Matt Bai on Fake News and the Fate of America

Matt Bai is the national political columnist at Yahoo News, which he joined in January 2014, and writes a weekly column called Political World, which appears every Thursday. Prior to joining Yahoo, Bai was a columnist for the New York Times and the chief political correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, where he covered three presidential campaigns. Bai is the author of The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics, which was a New York Times Notable Book for 2007. His most recent book, All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, was selected as one of the year’s best books by NPR and Amazon.

Bai is best known for his stories that explore change in society through a generational, technological, and economic lens. As a winter 2017 fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, Bai moderated the event “America in the Trump Era: Covering Trump” with Ann Lipinski of the Nieman Foundation, David Rhodes of CBS News, and Jeff Zucker of CNN. After the event, Bai sat down with the Gate’s Yarra Elmasry to discuss where the Trump administration will take the country, the implications his presidency will have on journalism, and how coverage of politics and presidential campaigns will evolve going forward.

The Gate: Where do you see the country going under the Trump administration? Do you think it is more divided today than it will be in four years, or will the Trump administration push the American people to come together as a united opposition?

Matt Bai: I see the country existing, so there’s that. I’m generally a pretty optimistic person, and I have been optimistic about our politics for a long time. But, I don’t see less division any time soon. Win or lose, success or not a success, President Trump is going to be a divisive president. There’s virtually no chance that we wake up one day in two years, and he has a 60-plus percent approval rating, and you know, we’re winning so much we’re tired of winning. Our political environment isn’t conducive to that, and he’s not the figure to make it happen. If President Obama couldn’t make many inroads in unity, I don’t see that Trump can.

That doesn’t mean we’re hopeless. We have a couple of trends colliding in the culture that I think we don’t quite know what to do with yet. We’ve had a very difficult, long-term difficult, economic trajectory in which some people have done really well, and a lot of people have not, and that has mostly to do with technology and the overall shift in the economy. And that’s bound to create political division because people see the world very differently. Really beginning in 2000, we started to see this extremely pronounced urban/rural divide in the electorate which really had its antecedents before that. Then the other thing we’ve got going on is this technology that is in itself divisivesocial media, the internet. We’re at the very beginning of that, and we haven’t quite figured out how to navigate it constructively.

One of the things that has long worried me the most and that I hear a bunch of people talking about now is the siloing of ideologies and culturesthe fact that people can wall themselves off in their own media. I think we’ve been remiss as a society, and particularly where education is concerned, in not recognizing that this is a challenge that we need to address very early. We need to be teaching media literacy and navigating this sophisticated media in a way that’s constructive in the same way that we teach the American Revolution and fractions, because it is not an intuitive skill anymore. So all of that is at the foundation of a lot of division that I don’t think Donald Trump is ideally suited to address, but I remain still kind of hopeful that we can figure this out.

Gate: Many Americans said that the election opened their eyes to the anti-immigrant sentiment in many parts of America, that they lived in a “liberal bubble.” Will a Trump presidency pop this “bubble” or exacerbate it?

Bai: I know that the conventional interpretation is that everybody in the cities had no idea what was going on in the rest of the country. That may be true for a lot of others, but I don’t think anybody travels the country more than most political reporters. It is really a myth that they’re all locked up in the bubblemaybe White House reporters are, but I’ve been all over the country like three times now and I’ve been writing about working-class anxiety and despair and frustration for over a decade. I’ve written tens of thousands of words about it. So the sentiment that elected Donald Trump was not remotely surprising to me, or to a lot of people who cover politics for a long time.

