Photo: Gerd Altmann

A Teflon-Coated Public: How We’ve Become Desensitized in the Trump-Era

In a 1983 House floor speech, Patricia N. Schroeder, a Democrat from Colorado, quipped that Ronald W. Reagan “has been perfecting the Teflon-coated presidency…nothing sticks to him,” she said. The Trump-era has ushered in the Teflon-coated public—nothing seems to stick to us.

With the daily deluge of outright lies, conspiracy theories, breaking of norms, and nasty insinuation flowing from the White House, it can be hard to keep pace. The moment you’ve processed the president’s last tweet or controversial comment, another will soon follow, and then another. To stay current with political developments is, quite frankly, exhausting—that’s by design. As a refresher, here’s a New York Times list, updated as of July 2017, of “nearly every outright lie he [President Trump] has told publicly since taking the oath of office.”

Last week, as just a single example, the president suggested Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and past congressman, had something to do with the 2001 death of Lori Klausutis, a former campaign intern. The tweet received relatively minimal news coverage, with many observers seeming to brush it off—chalking it up to just another Trump Twitter rant.

Think, for a moment, how crazy that sentiment is—the President of the United States openly suggesting a cable news host played a role and/or covered up the death of a former employee—and we, the Trump-fatigued public, shrug our collective shoulders. To be certain, there was no evidence of foul play. Dr. Michael Berkland, the Medical Examiner, said Ms. Klausutis died after “los[ing] consciousness because of an abnormal heart rhythm and fell, hitting her head on a desk.”

In any other administration, the president’s tweet would have consumed a week’s worth of news coverage, but not this one, because we must move on—to the forthcoming Trump controversy.

This is the basic template of how we’ve become a Teflon-coated public, here’s the formula: Mr. Trump does or says something truly extraordinary, public shock ensues, repeat.

Within this cycle, only the most flagrant violations—the bar is now set very high—register with the public. The relatively muted reaction to the Scarborough episode typifies the degree to which the Overton window has shifted during Mr. Trump’s short-time as president.

And while it’s often difficult for any thinking creature to take much of what the president says seriously—claiming his Inauguration crowd was the largest in history or that if it had not been for millions of illegal voters, he would have won the popular vote—both of which can be easily disbanded with a simple Google search—it’s incumbent upon the American people to catalog these claims, to find the truth, and to hold power accountable.

The late writer and orator, Christopher E. Hitchens, speaking at a 2005 Orwell symposium, remarked that “Power is only what you allow it to be. Very many people put up with political lying and political illusions and political propaganda because if they were to denounce it, they would have to admit that…they had themselves been fooled, that they had been taken for granted, that they had allowed themselves…to be deceived. The con man’s work is always done for him by the victim,” Mr. Hitchens concluded.

In the Trump-era, accountability often seems much too difficult—with the media and citizenry struggling to make sense of it all, to keep track of the persistent lying. By necessity, and for the sake of sanity, the public can’t repeat the outrage cycle day-after-day—it’s just too much, too fast—so we begin to apply layers of Teflon. No one can be blamed for this, our daily lives cannot be consumed by Mr. Trump, or for that matter, politics—it’s not healthy.

The Trump presidency does, however, provide an excellent opportunity for Americans to rediscover what it means to be an informed-participatory citizen.

At times, and to avoid exhaustion, it means stepping back from the 24-hour news cycle, especially in this new era, to take historical stock of unfolding events, to contextualize, to reevaluate. In doing so, you quickly discover two things; first, Mr. Trump’s tactic of officiation-by-disinformation-deluge is not new—it’s straight from the dictator’s handbook, a tried and true tactic. And second, we have, over the past few decades, developed a tolerance for outright political lying—in this regard, we’ve allowed ourselves to be victimized by our political leaders—Mr. Trump may simply represent the culmination of such tolerance.

To reverse this trend, or, at the very least constrain it, the public must stand for truth, for decency, and for political norms; that way, as Fareed Zakaria notes, “after Trump, the country will not start the next presidency with tattered standards and sunken expectations.”

