Our Trump addiction, fed by junk news, is making us sick

Our Trump addiction, fed by junk news, is making us sick
© Getty Images

A United States Marine Corps flag whips from its pole over the weathered trailer in this remote corner of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The Dakota winds can be fierce, buffeting the police cruiser in which I am riding as I research my second book.

As a veteran myself, it is not the first time I am struck by the proud tradition of Native American military service on display, despite a history of poor treatment that has resulted in appalling living conditions for many on the reservation. Quality of life metrics here more closely resemble those in places such as Somalia and Afghanistan than neighboring counties — 80 percent unemployment, $7,000 per capita income, and a life expectancy of about 50 years. As the officer I am accompanying races from one call for help to the next — working alone — I am amazed that fewer than a dozen officers per shift are responsible for maintaining security for 30,000 residents spread across an area the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.


Sadly, the harsh conditions of life on the reservation, as well as the tireless work of the police officers safeguarding their community, are drowned out by the endless cacophony of Donald Trump-related news. Almost everything else is drowned out too.


Since the first Republican primary on Feb. 1, 2016, Trump has monopolized the airwaves and newspapers in a way not seen in our lifetimes. Some of headlines and commentary no doubt are justified. After all, little about his candidacy, election victory or presidency is typical, and much is newsworthy.

But a huge amount of this trivia and gossip does not deserve coverage, such as TV panelists dissecting the president's brushing dandruff off Emmanuel Macron's jacket. There is no justifiable reason for Trump-related headlines to bombard us 24/7, many trumpeting “breaking news.” How do the officers patrolling Pine Ridge against extraordinary odds, or the people they serve, benefit from endless Trump-related media coverage? How does a family, who cannot afford or access health care for a child diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, benefit from this? And this is just one community in South Dakota. Similar, largely invisible, issues afflict Americans everywhere.

Spreading strikes of underpaid teachers, endless military deployments to the Middle East, and months-long power outages crippling Puerto Rico are just a few of the newsworthy topics glossed over in favor of the latest Trump headline.

The media have cultivated a community of junk news addicts, desperate for the quick high triggered by splashy stories reinforcing their views. After 26 months, why does the feverish coverage of Trump show no sign of subsiding, despite its dubious connection to anything that impacts the lives of ordinary people?

Because the producers of this toxic drug are getting rich fueling this addiction.

Anthony ScaramucciAnthony ScaramucciRepublican operatives pushing GOP turnout for Biden with new super PAC President sinks amid stumbles over protests Sunday shows preview: Protests against George Floyd's death, police brutality rock the nation for a second week MORE reportedly netted an advance of $150,000 for his book on the Trump White House — roughly $15,000 a day for his 10 days as White House communications director before being fired in disgrace. He joins a long list of pundits and politicians who have profited enormously by dishing about the 2016 election and Trump White House. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden leads Trump in Florida, tied in Arizona and Texas: poll We haven't seen how low it can go There's a big blue wave coming MORE, Donna Brazile, David Frum, Michael Wolff, Maggie Haberman, Katy Tur, and James ComeyJames Brien ComeyTrump on possible Roger Stone pardon: 'His prayer may be answered' How conservative conspiracy theories are deepening America's political divide Bolton book sells 780,000 copies in first week, set to surpass 1M copies printed MORE, Republicans and Democrats alike, all have aggressively exploited their time in or near the Trump limelight.

Every No. 1 book on the New York Times bestseller list this year has been about Trump. All promise scandalous rumors. Television personalities, meanwhile, fill their shows with an unrelenting drumbeat of criticism of, or support for, Trump. Social media exacerbates the phenomenon, with prominent personalities engaging in increasingly juvenile Twitter feuds, often cloaked in the veneer of patriotic concern.

This deluge of coverage invites a chicken-or-egg debate. Is the appetite for this material organic, and merely being satiated by the purveyors of sensational exposes, or does this coverage trigger interest that otherwise would not be nearly as robust?

Rivals, sometimes led by the president himself, seemingly revel in directing fire at each other. President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance Meadows trying to root out suspected White House leakers by feeding them info: Axios Pressley hits DeVos over reopening schools: 'I wouldn't trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child' MORE insults James Comey. What is the result? Tens of thousands more book sales for Comey, whose book skyrocketed to the top of bestseller lists before its release. Comey then makes the rounds on TV, eagerly firing back at the president. So, who wins? Both Comey, whose net worth suddenly multiplied many times over, and Trump, with a base energized in opposition to this latest bogeyman. Who loses? All the rest of us, subjected to a never-ending soap opera that does nothing to enlighten us or improve our lives.

It is remarkable to watch a society begin to unravel in real time, and sense that there is nothing that can be done halt the process. “But this is the presidency,” addicts on both sides of the aisle will shout. “The country hangs in the balance — there cannot be too much attention to it.”

No, the reality is that serious issues affecting millions of Americans are being ignored.

By all means, we should be engaged citizens. We should vote, march in protest if we see fit, engage friends and neighbors in healthy debate, and of course read widely. But we should pause before rushing to buy the latest “expose” taking us inside the Trump White House. Eagerly seeking out the latest tales of intrigue that reinforce existing political preferences is not civic engagement. Rather, it fuels a self-destructive cycle.

If we really want to become more informed citizens, there are far better places to start than ravenously consuming inside-the-Beltway gossip. We could begin with one of David McCullough’s phenomenal biographies, perhaps moving on to some of the incredible reporting that came out of the Vietnam War for something more contemporary. The list is practically endless. But simply gorging on insider “tell-all” accounts of the Trump White House is the literary equivalent of empty calories, providing a short-term high but no lasting nutrition.

And they are making us a very sick country.

Will Bardenwerper served as an infantry officer in the Army, and later as a Presidential Management Fellow in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is the author ofThe Prisoner in His Palace: Saddam Hussein, His American Guards, and What History Leaves Unsaid.” He is working on a book set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Follow him on Twitter @wbardenwerper.