I turned off Donald Trump’s Tuesday night campaign rally speech after watching for about 30ish minutes, roughly halfway through what ended up being 75 minutes of bluster. Trump’s address was familiar stuff: he talked about the size of the crowd, bonded with his supporters over his—and by extension, their—perpetual persecution, and he railed against the fake news media. He spoke of the wall, and publicly aired personal, petty grudges. He warned yet again of the dark, violent threats that lurk in American cities; of immigrants who are violent gang members, of those who seek to steal “our history and our heritage.” Trump praised Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, suggesting that he might pardon Arpaio after his July conviction for criminal contempt.
Just as it wasn’t necessary to finish watching Trump’s speech, it’s not worth recapping in detail what Trump said last night. His nativist script, threatening and filled with racist rhetoric significantly louder than the standard political dog whistle, is too familiar to be actually newsworthy. We all know what he said and we know the language he employed. Trump has a kind of standardized language that he uses to describe personal enemies and fantastical threats; he has standardized language that dehumanizes people of color, rhetorically transforming them into animals, that exists in contrast to his fetishized description of (overwhelmingly) white victimhood. After a year of campaigning and 215 days in the White House, I’m certain that most Americans can form a mental image of Trump’s address, his idiosyncratic delivery, and the crowd’s response.
Beyond that, there was no need to continue to watch because nearly every reporter was transcribing the speech in real time, repeating his casual racism and attacks on the media verbatim. Sometimes there was added commentary, maybe a “wow,” or some added context or even a correction to assertions the president presented a fact. By now, that too is part of the script of the Trump speech: Trump attacks the media, the media, in turn, defends themselves (this time by asserting their patriotism after Trump accused the media of being unpatriotic). Part of the script, too, if for a television anchor to push back, to offer up a viral response to the president. This time, the honor belonged to CNN’s Don Lemon, whose short response quickly went viral.
The cable news viral clip is generally followed by a kind of write-up that David Bromwich has described as a standard in the “age of detesting Trump.” At the New York Times, Trump’s speech was quoted liberally, but peppered with resistance-esque language that described Trump’s address as glib, sardonic, “angry, unbridled and unscripted,” but ultimately focused on Trump’s continued combative relationship with the press. The Washington Post’s was similarly framed though more mournful in its tone (it included a vignette of a young girl wearing a homemade press pass).
What’s increasingly clear, witnessing this repetitive cycle of Trump attacking the media and the media responding in turn, is that it doesn’t really amount to much. What’s the point of continuing to respond to Trump’s speeches, particularly a campaign rally, or even to cover such events? Sure, cable news anchors can continue to point out that the president is lying, but at the end, the grounds with which to contend are increasingly small, reduced now to assuring readers or viewers of the press’s rationality in opposition to the president’s irrationality, to contend that they are neither lying nor failing, and to assuring audiences members of the media is indeed very patriotic. And yet, in doing so, such treatment of the president’s speeches fundamentally assert that what he is saying is inherently newsworthy and important; it must grant the centrality of the argument in order to assert narrative resistance.
Watching the constant back-and-forth between media and White House, I’m left wondering where the line between reporting and disseminating the president’s ideology is drawn. Where exactly is the line between simply quoting from the president’s speech and naturalizing his authoritarianism by granting it validity by deeming it continually newsworthy? I’m not certain that such a line exists (if it ever did) or even that the contemporary approach to news making (neutral, rational) is prepared to cover its own unmaking.
Lost too in this artificial tension is the president’s regular racism, a fundamental element of a Trump speech, that is practically treated as natural. There are moments when it is astounding, as it was after the deadly attack in Charlottesville (something he spoke about extensively on Tuesday night), but his more common racism, the kind that engages old stereotypes of animality, goes practically unnoticed, downgraded as far less important than Trump’s attack on the media’s patriotism. If it is covered, it’s generally as a straight news report that simply quotes the president, turning his particular racist rhetoric into a kind of repetitive litany.
Again these lines are blurred and, perhaps, even erased. But as I switched off Trump’s speech it was increasingly clear that little of what he was saying was of note. There was no point in watching Trump improvise yet again on his tired script. I’m not certain that such a routine requires a response, that it demands a viral cable news soliloquy or takeaways or even detailed observation. I’m not even sure that it rises to the level of newsworthiness