The impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump is underway. But what it’s all about means such radically different things to America’s two main political tribes that they might as well be living in parallel realities.
On Earth One, Trump faces a long-overdue reckoning for blatant abuse of power after getting caught red-handed trying to pressure Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, into providing dirt on a political opponent, current Democratic front-runner Joe Biden. In this reality, he got away with accepting the Kremlin’s help to cheat his way into victory in 2016, but now his misdeeds have caught up with him.
On Earth Two, Trump is the victim of a conspiracy between the "deep state” — the intelligence and foreign policy establishment — and sore-loser Democrats, a sequel to the Russia hoax. In this reality, the scandal is Biden’s abuse of power as vice president in 2015 to pressure the Ukrainians into firing a prosecutor who was investigating a gas company that had given Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, a cushy job, while Trump was merely pushing Ukraine to probe corruption.
Earth One is inhabited by the vast majority of Democrats, Trump-critical Republicans, and the liberal and centrist media (including some on the news side of Fox News). Earth Two is inhabited by most Republicans, some contrarian leftists and the large pro-Trump contingent in the conservative media.
Obviously, Earth One is actual reality. (Yes, Hunter Biden’s $50,000-a-month job on the gas company board was an embarrassing example of nepotism, but it doesn’t come close to Trump administration malfeasance.) All the evidence points that way. Credible people who are generally capable of assessing evidence with minimal partisan bias agree.
But millions of Americans live on Earth Two, and Earth Two also has a large media apparatus.
Some say that if Richard Nixon had the media landscape Trump has today, he would have survived the Watergate scandal. Back then, the right had the National Review and a few smaller magazines, some conservative pundits in the national media, and local conservative newspapers that did not stray too far from the respectable mainstream. The national conversation was dominated by the liberal giants: The New York Times, The Washington Post and the three TV networks.
Forty-five years later, there’s conservative talk radio, Fox News and countless internet sites. What’s more, the line between the professional journalist and the citizen with a computer barely exists. For better and worse, the rise of the new media has empowered once-marginalized voices — whether it’s gay rights activists or conspiracy loons.
In this environment, it’s much easier for watchdogs — some of them ordinary citizens with no journalistic training — to fact-check the media and sometimes expose hoaxes or distortions. It’s also much easier for extremists, propagandists and conspiracy peddlers to vie for attention with serious journalists. It’s especially easy to muddy the waters when it comes to messy stories like the Ukraine saga, rife with corruption, political shenanigans and lies.
Public loss of trust in the mainstream media exacerbates the problem. Partly, this is the result of a deliberate effort on the right to discredit the “liberal media.” (Thus, claims the Russia story was misreported are wildly exaggerated.) Partly, it’s the media’s own doing. There have been many examples of sloppy and biased reporting, such as the recent coverage of new disclosures on the Brett Kavanaugh sexual misconduct accusations in which dramatic claims made headlines and then collapsed.
Our present quagmire has many authors. But Earth One and Earth Two will probably stay separate for quite a while.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.