Bad Rain Falling: Who’s to Blame for our Trump Catastrophe?

By Todd Gitlin | ( | – –

These days are for resistance to the abomination that has befallen us; as also for decent conduct among our injured humanity of every shape and color; as also for “tears of rage, tears of grief,” in the pained words of our Nobel laureate, who some 50 years ago saw the hard rain falling, as it was then and shall, for some time, continue to do. Rending of garments would be an appropriate recourse, though it would be better to donate the garments to the homeless whose presence on the streets is an everyday pointer to the grand social failure which has borne such rotten fruit.

A narrow loss cannot possibly be laid at a single door.

But amid all the postmortems after an election campaign that will live in infamy, one historical principle ought to be kept uppermost in our minds. A narrow loss cannot possibly be laid at a single door. History does not work in straight lines in which A — and nothing but A — causes B, as the location, trajectory and spin of the basketball leaving the hand of LeBron James sends the ball through the hoop. It follows, then, that recriminations ought to be tempered. For one thing, as political scientist Jeff Isaac has lucidly written in an appeal for intellectual and emotional modesty:

…[I]t is simply impossible to definitively settle complex questions of political and historical causality. This is what keeps historians and social scientists in business, for good or ill.

[Moreover] it takes more than a few days to sort through all of the relevant evidence, and it takes even longer to generate compelling and sufficiently nuanced accounts of events so current and so shocking.

Remember that the popular vote count is not yet complete. Remember also that decisive state races were so close — Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania evidently decided by a total of about 110,000 votes — that responsibility for Trump’s victory has to be shared. According to The Nation’s John Nichols, “The results in a number of battleground states were so close that a shift of around 55,000 votes in three states (Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) would align the national popular vote result with the Electoral College result for a Clinton win.”

In a knife-edge election, no one gets off the hook. Disaster has many parents.

Still, to those who have the power to drive attention, to amplify certain tones and spirits and depress others, greater responsibility must be assigned. To start with, it could not be more obvious that James Comey ranks high on the list of this defeat’s parents. The Republicans who made their peace with the vicious bullshitter of Fifth Avenue are up there. The dynamic duo of Vladimir Putin and Julian Assange, discrediting the Democrats in daily bulletins dutifully picked up by the news media, are on the list, too. Lazy, credulous, venal TV news is right up there, obsessed with Clinton emails and the Clinton Foundation while oh so lah-de-dah about Trump’s relations to the mob, Trump’s phony foundation, Trump’s cheating investors, Trump’s employment of illegal laborers.… And then there is Facebook, the world’s largest circulator of junk, outdoing Waste Management by many orders of magnitude.

And then there is Facebook, the world’s largest circulator of junk, outdoing Waste Management by many orders of magnitude.

Which is why I’m appalled, with the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci and Washington Post writer Hayley Tsukayama, to see Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg weasel away from his company’s share of responsibility for the diffusion of lies and distortions that have poured gasoline onto the flames of unreason in our time. Tufekci writes:

After the election, Mr. Zuckerberg claimed that the fake news was a problem on “both sides” of the race. That’s wrong. There are, of course, viral fake anti-Trump memes, but reporters have found that the spread of false news is far more common on the right than it is on the left.

As Politico’s Jack Shafer points out, Trump’s new #2 man, Breitbart News’ Steve Bannon, will not only be his house propagandist, but his propaganda apparatus.

[Breitbart] has a powerful reach on Facebook — higher than many mainstream outlets — and a direct emotional connection to the new populist Republican base that carried Trump to his shocking victory. With Bannon so close to Trump’s office, we can expect Breitbart will coordinate with the Trump White House, functioning as his ministry of information as it did during the campaign, and going on the attack to keep renegade legislators in line. If this sounds theoretical, it’s not: Just three hours after Bannon was named to his new post, Breitbart went directly after Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, publishing a story suggesting he was losing support from some GOP members.

No disrespect to weasels, who have their own species priorities, but is Zuckerberg in the truth or post-truth business? Neither, he says, pretending he doesn’t know that his company took a big part in circulating phony “news” — or, less euphemistically, crackpot Republican propaganda. Facebook may or may not have had a decisive role but see above: Defeat has many parents. Facebook played its part in the collective disgrace. No one can know just how significant it was, but it is not heartening that Zuckerberg now pledges to do better “cracking down on fake news” while still insisting that becoming an “arbiter of truth” is not in his business plan.

In corporate-speak, Zuckerberg plays dumb:

“Facebook is mostly about helping people stay connected with friends and family. News and media are not the primary things people do on Facebook, so I find it odd when people insist we call ourselves a news or media company in order to acknowledge its importance.”

Whatever Zuckerberg’s company chooses to “call itself,” it circulates messages — words, images, whatnot. Much of that content is or purports to be news, as any idiot, even a Harvard dropout, must know. Fake stories that ricocheted through Facebook in the run-up to the election included (in the words of the tech site CNET) “a fake story about an FBI agent associated with Clinton’s email leaks being found dead in a murder-suicide and another fake story about the Pope endorsing Trump.”

