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Donald Trump and Angela Merkel are not Taylor Swift and Demi Lovato

In October 2016, I came down with an acute case of Demi Lovato. That I was then yet to endure the young singer’s oeuvre was incidental. All I needed to know was that this former star of Barney & Friends had declared war with Taylor Swift. I had long thought of Swift as Lovato may have thought of Barney: a falsely optimistic dancing dinosaur who feeds on the bodies of the weak.

Honestly, though. What I craved was not the extinction of Swift, whose icy message of female “empowerment” will be devastated by history in any case. I just needed distraction from the coverage of the US election. If no one was going to examine the policy of either nominee, preferring instead to pathologize their character, I reasoned that I might as well enjoy a good feud from teen-land.

Before you get all shirty and claim that the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN etc. did all they could to meticulously weigh the qualities of Clinton and the terror of Trump, perhaps you might consider reviewing what these and other outlets actually provided. The traditional media class—and, at first, this even included Fox News—were unified in their disdain for Trump the individual, their relative approval of Clinton.

Certainly, assessment of individual character can play some part in political inquiry by press. That it came to be the entire story had what we might agree is a shocking consequence. Trump is now President. The absolute refusal of mainstream commentators to truly analyse him as more than a psychological patient was, I venture, a bad decision.

“If press had genuinely resolved to talk about Trump as a collection of flawed policies rather than one of personal dysfunction, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

In the opinion of press, Trump was a loony. In the opinion of voters in counties Trump had strategically visited, he made a little sense. To the jobless, he promised protection of jobs. To the parents of children whose most likely chance at a career was military, he promised both military spending and military isolationism, AKA a bigger pay-cheque without a bigger risk of death. His greatest swing in the election was, at 16 points, by low income earners, those people who generally vote for the Democratic nominee. And, of course, he was always going to screw those people, and lost no time in trading their health care entitlements for tax concessions to the rich.

But, why wouldn’t these voters, which included a male Hispanic swing, roll the dice? Especially when there were no significant proposals for job reform coming from the other side. There was but a handful of journalists in progressive press pointing out Clinton’s absolute failure to address the 51% of voters who survive on less than $30,000 pa. Current Democratic minority Senate leader Chuck Schumer was clear during the election that this didn’t matter. Poor people would vote Dem, because they always had. He said, “When middle class incomes decline, people tend to move in a more progressive direction.” I guess Chuck is the one guy who has never seen a documentary on Hitler.

If press had genuinely resolved to talk about Trump as a collection of flawed policies rather than one of personal dysfunction, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess. If those voters, strategically forgotten by the DNC, had been addressed by press, perhaps the poorest Americans would still be able to see a doctor. But, the “debate” about the hegemon’s economic and military future, thereby ours, rarely exceeded pop psychology. “He’s a bad guy and we can’t have him close to the codes!” With everyone content to write their news about Trump and Clinton in the same way that they had for Swift and Lovato, hope for true critique was lost.


I had supposed that a few months of Trump might have corrected this error, that legitimate fear of policies would eclipse the personal disgust endemic to a liberal press that just find him icky and tasteless. Not so much. Just as Trump remains in campaign mode in many of his Strong Man presentations, commentators remain as appalled as they ever were by his gold elevator aesthetic. Way to uphold the deluded class antagonism, guys.

This past weekend, mainstream press has returned in full-force to pop psychology. This time, it is Trump’s purported failure to shake the hand of German Chancellor Angela Merkel that is the cry of Team Swift. Although Trump has been previously candid in his admiration for Merkel, the critique of his meeting comes down to his simple fear of women.

“Trump tells lies about Mexicans to attain political advantage. Merkel does the same about Greeks.”

All of Merkel’s past has been forgotten, if it were ever known at all. Here, we have a leader who just a few years spoke of the German concept of “leitkultur”, or “leading culture”, to characterise what she saw as the problems with multiculturalism in her nation. She said that it had “failed utterly”. Here, we have a leader whose party the Christian Democratic Union has fuelled anti-immigration sentiment for decades. A leader who resorted just two years ago to racist cliché about lazy Greeks and industrious Germans—and before you go off about how Greeks really are lazy and retire early in a cloud of ouzo, I’d urge you to check your assumptions against data. And, maybe talk to your doctor about your problem with bigotry. And your economist about the problem with the austerity she helped impose on Greece, benefiting her own economy and dooming that “lazy” southern nation to nothing but debt.

