Tuesday, November 24, 2020

For the Record: In Defense of Haberman

Drawing by KAL for The Economist, 11 July 2019.

Collaborative piece by Matt Flegenheim and Maggie Haberman opening caused some howls I thought weren't justified:

It's hard for me to imagine how Dean Baquet has any control over this prose at all, let alone a sinister plan of some kind—to achieve what? Lull us into believing that Trump likes some things better than others when he really doesn't?

The first and maybe foremost rule you'll ever hear in a writing class is "Show, don't tell"—you're not supposed to spoonfeed your conclusion to the audience but rather nudge them, through your presentation of the evidence, into making the conclusion themselves. Don't ask them to swallow your judgment, let them watch and judge.

Maggie Haberman is a vain, prickly and difficult person, and her Twitter feed can be pretty unpleasant, but she's a terrific writer (I believe a lot of really good writers are vain, prickly, and difficult, for that matter), and this is why. She doesn't give you any lectures, she gives you the show; she doesn't explain that the Trump White House is like an Ionesco play, she gives you the play:

It is little secret that the mechanics of government never much animated Mr. Trump. He has been on most sides of most major political issues throughout his adult life, depending on the day. His re-election campaign barely bothered with a detailed vision for a prospective second term, focusing far more often on cultural grievance and race-baiting rally fare.

While he has effectively abdicated any leadership role in steering the nation’s coronavirus response — generally processing its devastation this year through the lens of how the pandemic would affect him politically — the president plans to see to it that the turkey pardon proceeds as scheduled on Tuesday.

It stands to be one of his few public appearances in recent weeks amid runaway virus case numbers and his continued assault on the integrity of the election. Mr. Trump has maintained a light public schedule since Nov. 3 and has often seemed downcast at his handful of engagements, including an announcement about the push to develop coronavirus vaccines, which he had promoted aggressively during the campaign.

A quick sketch of a naked emperor, with his upside-down priorities (the turkey pardon is more deserving of his attention than the ongoing dying of hundreds of thousands of Americans), his failure to imagine moving beyond campaigning to governing, the contrast between viciousness of his language and the indolence of his work style, the centrality of his fleeting and trivial emotions (seeming "downcast" while the news is supposed to signal important progress), and it's our job to notice the nakedness.

And it's the most important thing for us to know about Trump: not that he's a bad person, though he is that, but that he's not even there for the job, a ridiculous effigy set there to symbolize the president while a working oligarchy of the Republicans and billionaires who put him there fight for their various agendas behind the scenes. The bad stuff at The Times has been the legions of Very Serious Analysts pontificating about how Trump wants to "solve the Middle East" or "bring back the jobs" or "rebuild the military", as if he had any engagement in these things beyond naming somebody who might attempt to do something about whatever it is or might instead be Jared Kushner planning his defense for not doing something.

Because the true story of the past four years isn't really the story of Trump being president at all; it's the story of the cynicism of the Republicans propping him up in the full knowledge of his incapacity. Rather than complain about what Haberman does, we should be wishing there could be a couple of Habermans on Capitol Hill, or in Ronna McDaniel's office, or talking to Robert and Rebekah Mercer, or for that matter hanging out in the Kremlin, toward a fuller understanding of what's been happening to our society since 1980 or so and what, if anything, politics has to do with it. Or, failing that, as I always say, a few Izzy Stones out here reading to create a picture of what's really happening—Haberman would absolutely be on Stone's reading list if he were still with us.

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