As Tufekci points out, Facebook is walled off from independent researchers who might be able to ascertain just how much vile, junk “news” circulates under their logo and how grand are its echo chamber effects. “In addition to doing more to weed out lies and false propaganda, Facebook could tweak its algorithm so that it does less to reinforce users’ existing beliefs, and more to present factual information,” she writes. Whether Zuckerberg will do any of that is anyone’s guess. Rather than provide public assurances that the company will deeply investigate its role in the garbage business and come clean, Zuckerberg snuggles into his bad-faith blanket, assuring us that his hands are unstained.

For good reason, Oxford Dictionaries have chosen “post-truth” as their word of the year. Some will sneer that this is just what you’d expect from elitists with their snooty disdain for the common people. As for myself, it redoubles my sense of imperatives:

Be on the lookout for all practitioners of bad faith, those who profess innocence and renounce their own responsibility.

Confront the media moguls, editors and reporters who delighted in Trump’s spectacle, reveled in the eyeballs they gathered by treating him as a decent and qualified candidate, and then scrambled to wash their hands, bleating all the while that after all, viewers were always free to change the channels.

Confront the Republicans who covered for this unscrupulous man and bent their knees once they realized they had no plausible deficit hawk to put up against him.

Confront also those who, in the name of their fantasy revolution or their plain rage, declined to vote or stood with Jill Stein and Gary Johnson in oblivion, preferred the gestures of nihilism to the hard work of politics that they find boring and corrupt.

Mark Zuckerberg’s bad faith has plenty of company. Let no one off the hook.

[h/t: Paul Levine]


Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of 16 books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.


17 Responses

  1. Chris Hedges, Cornel West, Edward Snowden are amongst those who said Clinton was as bad as Trump. There are millions of people who will be hurt by Trump who would not have been so harmed by Clinton– people who lose their health insurance, undocumented folks ( some of whom lived here for over 20 years), harassed Muslims. Every vote counted. Whoever did not block Trump by voting for Clinton shares the blame for this disaster.

  2. So Todd, Are you telling people that they must remain in bondage to the one party state (Republicrats)? “Confront also those who, in the name of their fantasy revolution or their plain rage, declined to vote or stood with Jill Stein and Gary Johnson”

    • Yes!

      it is mathematically impossible for a third party candidate to win a national election.

      You may not like the math, but math ALWAYS WINS no matter what your fantasies.

      If you want something different, then you will have to reform one of the major parties from the inside.

      CGP Grey explains it all . . .

      link to

      Note that there are ways to reform the political process so it is more open (see CGP Greys other videos)

      BUT .. . .

      neither dominate party has any incentive to change the rules, nor set up non-gerrymandered districts.

      I learned long ago to deal with reality instead of fantasies because reality ALWAYS WINS in the end..

  3. Yes to all of the above, but Gitlin ignores the (I hate this cliché) elephant in the room. The Democratic Party nominated an unlikable candidate. Let’s never forget the millions of voters who made their choice in 2000 because they would rather have a beer with George W Bush than Al Gore. Hillary admitted she isn’t the natural politician that Bill is. And just when high turnout was necessary to win, wasn’t her inability to generate enthusiasm critical? Trump, the pied piper, convinced millions of people with whom he would never associate except to pick their pockets that he was their friend, that they could sit down and enjoy a brewski with the Donald.

    Then there is the three-headed monstrosity Chuck Schumer, Steve Israel, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (they bring shame to American Jews) who conspired to select the maximum number of doomed down-ballot candidates while failing to back the ones with a real shot to win. Seriously, don’t you think that Alan Grayson would have brought out voters in a way that Republican in sheep’s clothing Murphy did not and could not? What about their pitiful lack of support for Russ Feingold? Similar situation with Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania. Kiss 3 critical states goodbye.

    Not hardly the end of the story but enough for now, as Juan so clearly laid out a while ago the Democratic Party no longer stands for anything, least of all advocating for the broad interests of the 99%. Harry Truman said it best: “Given the choice between a Republican and someone who acts like a Republican, people will vote for the real Republican all the time.”

  4. Odd article. Gitlin is a professor of Journalism and sociology and he’s a critic of “fake news”? But he never addresses the “legitimate news” that blocked Bernie, boosted Hillary and never explored vital issues such as climate change and foreign policy during the entire election process? The same “legitimate news” that gave us WMD’s in the lead up to the most disastrous war/massacre in US history or the Israeli treatment of Palestinians that never sees the light of day?

    I suspect he really fears the de-legitimization of the Orwellian mainstream media that has so effectively controlled the US population for so long — corporate media’s monopoly on truth and reality.

    And then there’s his list of blames for Hillary’s defeat which never takes into account things like her close relationship to the ruling class, her role in blocking the Bernie candidacy, super delegates, the corrupt Democratic party controlled by corporate America, her inability to relate to the working class, ad nauseaum….

