Opinion

Why I watched Trump and the birthers instead of PBS News Hour

Why was someone like me, who craves 'real, thoughtful news' glued to the ridiculous spectacle of Donald Trump and the birthers? Because shaking our finger in righteous anger makes us feel more in control of a complicated world. We just need to channel that anger into self-awareness.

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“Idiots – the media are a bunch of idiots,” I bellowed to my wife tuning in to the tail end of Donald Trump’s response to President Obama’s release of his birth certificate. I continued, “Why do they continue to give oxygen to this publicity golem?” The answer: people like me – and, who knows, maybe you.

We live in an age of hyperbolic irony. Almost everything is delivered with a smirk and finger quotes. It is an age in which pundits snicker about the fact that they are spending time on some story that they proclaim is not deserving of attention. But it’s Media 101. The so-called news is a for-profit business, and as such it is judged more by Nielsen ratings than Pulitzers. Mr. Trump’s battles are steroids for ratings. Why?

It’s Psychology 101. This week is Freud’s birthday, and as the birthday boy could have told us, righteous anger feels good. We like letting steam off. We like foaming over daft pronouncements from powerful people. It’s a complicated world with two sides to almost every story, but not with Trump and the “birthers.” They are just blowhards at whom I can, without qualms, rage and toss tomatoes.

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Beating up on the birthers felt good

Truth be told, I ate the Trump coverage up and went for it over programming that was infinitely superior. Why? Because like a lot of people, I enjoy venting. For example, I am a fan of the News Hour on PBS. In this era of radical advocacy journalism, it seems like the only calm and fair-minded TV news presentation of politics. No hysteria, no egos wrapped in self-righteousness.

And yet, the night after “The Donald” patted himself on the back and told us how proud he was of himself, I started for the calmer and more cerebral stuff only to click in another direction, thinking “Let me go to MSNBC and watch Lawrence O’Donnell’s eyes pop out for a few minutes.” He did not disappoint.

I almost bruised my forehead watching replays of Trump now demanding the release of brilliant Mr. Obama’s academic record. I cracked a cold drink and listened to Mr. O’Donnell set his jaw and scream at the incoherent and trembling, “queen of the birthers,” Orly Taitz.

In the end, I never made it to the more serious fare; bashing Trump and his epigones demanded a lot less concentration than trying to follow a dialogue on the deficit.

More than just a punching bag

But stories like Trump’s provide more than a pleasant release on a punching bag. As author Merle Shain puts it, “Anger is a passion, so it makes people feel alive and makes them feel they matter and are in charge of their lives.” And feeling in charge of our lives is not something most of us experience today.

There is a comforting clarity to “going off on” public figures whose views and actions we see as so clearly wrong. It is no wonder that I would often prefer that feeling of conviction to the labor of pondering the problems in Libya. So again, it is no wonder that we are still talking about Trump and how silly it is to talk about him.

Beyond anger to self-awareness

However, instead of scourging ourselves for our penchant for choosing pleasure over knowledge and edification, we should try to extract some self-knowledge. It would be best for us to take a deep breath and admit that we enjoy a little release of righteous anger now and then, a release with neither doubts nor worries about reprisals. And if Dr. Freud is right, admitting the charms of rage will make us better able to control it.

Because that’s the goal. With self-awareness comes the hope of clearer, better reflection – on ourselves, on Trump, on budget deficits, on Libya.

Then again, what does that bearded, charlatan of a scientist know!

Gordon Marino is a professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. He is editor of the “Ethics: The Essential Writing” and a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal.

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