Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
In the presidential election of 2016, everything worked – miraculously, but just barely. The most unlikely of candidates, with no political experience, with no massive team of consultants, pollsters, and speechwriters, and with modest funding, won out in the Republican primaries over a chorus line of high-profile senators and governors, including the party establishment’s own favorite, a politician from Central Casting whose father and brother were both ex-presidents and who had a massive war chest. After slaying these dragons, that unlikeliest of candidates, thanks to the power of middle America in the Electoral College, triumphed over his Democratic opponent, whose husband had been president and who enjoyed the support of virtually everyone in America’s cultural, political, academic, and media elites – all of whom took it for granted that she would glide smoothly into office, becoming the first woman president. And what, after eight years of its first black president, could America possibly want or need, other than its first woman president?
This plan by America’s self-regarding elites to defeat the most unlikely of candidates was foiled by the most unexpected of factors: namely, the wisdom of the so-called ordinary, hard-working, law-abiding voter. Trump emerged victorious from the maze, the obstacle course, the Minotaurian labyrinth of presidential politics solely because enough of the right people in enough of the right states sensed that he really was the right man for the job. They respected his résumé. They liked the cut of his jib. They responded to what he said. They somehow sensed that this one might actually keep his promises. And they were proved right, and then some: after he won, he worked harder than any president before him, kept more promises than any president before him, and demonstrated over and over again that his vaunted genius for running a business and making a deal was no hype. His success on so many fronts underscored the incompetence of all these career politicians with blue-chip reputations. He blew them out of the water, proving that a first-class businessman who really cares about the well-being of Americans can outdo any number of self-seeking Washington hacks.
During the past four years, America could hardly have been in better hands. And yet even as Trump was working miracles all over the place, his prominently situated enemies, recognizing him and his supporters as existential threats to their entrenched power, were using that power to try to bring him down. In the process, they discredited the very institutions within which they were operating – among them the FBI, CIA, and NSA; CBS, NBC, and ABC; Harvard, Yale, and Princeton; Google, Twitter, and Facebook. During the Kavanaugh hearings, Democratic members of the House and Senate sunk to unimaginably low levels of dishonesty and demagoguery; during the COVID crisis, Democratic governors and mayors played politics with people’s lives with what seemed like unprecedented callousness. When far-left radicals took to the streets of major American cities, causing mayhem, destroying property, and even taking lives, Trump’s enemies effectively took their side. If the mainstream media reported on the riots at all, it was to deny that they were riots and to call them, instead, “largely peaceful” demonstrations.
Meanwhile the Democrats had nominated for president a man who, even in his salad days, had been remarkable only for his spectacular mediocrity and shameless corruption, and who now was steadily sinking into a twilight mental haze. The media, and the left generally, denied all of it – the mediocrity, the criminality, the senility. When details of his treasonous business activities in China and elsewhere began to emerge, they were squelched by almost every major news outlet. As a kid in the 1960s, I saw the 1939 Frank Capra movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on TV, and was stunned at the idea that the evil head of a political machine – in that case, a fictional character called Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) – could keep a crucially important news story out of all of the major news media in an entire (unnamed) state, demonizing the good guy, the state’s junior senator, Jeff Smith (James Stewart); exculpating the bad guy, the state’s senior senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains); and thereby obliging a veritable army of small boys to get the vital information out by printing a bulletin and distributing it via bicycles and toy wagons. Such a news blackout seemed farfetched to me. But today the mainstream media with which we all grew up are doing precisely what Jim Taylor did in Capra’s film – and are doing it not in just one state, but throughout the USA.
In a fair and sensible and honest environment, Biden wouldn’t stand a chance against Trump. I want to believe that he doesn’t stand a chance against Trump. But a great many people in positions of power are putting a finger – no, a whole mailed fist – on the scale. The result is that a great many people without much power at all truly seem to have bought into the lie that it’s Trump who is the candidate of division and disorder, of incompetence and instability. He’s the first president in a long time not to take us into a war, but he’s the warmonger. He oversaw the greatest economic boom and across-the-board employment growth in decades, but he’s the candidate who’s a menace to our prosperity. He’s done more for Israel than any president ever, but he’s an anti-Semite; he’s done more for blacks than any president, including Obama, but he’s a racist. Yes, many Americans know better than to buy all this nonsense. But even some of them are so worn down by the constant barrage of anti-Trump rhetoric, by the rage and rioting and the obsessive focus of all our major institutions on bringing this president down, that they’re prepared to vote for Biden as an act of pure capitulation, just to get the craziness to stop. Of course that won’t work: only after a Biden victory will the real craziness get underway.
Do young Americans who are aware of the ubiquity of leftist lies in the media take this outrageous mendacity for granted? I certainly don’t. Another movie reference: in 1976, at age nineteen, having spent much of my teens carefully following the Watergate scandal and its aftermath, I saw Alan Pakula’s film All the President’s Men. It treated the Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford), who had covered the Watergate story, as American heroes, bringing down a corrupt president and saving American democracy. I knew that the situation was more complicated than that. I knew, of course, that Woodward and Bernstein – both of them now oily D.C. swamp creatures – hadn’t been the only American reporters on the Watergate beat. And I knew that their editor, Ben Bradlee, was an old JFK crony who gloried in leading the charge against Nixon, even though the latter’s transgressions in office didn’t hold a candle to those of JFK (or, for that matter, LBJ). But I still accepted the movie’s basic message: that most journalists are on the side of truth, and that the Fourth Estate is consequently an invaluable pillar of American freedom. For a long time, I think, this was a more or less valid contention. Over the decades, however – and Woodward and Bernstein, in fact, were among those who helped get this ball rolling – the major US media increasingly prized ideology over truth. This tendency saw a major uptick during the Obama years and another leap under Trump.
