Before I get into my book review, let me thank my linkers:
And howdy to the Kentuckians from facebook! I know I have to post more about your state…don’t worry, it will be giving me plenty of material over the next year.
Thanks to the people buying through my Amazon links – it’s not a huge amount of money, but it does defray my server costs.
So below I’ve got some thoughts on Don Surber’s latest book Trump the Press: Don Surber’s take on how the pundits blew the 2016 Republican race
Below I have a few regions. First, the Amazon review, some quotes I enjoyed, then a longer set of comments that go beyond the book, and then finally an editorial/writerly quibble (though it could just be me being stupid).
TRUMP THE PRESS: HOW THEY GOT IT WRONG
This book is a must-have for potential pundits and forecasters, even if one operates outside the political sphere. It covers Donald Trump’s journey from his before his announcement to run for President in 2015 up to win he wins the Republican nomination in mid-2016. And while the author, Don Surber, describes his book like so:
“This book is really a novel. The hero is imperfect, is discounted, is mocked, is opposed, is given up on, and is the winner in the end. The hero is the leader and the role model for his followers.”
I found this book is really about all the onlookers commenting on Trump’s journey over that period, and how so many of them got it catastrophically wrong. The ones that really made me wonder were those who kept doubling-down each time they were proven wrong, even as new information told them they really needed to question their assumptions.
Just like the movie Titanic, you know how the story ends (non-spoiler alert: the ship sinks), so you may think this book would be tedious, especially given it is so quote-heavy. The same names of commenters pop up repeatedly, and then often these talking heads spout the same worn-out metaphors and dead imagery.
But I got hooked rapidly — it’s not just Surber’s pacing, which is brisk, but his organization of the narrative. There are sections of thematic unity (the chapter “Peak Trump” was my favorite here) and sections of chronological narrative; Surber keeps tight focus, making his points pithily and then moving on.
I got two very important lessons from this book:
1. Don’t be too certain when you’re really not. It’s okay to admit “I don’t know”, and to revise when proven wrong.
2. In the face of uncertainty, go seeking new information; don’t keep dipping back into the same pools because it won’t expand your knowledge.
I’m really looking forward to Surber’s sequel, and given that it seems many of the covered pundits still haven’t learned their lessons, I bet he will be able to expand this into a continuing series throughout Trump’s presidency.
TRUMP THE PRESS: ON THE BEAUTY OF BREVITY
This isn’t about Trump’s speaking style. This is about Surber’s writing style.
While the power of Surber’s book is in the organization of quotes so that one can see the larger arc of themes and narrative, Surber has a lot of great barbs throughout the book.
Here are a few that made me laugh, in chapter order:
Chapter 1: An Army of Goliaths
Making a billionaire the underdog was nearly impossible, but the Washington press corps was up to the task. Congratulations.
Chapter 3: Trump won’t run
This was not the dumbest thing Cillizza wrote in 2015.
[I will come back to that one]
Chapter 6: Peak Trump
Trump had more peaks than the Himalayas.
Chapter 16: An Army of Vincent Canbys
Too bad Washington’s theater district was too small to justify reassigning Krauthammer and his cohorts to review plays instead of debates.
Chapter 19: Jumping the Shark
By the way, Happy Days continued for another seven years after the Fonz jumped the shark.
Chapter 21: Trump’s Candidacy Must Die
However, [George] Will soldiered on, bless his heart.
Chapter 30: Rubio’s Magic Moment
Blasphemy. No real pundit ever considers the public is smarter than he.
You might say, Rubio’s campaign came up shorthanded.
That last one really made me snort. As the book goes on, Surber puts more and more of these barbs as the last line in the chapter.
TRUMP THE PRESS: HOW THEY WILL KEEP GETTING IT WRONG
U.S. Media’s Real Elitism Problem
Donald Trump’s victory caught mainstream news outlets off guard. Were reporters too insulated to see his growing support?
n the aftermath, many of the immediate post-mortems blamed a coastal bubble: Too many journalists had grown nearsighted in urban Democratic enclaves, the reasoning went, blinding them to what was taking place in Middle America. If more reporters actually spent time in fly-over country, instead of jetting through for a rally, they’d understand why Donald Trump won voters over. And if national newsrooms prioritized hiring folks who didn’t graduate from elite journalism programs—and maybe didn’t graduate from college at all—well, that wouldn’t hurt, either.
These critiques minimize (or, at their most uncharitable, just ignore) the tremendous effort journalists make to travel and hear directly from Americans. For example, our own James Fallows and Deborah Fallows have spent more than three years profiling ground-up change in local communities for The Atlantic’s American Futures project.
But there’s little question the journalistic class has diverged sharply from the country it covers. In 1960, nearly a third of reporters and editors had never attended a single year of college; in 2015, only 8.3 percent could say the same, according to Census figures extracted with the help of the University of Minnesota’s IPUMS project. That year, 46 percent of adults 25 and older nationwide had never attended a university.
