UPDATE: The Spokesman-Review has announced it will no longer publish unsigned endorsements.
With much of the state and nation having already voted, it feels like Election 2020 is all over but the shouting.
The shouting, though, can be highly revealing. And these past few days the uproar has been loudest in an unlikely place: Spokane.
The Lilac City is a light-blue town smack in a deep-red county. The red parts outmuscle the blue at the ballot box, such that in the 2016 presidential vote, Donald Trump won Spokane County by about 9 percentage points.
So you’d think it wouldn’t be that big of a deal that the area’s daily newspaper, The Spokesman-Review, endorsed Trump for reelection last Sunday.
But the editorial stance was roundly booed, both locally and nationally, and it led to scores of subscribers canceling the paper. The Spokesman’s former editorial page editor weighed in to say he’s “ashamed to say I worked there,” while a current news columnist called it “an utter mind-twister.”
The problem wasn’t just that the paper endorsed Trump. It’s the argument the editorial made.
“Donald Trump is a bully and a bigot,” it started out.
Yes, it went on, it’s true, Trump panders to racists. He endlessly tweets conspiracy theories. He denies climate change. And he’s been “cavalier about COVID-19 and has led poorly through the pandemic.”
He’s also “a wretched human being,” the editorial remarkably concluded, adding: “We recommend voting for him anyway.”
You have to admit that’d be a great bumper sticker: Wretched Human Being for President!
Some Spokanians were disgusted that a candidate could be a bigot and endorsed in the same breath. Considering our history, shouldn’t bigotry be disqualifying?
Some journalists at the paper, who point out the editorial was the sole opinion of the publisher, Stacey Cowles, were angry because of something not mentioned — that Trump has launched a war of sorts on journalism itself.
“A newspaper endorsement favoring a man who assaults the truth hourly, and calls journalists the enemy of the people, is impossible to understand,” wrote Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal.
All strong critiques, but I want to rise in defense of the editorial anyway. Not because I agree with it. But because I learned something from it.
It’s easy to see why Trump has such a loyal following with the masses, from his outsider brashness to his middle-finger style with the liberals to his tough-on-immigration stances. I’ve been curious for years though about how it is that so many party elites and establishment types seem so compliant to his worst excesses.
Why does no one in the Republican Party ever speak up? Why did they refuse to hear any witnesses in Trump’s impeachment trial? Why are they silent as he trashes the voting system in the run-up to the election? Why are they right now looking the other way as Trump lies daily to the public about the latest surge of the coronavirus?
I’ve interviewed a number of Trump backers over the years to try to understand this disconnect. The rationale is that Trump’s wild statements and even his bigotry are a sort of performance art, an act not to be taken literally. Trump himself echoes this — like how he’s taken to saying he was only joking when he mused about injecting bleach to fight the coronavirus (he obviously wasn’t joking, but if he was, who in the world thinks it’s appropriate to tell macabre jokes at a pandemic task force briefing anyway?).
The Spokesman editorial refreshingly cuts through all the performance art baloney. Trump is no joke, it states. He really is a bigot and a know-nothing charlatan. But we back him anyway … why? Because we think he’ll be better for business.
Seriously, that’s pretty much it. Joe Biden wants more spending on things like health care and education (true), so he’ll have to “impose unprecedented tax increases,” (not true, especially the “unprecedented” part — for the record what Biden is actually proposing are higher taxes on people making more than $400,000 a year).
Given the choice between a wretched human being and “a doddering, doting uncle who would hand out gifts the nation can’t afford,” the editorial closes, “economic policy and principle should prevail. Vote Donald Trump.”
This may be the most revealing thing written about the moral bargaining that’s at the root of the Trump era. It goes to how it is that the elite classes, from D.C. down to the Chamber of Commerce level, all could tut in public how “concerned” they were about Trump’s “inappropriate” behavior, while for the most part enabling it. Money isn’t the only thing that matters, as any fantastically rich person will tell you. But if to get some tax cuts or goose the business cycle all you have to do is tolerate some rank bigotry, crazed conspiracy theorizing, polarizing name-calling and autocratic demagoguery, is the choice even difficult?
The real story is that the publisher in Spokane is far from the only one to take this deal. Much of the business class and the rank and file of an entire political party is in for it with the rationalizing of a cult.
I feel for my reporter brethren at The Spokesman-Review. But I’m also glad the paper printed this. It says the quiet parts out loud. At least now, when people look back at this time in bafflement, how it ever came to pass will be right there in writing.