Donald Trump’s so-called “war with the media” is a good example of what philosophers mean by an over-determined effect: multiple causes, any one of which would be enough to support it.
Which is to say this “war” (terrible term, clumsy and lazy) will almost certainly continue, despite the periodic discovery by journalists that Trump loves to banter with reporters, and that he lives and dies by the very media coverage that he poisonously calls fake.
The campaign to discredit mainstream journalism is thus a permanent feature of Trump’s political style. Why? I have some ideas. But I probably missed a few. If you point them out in the comments (or by social media) I will add the best ones to this post, with credit.
1. Because it’s a base-only presidency with a niche, not a broadcasting strategy. I wrote about this two weeks ago:
We are used to candidates who, when they win the nomination, try to bring the party together by embracing those who supported the losers. We are used to nominees who, when they win the White House, try to bring the country together by speaking to voters who did not support them in November. This is normal behavior. This is what we expect from presidents of both parties. Trump rejects all that. His idea is to deepen the attachment between himself and his core supporters so that nothing can disturb that bond.
Attacking the national press corps makes good sense, what with the Republican base in a permanent state of rage at “cognitive elites.” It makes even better sense for a President with a base-only strategy, a decision reflected in the polling data. About a third of the country is with him: 2. Because this is what they have; they don’t have much else. The Trump presidency is a shambolic mess. As Charlie Warzel and Adrian Carrasquillo of Buzzfeed observed, hating on the media is its most consistent theme.
Trump has been clear on one issue: the untrustworthy “fake news” purveyors of the media. As he’s struggled to even put into motion the kind of sweeping legislation he promised on the campaign trail, Trump’s relentless focus on the media has been the only constant amid the disorganization. Six months in, it seems clear that Trump’s only real ideology — and the only true tenet of Trumpism — is to destroy what he believes is a deceitful mainstream media.
3. Because Trump is a creature of media— and its creation. Josh Marshall recently pointed this out: “For all the purported hatred of ‘the media’, the main Trumpers are almost all fundamentally media creatures. They think in media terms. They are media creations.” He’s right about that.
Trump himself is a self-creation of the 80s and 90s New York City tabloid culture. His comeback in the early part of this century was driven more than most people understand by the success of The Apprentice. Why else do you think people in the Philippines or Kazakhstan paid millions to license Trump’s name? It was the brand driver of the licensing empire which allowed Trump to become the 45th President.
Steve Bannon was a publisher. Before that he was a movie producer. Jared Kushner bought a newspaper and used it to fight his battles in the press. On down the list they are all media people. They don’t hate the media. Indeed, they can only understand most battles in media terms.
In a word, it’s all they know. They aren’t prepared for anything else.
4. Because people in the White House think “media” warring is governing.
As he escalates his attacks on the “failing media,” Trump and his allies are increasingly convinced that recent evidence, including the retracted CNN piece on an aspect of the Russia investigations, will prove to skeptical voters that the mainstream media has a vendetta against the administration.
Some White House advisers said they were frustrated that the Brzezinski feud — which continued to unfurl throughout the day Friday with accusations and counteraccusations — overtook the president’s fight with CNN, which seemed in their eyes to have clearer villains and heroes.
The Republican health care bill is in peril on Capital Hill. But inside the White House they’re frustrated that their preferred story line in a “war” with the media is getting eclipsed by another one the president himself introduced. Only tinker-toy strategists could be consumed by such things, but that is what we have at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW.
5. Because turning reporters into ritualized hate objects is easy to do, supporters love it, and it meets Trump’s need for public displays of dominance.
The press is not popular; we know that. Attacking journalists is a freebie: no price is paid. These things were true long before Trump announced. What he adds is a specific-to-Trump neuroses: his need to dominate others, which was visible in his only full-on press conference as President. Josh Marshall again:
We’ve collectively been living in Donald Trump’s house now for more than two years. We know him really well. We know that he sees everything through a prism of the dominating and the dominated. It’s a zero-sum economy of power and humiliation. For those in his orbit he demands and gets a slavish adoration. Even those who take on his yoke of indignity are fed a steady diet of mid-grade humiliations to drive home their status and satisfy Trump’s need not only for dominance but unending public displays of dominance. He is a dark, damaged person.
Warring with the news media over freedom and access caters to this need of his. As Josh writes:
Trump’s treatment of the press is really a version of the same game, a set of actions meant to produce the public spectacle of ‘Trump acts; reporters beg.’ ‘Reporters beg and Trump says no.’ Demanding, shaming all amount to trying to force actions which reporters have no ability to compel. That signals weakness. And that’s the point.