It is true that Merkel recently permitted Syrian refugees to enter Germany, and, whatever her motivation, we can be glad she played a part in saving lives. Still, those motivations, which likely include the import of cheap labour in a nation with sub replacement fertility levels and moral bargaining power with the European troika, deserve some analysis beyond Angela Merkel Is A Strong and Powerful Lady.

“If we continue to permit ourselves to be amused by these teen feuds, we will never see the past that led us to the present.”

Trump tells lies about Mexicans to attain political advantage. Merkel does the same about Greeks. Clinton, of course, preferred to speak about corrupt Russians and the rest of us echo their racist political habit of talking bad character instead of bad policy. This prevents us from seeing the history, instead of the personalities, that have found us at a time that appears to be approaching some kind of hard limit.

History is a force that outweighs individual personalities. There are better and more fruitful ways to view Trump, or Merkel or Clinton, than from mere pop psychology. If you don’t believe me, look to the uncommonly good speech by Richard Di Natale last week in which he said that the past forty years of market-friendly economic policy gave rise to present politics. Neoliberalism, he said, “is an ideology that is now so thoroughly discredited, the impacts so widely despised, that the people of America were prepared to elect a dangerous, unstable, narcissist as their president to overturn it.”

If we continue to permit ourselves to be amused by these teen feuds, we will never see the past that led us to the present. And we can continue deriding gold elevator narcissists for their personal flaws, or elevating neoliberal Chancellors for their cruel economic policies, without ever once talking about politics.


23 responses to “Donald Trump and Angela Merkel are not Taylor Swift and Demi Lovato

  1. Oh, Helen, you make these generalisations – again – that need some inspection.

    No one covered policy during the last election? Nonsense – I live here, and I understood exactly what we were choosing between. So did many others (as it’s why Clinton won the majority of votes). Unfortunately, it was hard to look closely at Trump’s pronouncements, because they kept changing, and there was no platform. And because he is a compulsive liar who seems incapable of telling the truth about anything.

    The reason the press occasionally focuses on Trump’s psyche is because of his behavior. The reason they focus on Russia is because his staff consistently lie about it, and are consistently called out for it. Did you not hear that the security agencies are investigating this? You may think Russia is irrelevant, but for those of us who live here, it’s a pretty big deal to have a foreign government meddling in the election (and that meddling isn’t speculation, it’s a fact). Yes, the USA does it too. That makes no difference to my own interest.

    And no discussion of policy? Please. That’s a reader’s / viewer’s choice. There’s plenty of information out there if you want to hear it. Just like all of that information that suggested that Trump is a compulsive liar who was going to screw the people who voted for them. Is it the media’s fault that voters chose to ignore it? Nope.

    Blaming the media for Trump is a bit like blaming teachers for bad students. They have a role, no doubt, but there are larger and more institutional issues. Like an undemocratic electoral college. Or gerrymandering. Or racial bias and voter obstruction. Or money in politics.

    Or, Helen, the voters themselves. 50K-80K tipped Trump over to win the election. They are the real problem, Helen. Just like you ask the Democrats to take some responsibility, and the media, don’t forget to place a good chunk of the blame where it belongs.

    1. Sam. The media only and always focus on Trump’s perceived psyche.

      I know what the Trump voters were voting for too:

      1. Jobs for the deplorables in the flyover states,
      2. Greater legitimate control over their country’s borders (The US absorbs over 500,000 legal and illegal immigrants a year.)
      3. Shaking out the lazy elites from Washington,
      4. Re-negotiation of trade agreements,
      5. A workable national health care scheme,
      6. Building more manufacturing jobs
      7. Someone to trake their reasonable concerns seriously

      A proper and detailed examination of these policies and their likely consequences appears never to have occurred. If there was in the US, these discussions were never reported in Australia.

      If I have missed something, I would be happy to see any available references detailing it.

      1. Brett: while I can’t speak for the Australian media, I 100% unequivocally reject the notion that policy wasn’t covered by the media here. It was, in detail, and a few minutes spent googling would give you a sense of that discussion and analysis prior to election day. Any difficulty in pinning down Trump’s policies was because he rarely and inconsistently articulated them except: better health care (with no plan), build a wall (with another country’s money), and bring back jobs (with no plan whatsoever).

