The GOP's reality problem
As they bask in the glow of their greatest legislative victory in the Trump era — okay, their only legislative victory in the Trump era — Republicans' elation is being undercut by those nattering nabobs in the news media who refuse to share the true story of their beneficence with the American public. Triumphant though Republicans may be, they're also angry at how the debate over their tax bill has turned out. They assembled the votes in Congress, but they haven't convinced the public that the bill is a fabulous gift to the hard-working middle class, and it's obvious whose fault that is.
The problem goes beyond the tax bill. The president has dreadful approval ratings, their agenda is unpopular, and polls show an electorate itching to hand Congress back to the Democrats. Obviously, the media is to blame.
Let's begin with the tax cut. As one GOP operative lamented to CNN's Brian Stelter, "Tax reform is a huge, complicated, and even nuanced thing. But from the beginning the media painted this bill in big broad strokes of 'tax cuts for the rich' while screaming that the bill was unpopular." How terribly unfair of them, to describe an unpopular bill that gives tax cuts to the rich as unpopular and giving tax cuts to the rich.
Sarcasm aside, it's true that the tax bill is complicated, as are its effects on different portions of the public. But what's undeniable is that the bulk of the cuts do in fact go to the wealthy, no matter how many times Republicans repeat that their only concern is for the welfare of the middle class. While most Americans will get some tax cut in the first years, over time they'll get less and less of the benefits, and by the time we reach 2027, 83 percent of the benefits will flow to the top 1 percent of taxpayers, according to analyses by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. Not only that, 53 percent of all taxpayers will see a tax increase at that point, including 70 percent of those in the middle quintile of the income distribution — in other words, the middle of the middle class.
All of which is to say that not only is it perfectly accurate for news reports to describe this bill as primarily benefiting the wealthy, it would be misleading of them to suggest otherwise. But conservatives are displeased that this has convinced voters they won't be getting much of a benefit; for instance, in a Wall Street Journal poll, only 17 percent said they thought the bill would cut their taxes.
Even though far more than 17 percent of the public will actually see a cut, particularly in the early years, it's perfectly rational for most people to conclude they won't be benefiting. That's because the bill is so complicated that it's almost impossible for any lay person to figure out whether they'll see their taxes go up or down. If you can't yet say for sure, but you know that most of the cuts go to the top and that what's there to help the rest of us phases out after a few years, the logical conclusion is that you won't wind up any better off. That's not because you've been convinced of a lie by a biased media, it's because it's probably true.
But it's so much easier for Republicans to blame the press than it is to find the root of the bill's unpopularity in the bill itself.
And the beauty of the liberal bias claim is that you can use it to explain anything. This week, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked why President Trump's approval ratings are so low if his first year in office has been the smashing success the White House claims. Here's her explanation:
If you look at the amount of time that is spent on negative coverage of this president, 90 percent of the coverage is negative about this president, when, as you just said, I listed off a number of things that have been pretty historic in nature in this first year. And if people were focused a lot more on those things in the media, I think that his numbers would be a lot higher. [Sanders]
In a certain way, she's right: If the media would only give President Trump the ceaselessly glowing coverage he desires, his approval numbers probably would be higher. The trouble is that they keep describing the things he says and does.
This is one area where the Trump administration is no different than any other Republican administration: They're going to grouse about the media no matter what happens. And while even Democratic presidents say they aren't covered fairly, the complaint serves different purposes for Republicans.
While liberals have many complaints about how the news media does its job, the liberal critique of the news plays nothing like the central role within their movement that the conservative critique does in theirs. In part it's because of the power of simplicity. Liberals have a complex set of criticisms they make about the press, but conservatives have only one: "liberal bias." It doesn't have to be explained, and it can be applied to literally any issue. No matter what the topic of the moment is — an election campaign, a policy debate, a scandal — conservatives will always charge that the media is being biased against them. The charge feeds their base's finely honed sense of grievance, inoculates that base against uncomfortable facts, and keeps journalists under constant pressure to move coverage in a direction more friendly to Republicans.
But if Sanders believes that the press has taken an even more skeptical stance toward this administration than it has toward previous ones, she's right. There's a simple reason for that: There's never been a president or an administration that lies in such spectacular volume or with such mind-boggling shamelessness as this one.
To take just one example, if you're a reporter and Sanders looks you in the eye and tells you that Trump will pay more in taxes as a result of this bill, what are you supposed to say about that? While we don't know exactly how big a tax cut Trump will get because he refuses to release his tax returns, we absolutely know that he's getting a cut. He'll benefit not only from the reduction in the top rate, but mostly from the gigantic "pass-through" loophole the bill opens up (the Trump Organization is essentially a collection of hundreds of pass-through entities). The only question is whether the bill is worth millions of dollars, tens of millions of dollars, or hundreds of millions of dollars to Trump.
While reporters are trained to call upon a limitless menu of euphemisms to avoid writing that political actors "lied," that doesn't mean they don't know when they're being lied to. And they don't like it. So when Sanders or any other administration spokesperson comes out and lies to their faces day after day, they grow frustrated and perturbed.
Does that affect their coverage? Sure it does. Over time they become less tolerant of the utter baloney that under past administrations they learned to tolerate, because that baloney is served up in such heaping portions. The result isn't coverage that's biased against the administration, it's coverage that is more forthright about what's actually going on. But to Republicans, that looks like bias, since we've all gotten so used to "he said/she said" coverage that often refuses to acknowledge even the most obvious facts.
So when they turn on their computers and see another round of coverage that fails to portray their perfect intentions and inspiring accomplishments in the way they'd like, at least Republicans can console themselves with the knowledge that they got their tax cut for the wealthy, even if the public isn't too excited about it. And wasn't that the whole point?