More to the point, I think Trump was so outrageous and so out of the mainstream that a lot of urban liberals, a lot of folks in the media who only talk to each other about politics, just didn’t imagine that enough people could vote for him. We understood the frustration, we just didn’t think at the end of the day it was enough to get enough people to vote. It wasn’t plausible, from what we knew about politics. And I am also guilty of that, until the last couple of weeks when I think I did see it, and I think the data was there and a lot of people blinded themselves to it. There were a lot of people telling each other they were right. And I was telling people in the last couple of weeks, you’re not looking at what’s there: Secretary Clinton’s gender gap went away, the margins had tightened, she was in states she shouldn’t have been infor a bunch of reasons that became apparent laterbut there was certainly a period after the debates started where I too felt like [Trump wouldn’t win]. I always thought it was going to be a close electionI said that all alongbut I just did not think he had what it took to exploit that anxiety of people. And not to belabor this point, but even if you look at the exit polling, we weren’t entirely wrong about it either: a third of the country thought he was qualified, and a third of the country thought he had the right temperament. An awful lot of people who didn’t like Trump rolled the dice on him at the end of the day, so we were right about the reaction people had. We just didn’t understand how much they didn’t like his opponent in some way, and how much they wanted to blow up the status quo.

Having said that, I’m just profoundly frustrated by the liberal idea that it’s OK because the cities get bigger and bigger and the country gets more and more diverse and there’ll just be more of us than there are of them. You don’t actually win elections that way. I think that’s a flawed theory, but even if it were not a flawed theory, it’s not how you govern a country, it’s not how you build any consensus. So, this country is going to move forward when we have leadership, younger leadership, that can expand the electorate and build some consensus. It doesn’t mean that 80 percent of the people are going to agree, but we can build more consensus than we have, and we can begin to break down some of those cultural barriers.

But that requires two things. It requires genuine leadership, and a generational break in leadership. And it also requires an economic theory that’s modern, because as long as college educated Americans are doing great and non-college educated Americans are sinking, you cannot break down cultural and political divisions. There has to be some equality of opportunity in some sense that modernity works for everybody, or at least works for more people.

The left doesn’t help this either: your Elizabeth Warrens and your Bernie Sanders say, everybody’s tumbling backward, the middle class is disappearingwell that’s just not true. We have to look at the fact: if you’re middle class in this country and you have a college degree, you’re doing really well, and you’ve actually done quite well in the last ten or fifteen years. If you’re middle class in this country and you don’t have a college degree, things are falling apart. And so the first thing we have to do is diagnose the problem correctly. We do not have a disappearing middle class, a tiny group of people doing well, and everyone else doing horribly. We have a bifurcation that has to do a lot with education, and a lot to do with where you live and how well you are situated to capitalize on globalization. And we have to figure out how to broaden that, and right now all we have is one side screaming at the other and competing for close elections. We need to break that paradigm.

Gate: How do you break the generational gap in leadership?

Bai: I’ll be very blunt with youand it’s not going to sound goodbut people die. And I’m not wishing anyone ill; the fact is, we are getting a generational turnover, and it’s not just dying in a literal senseit’s that they leave the stage. The Clintons will now leave the stage, and the Bushs will leave the stage, and something will come next. I was very disappointed that after President Obama, we ended up with two Boomer candidates. I don’t think this generation has proven itself capable of adapting to modernity, leading the country forward, and I don’t think they ever will. And so I look forward to that next generation that’s more native to the technology, that’s grown up with the division, that understands a little more about the culture of the country post-internet and post-globalization, because I think we have people who are trying very hard to adapt and have tried very hard to explain it, but fundamentally they live in a different world and carry a lot of cultural biases that are no longer relevant.

Gate: There is nothing we can do to actively change the leadership generation gap?

Bai: I fear not. I just didn’t think we would have to wait so long. They just don’t leave. These Boomersthey are incredibly tenacious about holding on to the levers of power and cultural influence and everything else. But they are a dogged generation that, incidentally, is also going to bankrupt us very soon, so we have to move forward. It’s frustrating.

Gate: How do you think media coverage of politicsand specifically, presidential elections will change, especially after this past election?

Bai: Well, the rhetoric and the culture of our politics may never be the same. I have a lot of worries about the future right now. It’s hard to put them in any order. I’m very concerned that all the boundaries have shifted and that we’ll have a meaner and more reckless political culture, and what’s normal will be redefined.

