I overheard someone ask a nice lady whether she thought Paul Manafort should be pardoned by President Donald Trump. She responded, “Who’s Manafort?”
When it was explained to her that he is the former campaign chairman for Trump, she asked with all sincerity, “Why don’t they just leave Trump alone?”
I forget, and then I am reminded, and then I forget again, that the vast majority of Americans are tuned out. Literally. They rarely ever watch or read the news, local or national.
I seem to always want to dismiss a key fact: Viewers of the all-news cable channels such as CNN have a median age of about 66 years old. No wonder it seems like everyone I talk to follows cable news. They are my cronies. News, of course, is also widely available on social media, but not like the minute-by-minute news and analysis of networks such as Fox News.
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Only a fraction of Americans may have heard the name “Stormy Daniels,” the porn star who allegedly had an affair with Trump; even fewer know her now supposedly famous attorney Michael Avenatti. He dominates the cable news channels as a 24/7 guest and has recently announced he may run for president.
Avenatti actually believes all of America knows him because he hears flattering comments about himself from all those 66-year-olds who are riveted by the news channels. Since he thinks the whole world is watching him nonstop on cable news, he would be utterly flabbergasted to learn that the vast majority of folks have no idea who he is.
Those of us who are politely called “news junkies” because we happen to stay obsessively current on the news actually believe most Americans who are even somewhat educated surely must also be following every move Trump makes and everything he utters or tweets. But how many know Trump claims he has the authority to pardon himself from any crime he may commit? He also maintains the entire investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election is unconstitutional. He also claims that, besides impeachment, the president is basically above the law.
Let’s get real. Only a small slice of the American public cares about what I just said. The vast majority yawn. Oh, they may have heard some tidbits, like Trump wants to build a wall. But that may be the extent of what they know regarding efforts to control illegal immigration.
That lack of engagement reveals itself in low voter turnout in non-presidential election years, which strongly indicates there is, by far, more apathy than interest in the critical issues of the day. This year, the interest level may bump up a bit over recent midterm election years past, but still, the vast majority will stay home on Election Day and, worse, know next to nothing about what is at stake.
Not to be melodramatic, but I honestly do fear for our democracy when such a miniscule portion of the population is paying attention to what is happening outside of their own world. The notion held by the Founding Fathers was that society (not yet defined as women) would study the issues, learn about the candidates, and then cast informed votes. That’s why the nation was set up as a representative democracy. We at least were supposed to elect those whose judgments would reflect our views on our behalf. But we don’t even pay attention to most of our elected officials and what their views are. And what about the press? Our watchdog? It is now mistrusted as the “enemy of the people,” churning out supposedly fictitious news.
Can a democracy really work when representative government is virtually ignored? Can we trust the small fraction of the people to make all the decisions? Can we dismiss the free press as the underpinning of our knowledge of current events?
The Trump era has taught me a lot about disinterest, and it is scary. Trump can outright lie, act like a dictator, make sweeping world-changing decisions alone, and hardly anyone seems to know about it or care. I can feel what it must have been like to have lived in an autocratic era in another country that allowed the unthinkable to happen, while too few paid attention or cared.
Now, for the first time, I feel in the pit of my stomach, with this massive disengagement, it can happen here, too.