“The media’s George Costanza problem”: Trump’s too “intellectually incurious” to seriously interview

Donald Trump is a known commodity; There is nothing mysterious about him and his horribleness. Both because of and despite his perfidy and dangerousness, Trump is the leading 2024 Republican Party presidential candidate. He is also tied with or leading President Biden in early 2024 presidential polls. This means that many tens of millions of Americans know exactly who and what Donald Trump is, and they still want him to return to the White House where he will become, as he is publicly promising and threatening to do, the country’s first de facto dictator.

Instead of embracing real pro-democracy journalism and consistently warning the American people about the proven dangers of Donald Trump and the larger neofascist movement, the country’s news media continues to normalize him. The most recent prominent example of this type of media malpractice is NBC’s decision to give the ex-president a platform on last Sunday’s edition of the venerable TV news program “Meet the Press.”

Writing at the Los Angeles Times, Lorraine Ali described that spectacle as:

But the television event also highlighted a problem that traditional news outlets have faced since Trump emerged as a potent figure on the political scene in 2016. Treating the former reality TV star like any other presidential candidate or victor before him assumes that he’s playing by the same set of rules as his predecessors. News flash: He’s not….

The sit-down may prove to be a ratings boon for the network, and perhaps even further boost Welker’s career, but it failed to cut through the usual low-information bluster of past interviews with the former president. Trump was Trump. Legacy media was legacy media.

But somewhere in between is the high-stakes story of ratings versus journalistic responsibility and the dangers that dance presents to our democracy.

In an attempt to make better sense of Trump’s “Meet the Press” interview, how it represents the news media’s much larger failures, the ex-president’s behavior and increasing dangerousness to the public, and the ongoing democracy crisis, I recently asked a range of experts for their thoughts and insights.

The interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and length

Gregg Barak is an emeritus professor of criminology and criminal justice at Eastern Michigan University and author of “Media, Process, and the Social Construction of Crime” and “Criminology on Trump“.

This was either a big “win” or a “standoff” which is also the same as a win for Trump in that he was provided with a major news platform in which he could perpetuate his ongoing lying narrative that he did “nothing wrong,” there were no “crimes,” and this is nothing more than the Democrats being out to destroy him since before he was elected president in 2016. 

All of this nonsense has culminated presently with Trump and Trumpers’ projections of Biden’s so-called political and weaponized indictments of the former president by the lunatic special prosecutor Jack Smith and so on and so forth.

The interview also allowed Trump to spew the same old lies, falsehoods, and disinformation not only about his criminal indictments, but about abortion, NATO, Putin, China, the War in Ukraine as well as his imaginary fantasies for brokering a deal to end the Russian-Ukrainian War within 24 hours because he “gets along with everybody” – and “that’s not a bad thing.”  

At the same time, this forum, unlike his daily posts at Truth Social that are instantly picked up and consumed by social and mass media alike, does not reveal his sociopathic and mobster-like behavior not to mention his wannabe authoritarian tendencies. But instead, we see and hear from the rather toned down and relatively reserved narcissist destroyer of the rule of law and American Democracy.    

As for the mainstream media, they are damned if they give Trump an interview and damned if they don’t provide a forum for Trump in which someone like Kristen Welker can push back and fact check. Perhaps she and her team could have edited out some of his crazier accounts before the Sunday show actually aired. Who knows?

Of course, in terms of newsworthiness there was nothing there. At the same time, legal analysts were celebrating the different ways Trump was further incriminating himself, but there was really no new news. We had heard it all before even if we weren’t paying attention. 

Finally, did the interview have an impact of any kind with respect to the 2024 election, the criminal indictments, the alleged Biden crime family, or anything else for that matter? Absolutely not. In fact, the whole thing was a waste of time and here’s why: the liberal Democratic and older demographic audience that tunes in to “Meet the Press” regularly already are all voting for Biden and believe that Trump should be held accountable for the events on January 6 and his other crimes, if not locked up in prison too.

As for the MAGA people, and most of the GOP and Independents too, they are not tuning in to “Meet the Press.” So, nothing has changed across the political board.

Trump is like a bull in a China shop who barely gives an interviewer any space to step in and seriously engage him.

As for Trump’s rhetoric and body language it’s pure Trump—the authentic bullsh**ter only periodically constraining himself when he is interrupting Welker. Unlike a court of law where Trump’s attorneys would never allow the liar-in-chief to take the stand, a prime-time interview on Sunday AM television is just what the “very stable genius” dreams of where he can bulls**t to his heart’s delight. A place where the gaslighter, conman, hustler, and huckster can combine all his deceptive talents and do his thing as only the Donald can. Babbling and blabbing all along with only about 1/3 of his content having any meaning in reality. The rest is nothing more than a verbal food salad of incoherence and your run-of-the-mill and routine double-speak poppycock from the graphic comic book anti-hero the Joker come to life in the Orange villain come to life in the struggle to destroy American democracy,  

While this may have been Kristen Welker’s debut episode as host of “Meet the Press,” it was certainly not her first political rodeo or dealing with the ex-president. After all, she was the moderator in one of the 2020 presidential debates between Biden and Trump. Until her new post as host of the Sunday morning news program, she had since 2011 been the White House Correspondent for NBC. Welker, the 47-year-old Philly native and Harvard-educated journalist, has a wonderful resume and certainly has paid her dues over the past two decades to arrive where she presently finds herself.

