What we had before the Helsinki Summit is what we still have now… two bullies playing reality TV, each giving incoherent monologues.

The U.S. bully had just attacked his NATO allies, his only protection from another world war. He then derided his most reliable European trade partners, and also viciously undercut a longstanding UK friendship. Later in Helsinki, he ignored ironclad proof of Russian election meddling.

The Russian bully claimed he never met the guy standing next to him before he became U.S. president, even though there are Trump brags on video tapes proving otherwise. Constant lies and exaggerations came home to roost in Helsinki for both men, and so nothing said by either one was believable.

In the final analysis, if there was any winner at all it was probably the Russian. He got a photo standing equal in apparent power and influence with the U.S. president, while also looking more skillful at producing amusing facial distractions. Body language reveals a lot. Conducting the official meeting in secrecy, however, means we may never know what was actually said, or if important issues were ever even discussed.

It’s sad, but the American people never had a chance to see a proud patriot standing tall representing them in Helsinki! There were no specific U.S. interests advanced that we know of… only disappointing words of autocrat-to-autocrat admiration. Even supportive Republicans in Congress began to voice disgust.

Certainly “The Base” must now be able to see far more clearly that character and common decency mean everything when it comes to advancing the interests and values of the once universally admired United States of America. Bottom line: When you can’t trust the messengers, there will be no good results. It’s as simple as that.

Forget the politics. Now it’s about the potentially destructive outcome of blindly and viciously attacking longstanding NATO allies in public, and about hearing and seeing a US president rant on totally ignorant of recent history. Who can possibly benefit from this? China? Putin? Anyone at all? His base might cheer the hostile tone, but what can they gain?

Angry public criticism of allies can only poison summits. Disagreements are always addressed in private meetings. But what binds them, and not what divides them, is their purpose. In NATO’s case, collective security is clearly the unifying benefit. Mr. Trump arrogantly criticized Germany’s energy pipeline arrangement with Russia in front of TV cameras. His concern is legitimate and has been appropriately debated inside NATO. But it is not a situation that will change the overall security benefit NATO provides for it members. Also, Trump’s loudly voiced problem with NATO funding imbalances has been the legitimate complaint of multiple presidents. But this also never affected the numerous security benefits of NATO, including member countries hosting major US military bases.

To make matters worse, in the midst of this NATO debacle Trump is also announcing more sweeping trade tariffs. And the UK is also bracing itself for an untimely Trump visit following this summit. The US president is unpopular in the UK and his arrival will no doubt cause huge protests. These will unnecessarily distract the Prime Minister who is currently dealing with a very serious Brexit produced political crisis.

Meanwhile daily assurances also continue that everything is safe in North Korea even though their leaders are saying the US approach has been gangster-like. Mean-spirited immigration rhetoric also continues this week while migrant children remain cruelly separated from their parents. And all this will lead the president suspiciously into a private and chummy get-together with the Russian dictator… even when most everyone agrees that Putin has expansion intentions and is orchestrating the tearing apart of the entire US electoral process. What is most troubling is how at home Mr. Trump looks when schmoozing with autocrats.

Photos of the week so far show Trump’s staff and diplomats looking hopelessly embarrassed in his presence. So what are the consequences? A complete unraveling of NATO? Greater polarization and ethnic divisions everywhere? More normalization of cruelty and “me first” behavior? Worldwide citizen numbness? Or how about a golden opportunity for China to simply claim economic and global superiority?

One colleague told me that it seems Mr. Trump just can’t help himself and is actually begging the US Congress to stop him. My analysis focuses only on the overall consequences of out-of-control wrecking ball communication behavior. But career consequences for totally paralyzed elected officials in a situation like this is anybody’s guess.

It’s really important to note, however, that when a leader’s portrait is finally hanging on the wall with all the others, it is his or her character that is most remembered.

A big media revolution lesson: Daily lying and exaggerating destroys credibility for when things really get serious.       

Mr. Trump seems to be on a roll at home. But with his longstanding record of lies and unethical behavior, attempts to befriend an experienced and cunning manipulator like Putin will likely unleash a carefully calculated response that will cleverly tuck Mr. Trump neatly under Putin’s wing.

A baby-faced dictator in North Korea is already showing the world how gaining such an upper hand with Trump can work. It’s called, “sound cooperative and then ignore him.” And you can be sure that cool-operator Putin will have a well thought-out and ultimately Trump-ignoring plan ready to go. Putin is an old hand at this game, and a rookie foreign affairs deal-maker will very likely meet his match. Trump may be much easier to trump than Trump thinks.

