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Getting beyond the toxic fiction that “both sides do it”

“Our reporters do not cover stories from their point of view. They are presenting them from nobody’s point of view.”—Richard Salant, former president of CBS News

“So I only tell you this: there are two sides to a story.”—Donald J. Trump, U.S. president and moral imbecile


For someone who’s built most of his political career on the rote demonization of the media, Donald Trump has mastered the studiously inane reflexes of noncommittal corporate reporting. Our forty-fifth president was awkwardly forced by the ugly events in Charlottesville to face the consequences of a penchant for racist hate-mongering that has marked his entire adult life. (To quickly review: Trump’s race hatred stretches back to the segregationist opening chapter of his real-estate career, while featuring a call to execute the innocent black and Latino defendants in the Central Park five case, the notorious truth-mangling Obama-birther crusade, and ugly campaign displays of white-supremacist rancor too numerous to recount here.)

It’s easy, then, to see why Trump’s first reflex, when beholding the unvarnished consequences of his vile blood-and-soil rhetoric in real time, should reach for the most threadbare alibi of hate-enabling discourse in the American mediasphere: the insistence that, in any divisive controversy in public life, all sides, by definition, must be somehow equally culpable.

This empty fiction has done untold harm to the cause of clear moral reasoning, since the truth is always an odd number, in the immortal words of Irish satirist Flann O’Brien. The above-the-fray notion that “both sides do it” is a species of magical thinking perpetrated by those with a deep institutional investment in upholding status-quo power relations: network presidents, centrist pundits, the Atlantic’s editorial politburo, and moguls of various monotonous description. So by both sociopathic personal temperament and class outlook, Trump has adopted the same blame-dodging as protective coloring (as it were). When alt-right malcontent James Alex Fields Jr. ploughed into a crowd of antifa protesters in Charlottesville and killed Heather Heyer, Trump’s first weekend statement clumsily and erroneously insisted that incitements to violence and bigotry occur “on many sides.” (Ever on the lookout for maximum deniability, Trump evidently felt that the standard “two-sides” alibi wouldn’t supply sufficient cover for his alt-right base.) When the blowback from that temporizing outburst proved too harsh, Trump launched another statement on Monday, declaiming that champions of white supremacy were “repugnant.” And predictably enough, press reports exuded relief over the president’s revisionist turn at the podium. Here, after all, was the American maximum leader himself exemplifying the difference-trimming wisdom of oscillating between one side and another in a fraught moment of political confrontation. Perhaps we’d be privileged to witness a sacrosanct pivot into presidential mode, after all!

“Both sides do it” is a species of magical thinking perpetrated by those with a deep institutional investment in upholding status-quo power relations.

Alas, it was not to be: Trump’s rhetorical course correction lasted less than twenty-four hours. In an unhinged New York press conference, putatively devoted to the wonders of infrastructure reform, Trump let loose once more with his own debased brand of both-sidesism, presenting a hallucinatory account of the Charlottesville tragedy. Yes, the conflict in Charlottesville indeed “was vicious and it was horrible, and it was a horrible thing to watch,” an increasingly embattled Trump insisted in a rising tone of anger. “But there is another side. There was a group on this side—you can call them the left . . . that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.”

With the same expert certainty that summoned forth mythical Muslim hordes on the Jersey side of the Hudson cheering the September 11 attacks, Trump doted at length on the specter of “very very violent” protesters from the left on the scene in Charlottesville, wielding clubs and baseball bats and rushing at “very fine” white Americans who just happened to share a proud sentimental attachment to a statue of Robert E. Lee. (These immaculate souls, naturally, have been treated “absolutely unfairly” by the fake-news colossus.) Trump also repeatedly characterized these mythic menacing leftists—who bear a telling and curious resemblance in this account to the fabled image of mayhem-minded super powers attributed to young black male victims killed by cops—as enthusiasts of a nonexistent movement he termed “the alt-left.” This, too, was a term cribbed from the lexicon of didactic centrism; though it originated with the alt-right, it was later taken up with gusto by Hillary-aligned pundits, who’d evidently managed to weary even themselves of the “Bernie-bro” slur. Oh, and the campfire story about roving bands of violence-besotted left protesters wreaking havoc across our fair republic? Yep, it ran in the Atlantic, just last week.

As with so many of Trump’s forays into self-serving megalomaniacal fantasy, it’s easy to lose the larger narrative thread amid the blizzard of rank falsehood. The clear subtext of Tuesday’s performance was to drive home the message that, at some level, the left protesters in Charlottesville deserved what they got. Why on earth would our president otherwise go out of his way to insist that the victims of a violent terrorist assault share a “semblance of guilt” and “have [a] problem”? Why spend the lion’s share of a policy photo-op inveighing against the alleged violent tendencies of the American left? And why bother to seek an “other side” in a tragic encounter with racist reaction? The real moral failure to anyone following the Charlottesville aftermath is that this episode mirrored to a chilling degree the awful iconography of civil-rights protests in the Jim Crow South, with entitled white power acting with violent impunity against the threat of dissent, and local law enforcement standing largely to the side, impassive. The key difference between those protests and last week’s Charlottesville massacre, though, was that the American presidency then aligned itself on the side of anti-racist protest; now, to the eternal shame of our entire civic culture, the presidency is emphatically, militantly, on the side of moral wrong.

Though it originated with the alt-right, “the alt-left” was taken up with gusto by Hillary-aligned pundits, who’d evidently managed to weary even themselves of the “Bernie-bro” slur.

In one sense, the bankrupt logic of two-sidesism is a direct outgrowth of the many allied corruptions of our two-party system. The pundit and presidential mind alike gravitate to the irresistible, self-canceling logic of impartially apportioned views and opinions organized along a strictly undeviating bipolar grid. It’s the same reason that the alibi of first resort for amoral journalistic hacks is that, if partisans on either side of this or that debate of the moment are griping about their coverage, why they must be doing their jobs in perfect Goldilocks fashion—just right.

But these are also the same forces that locked sickeningly into gear to normalize everything about Trump’s rise to power. As Trump emerged out of the sodden 2016 GOP primary field, our politico-journalistic establishment obsessively tracked his progress toward mass acceptance—without, for instance, treating the birther libel, the immigration-bashing, the anti-Muslim xenophobia, or the marshaling of an overtly racist base at the fount of his campaign as first-order disqualifications for holding high office. Trump was, after all, cruising to a major-party nomination, and criticism of such a figure should be primly quarantined to the designated (and in this case, howlingly ineffectual) leaders of the opposition party. Thus, to take just one grotesque example, CNN became an open-air bazaar of Trump sycophancy, following the similar bankrupt moral reasoning that, since this Trump fellow was attracting so much attention, it was the network’s solemn difference-trimming duty to roll out the pundit red carpet for a sorry array of racists, liars, and bottom-feeding “commentators” to dutifully recite Trump-adoring talking points. But even CNN, it seems, can recognize the rapid approach of a moral catastrophe—albeit, of course, when it’s far too late to do the network or the rest of us much good. Jeffrey Lord, the first Trump ghoul to sign a long-term pundit contract with Jeff Zucker’s intellectual chop shop, was finally let go for tweeting the fragrant fascist greeting “Sieg Heil” to a critic at the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America. (Like every alt-right asshole everywhere, Lord claimed that he intended his Nazi salute ironically. See? There are always two sides!) It’s reassuring, I suppose, to know that even a terminally addled news organization like CNN can still recognize a moral calamity sitting in its own green room. It remains to be seen, however, whether our media establishment can ever rouse itself to call out, with unqualified honesty, the lunatic fascist in the Oval Office for the racist stooge he always has been, and shall ever be.