Rachel Maddow Proves, Once Again, That America Prefers Asinine Bluster Over Brilliant Women

One of the most demoralizing things about the 2016 presidential election was the perpetual, year-long reminder that a brilliant, accomplished woman giving nuanced explanations about complicated issues can’t hold America’s (or the media’s) attention the way a braggadocious, simple-minded man can with 140 characters. We don’t want context, history, expertise; we want a Hunger Games-style bloodbath we can understand and react to in a single tweet. Sad! Bad! Mad! And we proved it again on Tuesday night when Rachel Maddow accomplished something no journalist on earth had previously been able to do: She revealed a Trump tax return, a two-page 1040 from 2005.

She did it the Maddow way, by pulling on a bunch of strings — here’s evidence a Russian operative dumped money into Trump’s lap, here’s evidence that same Russian operative is meeting with a top GOP fundraiser, here’s evidence Trump and his family are beholden to other foreign governments, here’s what having his tax returns would actually show us, here’s a reminder Trump’s refusal to release his returns is not normal, here’s a weird peripheral tie-in that made me laugh — before handing over a bouquet of balloons to her viewers. This is her enduring style. Her 2012 book Drift, which explores the growing power of the executive branch through the unmooring of the American military, begins with an eight-page prologue about the “Andy Griffith-esque” public safety complex in her tiny Hampshire County, MA town. Before she tells you her conclusion, she tells you why her conclusion should matter to you. It’s her entire brand.

So why is the internet eviscerating her today? Why are dozens of reporters and websites and hundreds of thousands of (left and right wing) commenters and tweeters piling on her? Because in the hour between her tweet promising a Trump tax return and her reveal of said tax return, the media and the masses whipped themselves up into a feeding frenzy. They wanted the Trump killshot she had never promised and when, instead, Maddow delivered a body blow — like the hundreds of body blows Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein delivered to the Nixon Administration leading up to his impeachment over Watergate — they turned on her.

The issue is, in part, the circus into which our political and reporting process has devolved. And the fact that what sticks is what’s retweetable. But there’s no way to look at this backlash without seeing blatant sexism and homophobia.

Almost as soon as Maddow’s tweet landed, people began to question how big her scoop could be, really, if NBC News proper wasn’t breaking the story. The implication being, of course, that Brian Williams should deliver the message to the American people if it was important. After all, despite Maddow consistently being NBC’s most watched reporter, despite the fact that she’s never suffered a journalism disgrace, despite the fact that she is the go-to liberal political voice in this country, she had to share the anchor seat during the 2016 election with Williams, an optic that became a metaphor for the election: America would rather trust a white guy with a bombshell scandal under his belt than the smartest woman in the room.

It’s also hard to find a social media stream or comment section that isn’t deriding Maddow for being a masculine-of-center lesbian as much as her method of reporting. That’s nothing new. Every time Maddow makes headlines outside of liberal circles, the homophobia hurled at her is relentless. For example, enjoy these comments from a Mediaite post about Maddow calling out Trump for “blatantly, overtly, bluntly, simply” lying about Russia.

You’ll find similar sentiments in nearly every comment section on the internet today — left, right, center, and especially Twitter.

Rachel Maddow didn’t take a torch to the White House last night and oust Donald Trump from the West Wing with her bare hands, but here’s what she did accomplish: She proved it is possible to get Donald Trump’s tax returns. She proved the White House does, in fact, have Trump’s returns handy and that they’re perfectly capable of handing them over; they demonstrated it by releasing a statement with exact numbers not long after Maddow’s tweet. By making those numbers public, the White House shattered the lie that Trump cannot release his returns until his “audit” is complete. She proved it’s not just journalists who care about Trump’s returns, which has been the post-campaign refrain of every White House spokesperson. And she shined a glaring light on the fact that Trump is trying to push through “tax reform” — specifically, getting rid of the Alternative Minimum Tax — that provides no relief to the poor and middle class but allows him to pay an income tax rate of around 4%. Four percent, y’all. Americans who make less than $18,500 a year pay ten percent.

Maddow also no doubt contributed to the culture of paranoia that has gripped the Trump administration and continues to cause chaos in the White House. Just today, in fact, Politico released a report citing senior officials who said the “degree of suspicion” cultivated by media leaks has “created a [West Wing] toxicity that is unsustainable.” It was this paranoia and suspicion Maddow purposefully stoked in her opening last night. After explaining in detail why it is imperative to see Trump’s returns, she made pointed hand gestures while staring straight through the camera and saying, “That’s why there will be unrelenting pressure to find Donald Trump’s tax returns, to expose Donald Trump’s tax returns, and that pressure will remain every single day he remains president. Unless and until he releases them, the pressure will never let up.”

Last night, Rachel Maddow proved what she set out to prove, and, in the process, she laid bare another reminder that America prefers asinine bluster over brilliant women.


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Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

Heather has written 562 articles for us.

66 Comments

  1. YES Heather. Rachel’s whole style is a wide-ranging explanation of context narrowing down to a specific story or development. No one does it better. It would be funny if it wasn’t so frustrating that apparently no one can listen to a smart woman talk for more than 5 minutes. (I can only take comfort that her show is currently the highest rated on cable – we’re watching!)

    • My roommate was never really interested in politics and I am. I’d tape Rachel’s show and many times be watching it when she got home. Well about a week later I showed the list of recorded tv shows and asked her to choose something. Her reply was, “Why don’t we watch that really smart and unique newswoman you always watch.” OMG!!!!! My watch cooking shows and designer clothes contests on tv partner finally landed!!! Oh happy day!!! Rachel’s the best by far newscaster around. Rachel YOU GO GIRL!!! Thank you.

  2. I think MSNBC did her a disservice in over-hyping the “reveal” – there was a countdown clock on the lead-in show to hers, for example – the type of countdown CNN has been criticized for time and again. This type of sensationalized advertising contributes to the culture that you have described above.

    • It was more than just the hyping of the reveal though, there is the whole weight of importance that has been placed on the forbidden knowledge of Trump’s tax returns. The idea that there was some secret in there that he didn’t want the public to see has been hyped for months.

    • Yeah, hyping this up was super dumb on MSNBC’s behalf, especially in light of the fact that it is very likely that Trump himself leaked this return (Melania became a US Citizen in 2006 and in order to do so, the paperwork required 3 years of tax returns, which included her filing jointly with the man she married in 2005, so this return was the one that was going to be squeaky clean).

      HOWEVER, Heather is SPOT ON. RM dealt the White House a subtle but cleanly hit blow. Abolishing the AMT is a terrible idea that favors the super-rich and now it’s in the common discourse. I look forward to her nuance and well-researched pieces to come.

      Also, fuck you, Donald. I paid at a rate of 33% last year.

    • I can see your point (about the countdown timer), however I have appreciated in the past the reassurance that 1) I’m on the right channel 2) it’s the correct day 3) I didn’t miss it yet and 4) it’s coming in 02h:10m:59s.

    • I agree with you completely! Besides the fact that she is a beautiful women who happens to be brilliant, she is a real journalist. Left or right, liberal or conservative she doesn’t just give you her opinion, she actually does her homework and reports that. Weather I agree with her on every issue, I appreciate her show!

  3. Thank you, Heather! Presumably we’ve all filled out tax forms before, we should know there isn’t a bolded line that says check here if you’ve done any of these illegal things, taxes need context and explanation! And tbh how many of us know really how rich people do their taxes? I personally needed Rachel to spell out what it means. And the people on twitter who thought they could just look at these tax forms and find a smoking gun… well, they’re obviously going to be disappointed.

  4. Heather, you are a gem. I spent most of my late evening/early morning holding people’s hands and guiding them through what she did and what it means because people have gotten really bad at this whole puzzle-solving thing.

    Frankly, if they watched her show for the last 2 weeks, this was just one more piece of the puzzle falling into place.

  5. Who is this “America” of which you speak? Just because a bunch of bloviating old white guys prefer soundbites to analysis does not mean that this is what “America” prefers. Just saying.

  6. Everyone complaining that Rachel was taking to long to get to the point has literally NEVER WATCHED HER SHOW BEFORE IN THEIR LIVES. Like, welcome to TRMS. You get 20 minutes of story time that will BLOW YOUR MIND before you get to the news. That’s just how this shit works. This incident, just like everything else that’s happened since November 8th, is yet another microcosm of the 2016 election. Just like the 2016 election was itself a microcosm of the giant web of white supremacist patriarchy we are all living in all the time.

    Now, I won’t lie and say I wasn’t also disappointed that the 2005 1040 didn’t have more bad news for Trump. And I sort of agree with Van Jones and the other CNN commentators that this might actually be good news for Trump in the short term. And I can definitely believe that Trump might have purposefully released these returns for just that reason. But in the long term?! HOOOOOO BOY. This is gonna be FUN! I’ve been watching TRMS religiously since the 2012 election, and it just keeps getting better and better and better. I’m really looking forward to what Rachel and her team do next!

    • Yes! I only watch MSNBC now because of Maddow and O’Donnell because they have stacked the deck of getting rid of all the liberal POC and replacing them with Fox News and CBS rejects! Of course, this all makes me wonder how liberal an outlet this still is…but I digress… Maddow is legit!! She is one of the best journalist of our time, but I’m not going to discount the fact that MSNBC probably wants her out! Hayes, O’Donnell and she are the only ones that stir the pot against Trump and MSNBC wants to teeter the line of not pissing this nutbag off every night…and since Hayes and O’Donnell are white men…Maddow is on the chopping block! Ugh, it’s sickening!!! The problem remains that Maddow’s ratings have been surging!!! So it wouldn’t surprise me if Trump’s handlers didn’t release this to set up Maddow. The White house had that statement too perfect and too ready for it not to be suspicious…and the Replace Obamacare train looks like it’s flying badly off a cliff … and Maddow, much to my delight is killing them on Russia!! The good think is that Maddow is a real journalist not a 5 year old that needs love lavished on her every second of the day so this won’t faze her. Instead she’ll know that once again she has chipped away at this vile Presidency once again! Awesome Maddow! We still adore you!

  7. Excellent analysis, Heather. I agree with an above commenter that it was the network (and Twitter and other media outlets) that built the hype, not Maddow. I’ve loved Maddow’s storytelling style since I borrowed Drift from my (amazing lesbian) aunt. She’s the kind of
    journalist we need now and has the potential to be the Murrow of our time. I’ll be passing this article around.

  8. yes to all of this. i feel like the pile-on is missing the whole point of her show. the complaint i keep hearing is that she went on a 20-minute history lesson/political analysis and deconstructed the whole thing instead of just saying what’s in the document and moving on. but that’s why i watch her show! i’ve already read the day’s news by the time she comes on at 9pm– i don’t need her to rehash what happened today. what i need is her insightful analysis, the way she takes the engine apart, shows you all the moving pieces, and then puts it back together so you know exactly how it works. she makes me smarter.
    also show of hands, who has a “progressive” male friend who hates rachel but inexplicably loves megyn kelley? do men only tolerate women with opinions as long as they can still view them as sex objects? (and honestly we shouldn’t even be discussing looks but since the “she looks like a man” brigade is out in full force i want to say that rachel maddow is a drop-dead gorgeous 100% certified babe and homophobes can fight me).
    ugh i’m sorry i have so many feelings about rachel maddow but she’s so brilliant and her voice is so important.

  9. Yeah, a lot of first-time viewers definitely didn’t seem to get that the 20-minute opener is something she does EVERY episode, not just to build suspense for this one big story. And even if it weren’t, the context was necessary. Hot takes out here calling this a flop as if she didn’t just teach thousands of Americans more about taxes than most of us ever learned in school.

    Anyway, thankfully my Twitter TL is gay af and so was mostly filled with queer women swooning over the “pinch me” line.

  10. I totally disagree with your analysis of the situation. Don’t get me wrong, I love Rachel Maddow. I watch her show every night and I think her presentation of the A-block is an effective and unique way to get information across.
    But tweeting,
    “BREAKING: We’ve got Trump tax returns. Tonight, 9pm ET. MSNBC (seriously)”
    is clearly trying to exaggerate the info that you know you have to create hype. Now I assume she’s not responsible for that stupid countdown clock, and maybe they didn’t realize how fast the information would spread… I guess. But when you say “we have trumps tax returns” (even if her next tweet she said they were from 2005) people are obviously going to get excited. It would be a big deal.
    I personally found it annoying that Rachel and MSNBC at large led everyone to believe they had a bomb to drop, when what they really was a new piece of information that is super interesting and will fit into the puzzle that Rachel Maddow has been making on air for weeks now. I think if they had been up front about this people wouldn’t have been so frustrated with her long A-block.
    It seems to me to emphasize how much cable news is a business. I found it blatantly obvious that they were trying exaggerate about what they had for ratings. And tbh I found it annoying. It doesn’t make me think Rachel Maddow is less intelligent or make me respect her work less, it just reiterates how the incentives of cable news networks and corporations are wrong, and how it does a disservice to the viewer.
    Did sexism and homophobia play a role in the backlash of last nights show? Probably some. But I think jumping to the conclusion that homophobia and sexism is the main reason for the dissent of anything a gay woman could ever say, clouds our ability to understand situations and solve problems we are faced with. Just as failing to take homophobia and sexism into the equation would as well.

    • …”But I think jumping to the conclusion that homophobia and sexism is the main reason for the dissent of anything a gay woman could ever say, clouds our ability to understand situations and solve problems we are faced with. Just as failing to take homophobia and sexism into the equation would as well.” – very important and well said, I appreciate your insight.

