“We could be heroes…”: The Deep State, the Media, and the Crisis of Legitimacy

Two fantasies have arisen in the wake of Trump’s unexpected ascension to the White House. The first is that the Deep State will save us. The second is that the media, fighting for its survival, will finally grow a spine and a conscience and, well, save us. Both fantasies are galling. Asking the CIA to save democracy is so ridiculous that I’m not even going to waste the effort of coming up with some clever analogy.

And the fact that CNN can portray itself as a heroic front of resistence makes me literally sick to my stomach. CNN has been a force for evil, full stop. It got its start by turning the Gulf War into a spectator sport, it exacerbated the trivialization of political coverage that led to the spurious Clinton impeachment (and also encouraged the insane right-wing campaign of demonization of Hillary that materially contributed to Trump’s Electoral College technicality), it was virtually a propaganda arm of the Bush administration, it gave significant screen time to vigilante murderer George Zimmerman, etc. It is purely sensationalistic, and its idea of “tough questioning” is for the reporters to wear a smug look and randomly interrupt experts when they’re saying something interesting and true. Literally nothing worthwhile has ever resulted from CNN’s existence — it is the Cable Nihilism Network.

Now we’re suppose to believe CNN is among the good guys because Trump doesn’t like them and they reject the “fake news” label. Wow, congratulations! How brave! Maybe they should have shown a little more discretion, though — like maybe not devoting hours of coverage to “rich asshole believes in racist conspiracy theory”! CNN’s sudden conversion to the cause of good is nothing but an attempt to assert its authority, without any apology or reflection on its destructive role. And the same could be said of the entire news media. CNN was on the vanguard, but all major news organizations participated in the trends listed above.

And we all know this. So what is this fantasy that CNN or the media will “save us”? It’s that the media will start brainwashing people the right way, just like the fantasy is that the Deep State will up and decide to start manipulating events the right way. And the reason that these fantasies can arise is that the electoral system seems incapable of delivering popular legitimacy — most obviously in Trump’s popular vote loss and massive unpopularity, but Clinton also failed to win an outright majority and would enter office with 40% of Americans having been trained to hate her since 1992. (The demonization of Hillary Clinton is old enough to vote at this point!)

The “Deep State” was already emboldened to disrupt the election in Trump’s favor, and now another faction appears to be trying to undermine Trump (as though he needs help). And a big reason that such moves are possible now is the lack of popular legitimacy for either candidate or party — just like the media can now start openly taking sides (based mainly on their own craven interests), because there’s no longer an audience for the fake balance that treats “both sides” as equally legitimate.

Indeed, both sides are equally illegitimate on the popular level. Both sides are pushing agendas with no constituency. No one outside a small hardcore of party insiders and hack pundits wants either “smart” technocracy or nihilistic faux-libertarianism. The Democrats have been electorally devastated, but the Republicans are in the awkward position of being given the keys to the kingdom and yet realizing that they are advocating things that no one wants. They probably will push through more of their destructive idiocy, just because that’s who they are, but it’s mainly happening because they’ve set up the system so that it’s nearly impossible for them to get voted out — an interesting counterpoint to the other major institutional structures (the Deep State and news media) that we absolutely can’t vote out of office.

The only rallying point for genuine popular legitimacy right now is a desire to remove Trump and, in the meantime, humiliate and impede him as much as possible. And I’ll be clear: those are goals I share. The danger is settling for that goal, in such a way as to finally close the door on democratic accountability altogether.

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