I’m very concerned that we won’t be able to restore the trust of the public. I was talking about this last night and nobody really agreed with me, but, this administration is essentially saying, “Say whatever you want, prove us wrong, correct our facts because nobody trusts you; it’s our word against yours, and your word sucks.” My fear is, what if [the Trump administration] is right? What if we do correct all the facts and we do point out they’re lying, and nobody cares and they get more popular? What does that mean for our media? What does that mean for our politics? I’ve talked for years about what we were doing to squander our credibility as a news media with these chat shows and tweets and garbage analysis and the punditry and the polling and the projections. What if we’ve reached the moment where you don’t get [the trust] back? That could do a lot of damage to our democracy, so I worry about that. And I don’t think it’s going to happen, but I worry about it.

The hopeful part of it, I think, is that as a media we are now going to retrench and rethink. I think we’re going to cover politics more aggressively. I think you’re going to have less institutional White House coverage. I think we’re going to find our voice and our purpose again, which I think is great, as long as it doesn’t verge into cynicism, as long as it’s fine to find your voice and call a lie a lie, as long as you don’t go around then calling every politician a liar every time you don’t agree with what he’s saying. So we have to be very vigilant about not redefining our role in a way that’s damaging, but we also have to be transparent and candid and tough. And I think we have the capacity to do all of that.

Gate: How do you see the future of journalism, and specifically “fake news” and “alternative facts,” developing over the course of the Trump presidency?

Bai: Another spokesperson recently said there’s no such thing as facts anymore. This goes back to the point I made earlier about media literacy. I wrote a column about this, but my own feeling about this is, you’re not stopping this out on the supply endit’s like the drug war you’re not stopping people from offering things that aren’t true. The only thing you can do is educate the consumers of news to recognize it. There’s always going to be some number of people who want to believe what they want to believe and wall themselves off, and we can’t do anything about that. People are going to believe things that aren’t true, and they’re going to want to believe things that aren’t true, because that’s human nature, and now they have the capacity to do that in a different way.

What we can do for everybody else is to offer, real meaningful guidance about how you consume mediawhat’s good media, what’s bad media, why you need to consult multiple sources, how you read it, what’s opinion, what’s fact. All of these things that were very intuitive when you dropped a newspaper on your doorstep and there were three networks are not intuitive anymore, and we have to stop pretending they are. I’m glad that my kids study the 1960s every two months. I’m glad that they’re getting all this cultural education in grade schoolI didn’t have it. But I think we could take a year and or half a year a couple of times and make sure people understand how to be informed as citizens, because it’s just not as intuitive as it used to be.

Gate: John Kerry wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which he states that he and Obama “got [everything] right” with regards to foreign policy. In that vein, how do you think Trump’s “America First” policy will reshape international affairs? How will this affect the Syrian civil war? China? Israel? Iran?

Bai: I wrote a column on the inauguration week called “President Trump and the End of the American Century,” and my argument was not that he’s destroyed the country and the American century is over because we’re a terrible country. My point was that from basically the end of World War II, centuries have demarcations that are not necessarily year zero to year ninety-nine, and the American century really goes from the end of World War II until now. And it was marked by a very expansive philosophy: expanding markets, expanding military influence, expanding cultural influence and consumer influence, keeping the world safe and keeping America prosperous by maintaining a primary presence in the world.

We’ve been heading this way for a while, but Trump’s election is some large part of the country saying, and the president saying, we’re done with that. We’ll be a power, but we don’t need to be the only power. We don’t need to expand our marketsit’s hurting usand we actually need to contract our engagements in the world. We can’t afford to be the military safeguard for all of Europe or all of the worldit is time for America to retrench at home. And that is the end of a very long period in which we took it for granted that America was the superpower in the world.

In terms of foreign policy, you would hope it doesn’t get us into wars, you would hope there are enough institutional barriers; perhaps Trump is right about some things. Perhaps he did need to send a strong signal to China by talking to Taiwan early on. He could be right, but the place where I think he’s not right and where he’s having the most impact at this moment, is in trade: for example, in getting out of TPP, which the left also applaudsand I think they’re wrongand talking about tariffs that haven’t been talked about in serious policy circles for decades, getting out of NAFTA. These are radical steps that are not particularly forward-looking, and I’m not sure we understand the ramifications.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.