In the flood of press coverage of President Donald J. Trump’s executive order putting a hold on immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, you may have noticed something that was absent, or at least not as prevalent as it used to be: judgments on how this decision would play. Journalists were willing to denounce the decision from a moral standpoint, or for the confusion it created (which can be as harmful as the actual policy, if not more). But few of them were willing to say that this would actually hurt the Trump administration politically. If November 2016 changed one thing about the way journalists operate, it was our willingness to predict whether anything can hurt Trump.
As commenters are often willing to point out, it’s not a secret that most of us in journalism are not Trump fans. But a fair amount of criticism of Trump throughout 2015 and 2016 was not focused on the substantive differences we had with the man. A lot of it focused instead on the political fallout of his choices: the latest thing he said or did was proof that he didn’t know what he was doing, and his campaign was a garbage fire. New York Magazine pundit Jonathan Chait even had a regular feature called “Donald Trump’s campaign is a garbage fire”. When Trump called for Muslim immigration to be halted, a lot of reactions were like John Podhoretz predicting that this would be the thing that finally made it impossible for Trump to win. The criticisms of ideas like the Muslim ban, or putting Steve Bannon in charge of his campaign, often revolved around the idea that these were politically harmful ideas that would bring down this joke of a campaign.
Media critic Jay Rosen has said that journalists worship at what he calls “the church of the savvy,” where virtue consists of being “practical, hardheaded, unsentimental, and shrewd where others are didactic, ideological, and dreamy.” What makes this approach so tempting is that it sidesteps questions of ideology and bias in favour of something superficially more objective. If we say something will hurt a politician’s campaign, we are not making an ideological judgment, we’re just hard-nosed reporters stating the equally hard-nosed facts. Saying that the news about Hillary Clinton’s email server would be politically damaging is less controversial than making a proclamation about whether it should be politically damaging.
The Trump victory blew up the church of the savvy. Trump supporters pointed out that journalists had been mostly wrong about what made a winning campaign. Meanwhile, Clinton supporters blamed the media for turning the email story into a major cause of her defeat: from their point of view, she lost not because she was actually not savvy, but because journalists kept claiming she wasn’t. And the idea that you must be doing all right if you’re being criticized by both sides… well, that’s just another piece of conventional wisdom that no longer makes much sense.
It seems almost pointless to make predictions about how a Trump decision will affect his administration. It would be easy to point to the confusing rollout of the ban (starting with how Trump called it not a ban and “a very strict ban” in the same interview) as an example of Trump incompetence. Only there were a bunch of other things that were pointed to as signs of incompetence, and look how that turned out. It’s just as possible that Trump, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller actually want the massive confusion caused by the rollout, since this kind of confusion leads to mistakes on the part of their political enemies. At the very least, more journalists are open to that possibility, because they were so badly burned in their predictions last year.
We could easily overreact and start treating Trump and Bannon with a superstitious awe, acting like nothing they do can possibly hurt them, or that every seeming mistake is part of a secret master plan. This probably isn’t true. If the rollout of this executive order looks incompetent, it might just be incompetent. It’s not like nothing hurt Trump’s campaign; it’s just that things didn’t hurt him in quite the ways the church of the savvy predicted.
What is true is that no one really knows as yet what the rules are, or what this administration would consider a political defeat. When the Trump administration appeared to back down on the idea of stopping ads for Obamacare, MSNBC host Chris Hayes declared it to be an indicator that “political gravity still exists, especially when you’re talking about people’s health care.” But it’s still far too soon to know how political gravity applies to this administration as a whole; all we can do until then is watch and take notes.
That has ruled out a lot of the conventional ways journalists have of discussing politics. Some pundits still do claim that this will be the political downfall of Trump, or that will lead to his impeachment or his 2020 defeat. But who could take those claims seriously at this point? Journalists can report on the people affected by this administration’s orders, they can report on the confusion these orders cause and they can call things incompetent or immoral; many Trump voters will disagree (though not all) but they have their own journalists at this point. But the smart journalistic persona, the person who doesn’t get emotional about a policy but just judges whether a politician is winning or losing the news cycle—that’s probably over, at least until the next election. What is politically smart, it turns out, is sometimes harder to judge than what is right and wrong.