This is the fundamental appeal of MSNBC, and this, I think, accounts for a surge in ratings driven by a great growth in the 55+ demographic. (As at all the other cable channels, viewership among those in the 25–54 age range continues to decline.) As the Trump presidency drags into its third ugly year, it feels ever more like a crisis frozen in amber. The paralysis of the latest partial government shutdown only heightened the sense that nothing—certainly nothing good—is happening, except for the ticktock revelations of campaign and executive skullduggery, which at very least have the power to provoke Trump to guilty-conscience tantrums on social media. For those viewers, age 55 and above, professional and affluent, generally socially liberal but largely unexcited by the younger generations’ pivot toward socialism and more radical economic policies, the belief that there may yet be a gotcha moment, a crack in the case that forces a reckoning, a legal procedure through which normalcy may be restored, is well-nigh irresistible. And the familiar byplay of procedural blame-assigning and briskly apportioned punishment likewise exerts a pronounced appeal for any viewer weaned on the All the President’s Men model of executive accountability won through the patient scandal-reporting of elite journalistic institutions. With the underlying narrative of institutional integrity thus secured and defended, our national politics can return to what every MSNBC anchor’s inner David Brooks understands as the old normal: an orderly back-and-forth of power between two ordinary political parties, and a smooth transition to retirement with wars and crises just a distant hum beyond a comfortable backdrop. I am still a few years shy of the target demographic for this fever dream of an institutionally mediated day of political judgment, but I can feel the attraction and the pull.

 

The danger, however, is that it is possible to make MSNBC your principal source of news and information and, as a consequence, to escape knowing much of anything about what is going on in the world. It is possible to watch an entire primetime lineup without mention of Brexit, of the gilets jaunes, of any Eurasian politics beyond the bogeyman Putin and some snarking at Trump’s vague China tariffs. Venezuela makes an occasional appearance, mostly as it relates to our own domestic politics (although, credit where it’s due: Chris Hayes, at least, made some mention of historical U.S. interference in the region). Brazil, the second-largest country in the Americas, which just elected its own far-right leader, Jair Bolsonaro, barely appears. There is a “border crisis” but little sense of what is on the other side of that border. There is “Syria,” but little actual reporting from the Middle East. North Korea bubbles up sporadically, garnering particular attention whenever the president decides he wants another genial confab with Kim Jong Un, and even then exists mostly as a platform to joke about Trump’s inability to close a deal. The Indian subcontinent hardly exists. Africa hardly exists. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal sparked a flurry of coverage of the politics of climate change policy, but the environment and climate change, as stories in and of themselves, hardly exist.

And as a consequence of this narrowness of interest, it is possible to believe that getting the president of the United States, whether through impeachment, indictment, or just beating him in the 2020 race, will be a social and political panacea, that it will set aright most of what ails our society, and that we can return to a version of an already idealized Obama era, with a graceful grown-up reassuring us that cooler heads will inevitably prevail.

They will not, or at least not inevitably, and I will be curious to see what becomes of the network if and when Trump’s moment does pass. There is a huge fight coming, one that will make the present bickering over a few billion dollars for a phantasm of a border wall seem less than petty. It will be a fight about the allocation of resources on an international level in an era of actually inevitable and irreversible climate change. It will entail huge economic upheavals and the migration of millions of people across the globe, including here in the United States. None of it will be solved by Robert Mueller, and it cannot be worked out in three-hour segments over coffee with Mika and Joe.

MSNBC promises its audience that if we dig deep enough, we’ll get to the bottom of this thing, but what good is digging a hole in preparation for a flood?

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