If part of this so-called “war” with the press is about the terms under which journalists will be allowed to report on the White House, there will never be peace. Because only by squeezing access can Trump produce the whining and pleading he requires to feel that temporary jolt of pleasure and mastery. Of course, it doesn’t fill the hole in his soul, which is why it must continue.
6. Because it’s the one campaign promise he can definitely keep. He’s not going to build a wall and get Mexico to pay for it. He’s not going to bring back coal or revive American manufacturing. He’s not going to be the master negotiator before whom the leaders of sovereign nations cave. None of that will ever unfold.
But smack around the hand-raisers in the press corps? That he can do. It requires no finesse. There is no act of Congress involved. He doesn’t have to master the issue because there is no issue, only a despised “other.” In a sense this is what he came to Washington to do, and he’s going to keep doing it. Virtually the first act of his administration was this: Sean Spicer’s put-down of the press over crowd size at Trump’s inauguration. As I wrote the next day (“send the interns!”) the message was:
It’s not a problem for us if you stagger from the room in disbelief. We’re not trying to “win the news cycle,” or win you over. We’re trying to demonstrate independence from and power over you people. This room is not just for briefings, announcements and Q & A. It’s also a theater of resentment in which you play a crucial part. Our constituency hates your guts; this is the place where we commune with them around that fact. See you tomorrow, guys!
And every day they show up. Which is another reason the “war” will continue.
7. Because with the Federal government in Republican hands there is an “enemy gap.” Hillary Clinton has been vanquished. Obama is in sunglasses, shopping and playing golf. They don’t make plausible opponents any more. But CNN does.
Listen to Trump’s remarks at the Kennedy Center July 1.
“The fake media is trying to silence us, but we will not let them. The people know the truth. The fake media tried to stop us from going to the White House, but I’m president and they’re not.”
8. Because it binds him to the base, which has been tutored in this resentment since 1969.
For Trump and his legions of loyalists, the media has become a shared enemy. “They like him, they believe in him, they have not to any large degree been shaken from him, and the more the media attacks him, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy on the side of the Trump supporters who fervently believe the media treat him unfairly,” said Tony Fabrizio, the chief pollster for Trump’s campaign. “It’s like, ‘Beat me with that sword some more!’ ”
9. Because they know a lot of bad news has yet to emerge. Especially about Russia. A more competent White House with a more normal president might try to get ahead of the investigation by releasing what is surely going to come out. This White House is incapable of that. Back-up plan: discredit the carriers of the most damaging reports before the reports are carried. Which amounts to an attack on truth via the expected tellers of it.
10. Because the sheer ugliness of the spectacle repels the uncommitted, persuading them that there’s no point in paying attention. The president lacks the political skills needed to both hold on to his most committed supporters and simultaneously make nice with those who are neither core Tump voters nor the resistance. He’s not dexterous enough to manage any of that. What he can do is “depress turnout” by making things as ugly and confusing as possible for the neither-nors— not just on election day but every day.
Continuous culture war with the media serves that end. It depresses daily turnout in the political public sphere. If the only ones who show up are hard core Trump supporters on one side and the committed resistance on the other, the White House will gladly accept that. Unending war with the media is thus a demobilization tactic. As I said, the sheer ugliness of the spectacle repels the uncommitted.
Is this a conscious strategy? Probably not. But it’s still part of the “logic.”
11. Because his fantasy claims during the campaign pre-ordained critical coverage if Trump won. For example: You will have great health care. We will take care of everybody at a fraction of the cost. He actually said this! Philip Bump:
“We’re going to have insurance for everybody,” Trump told The Washington Post’s Robert Costa and Amy Goldstein during an interview less than a week before his inauguration… The plan would have “lower numbers, much lower deductibles.” The “philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it”? Trump insisted that “that’s not going to happen with us” — implying that there would be universal coverage regardless of income. What’s more, people could “expect to have great health care” that would be “in a much simplified form. Much less expensive and much better.”
There was never a chance that any of that could happen. There was always the certainty that the press would point this failure out. Inherent in the fact-free fantasyland where Donald Trump dwells is conflict with the news media when “we will take care of everybody at a fraction of the cost…” meets the text of an actual bill before Congress. Any bill.
Trump doesn’t know he lives in a fact-free fantasyland; that’s one of the facts he is blissfully free from. No matter how much he enjoys bantering with reporters, no matter how desperate he is for positive coverage from “the fake news,” as he calls it, the irreality at the heart of his presidency guarantees that this conflict with journalists will go on and on.