This electoral season has confirmed to me that the entire industry of opinion journalism is a con. Commit this to memory: it is not journalism. It is an elaborate game of social posturing and status jockeying, in which writers prove they are acceptable to other writers by constantly reaffirming the cultural values of their in-group.
It’s why liberal and conservative pundits sound the same these days. Once you understand that the purpose of contemporary journalism is not to inform the people, but to ingratiate oneself with the right kind of people, you begin to see the contours of our national malaise.
It’s also one reason Trump made it so far. The pundit class is a symbol, to all kinds of voters, of our civilization’s enduring cultural rot. If you make your living as a carpenter or janitor, you’re not likely to have much respect for a sealed-off class of idle scribblers who make money solely off their opinions. This is especially true if those scribblers, whether “left” or “right,” think you’re an unwashed malcontent.
The cultural divide between pundits and the people has become too wide. Consider the moment in the second presidential debate when Trump promised, if elected, to appoint a special prosecutor to re-investigate Hillary’s email shenanigans. After a jab from Hillary a few moments later, Trump retorted that if he were president, she would be in jail. The pundits pounced. To them, it was a dark threat — a would-be caudillo planning retribution on a political opponent.
Now, I can understand not liking Trump’s comments. But I really don’t think he meant he’d send a secret police gang to Hillary’s house. The point was that the original “investigation” was so corrupt that any honest second look would yield an indictment and, eventually, a conviction.
On Twitter, Michael Brendan Dougherty, rare among pundits as an honest and skilled writer, wrote that Trump’s call for a special prosecutor would play differently with different groups: to editorial boards and columnists, as an authoritarian threat; to Joe Blow & Co., as a sign that Trump believes powerful politicians should endure the same scrutiny as unfashionable citizens who face the same charges. (I’m not sure I trust Frank Luntz’s “focus groups,” but Luntz wrote after the debate that the “special prosecutor” moment, loathed by pundits, rated the highest among his panel of normals.)
We have a situation, then, in which the average person thinks entirely differently from our society’s gatekeepers of information.
So who are these average people? Bloodthirsty goose steppers? Hardly. I know many Trump supporters, who include family and friends — all of them wonderful, caring, law-abiding people. They don’t hate minorities; several, in fact, are minorities themselves. They want the trains to run on time. They want taxes kept as low as possible. They want the American nation united by a shared culture, respected by those seeking residency here. They want crime punished and virtue rewarded.
But most of all, they want to feel they can disagree without being dehumanized, marginalized, and ostracized. That’s what’s been lost from our country, more so than anything else, over the past few decades: the untouchable conscience of the private citizen, who needn’t fear the consequences of betraying the reigning moral and cultural fashions.
Talking to these disgruntled citizens this past year, I have noticed that whatever their specific political views, they harbor a deep distrust of the media. They see it as not only a corrupt institution in itself, but as the prime enabler of other corrupt institutions. It is the distillation of all the lies and slanders that have been lobbed their way for years, and it is the immovable object standing between them and a slightly saner United States of America.
I’m well aware of the dangers of fetishizing “the people.” I can think of valid reasons why someone wouldn’t want to vote for Donald Trump — but his contempt for the pundit class, and the values and assumptions they represent, is not one of them.