By Howard Kurtz
Published November 18, 2020
If you returned from a SpaceX flight to Mars and had missed the results, you might think Donald Trump had won the election.
After all, the president continues to utterly dominate the news, while Joe Biden remains almost a sidebar story.
That makes little sense, given that one president is in his final weeks in office while the prospective president is gearing up for the next four years. But we’re all still living in Trump World.
And let’s be clear, those of us in the media are the prime tenants.
Obviously, the president’s unprecedented decision to contest what he calls a stolen election is generating all kinds of headlines (though some Republicans, like Marco Rubio and John Cornyn, now say they expect Biden to be sworn in on Jan. 20).
The same goes for his attacks on fake news, radical left Democrats, Fox, John Bolton and so on, all part of the nonstop Trump media machine.
Biden, meanwhile, is continuing his low-key approach. He takes questions about once a week. He avoids direct attacks on Trump, saying at Monday’s presser he’s “hopeful that the president will be mildly more enlightened before we get to January 20th.” (That’s made easier by the soft questions he gets, such as this one from an NBC reporter: “What do you see as the biggest threat to your transition right now, given President Trump's unprecedented attempt to obstruct and delay a smooth transfer of power?”)
But the larger reality is that this Trump has been a cash cow for the news business. If you talk or write about Trump, you get higher ratings, more subscriptions, more clicks, more retweets, more Facebook shares. For many outlets, Trump-bashing is a business model. The president liked to say the New York Times would go out of business once he was gone--which is obviously untrue--but it’s always been ironic that he boosted the fortunes of those who most fiercely denigrated him.
So what now?
In the Atlantic, Never-Trump conservative Pete Wehner declares that “instead of psychologically moving on from Donald Trump, many of his critics won’t let go of him...The end of his presidency has inspired feelings of joy and relief, as you would expect, but it may also perpetuate a cycle of retaliation and bitterness toward the president and those who enabled him.” And that, he says, has rendered Biden “almost an afterthought.”
I’ve written about this before, the calls by critics for Trump to be prosecuted or his aides investigated by a truth commission, or the lashing out at those who had the temerity to vote for him.
Wehner doesn’t exempt himself from such emotions, saying “no major American political figure in my lifetime has triggered the moral revulsion I feel toward Donald Trump...It’s easy to react with indignation one more time...We must not get sucked into a vortex of hate or treat our opponents as subhuman, unworthy of respect, or beyond redemption.”
And then comes the appeal to sanity: “Trump has dominated too much of our thinking for too long; his transgressions, provocations, and sheer abnormality have made him an omnipresent figure in our lives...He’s had too much power over too many of us. It’s time we move on from him.”
In Politico, John Harris says there is an addiction to Trump--and actually compares it to Keith Richards once struggling to kick his heroin habit.
“All the signatures of Trump intoxication — the rush of indignation, the paranoid agitation, the hallucinatory blur of endless news cycles — are still powerfully in effect in American public life...This obsession is the most unifying dimension of a divided political culture. Our lights are on, but we’re not home. Our mind is not our own. Might as well face it: We’re addicted to Trump.”
And continuing the metaphor, Harris says the Biden administration must put the country into rehab.
“Trump is unsettling because his formidable psychological power is harnessed to the real power of the presidency. But that is ending. Biden, with his understated response to most of Trump’s recent words and actions, seems to understand that there is no need to enhance his psychological power when his real power is slipping away so quickly.”
Such powers “don’t have any concrete reality except in the way people react to them. Aren’t statements asserting without evidence that the election was stolen a flagrant violation of historic norms and basic integrity? Yes they are. And your point is ... ? Trump is Trump...Everyone else has to decide whether they are going to reclaim their own lives, or whether they are going to keep feeding Trump’s addiction, which is all about feeding America’s Trump addiction.”
Now we all know that Donald Trump isn’t going to vanish into the mists of Mar-a-Lago next year. He will be the pit bull of Republican politics--he’s already frozen the field by hinting he may run again--or a conservative media czar, or a Twitter-powered culture critic, or all three. He will criticize Biden at every turn and nurse the narrative that he was robbed. He will, in short, make lots of news.
But the media won’t let him entirely steal the spotlight from a successor who is making life-and-death decisions, right? Uh, right?