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Brandon W. Kahr graduated from Montana State University's Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship in 2017.

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A Teflon-Coated Public: How We’ve Become Desensitized in the Trump-Era

In a 1983 House floor speech, Patricia N. Schroeder, a Democrat from Colorado, quipped that Ronald W. Reagan “has been perfecting the Teflon-coated presidency…nothing sticks to him,” she said. The Trump-era has ushered in the Teflon-coated public—nothing seems to stick to us.

With the daily deluge of outright lies, conspiracy theories, breaking of norms, and nasty insinuation flowing from the White House, it can be hard to keep pace. The moment you’ve processed the president’s last tweet or controversial comment, another will soon follow, and then another. To stay current with political developments is, quite frankly, exhausting—that’s by design. As a refresher, here’s a New York Times list, updated as of July 2017, of “nearly every outright lie he [President Trump] has told publicly since taking the oath of office.”

Last week, as just a single example, the president suggested Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and past congressman, had something to do with the 2001 death of Lori Klausutis, a former campaign intern. The tweet received relatively minimal news coverage, with many observers seeming to brush it off—chalking it up to just another Trump Twitter rant.

Think, for a moment, how crazy that sentiment is—the President of the United States openly suggesting a cable news host played a role and/or covered up the death of a former employee—and we, the Trump-fatigued public, shrug our collective shoulders. To be certain, there was no evidence of foul play. Dr. Michael Berkland, the Medical Examiner, said Ms. Klausutis died after “los[ing] consciousness because of an abnormal heart rhythm and fell, hitting her head on a desk.”

In any other administration, the president’s tweet would have consumed a week’s worth of news coverage, but not this one, because we must move on—to the forthcoming Trump controversy.

This is the basic template of how we’ve become a Teflon-coated public, here’s the formula: Mr. Trump does or says something truly extraordinary, public shock ensues, repeat.

Within this cycle, only the most flagrant violations—the bar is now set very high—register with the public. The relatively muted reaction to the Scarborough episode typifies the degree to which the Overton window has shifted during Mr. Trump’s short-time as president.

And while it’s often difficult for any thinking creature to take much of what the president says seriously—claiming his Inauguration crowd was the largest in history or that if it had not been for millions of illegal voters, he would have won the popular vote—both of which can be easily disbanded with a simple Google search—it’s incumbent upon the American people to catalog these claims, to find the truth, and to hold power accountable.

The late writer and orator, Christopher E. Hitchens, speaking at a 2005 Orwell symposium, remarked that “Power is only what you allow it to be. Very many people put up with political lying and political illusions and political propaganda because if they were to denounce it, they would have to admit that…they had themselves been fooled, that they had been taken for granted, that they had allowed themselves…to be deceived. The con man’s work is always done for him by the victim,” Mr. Hitchens concluded.

In the Trump-era, accountability often seems much too difficult—with the media and citizenry struggling to make sense of it all, to keep track of the persistent lying. By necessity, and for the sake of sanity, the public can’t repeat the outrage cycle day-after-day—it’s just too much, too fast—so we begin to apply layers of Teflon. No one can be blamed for this, our daily lives cannot be consumed by Mr. Trump, or for that matter, politics—it’s not healthy.

The Trump presidency does, however, provide an excellent opportunity for Americans to rediscover what it means to be an informed-participatory citizen.

At times, and to avoid exhaustion, it means stepping back from the 24-hour news cycle, especially in this new era, to take historical stock of unfolding events, to contextualize, to reevaluate. In doing so, you quickly discover two things; first, Mr. Trump’s tactic of officiation-by-disinformation-deluge is not new—it’s straight from the dictator’s handbook, a tried and true tactic. And second, we have, over the past few decades, developed a tolerance for outright political lying—in this regard, we’ve allowed ourselves to be victimized by our political leaders—Mr. Trump may simply represent the culmination of such tolerance.

To reverse this trend, or, at the very least constrain it, the public must stand for truth, for decency, and for political norms; that way, as Fareed Zakaria notes, “after Trump, the country will not start the next presidency with tattered standards and sunken expectations.”

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