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The huge 2017 stories we weren't talking about while we talked about Trump | Will Bunch

Will Bunch, STAFF COLUMNIST

Updated: Thursday, December 28, 2017, 12:37 PM

The huge wildfire that burned hundreds of homes in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties earlier this month was the largest in California’s recorded history — and one more hint that an era of runaway natural disasters may be connected to climate change.

If you’re a news junkie like me, you almost certainly had this feeling while watching your TV during 2017 — and probably on more than one occasion. As the ancient journalists and ex-prosecutors who made their bones more than 40 years ago with the Watergate scandal were re-animated for yet another panel discussion about the newest twist in the Trump-Russia affair, or as the president’s latest rage-soaked 5 a.m. tweetstorm was dissected for meaning like the Rosetta Stone, or a new 20-anonymous-source story about Diet Coke-fueled madness in the White House got the full-hour treatment on CNN or MSNBC, did you ever ask yourself…

… what in God’s name would these TV people even be talking about right now if Donald Trump had not been elected the 45th president of the United States?

It seems like 55 minutes of every hour is devoted to either Trump or the Trump backlash. And by the Trump backlash, I’m referring largely to the other story that we’ll never forget from 2017: The “silence breakers” of the #MeToo movement, a societal earthquake that might never have happened, at least not this past year, had Hillary Clinton not been misogyny-ed right out of the White House, losing that job to an admitted p-word-grabber-in-chief, which in turn inspired millions of women to take to the streets last January 20, which in turn gave newfound power to the voices of female outrage and empowerment.

There’s little doubt that these two stories — the yin and yang, the ego and id of 2017 — will be the things that those of you who’ll still be alive when “The Teens” documentary series debuts on CNN will remember when looking back at one of our more consequential years ever. But the question still lingers: What were the big stories that got crowded out by the madman on this side of the water? What are the things that will be affecting how our grandchildren live in 2067 — if man is still alive, if woman can survive? — much more than the president’s Twitter critiques of “Fox and Friends“?

Here’s a countdown of five stories that the cable news channels might have been covering (and definitely should have been covering) if the president were named Merkin Muffley and not Donald Trump.

5. The American war machine

Dwight Eisenhower tried to warn us way back in 1961 about the military-industrial complex. Today’s world war by flying death robots and secret special forces that continues to grow in scope and to spread across the globe, from Pakistan to Niger and beyond, regardless of whether it’s George W. Bush or Barack Obama or Donald J. Trump in the Oval Office, is proof that we didn’t listen to Ike.

In a non-Trump world, America’s expansive military operations might have been top-of-the-hour news. In fact, Team Trump — while refusing to acknowledge that the new president’s policy is pretty much a carbon copy of what Obama was doing before him — has complained there’s not enough coverage of the military defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. They actually have a point. But there’s also been next to no discussion of the flip side — new rules of engagement for the U.S. military that has led to a shocking increase in the number of innocent civilians killed by America, largely from our faceless drones. Those reckless deaths are likely to spawn the next generation of America-hating terrorists. Is the so-called “forever war” that America fights in a dozen countries, under dubious legal authority, actually making us safer, and is it really going to last forever? It might, if the killing continues to be ignored by the media, by Congress, and the American voter.

4. A better way of policing

One of the biggest news stories of the 2010s — the police killing of unarmed young black men from Ferguson to Baltimore, and the broader movement called #BlackLivesMatter created in that wake — didn’t go away in 2017. Indeed, protests re-sparked in St. Louis when an officer was acquitted in a highly dubious 2011 shooting, which caused a riot, not so much by protesters but by the police. But — surprise, surprise — President Trump managed to suck the oxygen out of this debate as well, by launching a verbal war against protests against social injustice by NFL players whom the leader of the free world branded as sons of bitches.

What didn’t get enough attention is that concerted efforts can actually reduce crime and/or police-involved shootings without urban police departments acting like an army of occupation in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods. The epicenter is New York City, where hard-to-like mayor Bill de Blasio nonetheless deserves credit for ending unconstitutional stop-and-frisk policies that targeted mostly law-abiding blacks and Latinos, yet still implementing smart policing that brought 2017 murders — which had peaked well above 2,000 a year in the 1990s — to less than 300. Here in Philadelphia, the murder rate is still too high but better training has led to a remarkable drop in police-involved shootings – down sharply over the last few years, and 30 percent this year alone. It’s proof that the questions raised by the Black Lives Matter movement can be tackled and even solved — once we cut through all the background noise.

