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Our Bizarro McLuhanesque President Needs To See It On TV

June 26, 2019
Our Bizarro McLuhanesque President Needs To See It On TV
View of the bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Martinez Ramirez and his daughter, who drowned while trying to cross the Rio Grande in Matamoros, state of Coahuila on June 24, 2019. (Photo by STR / AFP) Photoshopped onto a television in the West Wing

As America drinks from the firehose of Donald Trump’s bad behavior, it seems we’re losing the ability to separate the monstrous from the merely distasteful.

Time after time, the magnitude of public outrage is determined not by the content of the message, but by the medium through which the message is delivered.

There’s nothing new about this phenomenon. More than 50 years ago, Marshall McLuhan observed that “the medium is the message.” He was right then. He’s right now.

Some of McLuhan’s distinctions between “hot” media (radio, photography) and “cool” media (television, cartoons, telephones) are outdated, but there can be no quarrel with McLuhan’s central point: that the medium through which the message is delivered is often more important than the content of the message itself.

And Donald Trump is the quintessential Bizarro McLuhanesque Man.

Forget the philosophical mumbo-jumbo: If Trump sees it on TV, it’s real and probably a big deal. If he doesn’t, it’s out of sight and out of mind.

Need an example? Two years ago, the Trump administration was signaling to anyone who would listen that its Syria policy was softening. Instead of “Assad must go,” then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the status of President Assad “will be decided by the Syrian people.” On the same day, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said that Assad “is not going away,” and that it was no longer America’s priority to focus on getting the dictator out.

And then Donald Trump turned on his television.

What he saw was televised footage of dead and dying children who had been caught in one of Assad’s nerve gas attacks. Trump, ever unfiltered, changed his administration’s policy on Syria again, saying “I’ve been watching it and seeing it,” and, as a result, his “attitude towards Syria and Assad have changed very much.”

And in the time it took to change channels, our nation’s laissez-faire policy toward Syria evaporated.

Missiles flew.

For Trump, it was the televised pictures of suffering children, not the suffering itself, that called for action.

And so it has been throughout the Trump administration. He appoints television talk-show and media personalities to high government positions (Larry Kudlow, Heather Nauert, Stephen Moore, Bill Shine, Steve Bannon), and his policy is shaped largely by what he sees on TV.

Now it’s time to ask ourselves whether we all suffer, to one degree or another, from the inability to grasp the magnitude and significance of public events unless we see them on television.

Because a government-sponsored atrocity is taking place right now on our southern border.

Sick, frightened, hopeless children are being incarcerated in unsafe, filthy detention camps that lack the infrastructure and the resources to meet the most basic needs.

Yet this monstrous deviation from everything America is supposed to stand for has failed to break through our national consciousness as anything more than yet another example of the Trump administration’s bad behavior.

And it’s not because we don’t know about it. We have known about it for well over a year. It has been well-documented in the written press. Most recently, lawyers were allowed to visit (but not film) the overcrowded detention facility in Clint, Texas. They reported a “chaotic scene of sickness and filth.” Children as young as 7 and 8, “many of them wearing clothes caked with snot and tears,” are caring for infants they just met. “Toddlers without diapers are relieving themselves in their pants. Teenage mothers are wearing clothes stained with breast milk.” They have no access to toothbrushes, toothpaste or soap.”

This is a crime against humanity, being conducted in our name. In your name.

It doesn’t belong in the same conversation as Trump’s sexual misconduct, his lack of vetting high government officials, his brain-dead Middle East non-peace plan, his lies about the Mueller report, or any of the rest of it.

And it’s not Congress’ fault for failing to appropriate more funds to house detained immigrants. Trump has used presidential emergency powers to send troops to the Mexican border, freeze assets, shut down websites, and shift billions of dollars away from programs authorized by Congress to build a largely symbolic wall.

Don’t tell me he can’t find a few thousand dollars in the $4.8 trillion federal budget to provide basic necessities, like soap and toothbrushes, to miserable children held in filthy government detention camps.

But he won’t.

Until he sees it on TV.

And we won’t make him do it.

Until we see it on TV.

Shame on all of us.

Philip Rotner

Philip Rotner is a columnist whose articles appear in national publications and on his website, Philip is an attorney who has practiced for over 40 years, both in private practice and as the general counsel of a global professional services firm.  Philip’s views are his own, and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated.