As yesterday’s solar eclipse began to take shape, and the sunlight steadily dimmed, social media exploded with pictures of Americans across the country, wondrously gazing up at the sky. Smiles and silly-looking sunglasses adorned their faces as they sat with friends, family, and even strangers, cheerfully awaiting the celestial event.
It was something very special to watch, and I’m not even talking about that part involving the sun and the moon. For a few precious minutes, it seemed as if though the country had taken a timeout from the cultural clashes, petty squabbling, and political posturing that has defined our time. Instead, we were united as one — sharing a unique moment that we’ll all keep with us for a while.
It was a welcome break, notably for us political observers who are plugged in daily to the national news media. As Fox News reporter, Mike Tobin, aptly tweeted: “I think cable news has gone the better part of a half hour WITHOUT a Donald Trump story.”
It was true. Despite an important announcement from President Trump on Afghanistan, that was planned for later in the day, the leader of the free world — for once — wasn’t dominating the headlines.
Of course, the sun’s full glare soon returned, and as things began to drift back to normal, photos emerged on political websites and social-media accounts showing how some of our nation’s leaders had chosen to observe the eclipse.
Senator John McCain had watched from a hiking trip with his daughter in the hills of Arizona. Former Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush had watched with their family in Texas. Senator Lindsey Graham had taken in the sight from a reclined lawn chair (somewhere). Attorney General Jeff Sessions was captured in a humorous pose, with his fingers clasped in front of chest like Swee’Pea from the old Popeye cartoon.
There were many more, but the picture that quickly went viral was one of President Trump himself, standing alongside wife Melania and son Barron on the Truman Balcony at the White House. In the shot, Trump is shown staring directly up at the sun…with nothing protecting his eyes.
It was a funny photo — one that accommodated the common conception of Trump as a man of arrogance who has a deep disdain for the news media (where repeated warnings not to look directly at the eclipse had been broadcast for days).
The photograph quickly turned into an online caption contest, spawning some pretty creative entries. I thought I had even come up with a pretty decent one myself, posting a few variations of “this is one of those times when he really should have listened to his advisors” on different social media accounts, including on Bernie Goldberg’s Facebook page.
It was good, innocent fun, partaken in mostly by people who had already concluded the obvious: Trump had merely glanced up at the sun for a second or two (as many of us had done that day), before putting on the appropriate eye-gear to watch the eclipse.
People in the media had simply captured Trump in an irresistible moment, much as they had with George W. Bush years earlier, when the former president had trouble opening a door in China, following a press conference. Even President Obama wasn’t immune to this type of thing, as photos of him riding a bike in “mom jeans” became a favorite re-post of the Right.
But, as is always the case these days in politics, the good and innocent fun quickly turned dark and downright stupid.
Across the Internet, Trump supporters were incensed by the photo, declaring the stunt to be a dastardly hit-job by the “fake news” media. Firings were called for, an even my lighthearted caption on Bernie’s page managed to infuriate some folks, compelling them to unfollow it.
Fox News host (and Trump supporter) Tucker Carlson took a bit different tact, saying on his show that staring into the sun was “perhaps the most impressive thing any President has done.” And yes, he said it in all seriousness.
Not to be outdone, many on the Left treated what they saw in the photo as the ultimate act of stupidity (and not just on social media where it was both prevalent and vicious). The incident spawned big headlines from major news organizations, including ABC News, MSNBC, Time, The Hill, and The Atlantic. New York Daily News even ran a front-cover story on it, using the headline, “Not Too Bright!”
Again, this was not because Trump made some politically-corrosive, self-defeating remark (as he so often does); those critiques are legitimate because they affect his presidency. No, this was different. All Trump did was something that nearly every one of us did at some point that day: glance up at the sky without sunglasses.
All of this was on a news day in which the President of the United States had scheduled a prime-time address to announce a major foreign policy decision — one that included the deployment of more U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Yet, across the board, there was hardly any coverage of this up until speech time. Heck, there was barely any social-media interest surrounding it. It was as if no one cared. The joke story was being treated as important, and the important story was being treated as a joke.
It’s a testament to how disturbingly toxic our political culture is right now. Hyper-partisanship and vindictiveness have shooed away people’s senses of humor. Pettiness breeds paralysis in an atmosphere like this, and that’s not a healthy thing for the country. Our nation faces many serious challenges, but someone looking up during an eclipse isn’t one of them.
Let’s lighten up, and in times like this, try to capture a little bit of that solidarity that was on display just prior to the eclipse. Let’s laugh at the funny stuff, and move on.