ensconce itself in the coastal bubbles of the U.S. and the capitals of Europe, where free trade and free movement of people are accepted as foundational elements of the way the world should work, and anyone who disagrees with those notions is considered backward. And in the meantime, the unraveling of the neoliberal order will continue, string by string. 

The Author is Rafael D. Frankel

Dr. Rafael D. Frankel is the vice president of BowerGroupAsia (BGA), a government affairs and public policy consulting firm supporting top businesses operating in the Asia-Pacific. Previously, he was a foreign correspondent for 10 years based in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

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