NEW YORK – It is no exaggeration to say that a bizarre new phase in human history began Jan. 20 as Donald J. Trump became the world’s most powerful man. All bets, to put it mildly, are off.
Those entrusted to report on and analyze the contemporary world are especially befuddled. One can condemn Trump’s open loathing for the mainstream media. But there’s no avoiding the fact that he and other impresarios of social media have managed to make their version of reality prevail precisely because public trust in newsgatherers and pundits is at an all-time low.
Nor do the failures of the traditional media exist only on Trump’s hyper-active Twitter feed. As far back as 2012, I wrote that the contradictions between “democratic politics, which respect the opinions of the majority, and the imperatives of global capitalism, which is geared toward the creation of private wealth,” were becoming intolerable. Yet I, too, was among the commentators who failed to gauge the depth and intensity of the anger that was building up over growing inequality of income and opportunity.
Many other journalists and commentators simply ignored this anger and its likely political consequences. The economist Albert Hirschman coined the term “monoeconomics” to criticize the assumption that there is only one way for countries everywhere to develop. Much writing about contemporary politics and economics since at least the end of the Cold War could well be called mono-journalism.
The collapse of communist regimes hardened a conviction that the world had little choice but to converge on a single model of government (liberal democracy) and economic system (free-market capitalism). Mainstream journalism internalized this faith, without examining whether democracy and capitalism might actually be opposed, or whether the inequalities bred by capitalism might provoke a backlash from a democratic majority.
Shock-therapied into the free market, and exposed to endless misery through the 1990s, Russia’s electorate gave an early sign of the times by electing a KGB operative as their savior. But the Russian experience — of recoiling from trauma into vengeful nationalism — was barely acknowledged by those who focused instead on the fact that global capitalism was lifting hundreds of millions of Indians and Chinese above the poverty line.
There was little exploration of how this revolution of aspirations among nearly 3 billion people might play out politically and environmentally, let alone what life just above a much disputed and frequently revised poverty line might be like. Would, for instance, aspiring men frustrated by slowing growth or the middle-income trap succumb to ultra-nationalist demagogues? Moreover, did the Earth have enough resources to sustain billions of people pursuing the lifestyles of a few hundred million Europeans and Americans?
Meanwhile, journalists and politicians alike were ignoring the negative effects of globalization and the mobility of jobs and capital. The CEO emerged as a glamorous figure; the farmer and the miner faded into the background. It was left to outliers like former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan to point to the deteriorating condition of white working classes while his establishment peers celebrated the worldwide triumph of capitalism and democracy.
Today, Trump’s much-derided, frequently written off and ultimately successful candidacy has exposed the intellectual inadequacies and political perils of mono-journalism. And those complicit in it have no choice but to reformulate their aims and methods.
Of course, weak journalism has often made for political shocks, such as China’s communist revolution in 1949 — one of journalism’s “great failures,” as the distinguished historian John K. Fairbank put it, and “a first-class disaster for the American people.” Fairbank blamed Americans like himself who had reported from China and who had failed to appreciate the mass appeal of Mao Zedong while under the spell of his Westernized rival, Chiang Kai-shek. Fairbank admitted that “our reporting was very superficial. … We had no knowledge, in other words, and no way to gain any knowledge, of the life of ordinary Chinese people.”
As we likely face another first-class disaster in the shape of Trump’s presidency, it may be prudent to reflect on Fairbank’s warning: that “every journalist is walking on a fault line — of unresolved and ambivalent historic situations — trying to represent it some way in words.” For Fairbank, “the essence of the journalistic profession” is “that reporters deal with ambivalent situations where the outcome is uncertain, the values are mixed and the sides are in conflict.”
Many journalists in recent years have seemed too eager to assert clear outcomes and values; they are parodied today by the hysterics of Twitter and the vendors of fake news. One can only hope that, scarred by failure, the old media will develop strengths disdained by the perpetually shrieking new media: a greater alertness to ambiguity in human affairs, a sharper awareness of the possibility of failure and, more importantly, closer attention to the losers rather than the winners of history.
Writer Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg columnist. His books include “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia” and “An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World.”