To a modest degree, journalists have also become increasingly sequestered on the East and West coasts, to the detriment of newsrooms in the interior of the country. In fact, as of 2011, 92 percent of journalists worked within a metropolitan area, up from 75 percent a half century earlier. The map below charts the share of America’s reporters who work in a given county. See that big circle? That’s Manhattan, which saw its share of journalists increase between 1990 and 2015, now hosting around 13 percent of the nation’s reporters. Meanwhile, Midwest centers like Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Kansas City suffered. (There are fewer journalism jobs overall since the heyday of the 1990s and early 2000s, but non-coastal regions have been hit harder than New York.)
A CALL FOR INTELLECTUAL HUMILITY
It won’t kill you to say “I don’t know” when you don’t know.
It also helps to explicitly look for info against your preferred result or anticipated result. There’s this thing called confirmation bias, which seems to have run rampant among pollsters and media people using the polls. It’s not merely interpreting new info as supporting your desired result, but that you’re not actively looking for disconfirming evidence. People didn’t want to see that Trump may have had a chance, so they never saw it coming.
As I said last Wednesday, I didn’t find the election results shocking (mainly because I knew there were a bunch of question marks hovering over the midwest), but I did find them surprising. After all, my last prediction gave an edge to the Dems. I was wrong.
Likewise, I really have no clue what Trump’s going to do.
So I’m not even going to predict at this point.
I am aware I have no clue. But also, my job doesn’t depend on being a political prognosticator. I understand that these people’s careers are to comment on this stuff… but really, they need to get a bit outside their own skulls and talk with other people or digging into their own assumptions.
I bought this book the day after the election, because while not shocked, I was surprised, and I was curious to see if I could learn anything from this massive punditocracy failure.
Well, I have learned a little bit, and one of the things was not only the lack of intellectual humility (which I’ve known about for a long time, and something I work on with myself), but how certain metaphors/ruts of thinking catch on. That so many kept using the same images (Peak Trump, clowns, etc.) was really a sign of lazy thinking. It’s easy just to say what everybody else is saying, sure, but I think it was a sign of groupthink.
And really, when everybody is seeing and saying the same thing, it could be the case that they’re all right. But are all those people really necessary to be saying the same thing? You’d think it would be in the interest of at least one of them to try to take a different angle. I mean, their jobs are to be read!
This is partly why I don’t write about the items most of the blogs I read cover — I find that they’ve covered those issues from all the angles I’d attack it from, so what’s my reason for writing it other than my own gratification? Meh. Many of these people I read, like Ace of Spades, are much better at writing what I’d want to say, so I’m superfluous there.
But most of the people writing about public pensions… well, it’s not a crowded field. I’ll tell you that much.
Anyway, recent stories of Trump berating the press kind of guarantees a continuation of the hostility and cognitive biases on the punditocracy, so I wasn’t joking when I said Surber could turn this into a series. I bet he already has enough material just from the nomination to right now.
And I bet he would have more than enough material just from Trump’s first 100 days in office next year. Heck, Surber could make this an annual thing, reaching from State of the Union address to State of the Union address
(oh, wouldn’t it be a hoot if Trump just pre-recorded his address and posted it to YouTube like he did this outline of his initial plans and just forgo standing up in Congress to deliver it. After all, in ye olden times, the President simply sent a letter to Congress. FDR changed that, but Trump could change it again.)
EDITORIAL QUIBBLING: CHEKOV’S STUPIDITY
This may be just me being a dumb reader, but when I saw this line in Chapter 3: Trump Won’t Run
That was not the dumbest thing Cillizza wrote in 2015.
I was expecting a note somewhere else in the book as to what exactly was that dumbest thing!
The great thing is, I bought the kindle version of the book, so I was able to search the text, and Cillizza’s name comes up 9 times.
The first is what he wrote that Surber reacted to:
On February 26,  Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post asked, “The real question is not whether Trump will run or not. The real question is why any of us even care.”
So here are the next results:
Chapter 5: Trump Cannot Win
The day after Trump entered the race, Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post declared Trump’s candidacy dead in a piece headlined, “Why no one should take Donald Trump seriously, in one very simple chart.”
It goes on quoting favorability/nonfavorability stats. Was this Cillizza’s dumbest thing he wrote?
Here’s the chart, by the way:
Was that the dumbest column from Cillizza in 2015?
There’s one more quote from Cillizza in the book, but it’s from 2016, so that can’t be the dumbest thing he wrote in 2015.
So I wanna know, Don! (Surber, not Trump, that is)
Yeah, actuaries. We’re detail-oriented people, and you gotta point out which detail you actually mean.
But seriously, that was the only problem I had with the book. It was a very fast read, and it’s got a lot of stuff for me to think about. I am glad I bought the kindle version, because I’ve made notes and highlights, and as you can see, it’s pretty easy to search.
I did emphasize that the book is about the failure of the punditocracy, but Surber also notes a handful of people who got it right. I found it interesting when he gave recognition to people who obviously disliked Trump but who did go out of their way to try to understand the Trump phenomenon. I don’t pretend to understand the Trump phenomenon myself, but that’s not my job in any case.
Anyway, very good book, and I’m looking forward to the next one from Surber.
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