As for pushing back on Trump, Welker pushed back as much as she realistically could, given that Trump is like a bull in a China shop who barely gives an interviewer any space to step in and seriously engage him. For if they do, Trump usually exit stage left as they say. Trump also rarely responds to most questions with direct answers if he answers the questions truthfully at all. Typically, he is moving the conversation away from wherever the interviewer would like to go. Like Trump’s modus operandi when it comes to trials is delay, delay, delay; his modus operandi when it comes to interviews with the media other than with Fox friendly News et al, is a matter of diversion, diversion, diversion.

Existentially, one has to ask whether we are talking about Welker, or more interestingly Rachel Maddow for that matter, what if any benefits are there for pushing back and calling Trump out for the same old lies that he has already been called out for — to no avail —at least one-thousand times before? It simply makes no difference, does it?

At this point in history, to interview Trump is nothing more than to engage in the political theatre of the absurd. There really is nothing to gain or lose or, more importantly, to learn about Trump that anyone with half a brain has not already known for as many years now as people have been making excuses for him, which is as far back as anyone can remember.   

Dr. Lance Dodes is a retired assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a training and supervising analyst emeritus at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.

The clips from Trump’s interview on NBC show him to be his usual self, projecting exactly what he does, and who he is, outside of himself. He says the President and members of the American legal system who indicted him are “thugs”, a term that fits his own inciting a riot; he says his opponents are “fascists” which exactly describes his own stated goal for a tyrannical government with imprisonment of opposition; he repeats his delusional beliefs about his personal ability to perform grandiose feats such as immediately ending the war in Ukraine, and so on.

His endlessly repeating these views, the Big Lie technique used by Hitler, makes naïve citizens think he must be telling the truth since they keep hearing it from both him and his Republican supporters. To see the awful fact that virtually everything he says is a lie is difficult and painful for many people to accept, particularly if they are unfamiliar with the history of demagogues and cannot believe that a prominent person could have such severe mental depravity. When coupled with a longing for a Strong Man who can miraculously solve all problems, it becomes more comfortable to be sheep led to the slaughter of a dictatorship than to recognize what is happening to them and their country.

“Welker took the easy path that makes for an interview that flows better and feeds the media’s need to treat Republican and Democratic statements as equal.”

It must be added that the media in our country has massively failed to prevent this catastrophe over the past 8 years, by allowing Trump’s outrageous anti-democracy statements to stand without insisting that he be held accountable, indeed often seizing upon his attacks on the nation as legitimate news. Even in this current interview there is no confrontation with his denials of reality and paranoid attacks on others. The inappropriate respect given to this man seriously damages the ability of the public to see the psychopath that he is and has eroded the standards we used to routinely expect from American leaders.

Brynn Tannehill is a journalist and author of “American Fascism: How the GOP is Subverting Democracy”.

This is just Trump being Trump: lying, exaggerating, telling his audience things they want to believe, no matter how wrong they are. And Welker, like media since 2015, failed to challenge him on anything, because there has been this consistent drive to treat everything as “just two sides” or “differing opinions that are equally valid.” NBC only challenged these falsehoods in a supplemental analysis available only online which people will never see, much less read.

There’s a reason for this: Trump engages in the “gish gallop” rhetorical technique where a person lies so relentlessly that there simply isn’t enough time to deal with them all. This is because debunking them takes longer than telling them. An interview where the host challenged him on his lies is likely to devolve into pointless bickering over basic facts, with Trump relentlessly insisting he’s right no matter what facts are presented. This doesn’t make for good TV, and the networks know it. So, we get whatever the hell it was that Welker gave us, though she’s hardly the first to do so: indeed she’s the norm, not the exception.

Welker took the easy path that makes for an interview that flows better and feeds the media’s need to treat Republican and Democratic statements as equal. Unfortunately, this lives up to Okrent’s law. Daniel Okrent, journalist and inventor of fantasy baseball, summarized this concept as: “The pursuit of balance can create imbalance because sometimes something is true.” Thus, as outright falsehoods are treated as valid, it diminishes the value of truth and opens the Overton Window even further.

