Here’s some information that might come as a surprise to you if you’re a casual news consumer weighing your options ahead of the midterms:
- Central American migrants caravanning through Mexico are not a national security threat to the United States.
- The caravan is not filled with criminals and “Middle Easterners.”
- Democrats had nothing to do with the formation of the caravan.
- Democrats do not want the caravaners to cross the southern border undetected and disappear into the United States.
- People in California are not rioting about sanctuary cities, on either side of the issue.
- Democrats do not want to give luxury automobiles to Central American migrants or unauthorized immigrants or anyone else.
- Illegal immigration and crime are at near-historic lows.
- There is no Republican plan to cut middle-income taxes, before the election or after.
- Democrats have no plan to destroy Medicare.
- There is no $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia.
- Our arms trade with Saudi Arabia does not, and will not, generate anywhere close to a million jobs.
Republicans’ campaign strategy in part entails convincing as many people as possible that the opposite of each of these bullet points is true, and judging by the at-times credulous way political media has covered their claims, they are surely having some success.
But the larger purpose of all the disinformation—about Democrats paying Muslim caravaners to infiltrate the country, and Republicans advancing a middle-class tax cut plan that doesn’t exist—is to pervade the news environment with storylines that, beyond the slander and lies, aren’t particularly relevant to next month’s vote. And to that end, it has been a stunning success.
Credulous or critical, the news is absolutely saturated with coverage of these issues. There have been plenty of stories debunking President Trump’s claims about the composition of the caravan, and the risk it poses to the United States. If you burrow into the details, you’ll probably learn that Trump has fabricated a Republican middle-income tax cut plan from whole cloth, because the corporate tax cut he actually signed is terribly unpopular. But every column inch and minute of airtime spent scrutinizing fiction is lost forever and does nothing to actually inform people about the true stakes of the coming midterms.
Before 2016, the media’s peculiar obsessions convinced millions of people that the choice in 2016 was between two comparably corrupt and dishonest politicians, one who had suspicious, secret emails, and another who wanted to toughen immigration laws. The fact that Trump would try to gut environmental and financial regulation, kick millions of people off their health plans, funnel the “savings” to the rich and corporations, and alter the course of American jurisprudence for a generation went almost completely uncommented on in the mainstream press, even though it was written into his agenda.
And today, with the race for control of the House poised to be decided by a handful of seats, that history is repeating itself.
It’s not that the real stakes of the midterms are small, or uninteresting. It is easy to imagine dramatic political journalism about what the differences between Republican and Democratic control of Congress would really be.
Republicans oppose meaningful protections for people with pre-existing conditions (including ones that exist under current law) but have told obscene, Orwellian lies to hide this fact. They are suing the government in the hope that conservative judges will throw out the ACA’s pre-existing conditions protections for them. Republicans would like to cut funding to Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid dramatically, and have promised to take another run at the Affordable Care Act, including its pre-existing conditions protections, if they win the midterms. Any savings they wring from their assault on health care spending would likely finance another regressive tax cut.
A Democratic victory would put the risk that agenda poses to millions of people’s health coverage to rest for at least two years. It would also uncork the congressional oversight function that Republicans have kept bottled up since Trump’s inauguration.
Republicans are scared enough about health-care politics to lie about their position on pre-existing conditions protections, but they haven’t disguised their views about Trump’s corruption at all. They have compiled a long list of scandals and failures they worry Democrats will investigate from the majority, as a tacit admission that, if they win, they will continue letting Trump govern with unrivaled corruption and incompetence. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described aggressive oversight, including the pursuit of Trump’s concealed tax returns, as “presidential harassment.” Trump has essentially promised to replace—at the very least—his attorney general after the election, which would jeopardize Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and most Republicans think that’s just fine. Democrats might be able to save Mueller’s job if they win in November, and they could definitely pick up where he left off, assuring that the work he’s done doesn’t go to waste.
The stakes in this arena are incredibly clear. A Democratic House would unearth mountains of new, damning information about the president and his administration—troves of documents and revelations, the very thought of which should be catnip to political journalists.
It’s rare that the fate of an entire presidency hangs in the balance of a single midterm, but in this case it’s clear in advance. The difference between 217-218 and 218-217 is a matter of enormous historical significance and impossible to overstate.
Alongside the conflicts this election will shape, it also has the potential to open new frontiers. If he loses Congress, Trump would look for “wins” in new places, and, with the GOP agenda on ice, he might partner with Democratic leadership to do interesting things—a public infrastructure bill, a minimum wage increase—which would be genuinely good for the country, but scramble 2020 politics in unpredictable ways. Whatever Trump does, if Democrats win back power in states, the range of potential policy changes would be vast, and could include expanded voting rights, gun safety regulations, Medicaid expansion, minimum wage increases, and, eventually input in the next redistricting.
These stakes have disappeared from national headlines, leaving us with the caravan and the fake tax cut as dominant 2018 storylines, both of which will disappear the moment polls close on November 6. In this way, the coverage of the 2018 midterms looks as much like the coverage of the 2014 campaign as it does of the 2016 campaign, which is a damning fact, because it’s actually the third time journalists have allowed Trump to lead them by the nose to bullshit ahead of an election. Four Octobers ago, Trump—who was then a racist birther reality television show host, and thus an important figure in Republican politics—fanned racist panic about an Ebola outbreak in west Africa, which he and the GOP immediately stopped pretending to care about once Republicans won control of the Senate.
Republicans also predictably stopped pretending to care about government email protocols after the 2016 election, and, thus, so did journalists.
With the benefit of hindsight, the best we can say about how journalists covered those “controversies” is that something real lay under them. Ebola is a genuinely dangerous virus, and there really was an outbreak abroad that had breached quarantine and placed the global public at some risk. Hillary Clinton really did do government work on her private email system in breach of State Department rules.
The caravan is nothing like that. When this election is over the caravan may or may not still exist, but Republicans will stop pretending to care about it, and its relevance to American politics will completely vanish. Today’s journalists may have learned enough not to take these manufactured crises at face values, but they have not learned enough to avoid being pawns in a manipulative charade. They have not learned that they don’t have to let diversionary propaganda set their agenda—or that they can weigh the campaigns they’re covering against the empirical stakes of the election and thus gauge who is lying and who is telling the truth.
If there’s good news here it’s that two years of the Trump presidency has primed tens of millions of people to see through Trump’s lies and bigoted nonsense. Republicans tried to whip up a panic about MS-13 in Virginia last year, ahead of the state’s off-year elections, and got wiped out. Polling averages show Democrats leading the generic ballot by several percentage points. But thanks largely to gerrymandering, Democrats can win the popular vote for the House in a landslide and still get shut out of power. The race seems out of reach for Republicans, but it’s really quite narrow, and that’s the backdrop that makes the helpless media response to Trump’s agitprop so reckless. The opportunity cost of outsourcing editorial judgment to a liar like Trump is growing by the moment, just as it did in the past two elections, and the consequences could be just as tragic, if not more so.