        Your assumptions as to why a small group of voters cast their ballot for Trump is also entirely speculative. There is little concrete evidence to back up your assumptions, despite following a similar line as Helen. Again, half the country ALWAYS votes Republican, so we’re talking about a sliver of voters who MAY have voted for Trump for the reasons you mention, but I am not convinced (you don’t mention misogyny or racism – were they not factors at all?).

        Anyone who voted Republican for a workable healthcare system, for example, is plain ignorant (look at the numerous times the party tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act without anything to replace it with – just like now). The same goes for manufacturing jobs, among other things you list. Trump had no plan, and now you can see his non-plan in action. Tax cuts for the rich, gutting the government and the environment, stopping Somalians from entering the country – were any of these things on the voters’ minds?

        And with Trump’s approval ratings the lowest in history, the ignorant are seemingly feeling a little buyers remorse. Say goodbye to their healthcare, sayonara to the jobs that remain, and hello to a conservative judge on the Supreme Court who believes that corporations are people, too.

        At least that nasty woman isn’t in the White House, though.

        1. Sam: I note that none of the points you raised, dealt with any (except one) of the issues Trump voters related to.

          Particularly, it is interesting that you made the mistake that Hilary Clinton and all other prominent leaders have made, until Trump appeared: ignoring the not-so-ignorant people of the fly-over states.
          They knew Clinton was lying when she said she would govern for everybody. They knew they would never be included. (She was probably still flooded with endorphins from dancing with Beyonce and Meryl Streep and the other shallow coastal millionaires)

          Another very simple question remains….Donald Trump made his millions in private enterprise; Where did Bill and Hilary’s quarter of a billion dollars in personal wealth come from? Apparently they have been humble public servants all their lives. Australian left wing governments have donated more than $30 million to the ‘Clinton Foundation’, 80% of which winds up in their family bank accounts.
          Is Hilary nasty? Probably.

    2. Sam. I am not the only commentator to have observed the dearth of analysis about Trump’s policies.
      Glenn Greenwald, The Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist, wrote about the lack of focus by much of mainstream media during the election. There was a piece in The Atlantic which became popular after the election that chided media for taking Trump “literally but not seriously”.
      Let me say it clearly again: yes, his policies did not stand up to scrutiny. They were not subjected to scrutiny. If you can point me to prominent (i.e. not small and hard left) organisations that did provide analysis of Trump’s policies, I would be surprised. I read tens of thousands of words a day during the election. It was my reader’s choice to view as much as possible.
      The policies of both nominees were ignored. Breitbart said ludicrous things about Clinton. The Times said ludiscour things about Trump. That mainstream media promised that Clinton was a person of substance without explaining how this appeared in her policy did have an effect. People no longer trust mainstream media to offer fair analysis. 63 million people voted for Trump, who had actively sought an electoral win by speaking directly to many of them where he was able to shout about his bullshit policies without challenge. Mainstream media simply made fun of his character, spelling, personal life etc. In a nation where more than half of the labour force live in hopeless conditions, can you not see how people might have voted for a change.
      As for your charge that Trump won due to money. I don’t know how you figure that Clinton didn’t. All you need do is look at her list of donors.
      The American people wanted a change in regime. The mainstream press simply told them that they didn’t.

      1. Greenwald is wrong, Helen. I admire and respect him, but he’s making a generalisation against which there is much evidence. Here are some of those pieces that compare policies – via google, first page of search results:

        Are these mainstream enough? I even threw one in from The Australian, just for Brett (above).

        Now, I can agree that much of the analysis is thin. I can also agree that voters wanted change. But the majority did not want Trump. And there’s plenty of policy analysis if you seek it (hard left, hard right, and lots in between). It’s certainly not the media’s job to spoon feed the consumer; nor should anyone expect it to be 100% reliable or comprehensive (it’s not). And if the candidates choose not to explain their policies, or even write them down, the media’s job – and the voter’s – is even harder.

        The voters may not trust the “mainstream media”, but that doesn’t mean much. They trust it slightly more than our President (or just slightly less):

        Finally, anyone who wins the US presidency is beholden to money. Clinton, Trump, whoever. That is the real corruptor in the US political system. Blaming the media is a cop out.

