What Trump said in the White House briefing room was monstrous and dishonest. But more important than his allegations and lies was the way he said them — and the way everyone else felt free to treat them.
Trump is always at his most animated when he’s riffing. When he’s constrained by a teleprompter or typewritten remarks, his voice flattens to a drone. Even by that standard, the contrast between the gravity of the allegations Trump was making and the tone of voice in which he made them was striking.
While suggesting that Democrats “can try to steal the election from us” and that “our numbers started miraculously getting whittled away in secret,” the president sounded bored rather than enraged.
Appearing in person ought to have put more visceral force behind Trump’s charges; his in-person statement did the opposite. His delivery lacked the all-caps, exclamation-marked energy of his Twitter broadsides. The effect was to undercut the incendiary allegations Trump was making. He was a man checking a box, not one fighting for his political life.
And while Trump was speaking, something rather extraordinary happened: Three major broadcast networks stopped airing the president’s address live.
For five years, Trump’s rallies have frequently been aired live and his tweets amplified, even as he has dumped poison into the American information ecosystem. Networks and publications justified doing this on the grounds that the sentiments of the Republican nominee and then president of the United States were newsworthy, even — and maybe especially — if they were repugnant.
Now it was as if Trump was a sorcerer who had reached the end of his powers, and television news was waking up as his spell wore off. During an NBC town hall last month, anchor Savannah Guthrie condemned Trump’s embrace of conspiracy theories and falsehoods, telling him, “You’re the president, you’re not like someone’s crazy uncle.” On Thursday, networks stopped treating him like the former and started treating him like the latter.
Extricating the country from the tangle of Trump’s thinly woven, often-incoherent fictions is important. Still, something will need to replace the river of nonsense. With that in mind, the most heartening thing to happen in the media Thursday wasn’t whom the networks turned away from — it was whom they turned to.
Election officials such as Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar and, in Nevada, Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria have made crucial TV experiences as their states count a wave of votes cast early or by mail. They have been riveting in ways that stand in sharp rebuke to the qualities that made Trump first a TV star and then the president.
Where Trump is simultaneously outrageous and vague, these civil servants are mundane and detailed. Trump inveighed against “tremendous corruption and fraud” and promised “a lot of litigation” at the White House, but just as in the past, with previous conspiracies the president has embraced, the evidence for his dangerous claims was soon to be revealed or presented in court; as we have all learned, it will never actually arrive. Officials such as Boockvar and Gloria, meanwhile, offered patience and precision, breaking down outstanding vote totals and explaining their processes with detail and confidence for an anxious nation.
The distinction between the fulminating president seeking to undermine the democratic process and the hard-working civil servants carrying it out was crucial. Trump’s bluster and his attacks on the “swamp” have too often obscured the public’s view of the people who work in government and the processes and principles that guide their work. Recovering from the Trump era means more than rejecting the presidency and his selfishness and mendacity; it requires the country to embrace an alternative to those qualities.
Atlanta-based CNN correspondent Gary Tuchman captured that transition best when he summed up a detailed report on Georgia’s vote-counting by telling anchors back in the studio: “We, as journalists can take the disrespect from politicians. We’re used to it. But it hurts me, it pains me to see the disrespect, the anger from politicians directed towards this process when we see these amazingly noble people working during a dangerous pandemic to try to ensure that our elections are fair and safe.”
After five years of the Trump Show, America needs real heroes to root for. The election is dragging on, but a new story is coming into view.
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