We are so plagued by experts and inundated with know-it-alls that the popular reaction is to turn out the technocrats and embrace the know-nothings. A cynic might wonder if Axios, the political website that promises to cover issues with a series of bullet points totaling no more than 300 words, is a technocrat’s way of heading off the know-nothings, if only by ensuring that the people who still believe in expertise know a little.
Brevity might be the soul of wit, but is it the meat of political analysis? Axios describes its info-gobbets as ‘smart brevity.’ Like smart foods and smart phones, this means pre-digested information, shot out in hard, pre-formed pellets. Axios offers smart conclusions, delivered with digital smartness. If you want to look at the details, or the sources for these conclusions, you might have to look elsewhere.
One place you wouldn’t look if you wanted to ruminate over the cud of raw data is television. On Sunday night, Axios took to the airwaves with the first of four episodes on HBO.
‘Tonight, politics is the only game in town,’ Axios editor Mike Allen announced. Off we went with Donald Trump, Jr. and Kimberly Ann Guilfoyle on the graphic-enhanced campaign trail in Texas. ‘Why do they matter?’ Allen asked. He wasn’t speaking rhetorically. Someone called ‘Jon’ — no surname required if you’re a Millennial minion –– explained to us idiots that Don and Kim were ‘some of the closest people to the President of the United States,’ and that ‘to understand this President and the world around him, you actually have to talk to the people who exist in that ecosystem.’
I’d think that to understand this President, you should look anywhere but the inner circles of the rich. Down in Texas, we watched some editorializing context footage of white hicks at a Ted Cruz rally, praying for the rights of the unborn in Jesus’ name. Guilfoyle took the stage in a pantsuit with ruched shoulders, told them she was a ‘real Hispanic’ and endorsed Cruz. Trump Jr. followed in a blue suit and expensive buck teeth, and introduced Ted Cruz, who was wearing poo-colored cowboy boots like he had been canvassing on a silage farm. The Texans were obviously too stupid to merit cross-examination on their opinions.
We then heard Jon explain to the Axios editors how Trump is a TV character who collects followers from TV. We got some nice red-tinged graphics and nodding-dog cartoons of Trump’s drones. Steve Bannon got three heads, even though he hasn’t been around for more than a year. Fox News, we learn, runs the White House.
More interesting was Gary Cohn, a defector. Trump, he said, is unpredictable and will do anything to win. Steny Hoyer, Democrat from Maryland, agreed and said Trump couldn’t be trusted. So did lawyers who had opposed his property ventures. So much for predicting Trump by knowing those who know him.
Peter Osnos, editor of The Art of the Deal, recalled making a deal on the spot ‘with no lawyer, no agent.’ This was meant to indicate Trump is dumb, but in my experience of publishing, it shows he’s smart. Alan Lapidus, architect of Trump casinos, thought that Trump thinks life is a game. Again, Trump came off as smarter than Axios want him to look. Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, thought that Trump is ‘more than three-dimensional,’ so came off as less smart than his subject, but more smart than Axios’s two-dimensional take-down.
By the halfway mark, I wasn’t sure if Axios was smart people patronizing dumb people by pretending to be sensible, or dumb people thinking they were sensible by acting smart. But then we were told that Trump doesn’t pay his bills. The truth is, most of the country struggles to pay its bills. This made Trump look like an Everyman being mocked by affluent metropolitan technocrats.
So did a poll, numbers and coverage unspecified, that showed Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey beating Trump in 2020, should they choose to run against their fellow plutocrat. Axios concluded that a Democrats should run a woman of color in 2020 and look to revive an ‘Obama coalition effect.’ None of the Millennial technocrats wondered whether their polling about Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey suggested that their politics are no less hollowed by television than those of the Fox-watching Bible-bashers in Texas.
The Axios team got a 10-minute interview with Trump, which doesn’t seem to hard to get. Trump was relaxed. The two interviewers, acting like real journalists and falling into Trump’s TV trap, kept interrupting him. While we were looking at him, he said he was ‘looking at’ antitrust cases against the Internet giants. He was ‘looking at’ Yemen too. It was a ‘terrible situation,’ but it wasn’t America’s fault if the people who buy America’s weapons didn’t know how to use them. He promised to cover pre-existing conditions, whatever happens after Obamacare. He admitted that man, or ‘men and women, to be politically correct,’ affected the global climate. He called ‘a big part’ of the media ‘fake news.’ He wasn’t inciting his followers on social media: it was his ‘only way of fighting back.’ It was like watching an elephant brushing off fleas. By the end, the only scoop Axios had was that Trump signs government documents with a black Sharpie.
Axios was media about media. It feels like a media Democrat’s idea of a shot for the sweet spot and the middle ground. But the middle ground doesn’t really exist anymore in American culture, and the small spot that’s left isn’t smelling very sweet. This would have been a wonderful show in 2007. Since then, though, who believes people should be satisfied with rational explanations of their cost-benefit interest, snappy graphics or not? You’d think that the people who think they’re the smartest people in their coastal, liberal rooms would at least affect a little humility for the cameras. But no.
The link between high intelligence and good sense is a typical smart-guy delusion. Among the people I know, the ones who think they’re smart but aren’t get their political opinions from TV. The ones who actually are smart hardly ever watch television. The ones who are sensible watch sports and avoid politics. Not without reason is good sense called ‘common sense.’
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.