No Winners in the Current Age of Cynicism

Have you noticed something?
We are living in an Age of Cynicism so deep and pervasive that it is distorting our politics, our laws and our society. It is the new normal. What was once clearly wrong now seems ok. Or, at least, “the way things are these days.”
The cynicism spreads across political parties, Congress, the courts, the gun lobby, the media, big business; you name it.
The cynic-in-chief, of course, is President Donald Trump. His lying, his Twitter storms, his crass character assassinations (“Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ James Comey, Little Rocket Man,” etc.) seemed funny at first, then cheap and crude, now, most destructive of all, routine. “That’s Trump,” we say among ourselves, and shrug, With every Trumpian rant, magnified by our cynical indifference, our political discourse descends into the toilet.
Fair question: who is more cynical? Trump, or those of us who voted for him knowing that he was a narcissistic fraud? Some, I suppose, didn’t pay enough attention during the campaign to realize that he was playing a joke on us and supported him in the hope that he really would do the preposterous things he said, like bring back coal and manufacturing jobs, make the economy grow by four or five per cent or magically curb illegal immigration by building a “beautiful wall.”
But what about the others who voted for him knowing he was wholly unequipped for the job? What about those who held their nose and voted for him in order to feather their own nests? Who, really, is the most cynical of us all?
The Republicans in Congress might deserve the title. The Mitch McConnells, the Paul Ryans and the others that indulge the President’s whims and outbursts in feigned pained silence and then vote to embrace policies they know are wrong in order to get their agenda signed into law. So what if the gun lobby makes a mockery of the deaths in school shootings by accepting meaningless “reforms” that do nothing serious to stop the carnage? So what?
Nor are the Democrats innocent. “Chuck and Nancy” may not be as consciously cynical as Mitch and Paul, but those in the minority rarely are. They stake out more progressive positions, call a press conference or two, then throw up their hands as the majority adopts its agenda. Meanwhile, the national Democratic Party tacks to the center to win special elections in Georgia and Pennsylvania as it readies a head-snapping move to the left for 2020. Or not, depending on what will win.
The Supreme Court defined cynicism with its Citizens United decision trashing the concept of campaign finance regulation, arguing that corporations have the same rights as individuals. Its justifications echo the corrupt politics behind Bush v, Gore in 2000 and the notion that the Second Amendment, despite what it says, guarantees the gun rights of individuals rather than “well-regulated militias.” Retired Justice John Paul Stevens finally said what must be said: repeal the Second Amendment, which was never meant by the founders to mean what the NRA says it means.
The media: what is more cynical than the excuses Fox News makes for Trump? Is it MSNBC, when the entire channel is devoted to tearing Trump down? Or talk radio? They are all competing for ratings, adopting the ideology they believe will attract more audience.
Cynicism is not new in Washington, of course, nor unique to the Trump era. LBJ was deeply cynical when he lied to the country about Vietnam because he didn’t want to be the first American president to lose a war; George W. was cynical when he lied about weapons of mass destruction in order to take out Saddam. Lying is not a new presidential activity.
And, even in an Age of Cynicism, there are striking exceptions among us: the young people demonstrating against gun violence in the schools, volunteers who commit time and money to make things better, charitable groups here and abroad. There are bright spots, to be sure.
But the most cynical act of all is to take cynicism for granted. Then we all lose.

The View From Annapolis II

Just two more days to the next Republican Primary debate in the long-running, messy spectacle known as the 2016 Presidential election. So, gather round, pop the popcorn and settle down to watch the next episode of Donald Trump and Friends.
This Tuesday, the leading GOP candidates will assemble in the ornate halls of The Venetian, that gaudy temple to bad taste in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Donald should feel right at home.
Here in Annapolis, we have an excellent perspective on this carnival. We are close enough to Washington to follow the action, but far enough away so your shoes don’t get splattered with mud. All we have to do is tune in to CNN at 9 p.m. Tuesday and watch Wolf Blitzer herd the cats.
It is not really a debate in the Lincoln-Douglas sense, of course, rather a calculated cage fight in which Trump is expected to rail against immigration and Muslims, and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush and others will struggle for air time.
Along with most political and world leaders, many in the media started to turn on The Donald in the past week in the wake of his xenophobic proposal to bar Muslims from entering the country. He was widely criticized — but widely covered — on social media and most evening and morning news shows. My former paper, The New York Times, had the story at the top of page one, describing Trump’s remarks as “an extraordinary escalation of language aimed at voters’ fears about members of the Islamic faith.”
The result: Trump remains at or near the top of most polls of likely Republican primary voters, and the GOP establishment is starting to worry about a brokered convention.
The dirty little secret over the last several months is that the media has been fully and joyfully culpable in the extraordinary rise of Donald Trump, giving him almost unlimited air time with scant hard questioning, aiding and abetting his rise in the polls.
There is an unacknowledged-but-profitable symbiotic relationship between Trump and news organizations: the more outrageous his statements, the more coverage — “free media” is the term of art — the greater the ratings.
The GOP debates are a case in point: they have been a revenue bonanza for the cable channels that have carried them.
The first Republican debate on Fox News last August attracted a record audience of 24 million. A month later, CNN pulled in 23 million, half-again its largest audience ever. CNBC attracted 14 million in October. The November debate on the Fox Business channel , which rarely has 100,000 people watching, pulled in 13 million viewers.
Four years ago, the Republican primary debates drew 4-to-6 million viewers. Needless to say, this year’s record ratings translate into serious ad revenue.
I’m not suggesting the debates are not worthwhile; they are. I’m not disputing that the coverage of Trump is justified; it is. A presidential candidate who is leading in most polls six weeks before the Iowa caucus is news, no matter how outlandish his positions.
But more rigorous questioning of Trump would be welcome, along with more consistent fact-checking of his fabrications. The wall-to-wall coverage of his pronouncements is wearing thin.
Many in the media have been and remain skeptical of The Donald and his chances of actually securing the GOP nomination. In fact, my former colleague on the PBS NewsHour, David Brooks, has doubled down on his prediction that Trump will collapse from the weight of his own baggage.
And Dana Milbank in The Washington Post dropped all pretense of objectivity in his column when he flatly labeled Trump a racist and bigot and compared him to Il Duce.
But perversely, the more Trump is denounced, the more popular he becomes with his hard-core supporters who see him as refreshingly honest. The running controversy is likely to build audience for Tuesday’s debate, not diminish it.
And in the now-familiar Trump playbook, any publicity — even this column – is good publicity.

Terence Smith, who lives in Annapolis, is a former media correspondent on the PBS NewsHour.