Trump is not the first to argue that it’s a good idea to meet and talk with adversaries. Often this is so. But in Trump’s case the odds are not on the side of a good outcome. Dictators like Putin are obsessed with maintaining their power and are constantly collecting embarrassing information about adversaries as a matter of routine. They store it, and respond with it very strategically when the need arises. And their response is not always immediate, or obvious, or even highly visible.

Putin is an experienced political enemy crusher with a passionate commitment to bringing back Russia’s national pride. Believe me, being a trustworthy and loyal friend to Trump is not in Putin’s game plan.

In the days ahead it looks like Trump will face big disappointments in both North Korea and Russia, proving that admiring sleazy dictators is no pathway to global prominence. The bottom line here is that the best way to achieve competitive advantage for the United States is to once again proudly champion the founder’s values-based “idea of America,” the “big idea” that the world still most admires.

A colleague recently commented that he deeply cares about the fate of immigrant children but that he is also becoming numb to our whole political mess.

Media revolutions produce far-reaching consequences, and that can include a kind of mass numbing. For example, in today’s media ecosystem news photos depicting the horrors of war day after day are having a numbing effect on many of us. It’s a sanity protection response to constant horror when not being able to see a way out. And recent daily doses of screaming children being separated from parents at the Mexican border may soon have a similar effect.

Not being able to deal with constant life-threatening contradictions can also result in numbing. For example, this happened to many of us when Mr. Trump reported he has a mutually admiring and ongoing working relationship with the murderous North Korean dictator at the very same time his defense secretary was reporting no evidence of denuclearization.

We now have visible evidence that more and more Americans are simply ignoring or turning away from the president’s constant lying, excessive bad behavior, reality TV dramatics, personal attacks, bullying, ethics violations, political extremism, alienating allies, and schmoozing with dictators.

If you are a Trump supporter you no doubt suspended the belief you had in always telling the truth and behaving ethically, thus allowing yourself to accept his gross exaggerations about bringing back factory jobs, coal mines, making healthcare great, and draining the Washington swamp. This is a wishful-thinking kind of numbing.

And if you don’t support Trump, by now you are very likely becoming numb to his daily lies and mind changes, and are turning away from his incessant doublespeak in order to find mental freedom and solace in your work, family or hobbies.

Both political parties have also become numb. Months ago they polarized themselves into a numbing paralysis. The dominant party is completely anesthetized by their fear of losing the next election. And the minority party has numbed itself into an inability to find and state an inspirational and unifying vision for the country.

A brilliant emeritus historian at Penn State recently pointed out to me that the cresting of powerful nations seems to be an inevitable historical reality. Leaders can either choose to wisely manage through the situation, or to recklessly make dictatorial choices that speed the decline. So far speeding the decline has been the choice… and sadly, a countrywide state of numbness is not a situation that offers us much promise.


President Trump declared a win-win agreement following his recent North Korea Summit. Since friendly handshakes and generous praise might keep war from breaking out during future conversations, shouldn’t the president be given an enthusiastic pat on the back?

To be sure, many journalists believe that the only “fair and balanced” thing to do is to report any positive outcomes they see. And so isn’t it only fair to give credit to the president for improving his personal relationship with this dangerous dictator?

On the other hand, isn’t it also fair and balanced that every time the Singapore friendship is reported, his administration’s daily trade wars and other attacks on our allies and friends are also reported? And isn’t it also fair that every time the Singapore handshake is shown, his strutting around on the stage showing off his instinctive bully body language and puffy facial expressions to his allies is also reported? And isn’t it also fair that every time his defense of Putin is reported, examples of damages to human rights and values-based democracies are also reported?

And isn’t it also fair that every time his statements about the North Korean leader’s extraordinary talents are run, stories are also run about his abruptly ending the long negotiated agreements on trade, climate change, nuclear weapons (Iran), and his lack of knowledge and respect for the leadership and scientific talent that it took to create those agreements?

And shouldn’t photos of his schmoozing with “rocket man” be shown side by side with photos of the other dictators and autocrats he collaborates with more comfortably than with his own allies, clearly conveying his undeniable me-first, autocratic ambitions?

