I witnessed something fascinating last Wednesday. Rachel Maddow, one of the most well-known liberal prime-time television hosts in the United States, tweeted “BREAKING: We’ve got Trump tax returns. Tonight, 9pm ET. MSNBC. (Seriously).” Her colleague, Lawrence O’Donnell, tweeted “This is the night we’ve been waiting for.”
Twitter was at once abuzz with rapid-fire hot takes and speculation. The churning meme machine rapidly pumped out gif after gif, looping pop culture references; funny-looking B-rated celebs eating popcorn, cats staring patiently at screens, wide-eyed.
Did Maddow have Trump’s tax returns? Was the silver bullet finally here, the inevitable arrival of something that would kill Trump once and for all? The studio lights were beaming, MSNBC’s countdown clock was ticking away in the screen’s corner and here in New Zealand our top journos were seeking out illegal streams of the channel.
But the climax never came.
Maddow, who has been celebrated recently due to a ratings spike, had little of anything. Her show has a long-form magazine format, something not usually found on American 24-hour television, and so it took time before we made it to the disappointing end, and the result: not much.
Everything else Maddow was saying in her run-up (Russian oligarchs and dodgy-looking Florida real estate deals), regardless of their importance, was disarmed of any meaning. Millions of impatient people ‘live-tweeted’ their frustration when the first commercial break rolled around with tax documents nowhere in sight.
Eventually, a two-page document, a so-called 1040, showed that in 2005 Trump and his wife Melania paid about US$38 million in federal income taxes on a reported income of US$150 million. Trump wrote off more than US$100 million in business losses, reducing his overall tax.
It didn’t provide any details on Trump’s assets or sources of income and the anti-climax was swallowed up by a tonal-shift from the meme machine. Twitter turned on Maddow, yelling “lol, epic fail,” accompanied by suitable gifs.
Whether “blame” for the meaningless frenzy should be placed on Maddow or on our ‘real-time’ social media culture is irrelevant. The leaked documents were tossed aside, consumed by an all too familiar ‘media event’. It was a cynical spectacle, stage-managed like a spiritual revelation with no salvation for its liberal audience.