  11. I don’t own a tv so I spent last night on Twitter trying to figure out what was going on in her segment and all I saw was all the progressive men I follow getting angry and upset at Rachel for not “getting to the point.” It was so frustrating. I would like to point out that Rachel does not make up her own news when she needs it (unlike a certain president) and I did think getting the old 1040 is still a big deal. She proved 45 could release them given the right pressure, and that there are some people willing to leak them.

  12. Note that Melania Trump’s citizenship application required a squeaky clean tax record for the five years she had been in the USA. That included the year that she got married (2005, the same year as the released return). Someone in Trump’s team released this summary (without the hundreds of pages of detailed documentation that constitute the usual tax returns of millionaires). That way, people aren’t asking – what exactly does Trump currently own in Russia, China, Turkey, etc, what has he sold or bought at non-market rate from foreign nationals in diplomatically sensitive/strategic countries like Russia, China, Turkey, etc, and how does this fit in with his actions during campaign and during presidency. I am convinced that Trump is going to be almost as corrupt and almost as wealthy as Putin if Trump stays in the WH with a compliant Republican Congress.

    • This is what I think too. Just another “look over there moment”. Very likely engineered by Trump or an underling to put him in a better light with a return that was not too damming.

      As regards to Heather’s point. Spot on. Intelligent women are anathema to these people.

  13. Briefly saw a headline about this while at work, it was on Fox News so I knew if I listened I’d just get stressed or mad.
    So thank you for explaining it in a way that makes me feel more educated and that doesn’t fill me with fury. Righteous dissatisfaction, yes, but rightly so.

  14. I really can’t stand serious news it’s too boring for me, the only way I will watch is if you put a fun even comical spin on it which is why I tend to watch Seth Meyers do “A Closer Look” is usually gives me the gist of what I need to know of the mess in Washington.
    When I saw the tweet last night I thought oh this is going to be good, and that everybody would be all over this today; now I didn’t get a chance to watch last night and I was surprised that I really didn’t hear much about it today. Like I said I don’t care for news in general but if I had to choose someone to get me good reporting it’s Rachel Maddow.

  15. The piling on is partly the feeding frenzy that comes after someone else catches the big fish. Everyone else is trying to get a piece of the attention/traffic Rachel got and the easiest way to do that is to criticize her.

    But it also reminds me how so many prominent public women get hyper-criticized in ways that men often don’t and I appreciate Heather pointing out the constant bullshit Rachel gets for how she looks, either on the show or off. I was glad to see a lot of people in media being loudly complimentary on Twitter about how Rachel built the story and the slow build with context is her trademark, which lots of folks here have mentioned.

    I think the critiques will die down and everyone will be watching her to see what she finds out next, which is what she wants and I think she’ll deliver so I am happy about that. While we continue to fight the Trump Hell we’re in we can also feel buoyed by screencaps of Rachel’s “I’m about to wreck you” serious face from last night because that was just flat out hot.

  16. It’s Clinton and the DNC who screwed this up. Sanders won in every poll for 6 months before the primaries against every republican consistently in the double digits. Hillary on the other hand was barely making it against the republicans in every poll leading up to the primaries. Her fucking ego cost us. Even republican were voting in significant numbers for Sanders The DNC threw everyone under the bus just to Try and fail to get her into office. Not too bright I would say. Get over it, you lost and you took everyone else with you.
    http://leftgear.co/2016/12/30/confessions-of-a-former-hillary-supporter/

  17. “….an optic that became a metaphor for the election…” ?

    “Optics” are the eyeglasses provided at your Optometrist’s office.

    “Appearances” is the word you meant to say – please stop using this silly, uneducated, pretend contrivance of a term.

      • Actually, screw it, that was a petty response.

        What is really unconscionable is propping up a system where education is a privilege afforded to a select few;  and then further perverting said education by debasing it into the equivalent of an obnoxious frat house where you’re inadmissible if you don’t know the stupid secret school code.

        The beauty of language is in its potential for communication – using it only to reinforce ego and shut others out is the foolish option.

  18. Am I, like, the last person in the galaxy who doesn’t have a twitter?

    I agree with this entire article. I have an additional idea. Rachel’s ratings have gone significantly up since maybe two months ago or thereabouts? Something like that. I’d imagine most of you who read comments on autostraddle have probably been with her for a while, maybe even back to when she was one of the only listenable programs on Air America.

    I thought the show in question was really just a particularly interesting and relevant Rachel Maddow Show, but maybe I think that because I know what to expect. Maybe all these people who are doing all the yelling aren’t normal viewers.