    One man’s truth is another man’s lies.

  5. Blame the 97 MILLION registered voters who stayed home floating in their spoiled, self-righteous stew of indifference thereby denying others their right to vote. Every registered vote not made nullifies the votes of others in effect. If 48% of the electorate doesn’t care to vote, obviously this radical shift into extreme right-wing leadership and H8 is OK with them?

    Those who wanted “change” will now learn to live in a much different America, an America that did an “about-face” in 2016 to move rapidly away from progress.

    • A non-vote is actually a vote!

      As has been well documented a non-action is the same as an action.

      As Gandhi noted:

      “Actions express priorities”

      When people do not vote, their ACTION is expressing a desire for whatever the actual voters decide, no indifference.

      • The point exactly. Non-voters whistled by the graveyard and elected Trump, the pending destroyer of our once great country by proxy.

        And Gandhi is not here.

  6. I find it odd that among the many fathers of this Trump debacle acknowledged by Gitlin, whose writings I respect, omitted was the Democratic Party’s refusal to acknowledge the mood of the voters who are hurting by advocating for more of the same old same old, albeit a slight push by Bernie to inch toward a bold statement of how government can help. It was clear two years ago the Party had its coronation planned for Hillary. Why it didn’t advocate for the issues that aroused and energized the voters on both sides of the aisle is bewildering to me. The DNC position of educational debt relief, a foremost issue for young voters, was at best lame, just more tinkering around the edges of a generational catastrophe. Why not free tuition for all public colleges and universities, and writing off educational debt? We found trillions to write off debt of the financial services industry brought on by their own fraud and greed, but can’t bail out the generation that will be needed to support us oldsters. They would have voted in droves and would likely have become Democrats forever. I could go on, but to not mention the role the DNC played in ignoring the pain out there is foremost to me.

  7. Most reasonable people have the ability to discern if news is real or manufactured. What makes Zuckerberg so special that he can decide for all of us? That is censorship! Facebook has used its algorithms to censor users for years, especially when it comes to Israeli/Palestinian issues, news and opinions as pro-Israel only. This is unacceptable in a free society. Of course, he has his major stockholders to appease which are mostly Zionist (Goldman Sachs, Jeff Rothschild, etc.)

  8. One of my all-time hero reporters. Please continue working with your keen eye and heart in presenting the truth behind the facades. Thank you !

  9. Facebook is positioned as a common carrier, in large part so that they can never be held liable for content that they host. That is a fundamental barrier to them becoming a media company. In order to be a credible media company, they would have to, you know, apply due diligence to content that they accept on their platform. That is unlikely to happen while their entire business model is based on being a free-to-consumers all-things-to-all-people platform where eyeball numbers equal advert revenue and data that can be sold to analysis companies.

  10. By coincidence, I just read an article about ANNA KARENINA by Prof Gitlin, a vicious personal attack on Tolstoy as a male chauvinist pig. I kid you not. And now this BS here. The guy is full of himself and hot air, and I’m surprised Juan gives him the space. The “fake news” on FB is itself a fake story. I’ve read enough fake news on the front page of the NY Times not to worry about it.

  11. Gitlin’s rant is mostly on target. However, his refusal to see any complicity in the Wall Street Ds for their own rejection, is as massive a failure of intellectual integrity as is anything he mentions. Why does he refuse to see that a vote for Jill Stein was our only vehicle for screaming at those very Wall Street Ds that their own repugnant refusal to deal with the environmental challenges is simply intolerable? That is repugnant partisanship, another practice of that very bad faith that should be added to his list of rejections at the article’s end.

  12. Here’s a proposal.

    Blame the loud insistence that “it’s either Trump or Clinton, and if you aren’t actively voting for Clinton then you’re for Trump.”

    This was bull**** employed for the purpose of bullying, and it backfired spectacularly.

    Donald Trump was not elected by people voting for Jill Stein. He was not elected by people staying home. He was elected by people voting for Donald Trump — quite a few of whom did so despite finding him repugnant.

    Why did they do so? Absolutely there were many reasons, but one of them was very likely the strident insistence by so many people that they had to make a binary choice between two individuals they deeply disliked.

    “It’s A or B,” the would-be grown-ups insisted, “and if you aren’t for A then you are for B.”

    And so, in the end, many people who were not at all for Trump decided that they were even less for Clinton, and that if voting for Trump was the only way to not be for Clinton, they would vote for Trump.

    And now we’ve seen the result. And yet here is Todd Gitlin, still thundering about “the gestures of nihilism” as though his preferred brand of “vote against what you fear rather than for something you support” were not the prime example of the nihilism which persuaded so many people to say “well then, screw it, I’ll just vote for Trump.”

    – a liberal Democrat who despises Trump and is tired of being blamed for his presidency by people who spent much of 2016 insisting that it was my duty to support corrupt, warmongering authoritarian Hillary Clinton because we couldn’t take the risk of someone who might lose to Trump.

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