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Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart on the Media's Post-Trump Future

Capehart

The question seems to come every year before the appetizer and the turkey is carved, “What are you most thankful for?” and more likely posed during a Zoom meal this year. If you have escaped the wrath or consequences of COVID-19, then that seems to be a good place to start. 2020 hasn’t given us that many moments of overwhelming gratitude, so many of you might say, “Joe Biden” taking the positive approach, or going negative with “No more Donald Trump.”

There’s been a lot of discussion in the media about what happens when there is no more Trump on January 20, 2021 at noon — a moment we will all no doubt greatly appreciate. What impact will Trump still have, not only with the Republican party, but on the American psyche after he’s gone? And in particular the plethora of columnist, pundits, and journalists, myself included, who have become accustomed to covering his deplorable news.

When I spoke to Trump’s niece Mary a few months ago, she said that after her uncle leaves office, “...then we have our work cut out for us.” As a psychologist, what she meant was fixing all of the damage he has done to the country, our government, and on all of us emotionally.

As a writer, it became almost cathartic to rail against Trump, and tear into all the terror he created by delving into so many aspects of his criminality. These trains of thought included columns about Trump and his fellow loser Rudy Giuliani, his attempt to tear down democracy, his performance as a bullying debater, his penchant for provoking panic and attacks on our community, his efforts to make us all sickdeface the White House, and beseech Obama’s legacy…and that’s all after the many missives about the Mueller report and impeachment. Needless to say, if balustrading against Trump was purifying, then I should feel cleansed.

Obviously, I didn’t write about Trump all of the time, a little less than 20 percent from my rudimentary calculations; nevertheless, he was in the mix, and I’m proud that I never put the word “president” and “Trump” together in title form. He didn’t deserve that. When I did write about Trump, the comment sections under the links were like a Wild West, and I sinisterly enjoyed seeing the visceral reaction to my wordsmithing about the imposter-in-chief; however, the decent side of me loathed the fact that, bad as it was, I was giving him the ink that he craved.

Which brings us to one of the things I’ll be grateful for this Thanksgiving — not feeling obligated to write about Trump anymore. At least that’s what I’m hoping. And, at the same time, I’m worried that his grip on the national conversation, dominance of the Republican party, civil and criminal charges and indictments ahead may force us to deal with him for some time beyond January 20. It then becomes retribution writing about all of his crimes against us, and that we will enjoy reading — and furiously commenting about. 

But do we really want to be a part of that vengeance? It’s similar, in a way, to how President-elect Joe Biden feels about the whole thing. He recently said that he doesn’t want his presidency consumed by investigations into the mushrooming criminalities around Trump, and that he’d leave that to his attorney general. I can leave it to my editors, but will an audience demand to read about Trump after he’s gone, and who will write about him? And if not me, can I be grateful for that?

For some insight, I reached out to the out, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist from the Washington Post and MSNBC analyst Jonathan Capehart. Most recently, Capehart scored a big coup by hosting an hour-long conversation on the cable news network with the president we all enjoy reading about, Barack Obama. Capehart spoke to Obama about the former president’s new memoir, The Promised Land.

Obama faced his own reckoning with Trump, begrudgingly calling him after he was elected in 2016. “Obama wasn’t legally obligated to call after he won election in 2016,” Capehart told me. “But tradition and decorum demanded it. And as a constitutional law professor, the former president has a reverence for our founding documents that dictate the peaceful transfer of power. As we’ve seen, President Trump couldn’t care less about, well, any of it.” 

That's par for the course for Trump — pun intended for his obsessive golfing while democracy and Americans suffer.  Does Obama believe that Trump is declaring an unending war on us, particularly Democrats and those who vehemently despise his behavior? “I’m not sure Obama thinks about it in that way,” Capehart clarified. “If anything, he probably thinks Trump is at war with democracy. But I completely agree with the premise of your question. Trump has been very clear that he is the President of the Red States of America.”

And what about a well-read America? Should we as columnist, and readers who derive satisfaction from reading about Trump’s travesties, be excited or anxious about not having to read or write about him anymore?  “I stopped having Trump be the center of my writing universe years ago,” Capehart explained. “Rather than focus on him specifically, I wrote more about the impact of what he was doing. I’m excited to write about the challenges the Biden-Harris administration will face and cover how they meet them. I’m excited because they will be focused on doing right, doing good for all of us.”

I completely agreed with his assessment about the need for concentrating on illuminating what Biden and Harris will do to restore our government as fully operational, instill pride in our country again, and address all the challenges that face our nation, including the pandemic, systematic racism, and climate change, to name a few. 

But then, there’s that evil other side that is Trump, who might still be tugging desperately to pull the media rug out from under Biden and the Republican party with his incessant distractions, and the noise created by the flood of lawsuits that will come his way. I asked Capehart if he thought Trump would prevail in finding a way to keep control of the Republican party, necessitating more press coverage, and more opportunities to critique his behavior via writing about them? He had a succinct answer. “That Trump will remain on the scene is a given. I will devote the minimum attention necessary to him and his escapades.”

Does that mean shutting the door on Trump after January 20, depriving him of any column space that he yearns for so badly? “That’s wishful thinking, unfortunately,” Capehart corrected. “He will remain a part of the political landscape, especially since he is expected to announce before the end of the year that he will run again in 2024. His Twitter feed will continue to intimidate Congressional Republicans. What will make the ensuing years different is a press that is wide-eyed about who he is and more fearless than before in saying so.” 

Will readers digress as well? Will they be more likely to tune-out Trump as they, too, have become more wide-eyed about who he is? Does Capehart think that audiences are truly fed up with Trump, or will they miss the opportunities to vent their frustrations on Twitter and in the comment sections about Trump? “He’s not going anywhere. Like a good reality-TV character, Trump will continue to do things that will thrill his followers and rile up his opponents.”

Then, perhaps that’s the answer to my question? The tonic to my dilemma? The reason that I will give thanks this Thanksgiving for not having to write about Trump again? At his lowest common denominator, he is — and was — nothing more than a reality-TV character. He was never really a president to begin with. He was just playing a part for the cameras and the press. Now, he’ll be nothing more than an actor whose TV series has been canceled due to bad script writing, horrendous acting, and low ratings.

Therefore, the answer is that we should let columnists who cover the entertainment industry, and television critics scribe about Trump from here on end. Because Trump will be continuing his performance, outside of the main network of the White House, and more akin to a low-grade cable access channel or some dark, perverted conspiracy theory operation.

Thus, theatrical journalists can do the writing, perhaps posting columns that are aptly titled, “Where are the Stars of the Trump Show Now?” that include photo galleries of a bald Trump, and a bunch of other old, heavy-set white men in shackles and orange jumpsuits. An entertainment retooling of Orange is the New Black, complete with the disgraced and dispatched orange blob in the starring role.

And orange, as in the appetizer of pumpkin soup after thankfully declaring, with fingers crossed, “...no more writing about Donald Trump!” Happy Thanksgiving to all! 

John Casey is editor at large of The Advocate.

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