Brian Klaas on the "banality of crazy"
"Bad things that are routine are still worth covering."
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University College London political scientist Brian Klaas coined a phrase recently that quickly established itself in our political lexicon — the “banality of crazy.”
Klaas, a scholar of democratic breakdown and author of the highly recommended Garden of Forking Paths newsletter, uses that term to explain how Donald Trump gets away with saying absolutely bonkers stuff — like Truth Social posts musing about overthrowing the government or calling for Blake Masters to get a redo of his 2022 election loss in Arizona — without the mainstream press really taking notice.
“The press has succumbed to what I call ‘the banality of crazy,’ in which they breathlessly report on every minor Biden gaffe, but barely cover Trump calling to execute generals or shoplifters,” Klaas wrote in October. “This numbing effect helps Trump — and warps American politics.”
Late last month, Klaas reiterated that point in response to a Trump diatribe threatening MSNBC.
With recent polling showing Trump pulling ahead of Biden (gulp!), it’s more important than ever for the press to resist the temptation to normalize blatant authoritarianism and criminality. So Public Notice contributor Thor Benson connected with Klaas to discuss the “banality of crazy” and how journalists can be on guard against it in 2024. (This is Klaas’s second Public Notice Q&A — the first, which has held up quite well in my opinion, was for the inaugural edition of this newsletter in October 2021.)
“My thing on this is that we can be smart enough as political commentators or reporters to say that if Biden’s dog bites someone, it’s not remotely commensurate to the amount of ink we need to devote to Trump saying he’s going to shut down media outlets that criticize him,” Klaas told Benson. “We don’t have to be that stupid.”
A full transcript of their conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
Do you think the way the press has covered Trump has changed over time, and has there been any improvement?
The press has failed in covering Trump in two different phases. The first phase was Trump’s rise. In 2015, Trump was a fringe candidate, and at that point it made a lot of sense to not amplify him. You don’t have to cover lunatics unless they are already affecting the system.
In 2015, Trump wasn’t. He was polling at one or two percent early on in the campaign, and they gave him billions of dollars in free media. Back then, I did agree with the “don’t amplify him” perspective. At that moment, he wasn’t a major figure, so he wasn’t worth covering.
Now I think we have the exact opposite problem. Trump is so ubiquitous, in terms of how much influence he has on American politics, that the real problem has become that the routine nature of his incendiary and authoritarian rhetoric has meant the press has tuned him out. That has, I think, created the very wrong impression that Trump is becoming more normal when the opposite is happening.
In 2017, whenever Trump tweeted anything I got media requests from CNN, MSNBC, the BBC. I was going on TV all of the time to talk about every single tweet. Some of them were pretty banal and genuinely not that big of a deal. They were just unusual, because he wasn’t the standard politician. Now he’s saying, “We’re going to purge the vermin,” and he’s talking about going after his political opponents, and the phone doesn’t ring.
I think that’s the canary in the coal mine. Trump doesn’t even generate news these days when he says literally the craziest stuff in the last 30 years of American politics. It isn’t even covered.
There was a great analysis in The Guardian where they looked at Clinton’s “deplorables” remark compared to Trump’s “vermin” comments — and “vermin” was much worse because Trump was saying he’s actually going to go after people, while Clinton was just trying to describe people with odious views — and they found that “deplorables” got 18 times more coverage.
So your theory is that wall-to-wall coverage actually hurts Trump these days more than it helps him?
His approval rating has been about 40 percent for seven years, but the times when you do see dips are when his rhetoric — unvarnished Trump — filters into the mainstream. The 2017 Charlottesville comments, for instance. That’s the lowest approval rating I think he had during his time in the White House. And it wasn’t like the media was drumming this up. They just reported, “Here’s what Trump said.”
Another example was covid, when Trump was giving these nightly press conferences and everyone was like, “Wait. This guy doesn’t understand science.” Ordinary people were not super into that.
The other dynamic is that Truth Social is separate from the media ecosystem. I don’t see his posts naturally because I’m not on Truth Social. When he was on Twitter, if he tweeted something even remotely objectionable, my feed blew up with Trump. Every journalist saw it too. Part of it these days is laziness, because you’re not seeking out the Trump rhetoric that he’s putting out to his base on Truth Social, but also I think it’s the fact that it’s just not unusual anymore. There are probably a lot of editors who are at odds with journalists where the editors are saying, “This isn’t a news story because no one is going to want to click on us writing about how Trump is saying crazy stuff every day.”
The problem is that every time something important is happening you really should cover it. The fact that potentially the most powerful person in the world is threatening to basically jail his political opponents, purge them, shut down media outlets — that’s the most important story in American politics. It doesn’t matter that it’s not unusual. Bad things that are routine are still worth covering.
I feel like in 2016 the media didn’t see what was happening with Trump and his base, and its failures helped him get elected. Now reporters are ignoring Trump and it might help him sneak back into the White House. It’s two different but similar mistakes.