Politics

Shock Us. Tell Us It’s Fake News. Tell Us to Move On.

The Trump administration’s media strategy is to make us believe that outrages aren’t outrageous.

Vandalized Jewish tombstone

A vandalized Jewish tombstone with the name Press lays on the ground at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia on Monday.

Mark Makela/Getty Images

At first it all seems oddly tone-deaf and clueless. Twenty bomb threats against Jewish institutions across 12 states in a single day. Hundreds of headstones toppled at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia. Silence from the president. A statement of “strong condemnation” from White House press secretary Sean Spicer. Two men born in India shot at an Olathe, Kansas, bar. Silence from the president. Then, a week later, a statement from the White House. How hard is it, really, to deplore acts of terror and fear? What possible payoff might there be for failing to react when entire groups of citizens are terrified?

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My colleague Jamelle Bouie posits that the empty space where presidential condemnation should be serves the purpose of making “radical Islamic terror” the main threat to America while implying that other terror attacks are not existential crises. “[E]levating one kind of attack as worthy of condemnation and ignoring another is to implicitly say that one kind of assailant is more dangerous than another—and for that matter, the life of one kind of victim is more valuable than another,” Bouie writes. This is why Trump has promised to revamp and rename a program designed to counter violent extremism to target instead “radical Islamic extremism.” Other kinds of racial and religious extremism are to be deemphasized if not totally ignored.

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While that diagnosis is clearly correct, I think something else is going on, too. Trump and Steve Bannon are not legal experts or policy wizards, but they are geniuses at a single thing: media. In addition to sending policy and legal signals around these attacks, they are also setting a media narrative. Given the extent and depth of the pain and horror caused by Monday’s terroristic threats against Jewish institutions, as well as the attacks last week in Kansas, what is the possible media benefit to the White House of pretending it either didn’t happen or doesn’t matter? Here it becomes important to think like a media strategist rather than a policy expert or to think like the producer of a reality show or a news site dedicated to peddling false narratives.

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We, as consumers of media, are also the commodity. We have witnessed more than five waves of unprecedented and frightening anti-Semitic attacks on cemeteries and Jewish Community Centers—that is, dead people and small children. Five waves of attacks is roughly half a season of a reality show. The president’s refusal to react for weeks, the tepid response last week, and the silence this week aren’t merely political messages about which kinds of terrorism matter. We are also being trained—as consumers of media and reactors to media—to think of these stories as old news. Reality TV runs on the twin engines of outrage and boredom. The plan here is to make certain that after a few outraged responses, all we are capable of feeling is, “Omarosa? Meh.”

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Think about Donald Trump’s response to the Orthodox Jewish reporter who attempted to raise the issue of an uptick in hate crimes in America. It was a virtuoso performance of boredom, followed by a fair performance of I’m the Real Victim Here. Trump reportedly said on Tuesday, in a private meeting with state attorneys general, that sometimes anti-Semitic attacks happen in “the reverse, to make people—or to make others—look bad.” That sounds a lot like a reprisal of his tortured claim from two weeks ago that Jews sometimes fake attacks to garner sympathy. That’s the media strategy for the next four years in microcosm. Shock us, then tell us it’s fake news designed to make the Trump administration look bad, and then tell us it’s time to move on.

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Already the reaction to the JCC threats is bumping up against the usual array of alt-right talking points, ranging from claims that these are false-flag attacks to criticism of Jewish reactions as hysterical and privileged. The president—who only spoke out last week after previously keeping his mouth shut—will claim that he need not speak out again. It’s over, move on. We’ve got better things to tweet about.

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Nobody cares about some old outrage at Jewish cemeteries. Meh. In a few weeks, attacks on Jewish buildings, on Asian patrons of Kansas bars, on trans students and gay couples and women in hijabs on subways will no longer be news. Communities who respond with outrage will begin to sound overheated and monotonous. “Regular Americans” who are tired of being called racists and homophobes will begin to resent being accused of blindness or insensitivity. The “This is Not Normal” hashtag will move along to the next set of things that aren’t normal, and the communities who are frightened, marginalized, and bullied will realize that the outrage window in Trump’s America is a narrow one and that these sorts of attacks are not only normal but also, ultimately, kind of dull.

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It is virtually impossible to live in a state of sustained shock and outrage when mass deportations, airport harassment, cemetery desecration, and environmental and educational cruelty are all on the breakfast menu every single day. The human brain craves both respite and change. That’s precisely why reality shows are constructed the way they are. It’s also why our current non–reality-show reality is both tedious and exhausting. The Trump administration is already bored of anti-Semitism, and it’s bored of anti-Muslim attacks. It’s bored of Black Lives Matter, and it’s dead bored of the Women’s March. And we, as consumers, are being taught to find all this boring as well. Tomorrow there will be new housewives throwing new drinks.

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Next week’s complaints about JCC threats and grave-toppling will be waved away as bellyaching from oversensitive Jews. Next week’s Mexican deportations will be dismissed as so much politically correct whining from illegals. Protests over next week’s shooting at a mosque will be characterized as a minority group’s efforts to “divide us.”

It’s too easy to say the country is changing in ways that, only one month into the Trump era, make it unrecognizable. That strikes me as only half the story. The real concern is that we are changing—or at least we are being trained to change—to see that which is not normal as merely last week’s rerun.

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