We’re at a unique historical moment when trust in our public institutions is at all-time lows. The Trump White House lost its credibility with the public from the first full day of the administration, when the president sent out spokesman Sean Spicer to lie about the inauguration crowd size. From the scope of his Electoral College victory to claims that the murder rate is at all-time highs, the president himself has been responsible for misleading Americans with glaring falsehoods. Consequently, anything that comes out of the administration’s mouth is treated with deep skepticism.
Democrats, in their zeal to discredit the Trump administration, have become so partisan that it’s often hard to take their opposition seriously. One example: A recent New York Times story revealed the intermingling of intelligence-gathering and politics in the waning weeks of the Obama administration, with officials scrambling to preserve information of any contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian representatives. Perhaps the rush to preserve intelligence was conducted for only the most patriotic, high-minded reasons. But it’s awfully telling that the flurry of anti-Russia activity occurred after Trump won the presidency—and long after Russia had been meddling in the presidential election. Indeed, the Obama administration dragged its feet in confronting Russia over hacking, much to the Clinton campaign’s consternation. As NBC News reporter Ken Dilanian tweeted, in a response to Obama foreign policy sherpa Ben Rhodes: “What if all those [Obama] people knew the extent of Russian efforts before the 2016 election and didn’t tell the public.”
Even the much-maligned mainstream media has, at times, heightened confusion about the Trump administration’s actions. The coverage of the Yemen raid is a telltale example of how it’s increasingly difficult to figure out what to believe these days—even stories by the nation’s most respected of news organizations. On Wednesday, NBC News reported that 10 unnamed current officials said no vital intelligence was gathered from last month’s raid. One day later, CNN’s Barbara Starr reported that the raid led officials to identify dozens of contacts with ties to al-Qaida, citing several Pentagon officials. Meanwhile, Trump himself quoted Defense Secretary James Mattis in his State of the Union that fallen Navy SEAL Ryan Owens “was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.” Even the most savvy news consumer has no idea what to believe.
This is the consequence of runaway political polarization: Trump can obfuscate with abandon, without any consequences from his base. Democrats want to discredit the Trump administration any way possible, even when it means overhyping stories to fit with a preconceived narrative. (The sheer number of Senate Democrats calling for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s resignation, before there’s any proof of misconduct, is an obvious example of this.) Meanwhile, it’s harder to find truly nonpartisan officials who don’t have at least a vested interest in a certain outcome. That makes it harder for reporters to separate their sources’ information from their political motives.
There’s no end to this cycle of mistrust. It means news consumers need to digest what they hear from public officials—and yes, even the media—with a healthy degree of skepticism. And remember that, even in an era of nonstop infotainment, it still takes time to uncover the truth. Republicans would be well-served by supporting bipartisan congressional investigations into the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia—as many already have, under political pressure. Democrats would be smart not to call for impeachment in reaction to every incremental news story that surfaces. As for us in the media, we need to present the news impartially, without fear or favor.
1. An underreported finding from the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released this week: More Americans believe the country is on the right track than any time since June 2009. The poll found that 40 percent of adults believe the country is headed in the right direction, while 51 percent think it’s going in the wrong direction. This, despite Trump’s mediocre 44 percent job approval rating in the same poll. (Immediately after Obama’s reelection in 2012, two NBC/WSJ polls found 41 percent of registered voters saying things were on the right track, but more voters were negative about the country’s direction.)
It’s a sign that Trump’s policies are less problematic than his unpresidential temperament. Perhaps if the president stops tweeting incessantly, avoids angry media-bashing, and sticks to script more often, his approval ratings will start creeping upwards.
2. Georgia’s special election is drawing outsized attention, but the race to replace Ryan Zinke in Montana could be just as competitive. Montana has traditionally been more favorable terrain for Democrats than Tom Price’s suburban Atlanta district. The state elected Gov. Steve Bullock to its second term last November, and its congressional delegation features two-term Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.
But if you believe that President Trump reoriented the political map, the Georgia seat would be more promising. In 2012, Mitt Romney won 55 percent of the vote in Montana, significantly lower than his 61 percent share in Georgia’s 6th District. In 2016, the tables turned. Trump won 56 percent in Montana, while tallying only 48 percent in Price’s district. The primary in Montana will occur on May 25, just before the expected June 20 runoff in Georgia.
So, in assessing which race could be interesting, it depends on whether you believe 2016 map marks our political future, or whether the more-traditional partisan breakdowns of elections past will prevail.
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