Alternative Universe by Al Sikes

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Amazingly, a real estate developer, reality TV personality and propagandist has created an alternative universe. Must have been something broken.

The setting: the White House. The big house is well known to older generations, but the 21st Century script and staging are maddeningly alien. Older generations are accustomed to decorum (even if it is deceptive), while their preferred media are press conferences, newspapers and the nightly news.

Most older Americans expect familiar patterns to change; they anticipate the old world yielding to the preferences of the young. But, as it turns out the shaper is not young, he is in his seventies.

Just as the traditional media is shrinking under disruptive technology and economics, along comes Donald Trump with what has turned out to be a debilitating gift. He is the news. You can close down those costly foreign bureaus and expensive investigation departments – just cover Trump. Outrage or pandering will do.

The President, however, is not that easy to cover if indeed the intent is to cover, not just him, but his policies as well. It is easy to voice outrage or pander to his narcissistic needs, but actually covering his Presidency is not so easy. Unless, of course, the Steele Dossier brackets your curiosity.

How many thoughtful or probing stories have been served up on his Mideast policies and diplomacy? Or, on our face-offs with China or North Korea? Or, on the broader implications of his tax, trade or fiscal initiatives? It is much easier to script and produce a soap opera with familiar themes and actors.

The Trump phenomenon is, if nothing else, wrenchingly revealing. It has revealed institutional weaknesses in stark terms. Political parties, news media, and Congress are not just weak in the minds of Americans, they are complicit. Complicit in America’s decline.

Workers buffeted by trade and technology see two political parties that are orchestrated by their bases. The Republican Party seems anchored to social issues and tax reduction, while the Democrat Party seems enamored with utopian dreams and identity politics.

The news media and its consumers were ripe for the Trump counterattack: fake news. Indeed one critic, Matt Taibbi a Contributing editor of Rolling Stone, commented, “….news that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller is headed home without issuing new charges is a death-blow for the reputation of the American news media.”

And, as one friend noted, Members of Congress seem mainly to be good at saving Post Offices that should be closed. Why not? As manufacturing moves away and school districts consolidate, often the only vestige of a saner time in rural America is the Post Office. And to borrow a phrase, it takes a Congressman to save a Post Office. Who else can draw on yet more debt to save the bankrupt?

There is, of course, hope. America has proven to be adaptive and resourceful. As she lost her business strength in hardware, her entrepreneurs turned to software. Old cities are reinventing themselves. New educational initiatives are pushing its bureaucracy.

But in matters political, the reinvention is much more difficult because the powers that be are excellent at hunkering down—that phenomena attacks political science. They have erected walls of protection. Just as Congress protects the Post Office, State Legislatures have mastered gerrymandering and laws that make it difficult for new political movements to get on the ballot.

Maybe there is a gift in Trump’s Presidency. Maybe the wider public will be “woke” (aware and enlightened) to the perils of political rigidity in a disruptive era and discipline the politicians. But, as I pen these lines, I am reminded of the parting words of Mayor Frank Skeffington in the movie The Last Hurrah. As friends of the terminally afflicted Mayor surrounded his beside, the Catholic Cardinal suggested the Mayor on reflection would probably have lived his life with greater integrity. The Mayor’s final words: “Like hell I would.”

There are 21st Century scripts to be written and what a fight they will feature. The irrepressible energy of disruption tangles with the immovable, political parties. If film writers and the news media can step back, take a deep breath, and fend off biases then there are great stories to be written and news to be reported.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

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Letters to Editor

  1. JT Smith says

    For those who still read, Paul Krugman in the NYT and David Ignatius in the Wash Post write “ thoughtful and probing” analyses of Trump’ s economic and foreign policies. Regrettably too few read them when the President of the United States characterizes them as “ enemies of the people. “ The real issue is whether or when the representatives of the people in Congress will muster the courage to call an ignorant and rogue Executive to account.

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