So if everyday is all about Trump… his tweets and pronouncements. Then all about Trump needs to be told everyday… in side-by-side stories and photos. 

Is this actually possible? Could we be sliding toward a world ruled by autocrats? Could we be at the beginning of a new world order, one without much concern for individual freedom, human rights, and justice? I hate to say it, but the signs are not good.

What makes such a horror feasible is the unexpected outcome of a media revolution. Daily information clutter created a pervasive fog of confusion. Repeated lies began to sound true. Facts got lost in extremism. Expert debates made us confused. Excessive bad behavior no longer was shocking. Politics degenerated into television entertainment. Personal attacks were awarded with headlines. Outrageous bragging became acceptable. And it was in the growing density of this fog and confusion where a disruptive and unethical candidate could actually win… and where autocrats elsewhere in the world could also gain in influence and power.

Here is a “what if” scenario to think about: What if recently announced “attitude” changes produce a super friendly atmosphere for the North Korean talks? What if the primary outcome of these talks is a declared mutual admiration? And what if future meetings are set, invitations to visit each other are extended, and each party reports back to their constituents that they achieved something no one else has ever been able to achieve?

Can such an outcome be genuine? The problem is that in this new media ecosystem there is no way to know for sure. Truth is in verifiable details, not in the hazy fog of ego-centered double-speak. The fog has become our reality. Most of the time we can’t separate fact from fiction.

Now combine this scenario with the US president’s pronouncement that Russia should be a member of the G-7. Now also add this to recent schmoozing and friendly gestures toward autocrats in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Philippines, Eastern Europe, Italy, etc. Now imagine the possibility of a new world order based on an alliance of these autocracies, with the fog of the media-ecosystem hiding the process.

Finally, picture an annual Summit attended only by these autocrats, chaired by the U.S. president. Will issues such as human rights, free trade, climate change, immigration, conservation, and clean air even be on their agenda? And what will happen to the decades old Western values of freedom, opportunity, and justice for all?

With respect to the U.S. president, a happy friend in North Korea, with photo ops to prove it, will look to his base like a huge nuclear talks victory. And flattering front and center pictures of him gloating will be all that matters to this unbridled foreign policy day-trader.

Is a new world order run by autocrats possible? The signs are not good.

We learned a lot about TV coverage of dramatic events from analyzing the Trump campaign. After the Rallies, many analysts concluded that rather than expose his character flaws live TV coverage actually helped him win. Cable could not resist covering what Trump might say next, and mainstream media could not resist the audience appeal of follow-up reports. Over time they may have unwittingly enhanced his celebrity status, thereby helping him win.

So my questions here are: Could there be a similar celebrity factor involved in mass shootings? Could the idea of visibility and celebrity be promoting copycats? Could interviews with victims and families be more of an imposition than thought? Could shorter reports be as informative as longer coverage?

If you think changes are in order, here are some ideas for producers to try:

  1. Never report the names of shooters. or detailed information about their methods.
  2. Limit live TV coverage to periodic short updates.
  3. Never give publicity opportunities to politicians and officials who will only offer the same politically motivated ideas they have been touting all along.
  4. Only take up the issue of gun violence in special programs with experienced researchers and analysts.
  5. Be careful about looking for emotional stories about victims and families as events unfold. This may be good television, but it also can be emotionally imposing, and hurtful.

Live television can be good drama, we know that. But when it comes to shootings, it can also become an influential actor… when it should be simply an accurate observer?

Experience teaches us that after shootings the same old solution ideas are usually put forward by the same old partisans and pundits. Arguments against each idea are familiar, and the same old extremists materialize everywhere. And when all is said and done, deep down we already know that experimenting with a combination of all these possibilities is the best possible approach.

So why not experiment with some combination of these ideas:

  1. Restrict access to all schools to a single entrance.
  2. Place more trained plain-clothes guards in schools… with close-in locked access to their arms.
  3. Strengthen background checks, carefully control gun show purchases, and put in place fair but careful screening for anyone purchasing automatic military-style weapons.
  4. Invest in first-class mental health services in all schools… and communicate all warning signs immediately to parents, teachers, and students.

Bottom line: We need to restore common sense and remove many life and death problem-solving exercises from politics. We need to rely more on solid research and experienced experts, and be more willing to try new ideas. With this in mind, we should ask television producers to make coverage of shootings shorter and more low-keyed. And we should also ask them for more special programs that present well-researched and pragmatic ideas to try.