3. The crisis of the American male

With all the justifiable attention paid to the “silence breakers” and the sexual harassment and assault issues raised by those courageous female voices, there was less recognition of an issue that overlays the problem of sexual predators but also reaches deeper: The echoes of violence and despair from American men, who in 2017 seemed to be in a state of full-fledged crisis.

For example, it’s hard to know what’s more frustrating: that society has no good explanations for an affluent middle-aged man who legally purchased an army of rapid-fire, high-caliber weapons and killed 58 people and wounded hundreds at a Las Vegas concert, or for the man who strolled into a Texas church a few weeks later and gunned down 26 worshippers, or that we so easily gave up trying to find one. The shootings touched off an all-too-brief debate about guns — and rightfully so, as our lax gun laws are ridiculous — but no one seems able to comprehend the more critical question of what sets off these American killing machines.

Indeed, there ought to be a broader national conversation over how these hideous spasms of male violence relate to the factors that have caused death rates for middle-aged white U.S. males to rise in recent years — with a spike in suicides and deaths from drug and alcohol addiction and overdoses. (And please don’t forget that non-white male middle-age death rates had already been too high for decades.) And, speaking of Donald Trump, what of the role that white middle-class men played in electing an authoritarian president? Clearly one piece of this difficult puzzle is the devaluation — and, increasingly, elimination — of meaningful work opportunities for the middle-aged middle class, which gets us to …

2. Automation and the future of work

If you think the crisis for middle-aged folks without a college degree is bad now, what might happen in 2030 when — according to a major study released this fall — 30 percent of all U.S. jobs, or roughly 70 million, will disappear because of automation such as robots or artificial intelligence? Consider the impact, for example, that self-driving vehicles are likely to have on long-haul trucking, one of the few blue-collar jobs in the United States that has flourished even after so many factory jobs moved overseas or were lost to automation. If voters were angry over lack of opportunities in the Rust Belt in 2016, how will those 70 million displaced workers react in the election of 2032?

To be sure, new technology has always created new jobs — especially for the well-educated — at the same time it destroyed old ones, but at some point those returns are going to diminish. We may already be there. But if the Trump administration, Congress, or the broader Establishment has a plan for dealing with massive worker dislocation, it must have been buried under a blizzard of presidential 5 a.m. tweets. And, speaking of blizzards …

1. Climate change and a planet in crisis

Here’s a story that — in one sense — it was impossible for the news media to ignore, even in the age of Trump. Weather-related disasters — especially the flooding from Hurricane Harvey that ravaged America’s fourth-largest city of Houston, the widespread damage to Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria that continues to plague the island months later, and both the deadliest and, separately, the largest wildfires in the history of California — were arguably the only story that stole airtime from The Donald and the other powerful men behaving badly. But too often these natural disasters were portrayed as isolated incidents, and rarely as the fulfillment of predictions that climate change would make extreme weather more frequent, more extreme and more lethal.

And not surprisingly, non-deadly manifestations of global warming — a increase in melting Antarctic ice that will raise sea levels more quickly, and higher, than predicted, or the posting of the planet’s third-hottest year on record — were barely a blip in the great national debate during 2017. And that, in turn, made it easier for the Trump administration to get away with a clueless 180-degree reversal on energy policy — nixing the Paris climate accords and accelerating policies to burn more coal, natural gas and oil while diminishing any federal role in the can’t-come-fast-enough transition to clean, renewable energy.

So the biggest non-Trump story is also, in the end … a Trump story. Because that’s where we end 2017, with the powerful headwinds of the 21st century screaming for thoughtful and creative leadership, but an American government totally incapable of delivering it, and with a battered news media struggling to keep up. Whether we pay attention or not, these stories will only get bigger in 2018 — certain to be an even more consequential year than the crazy one that we just (barely) survived.

Will Bunch, STAFF COLUMNIST

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