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There’s also the media’s “George Costanza” problem. For something to be a lie there must be intent, and as the character George Costanza on the 1990’s TV comedy “Seinfeld” observed, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” Trump repeatedly demonstrated that he was both ignorant of facts, intellectually incurious and existed in his own weird little universe (and it’s not a happy place). The media isn’t willing to call out his lies, because Trump is plausibly ignorant enough to believe them.

To quote from my book “American Fascism”: “They are used to journalistic objectivity, which treats both sides with equal respect, as if each set of arguments is equally true and presented in good faith. However, this faith in journalistic objectivity is misplaced when the government weaponizes lies and misinformation against its citizens. As journalist Norman Ornstein observes, “a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality.” American journalism is still stuck pretending that both sides are acting in good faith. In fact, what we are witnessing is a deliberate war on reality, which we are losing inch by inch. The stakes couldn’t be higher. To quote Voltaire, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

Dr. Marc Goulston is a prominent psychiatrist, former FBI hostage-negotiation trainer and author of the bestsellers “Just Listen” and “Talking to ‘Crazy’.

As a businessman, it’s all about winning, not losing and the art of the deal and not about service or public service. Trump doesn’t practice the art, because he is not an artist. He has instead become a thug and a master manipulator and only thinks and reacts to what’s happening now vs. being able to think strategically.

With that in mind if you watch Trump’s body language, when Kristen Welker was speaking, he leaned forward and kept his hand pressed together between his knees as if he was resisting the impulse to immediately lash out at her and it was all he could to restrain himself to let her get a full sentence or question out, which she rarely did.

That was because any question by the host had the threat of pushing him back to being wrong which was as traumatizing as being an anybody/nobody.

Furthermore, Trump will frequently look to his right either up or down. That often means connecting to his left/calculating/non-emotional brain in which he grabs onto random thoughts at will, the same thoughts that fuel his being an incessant counterpuncher.

The role of a reporter is to stay focused, calm, and firm but to not take any of the bait that someone like Trump throws at you. That is difficult with Trump because he is a master baiter. If I were Kristen and he was interrupting or baiting me, I would pause after he interrupted and calmly say, “Would you be okay with letting me finish my question and if not please explain why not because I am asking questions that are on many Americans including Republicans’ minds? And if you can’t do that, please repeat what you just said in a calmer voice, because the tone you used made it difficult to listen to you and I think what you just said was important.” Being a counter puncher, Trump might have difficulty with that.

David L. Altheide is the Regents’ Professor Emeritus on the faculty of Justice and Social Inquiry in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University and author of the new book “Gonzo Governance: The Media Logic of Donald Trump”.

The interview with Kristen Welker and Donald Trump was a political stunt by NBC to promote “Meet the Press” and capture some ratings. It was a non-interview, but mainly a forum for Donald Trump to rattle off numerous lies to self-promote as part of his attention-based politics.

Perhaps NBC was exploiting Mr. Trump’s ineptitude as a spectacle. In true Gonzo fashion, he rejected institutional rules and logic, restating numerous lies that had been debunked. He played the truth-teller for his followers of media that are instantaneous, visual, and personal.

He performed like he did with CNN’s Kaitlin Collins interview in May, dominating, interrupting, not focusing on questions, rehashing old lies and telling new ones. This behavior may be symptomatic of a serious disorder.

The interview format does not work with Trump because he rejects civility and the basic rules of conversation, turn-taking, and reciprocity. His inability to consider evidence, process information, and logically follow a discussion may indicate an underlying condition. Because he lacks the skill to engage in a conventional discussion and debate, Mr. Trump’s verbally aggressive performance was aimed to dominate journalists, authority, and accountability. He interrupted Ms. Welker more than a dozen times, intimidatingly ignoring her questions, disavowing her right to direct the conversation, and shamelessly repeating lies and untruths.

Not only does he not play by the basic rules of conversation, but he also bullies. Just as he stalked Hillary Clinton on stage during their Presidential Debates, he personified intimidation of Ms. Welker and journalism.

Here’s the thing. Donald Trump uses this approach with most people, but especially women: Donald Trump does not respect women and it shows in his speech and body language.

His numerous escapades illustrate this. While few people will ever be successful at having a legitimate interview with Donald Trump, women have even less chance. Consider: She calls him Mr. President, he calls her Kristen. This is dominant and subordinate address. (While some analysts argue that Jonathan Swan (Axios, Aug. 3, 2020) conducted one of the best interviews with Donald Trump, even this one was greatly compromised, with Trump talking over follow-up questions, ignoring corrections, and belittling.)

One scenario for the best chance of approximating a real interview with an individual with these symptoms would be to have a large athletic male with a M.D. or Ph.D., who would insist on mutual address with titles. A humorous—but perhaps effective addition—would be to insert a laugh track every time he told a lie. It would be entertaining, but this would not resolve what may be a clinical condition.

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about Trump’s strategy


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