        1. So, we agree that the analysis was thin. And, we agree that we cannot blame the media. I did not blame the media. I clearly view this election as the result of the political economy.
          Yes, a few more people voted for Clinton than for Trump. But, Trump sought, and won, the electoral college vote. He lost the “unloseable”. And he did so largely from a swing of low income voters who would normally vote for a Democratic nominee.
          I say this. I do not say the media is to blame. I simply say that their fixation on Donald Trump’s psychological profile had the effect of diminishing their own position and strengthening Trump’s. Just as Clinton’s overuse of well-to-do celebrity’s was an egregious error. Like, who cares what Anna Wintour thinks?
          This election has been decidedly “post-truth” in mainstream media. This is a site that explores cultural themes. In saying that the media failed itself and voters I am not diminishing the truest motivation for people’s voting patterns (and whether Hillary gained more votes or not is not the point, that loony got 63 million and we must ask how this was possible) which is survival.

          1. I would just like to declare that I care deeply what Anna Wintour thinks. (But not about politics.)

          2. Thanks, Helen. Two small points:

            First, I think SOME of the analysis was thin, but of the articles I linked to above, I would argue that most define the differences between the candidates on policy very clearly. Again, if you are a voter who simply cares about gutting NAFTA and the TPP, then Trump was arguably your educated choice. But on anything else of importance to your “survival”, that voter made a terrible decision. Why? It’s partly speculative, but I would argue that you probably can’t separate racism and sexism and just plain ignorance from that choice.

            Second, Trump WAS Anna Wintour in his celebrity: a marginally successful real estate heir with a string of bankruptcies, no political experience, many racist pronouncements, and heavily challenged ethics – but with a successful TV show that indicated (falsely) that he was a business genius. So while I hope NO ONE cares what Anna Wintour thinks (sorry, Ben), the reality is that many voters cared what a celebrity ignoramus, and a racist, sexist, compulsive liar with a TV show had to say (very few, it should be noted, in New York, where he’s been a fixture of the city for decades). Those voters deserve the same disdain as anyone who cares what Ms. Wintour or any other movie star has to say.

            To that end, I agree that the media failed us, simply by covering the man at all. But once he was the winner of the Republican primary, the policy information on the candidates was there. And the fact that those in Michigan who can’t afford their health care or who rely on the minimum wage voted for a billionaire who has a lengthy and unequivocal record of lies? Rough justice for them, a disaster for the rest of us.

  2. Thank you Helen
    Always enjoy reading your perspective while I sit gobsmacked here in Trump and Brexitland.
    You know full well why the press does character over policy – it sells. We may have got what we deserve in Trump etc but the fourth estate’s main concern is the bottom line and advertising revenue – for now – till Trump bans all press except for Murdoch’s outlets.
    Voters have options – Live streaming of events as they unfold – the FBI hearings Monday 20 March were pure drama. While I agree that there was zero discussion about policy, the press isn’t responsible for deciding voter opinion, just helping to shape it.
    As for Donald, isn’t it the fact continues to get around the press by using Twitter, that helped him to power?

  3. Right on the money Helen.
    The discussion about Trump has been superficial at best, and non-existent when it comes to his policies.
    Today a Trump speech was broadcast on Sky News. Much of it was detailing the actions he has been taking to turn his policies into actions including those concerned with bringing more manufacturing jobs to the US.
    Among these are the removal of unnecessary regulations to reduce the cost to business.
    Another is to increase tarriffs for products imported from countries which place very high tarriffs already on US products coming into their own.
    Will there be a proper merits based media debate about the pros and cons of these policies, now actions?

    And all the media obsesses with is The Handshake and The Dirty Russians Who Hacked The US Election.

    President Trump is way out in front of the news cycle and doing what he believes is right for his country. The chattering classes frankly aren’t in his league at this stage.

  4. An interesting article as always. Well researched and thank you for all your links. I love them. I had hoped at the time however that you would provide an analysis of Trump’s policies. Now I know why you didn’t, you had withdrawn to teen feud land which was a pity for us. Also I maybe naive but I don’t believe Angela Merkel was motivated by commercial interests when she permitted Syrian refugees to enter Germany.

    1. I wrote extensively about Trump before the election. This is a review of how his policies are ignored in popular media. Please pop over the Crikey for a news perspective.
      If it comforts you to believe that a woman with a long history of supporting detention and anti-immigrant policies had a warm Come to Jesus moment and was not negotiating with the troika and banking on a future cheap labour supply, you go for it. As long as we all feel better, right?