    Yeah, about Twitter, though. There isn’t anything I’ve ever heard about it that makes we want to sign up for it. It seems like it would be like having only the YouTube comments with no videos.

    • I’ve had it but I’ve not used it in about 5 years. It didn’t end up being great for my mental health, alongside other things which were more detrimental, so when I started to get better after my breakdown I just quit it.
      I can’t use it sparingly I’ve found. Either I’m on there and addicted – up all night perfectly but acting drunk because of impulse control issues – or I’m not on it. The closest I can come is being logged out and reading other people’s tweets and then only really the people I never actually followed such as famous people.

    • Twitter’s for twits. An easy determination to make by wasting 5 minutes you’ll never get back looking at any twitter thread. Further proof Mencken was right way back in 1924 when he wrote “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

  19. I found last nights show(the one that aired on the 15th) to be a useful addendum to the previous nights show. She pretty much explains why 2005 was an interesting year for Trump, with reasons that included she got married to his THIRD wife(his taxes have to be clean in order for her to be granted citizenship). He, unsuccessfully, sued a guy who wrote a book about him that he approved of. Only reason for the suit was he didn’t like the guy calling him a millionaire vs billionaire. There was also a weird point where apparently his value fluctuates depending on his mood. Plus, it was the same here he got into business with some Russian contractors.

  20. What? What does Rachel being a lesbian or a woman have to do with this overhyped piece of piffle that she foisted on her viewers? I am sure she does get criticized for being a lesbian – just as Anderson Cooper gets the same demeaning name-calling for being a gay man.
    I have watched Rachel for years, and I understand her format. But the 18-minute slog listing every accusation we have heard about Trump had little to do with the “big” exclusive of a two-page tax return that showed little. The defense this proves Trump’s tax returns can be found also amounts to little, considering a publication already published part of one last year. It is also apparent to anyone who has paid attention in the last year that Trump is purposely trying to bury his tax returns. You really think this is going to cause him to cave?
    No, this was a sad little ratings grab, and Maddow seems much smarter than to pull a stunt like this. If Fox News had pulled a similar stunt, Rachel would be deriding them for their bias. In the end, this only helped our egotistical, thin-skinned president. Rachel, this hurts us more than it does you.

    • Too bad you don’t like getting educated. You sure could use it from the ignorance of this post. But I am sure you’re a well-meaning Good Liberal Man, aren’t you?

  21. Well, here’s one male radical/liberal who considers Rachel Maddow the best there is in contemporary American journalism. She is, however, only a few steps ahead of the other fantastic women (Katy Tur comes immediately to mind) who to me are the real inheritors of Ed Murrow, Walter Cronkite and all the other Giants of the past. Women reporters nowadays are light years ahead of their male counterparts on guts, wit, intelligence, tenacity, clear-eyed analysis, and persistence – all the things it takes to really Make America Great Again by bringing the Bill of Indictment against the right wing every day they’re on the job. Viva Rachel! Viva Katy! Viva all the other fantastic women in the forefront of journalism.

  22. i’m a fan of rachel’s, but have been EXTREMELY disappointed in her lack of coverage of LGBTQ issues for the past year or so. her reports about orlando were routine at best (not to mention that she was never on scene). i don’t remember her ever mentioning how virulently anti-gay pence is until post-election, nor has she ever discussed how every single trump cabinet member is a hater. and i could list a number of other omissions. i’m not expecting the lesbian news hour every night, and i’m aware that she’s now a celebrity one-percenter. but it would be great to know she still supports us and is aware of how terrified of this administration many of us are.

    • I don’t watch her religiously (the news is too depressing for me to take in such big doses) but she is who I learned about Pence’s horrible LGBT track record from, around when Trump chose him as a running mate. She led the show with it.

  23. that is her style, you may call it putting something in context, I personally am driven nearly mad by it because of the way she tends to repeat herself 3 or 4 times, however that is just me, I don’t need my news dumbed down.

    However in this case I KNEW this was going to happen the minute I saw the broadcast, as a woman (dyke) with a career I know what it feels like to be constantly downplayed, criticized, discounted, etc .and I am old, relatively speaking, over 60 so that is another huge minus

    I just hope she keeps doing her good work and turns the sm off for now, the world is full of idiots who do nothing but beat up on others

  24. It’s a feminist centric analysis to which she is obviously catering. Don’t want to hear what everyone thinks? Therefore, all those folks must be idiots, can’t form an opinion. Even more butt hurt when the liberal media tells them it’s fake. Aww. Trump pays 29% taxes in the year she illegally obtained his taxes. Not much of a story.

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