Requiem for a Narrative

Analysis: Eight years of fake news

Barack Obama
December 9, 2016

At a dinner in Washington earlier this week—one packed with well-meaning folks who really, really wanted this year's election to have gone the other way—I heard a speaker cite Elizabeth Bishop's One Art by way of consoling the audience. "The art of losing isn't hard to master," the poem famously begins. The speaker hastened to remind the room that, later in the poem, we are informed numerous times that losing "is no disaster." With that in mind, those who didn't like the election's result should buck up and dive back into the fight, and so forth.

It didn't seem like the time or place for me to point out that the poem's declarations that losing isn't a disaster are clearly ironic. It also didn't seem the time to note that among the most important reasons why so many people supported Trump was that they were conscious of a series of painful disasters, the existence of which the Obama administration, abetted by a friendly press, refused to acknowledge.

The nature of our politics today—and perhaps immemorially—is that every ambitious mayor or governor of a state feels the need to create a narrative of success: build a stadium or bridge that he can slap his name on, massage the crime statistics to show civic healing, and call it good. If the reality matches the narrative, so much the better—but you won't find too many politicians admitting that things haven't improved, or that they have actually grown worse. Obama and his aides certainly weren't big on admitting shortcomings, and after the electoral wipeout they have just suffered, it looks like their most lasting impact will be to have discredited the word "narrative" among a large portion of Americans. That's something, I guess.

For years, Americans were told that after the financial panic in 2008, the president's policies had put us on a steady course to a strong economy. But in much of the country, people looked around them and thought, That just doesn't seem right. Especially in those parts of the country hit the hardest by the transition from the Industrial Era to the Information Age, people asked a number of questions. If the economy is doing so great, why are my adult children not moving out? If the unemployment rate is declining, why are so many prime-age males not working? And doesn't it matter that the quality of jobs for non-college graduates is so obviously worse than it was a generation ago? Why, instead of working, are so many people dependent on public benefits and falling prey to addiction?

All of these questions had answers—but looking to the Obama White House for clarity about the uncomfortable tradeoffs their policies involved was a fool's errand. Take, as an example, the crusade against coal, pushed by activists and coastal liberals for whom shutting down these companies was a clear and uncomplicated good deed on behalf of Mother Earth, of which the only real victims would be the greedy energy executives. The miners could retrain, or get "green jobs," or something.

Well, a lot of the coal companies did shut down, or all but shut down. Many of the owners cut their losses and moved on—capital may be inconvenienced, but it generally does not suffer. The workers just lost their jobs. The economy in places like southeastern Ohio wasn't exactly ready to absorb them, and as for retraining—well, you give that a try when you're 45 years old. The availability of welfare and disability payments is a bitter replacement for the dignity of an honest, decently paid job. The only good news in some of these regions for much of the last eight years was the fracking revolution, a phenomenon that generally occurred in spite of the president's best efforts.

We were also told, again and again, that things were going well abroad. The tide of war was receding. Afghans and Iraqis were taking the lead. Osama bin Laden was dead, and al Qaeda was on the run. And people again thought, That just doesn't seem right. As recently as this Tuesday, President Obama was still at it, telling troops assembled at MacDill Air Force Base (side note: polls suggest that a plurality in that room must have voted for Donald Trump) that, a few bumps in the road notwithstanding, things were going pretty well out there.

Characteristic of the head scratchers in Obama's speech was this: "No foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland." Elsewhere in the speech the president cited the "homegrown and largely isolated individuals" who killed Americans in Orlando, San Bernardino, Boston, and Fort Hood, and who were "radicalized online." Never mind the fact that the Fort Hood terrorist exchanged a dozen or so emails with Anwar al-Awlaki, the American cleric who worked so hard to encourage American Muslims to murder their fellow citizens, or that al Qaeda and ISIS were actively calling for such attacks, and providing instructions for how to carry them out in their online magazines.

People listen to this sort of hairsplitting, and they think, that just doesn't seem right. One hears the president, during the same speech, praise the campaign against the Islamic State as "sustainable," and one can't help but wonder, since when did we want a military effort against a trumped up gang of women-beating thugs like this to be "sustainable"? Swift, yes; crushing, sure; but "sustainable?" How about "victorious"? How about "over"?

"Fake news" is becoming a catch-all explanation for Democrats to explain Hillary Clinton's loss. Voters didn't trust Hillary, and didn't appreciate the great deal they were getting from Obama, because of right-wing lies. The problem with this explanation is that it was hardly necessary for Russian troll farms to sow distrust about the Obama administration, when the administration (not to mention the Clinton campaign!) was itself such a relentless and strategic purveyor of half-truths and convenient omissions. For eight years, the word from the top just didn't seem right—and the lack of trust such habitual semi-honesty engendered is why the left is very much the author of its own disaster.