So, no, it wasn’t always this way. Yes, the American media were slanted, but you couldn’t call them out-and-out propaganda rags. From the time I was born until I was in my early thirties, there was a faraway place – well, it seemed faraway then – called the Soviet Union. Its newspapers, all government-owned, lied about everything. The Soviet people knew it. They had a cynical saying about the two main dailies, Pravda (Truth) and Izvestia (News): “There’s no truth in Pravda and no news in Izvestia.” As a kid I was grateful to live in a country where our news media could, for the most part, be trusted. I never imagined I would live in a country where the media operated as they did in the USSR. And yet here we are, on the verge of a presidential election, one of the major party candidates in which has been proven definitively to be corrupt – and not just corrupt in the garden-variety way of Nancy Pelosi or Maxine Waters, but corrupt in the sense that he’s sold himself, his family, and his country out to America’s major global antagonist. The proof is there. But only a handful of media are reporting on it. The most respected writers at the New York Times and Washington Post, the most celebrated anchors at the networks, are all lying through their teeth to prop up Biden and bring down Trump. More than half of Americans think the Hunter Biden story is Russian disinformation. To be an American in 2020 after having grown up in a very different America is to be astonished and appalled at every turn. I can understand why some people find it easier to just give up and give in and love Big Brother and agree that 2 + 2 = 5, instead of continuing to live with a constant sense of dissonance, trying to cling to the truth while being bombarded with lies.
Can Biden really be elected today? Even with the media fix in, it seems inconceivable. It would be as if we’d elected for president in 1940 someone on the payroll of Germany or Japan. Yet another movie reference: The Manchurian Candidate (1962), in which a Korean War POW, Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), is transported to Manchuria, where Chinese and Soviet psychiatric experts perform some high-level hocus-pocus on his subconscious, programming him in such a way that after his return to the U.S. he will commit on cue a political assassination calculated to bring down American democracy. The movie, directed by John Frankenheimer, master of the paranoid style, used to seem, like Capra’s Jim Taylor story, farfetched; now the scenario it paints seems mild in comparison to the prospect of a Biden presidency. I try to take comfort in the spectacle of the immense, enthusiastic crowds that gather everywhere in the U.S. to cheer Trump, and in the dramatic contrast, in size and enthusiasm, with the tiny clusters of people that the Biden camp manages to scrape together to try to decipher his incoherent ramblings. Like millions of other Americans, I gape at these gatherings and I think: of course Trump will win. Yet as obviously anti-Trump as our institutions are, it’s hard not to be worried by alleged poll results, released by some of those institutions, which suggest that Biden is headed for victory. Perusing these poll results, I do find myself worrying that a dangerous number of my fellow Americans will either yield to exhaustion or succumb to prevarications served up by people or publications that they trust.
Just two examples out of – what, thousands? First: are you a longtime subscriber to The Economist? This weekly’s current cover story is an editorial asserting that the next president of the U.S. has to be Joe Biden because, during Trump’s tenure, America has become “more divided,” and politics have become “even angrier,” than before. Yes – and the reason for the division and anger is that Trump’s opponents have refused to accept his election. Biden, claims The Economist, “is a good man who would restore steadiness and civility to the presidency.” This business about Biden being “good” and “civil” has become a mantra, against all evidence. Second example: are you a Cher fan? On October 26, the septuagenarian songstress posted on YouTube her own bizarre version of the Harold Arlen-Yip Harburg standard “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” with new lyrics (apparently by Cher herself) maintaining that under Trump “fear is in the air” but when Joe becomes president, “hope” will be “everywhere.” According to Cher’s version of the tune, “Joe will keep us safe, that’s all we need to know.” Oh, and then there’s this line: “When Joe smiles at us, compassion fills the air.”
What is this? Not even the most ardent Trump supporter talks about him this way. They recognize his human frailties. They support him because they’re sensible, hard-working people who have taken Trump’s measure and know that he’s by far their best bet. By contrast, on the left, as the cults of Mao and Stalin and Che illustrate, there’s an irrational tendency to view political leaders as near-divinities, exuding hope and compassion and using their Olympian powers to keep their people safe. Recall the enthusiastic response of millions of Democrats to Obama’s preposterous, egomaniacal statement, after he’d clinched the party’s nod in 2008, that his nomination marked “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” No wonder critics sarcastically referred to him as “The Anointed.” By contrast, when Trump soberly listed his own actual accomplishments as president in a speech to the UN, he was roundly mocked – not only by the seedy little representatives of criminal regimes in the General Assembly auditorium, but by hack journalists and commentators all over the US.
No, Trump supporters don’t see Trump as a godlike figure. If they do see his ascent to the presidency as something of a miracle, and many of his accomplishments in office as rather miraculous too, it’s because he managed to get into the White House, and to get a long list of important things done, despite the passionate opposition of the entire Democratic Party, of almost the entire Republic Party establishment, and an overwhelming majority of the nation’s cultural elite. There are other figures on the scene that one can imagine as worthy successors of Trump, but at the moment, anyway, they seem like pygmies in comparison to him. In any event, it’s no time to be thinking of 2024. First Trump needs four more years to bring back jobs and manufacturing, diminish the influence of the cultural left, fight Chinese power, tame Silicon Valley, keep spreading peace in the Middle East, finish building the wall, strengthen the freedoms enshrined in the First and Second Amendments, and – dare we hope? – enjoy, from the comfort of the Oval Office, the sight of his enemies in the Washington swamp, including the members of the Clinton and Biden crime families, being brought at last to the bar of justice.