There is a “paper tiger” aspect of the Trump presidency, Yale Law School lecturer and The New York Times Magazine staff writer Emily Bazelon ’93, LAW ’00 remarked during her political discussion with The New York Times Op-Ed columnist Ross Douthat on Feb. 19.
In their Poynter Fellowship talk “Is America Coming Apart? Trump, Media, and the Future of the Republic,” the two journalists debated about politics and the media before a full audience in Linsly-Chittenden Hall.
Bazelon and Douthat began their free-flowing discussion with analysis of the conspicuous gap between President Trump’s rhetoric and action. Though Bazelon noted that Trump’s Twitter is largely “divorced from real action,” it often receives undue media attention, she said. Douthat drew the comparison of this Trump-media relationship to a “perfectly sealed ecosystem,” a feedback loop in which Trump tweets about news outlets while news outlets cover Trump’s tweets.
Bazelon and Douthat further considered Trump’s recent declaration of national emergency to obtain border wall funding, a pressing manifestation of this misalignment between Trump’s words and actions that Douthat called a “bizarre dynamic.” Bazelon found the declaration “hair-raising, because there is no emergency.”
“This is a quasi-fake declaration of emergency plus a performative commitment to build the wall,” Douthat said. “Trump’s performative presidency is being menacing in rhetoric but weak in policy.”
Douthat’s perception of the “future of the Republic,” was similarly wary. He described an analogy of how a frog in water brought to a slow boil will not perceive danger until it is too late, representing dishonest politics that gradually but consistently destabilize the country’s democratic structure.
“Trump makes the burning more noticeable, but does not accelerate the process,” Douthat said.
Bazelon also expressed an urgent concern for Congress’s apparent disinterest in holding its power as an equal branch of government, describing how it takes a back seat behind the president and Supreme Court. Despite complications such as gerrymandering or low voter turnouts, Congress could reassert itself with the important powers it holds, such as the power of the purse, Bazelon suggested.
“Congress is not responsive enough to the democracy,” she said. “We need to protect the congressional prerogative.”
Despite coming from different political backgrounds, Bazelon and Douthat often found common ground and built upon each other’s arguments. When an audience member asked for suggestions for staying unbiased while drawing from polarizing news sources, both speakers in bipartisan agreement referred to research that indicates the Internet is a less polarizing news source than cable news, a promising direction that they believe present-day news is headed.
“If we want to tell a hopeful story, the graduation migration of news consumption from cable news to the Internet is not actually going to lead to everyone believing in fake news made up in Macedonia or something,” Douthat said. “It’s going to lead to fewer people choosing between the dynamics of Fox [News] or the dynamics of MSNBC.”
The talk was co-sponsored by the Office of the Secretary and Vice President for Student Life and Belonging at Yale and hosted by Kimberly Goff-Crews.