  5. A snipe about Di Natale. He still suffers from that great afflictions of Australian politicians: their inability to resist putting in a plug for their own party at every opportunity. This practice on both the left and the right makes Australian politicians sound more like self-promoting salesmen than serious policy critics.

  6. Thanks Helen a good contribution to the endless analysis of Trump most of which all seems like part of the trumpery of reality reality.
    Policy, I suppose, and its analysis and critique, is boring. And its analysis and critique is political and tricky for journalists who want to look unbiased. And its not about personality and doesn’t entertain like drama, comedy or tragedy in the day by day performance of reality reality that corporate media produces.
    Worse, and maybe more depressing for me, the word policy gets used as a shibboleth in opinion journalism to indicate that while others don’t seem to want it you are serious and you do. It has become a place-holder in opinion journalism.

  7. One reason the press did not talk about Trump as a collection of failed policies was the extreme difficulty of determining what those policies actually were. Trump’s statements about nearly every issue were often contradictory, and generally so lacking in detail that to describe them as “failed” would have required supplying the missing pieces — which Trump would have pointed out were not what he had said. However, I agree that we must do better, and as the policies and their impacts become clearer, that might be easier.

    1. This is untrue.
      Trump made a very clear statement, for example, on foreign policy.
      His isolationism was derided. Just as it was this past weekend because, OMG, why should we have NATO?
      There are good reasons to keep NATO (just as there are good reasons to do away with it) but these were addressed no more by press than they were by Clinton. Who certainly has opinions on foreign policy.
      His policy about the tariff on Chinese goods may have been bad policy. Still, it was clearly articulated. Again here there was a good opportunity for press to say “this is unworkable”. He was essentially proposing a return to Fordism, which is impossible. Capital is too globalised. Did anyone explain what the restoration of US manufacturing jobs would do to the economy? No. They simply let Trump promise jobs without arguing with the strength of his argument.
      Russia is another good example. Remember when President Obama said to Romney a few years ago, “The 1980s called and they want their foreign policy back”. Hilarious. Suddenly, we’re all supposed to join the Washington Post and believe that Russia “hacked” the election? Because this is the Clinton line.
      I really don’t believe that there was no policy to discuss. There was. However thin or unfeasible it was, it was rarely discussed. Clinton preferred to bring in injured beauty queens than question his labour policies. For which she had developed no alternative.
      In short, no one in liberal press wanted to admit to the failure of liberalism.

    2. Michael has a point, Helen, about trying to determine what Trump’s policies were. He recently said he was against the war in Iraq/Syria, but that’s just bullshit – I mean, another alternative fuct.

      1. Trump could tell isolationists bullshit because it wasn’t like Clinton would offer anything better.

        I wouldn’t call this issue Why Trump Won The Election, but it is a pattern that repeats across policy areas.

      2. Again, Gary. There are many times where Trump clearly articulated his policies. His “wall” was a sort of fascist Hoover Dam. His isolationism was uttered plainly. He spoke about how he intended to “bring jobs back” through tariff.
        It is disingenuous to say that he did not have policies and that they were not openly declared. This, in fact, is what mainstream media insisted: he has no policies!
        But, he did. They were simply dismissed as “no policy” because it was Trump who had uttered them.
        Yes. They were bad policies. They were also unexamined.
        As for your charge that Trump is for war in Syria. I’d say we have a greater chance under his administration of an end to that proxy US-Russian bloodshed. I would also remind you that we hear hypocritical foreign policy declarations coming from the White House every day. You’re saying that the President says he doesn’t want war, but actually wages several? The case since 1945.

  8. So true! So well observed.
    After trying to raise public awareness and reaction to terrible privatisation plans of the Barnett government here in WA, one was left to wonder at what it takes to raise a politically conscious and responsive society. Albeit the government was thrown out – thank you compulsory voting – Howard’s invite to the people to stay ‘relaxed and comfortable’ still seems to hold great sway: except for the Angry, who look for the likes of Trump and Hanson as their voice, without recognising the self delusion and self harm that will likely involve.
    As you suggest, Helen, a sharp-minded, critically active press is essential redress. So dig deep folks, this is the time to lend support for their survival.

  9. A considered approach. I like it. I may not always agree but I do always go away thinking about what you’ve written. Thank you!


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