E.J. Dionne, Jr.

E.J. Dionne, Jr. on One Nation After Trump, Media, the Economy, and Progressivism

September 12, 2017

September 12, 2017—E.J. Dionne, Jr., political writer for The Washington Post, and William H. Bloomberg Visiting Professor, discussed his forthcoming book, One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported, co-authored by Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann. During his talk at the Shorenstein Center, Dionne also covered the media’s performance during the 2016 election, divides in American society, and how the media and progressives can move forward.

Below are some highlights from his conversation with Shorenstein Center Director Nicco Mele, as well as the full audio recording. Podcast also available on iTunes, Google Play, iHeartRadio, and Stitcher.

An overview of One Nation After Trump and its inspiration

We argue that the country needs a new economy, a new democracy, a new civil society, and a new patriotism…

“All three of us see a thread here that goes beyond the normal situation of a president you might disagree with. We talk about the autocratic tendencies that the president has…on the other hand, we wrote this book because we think that Trump actually provides the country with an enormous opportunity and that opportunity comes from his unmasking [of] a number of problems in our politics. He has brought about an unprecedented political mobilization…Lastly, we thought it was really important to try to understand why Trump happened. We talk a lot about problems that the country had before Trump was elected, that he exploited and that enabled his election.”

“We argue that the country needs a new economy, a new democracy, a new civil society, and a new patriotism, and we lay out a case for some of the economic reforms we need to end this sharp division by region in the country over economics. We also insist that progressives should stand up for the whole working class. We’ve talked a lot about the white working class since the election, and we should worry about the white working class, but also we should worry about the Latino and the African American and the Asian working class. We talk about how we could bring those concerns together.”

The shortcomings of television election coverage

“We think [the media] was important to Trump’s rise, and we point to a paradox…that in many ways the media, particularly television, enabled the rise of Trump, and now the free media stands as one of the most important checks on Trump’s power.”

“I think particularly at the beginning of his campaign, the amount of utterly unmediated time he got compared to any other candidate was really very disconcerting, and something I think the networks, particularly cable, but not exclusively cable, will have to answer for.”

“There are a few simple rules. One, either don’t let candidates call in to television shows or allow all of them to call in to television shows. Donald Trump was the first guy who could do, if he wanted, Meet The Press in his pajamas. It was very bizarre that Trump could just commandeer television time.”

…in many ways the media, particularly television, enabled the rise of Trump, and now the free media stands as one of the most important checks on Trump’s power.

“Secondly, I like unmediated presentation of candidates to a point. I think it’s useful for voters to get to see somebody make his or her case, but you can’t do that all exclusively on one side.”

“I think the third thing—Trump complained about it, but it was a great asset of his—is that no one took his candidacy seriously, didn’t think he was going to win. I certainly didn’t think he was going to win… serious scrutiny of Trump started later than scrutiny of other candidates. Eventually there was a great deal of scrutiny of Trump, but it didn’t happen until much later.”

On scandals and false equivalency

“Trump became the first candidate in history who fended off one scandal with a new scandal, because eventually when the media kicked in, they found all kinds of stuff. Nobody could fault the media for ignoring Trump’s problems…But there were so many scandals—one of Clinton’s problems is that it was the same three scandals over and over again, over a period of years. It was a concentrated attack—the speaking fees, the server, and later the WikiLeaks stuff.”

Tom Patterson’s [Shorenstein Center] study showed that if you looked at the campaign in its final months, Trump got rougher treatment than Clinton, but if you looked at the campaign as a whole, Clinton got rougher treatment than Trump, and I think that’s because she got the going over all the way through, and Trump got it concentrated at the end.”

“False balance is a problem in the media. I think since the election the media has already taken important steps in the notion that there isn’t any balance between truth and falsehood, and you shouldn’t feel obligated to any kind of balance between truth and falsehood. But I also think, and Tom’s study alluded to this, was there something qualitatively different between these two people that the media just couldn’t quite bring itself to talk about?”

Comparing campaign communications and media coverage

“On the one hand, Trump had a series of easy to communicate ideas or notions that he could just hit on over and over again. Build a wall, stop China from stealing our jobs, stand up to terrorists, stand up to Muslims.”

“Hillary had a very interesting economic agenda that got under-covered. I think it’s fair for the Clinton people to say it was under-covered, but I also think the Democrats in the Clinton campaign failed to make it as accessible and as clear as she needed to be in this campaign…but I think the press under-covered what she actually had to say when she said something substantive.”

[According to a] study from the Berkman Klein Center and the MIT Center for Civic Media, Trumpian issues dominated the coverage much more than Democratic issues, and that’s something that the media should look at.”

How race and economics intertwine

 …stop talking about the working class as if it’s only white. You could argue, it depends on how you do the numbers, that the majority of the working class is actually African American and Latino, or at least a very substantial minority is.

“We do not downplay the role of race and immigration, and immigration was, for a minority of voters, a very powerful motivator.”

“When you look at the studies based on geography…the places Trump won tended not to be necessarily the poorest places in the country, but the places under the most economic stress: the places with the highest number of foreclosures, the places where the job base was in jobs more likely either to be outsourced or technologically destroyed.”

“You can’t ignore the role of race, immigration, culture, but this all took place in an economic context…you can’t easily pull these apart. Voters are more likely to feel under pressure and more likely to react negatively to out-groups when they are under economic pressure.”

“For a lot of people the resentment and the anger is directed toward the group coming up, and I think this is a really old political story—that politics tends to move to the left when the bottom and the middle align against the top, and it tends to moves to the right when the top and the middle top align against the bottom, and I think we’re seeing some of that.”

“There’s one thing I think the media can do, that I try to do in my column, which is to stop talking about the working class as if it’s only white. You could argue, it depends on how you do the numbers, that the majority of the working class is actually African American and Latino, or at least a very substantial minority is. Many of the same problems confronting a white worker in Erie, Pennsylvania, were problems confronted in the inner city. These are problems created by deindustrialization…I would at least like to see more effort made to talk about how problems that we tend to racialize are actually common problems. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t particular problems that particular groups face…we desperately need a politics that brings those groups together. Progressives should look at what Trump is doing and know that he needs those racial divisions; I think we need to heal those racial divisions.”

Ideas for finding a path forward

“Our ability to empathize with each other across all our divides is really attenuated. We need a lot more work. There is a sense of people not being able to put themselves in the shoes of others, whether it is a white person in the shoes of an African American worried about whether his unarmed kid is going to get shot at night, or a well-off person in Silicon Valley [understanding people] whose companies are going out of business, who have to trade a decent paying job for something far less, and so on.”

“I do think we need a new patriotism rooted in a new empathy. We also talk a lot in the book about civil society, not as in civility, but as in all of those great institutions that are not part of government, but can be nurtured by government, that help people organize their lives and their communities. You’re seeing in communities all over the country a degree of social dislocation—family breakdown, a decline in the vibrancy of civic organizations. Many of these problems have economic roots—a town that loses its economic wherewithal will have these problems, but these problems, in turn, aggravate the difficulties that are already there. This is where I would love to see a broad conversation between left and right.”

Article by Nilagia McCoy of the Shorenstein Center.