The short version is that she really blew it. That was the conventional wisdom about Rachel Maddow’s bigly ballyooed exposé Tuesday night of Donald Trump’s MIA tax returns, and for the record, we aren’t talking about knee-jerk contumely from red-hatted MAGA fans. The left-wing disgust on social media from her own peeps turned brutal fast once it got obvious— pretty early on, too—that Maddow didn’t have the inside dish on Trump’s finances that she and MSNBC had advertised. Anyone salivating for a smoking gun got lots of smoking chewing gum instead.
In case you’re predisposed to approve of Maddow’s POV, if not Maddow herself—and there is a difference, because her manner’s so irritating—then you have to wonder what in hell she was thinking. Two pages, two lousy pages, of Trump’s 2005 1040 are not exactly the same as “Donald Trump’s tax returns,” which was how she touted her bombshell on Twitter. Hell, those prim two pages even made him seem like a guy with duly knee-bowed respect for the IRS. Paying $38 million in taxes on a $150 million income sounds so reasonable that the White House announced it before Maddow’s show aired.
She chewed a whole lot of gum to give her viewers the idea that all this proved something about Trump’s nefarious Russian connections. It didn’t, and we’re saying so as people prone to believing those nefarious connections to be real, not to mention genuinely troublesome. But there is such a thing as standards of proof, and all of Rachel’s pavaler was a bad try at disguising that the proof wasn’t there.
Whenever it doesn’t seem possible that things can get worse, Lawrence O’Donnell steps in to remind you he was born so they can. The handover from Maddow’s show to O’Donnell’s is never pretty; she does seem to like human beings for reasons that aren’t vindictive, not his basic concern. But it was unusually bad when he recruited her to stay on the air to back up his bullshit take on her bullshit reporting. In that “It’s too late to stop now” way, Maddow’s shudder was almost visible, because she knows she’s Shep Smith compared to O’Donnell’s left-wing Sean Hannity.
But she blew it. She’s handed Trump a huge propaganda victory; he’ll be crowing for months about the left wing’s inability to make its case against him stick. He won’t even be wrong, because she blew it. So now the long climb to convince people otherwise will just have to start from the bottom again. We never thought we’d say so, but fuck it: Maddow gave us fake news.