His campaign to discredit the press is a permanent feature of Trump’s political style

It’s all they know. They aren’t prepared for anything else.

16 Jul 2017 10:26 pm 26 Comments

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.

When CNN fired three journalists and retracted a story about the Russia connection, White House staffers were said to be “elated.” By something CNN did. This is weird.

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.

It’s one thing to strut about calling the news media the opposition party. That’s good theatre. It’s another to think you’ve banked a win when the press corrects itself. From the Washington Post:

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.

The Washington Post:

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.

26 Comments

Dr. David T. Macknet says:

Regarding point 8, let’s not forget that the GOP has made a fetish of bashing the “liberal media” for decades, as a way of coercing the conversation towards their own point of view and effectively controlling the narrative. So, in going after all but the most right-wing outlets, he is redefining the traditional enemy of the right to be anyone who isn’t an extremist.

The GOP in Texas worked out a long time ago how to disintermediate and go around the media. In 2012 when he ran for re-election, Rick Perry ignored all of the Texas newspapers and TV channels, most of whom endorsed his opponent. Instead he just blanketed the whole state with TV adverts at crucial points, due to the GOP’s massive money advantage, tried to avoid debates wherever possible, and used social media. If you have the money and the cojones, it works.
The Trump approach to media relationships is the same strategy as Rick Perry’s, only considerably ruder and more obnoxious.

John Zacharias says:

You make me miss Molly Ivins more than ever.

Because the power of Twitter and cable news has turned a number of able, talented journalists into public figures and useful foils. Certain journalists are courted, called out and chastised by Trump on a regular basis. Readers and watchers are familiar with their faces and tweets as well as their stories. They have become mini-celebrities in their own right. While this isn’t unprecedented, it’s unusual. To some readers/watches, they are symbolic of journalistic excellence. To Trump’s base, they are purveyors of “fake news.” For the President, they are opponents in a White House game which he seems assured (rightly or wrongly) he will eventually win.

It’s also simple. Trump is probably the most intellectually immature president, who likes (needs?) things to be boiled down to the most basic constituents. He doesn’t need wordy security briefings, he gets and repeats Fox News statements as facts, ‘politics is hard’, it’s the top line every time. It’s easy to imagine this wasn’t a preplanned strategy, but he winged it, he repeated it (‘Fake news!), they found it had traction, so then it became part of the plan. The press was bad (except for Fox), we are good, let’s beat out that simple, easy-to-digest rhythm every chance we get. Not because it’s easy to digest for his audience (though that’s good too), but because it’s easy to digest for Trump, a refreshing change from the nuanced shades of impenetrable grey that make up the rest of his new life as a politician.

Vin Sylvia says:

My argument is with this:

“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.”

Trump doesn’t believe mainstream media are deceitful; he just says they are because: a.) It’s an aggressive response, more offense than defense; and b.) His base eats it up. These people are the antitheses of critical thinkers. They have a limited worldview, and what Trump says supports that view. The lies Trump spews are true to his supporters because they want them to be true.

That is essentially Jay’s point #1. Trump is playing to his base, not to opponents and undecideds, who he doesn’t give a damn about. As he sees, it, he is the ultimate truth-telling insurgent, who won without a party (he regards most of the GOP as a collection of useful idiots who he simply elbowed out of the way with his enormous charisma to win the nomination), so why should he care about those whiny-ass-titty-baby elites?

Mark J. McPherson says:

It is not a novel strategy with antecedents stretching back to Nixon and Agnew in the modern, televised era. It’s a means of anticipating and preemptively diluting the effectiveness of “opponents” which are certain to appear once an Administration resolves to act in an anti-democratic manner. Why have a “debate” or even engage in real argument when you know you can not prevail under or through reason? (Trump’s view is that to even attempt to engage is a sign of weakness and lack of nerve and will).

Far better to delegitimize and degrade the entire field of endeavor so that the whole rancorous calamity will begin to be tuned out by more and more people. He was and is greatly aided in this by the media’s lamentable role in creating and validating the spectacle in the first place. Trump lacks Frankenstein’s monster’s soul and philosophical bent to ponder the consequences and deeper meanings of his being created. He exists to convert, usurp and weild power and influence, and to monetize it. What kind of useful coverage could be gained anyway, for something like that?

He didn’t start “The War Against the Press”, “The War Against Science”, “The War Against the Judiciary”, “The War Against American Intelligence Agencies”, “The War Against the Environment”, “The War Against the Immigrants”, “The War Against Islam”, “The War Against Women” or “The War Against the Academics, Intellects and Higher Learning”.

He did figure out that the base was sick and tired of the mealy-mouthed way Republican leadership went about these things these last 4 and 1/2 decades during which virtually all of these American institutions and principles have been under constant sniping for the benefit of the Koch classes. So he is attempting, in his idiotic fashion, to lead the Republican Party to do what they have, during his lifetime, promising to do. He also figured out that the cover his predecessors sought in large measure through occasionally mollifying and coddling and flattering and otherwise coopting press coverage, is no longer necessary. Unless he is wrong about his underlying assessment that the media is compromised, morally bankrupt, spineless and generally like a dog that’s been beat too much but still mewls and grovels for a pat on the head and the occasional biscuit or table crumbs.

If this is the game, can’t the media learn new ‘moves’ to counteract the dynamic?

it’s not for legit media to “learn new moves,” it’s for campaigns of media literacy and critical thinking to ramp up

Chris Bocking says:

Agreed, that’s an area of growth that’s needed, but it seems guaranteed to be slow given average intelligence + inertia of education system + fact that people find it very hard to change their mind.

Doesn’t it also make sense for the media to find innovative ways to directly build/rebuild bridges with people who have written them off? Otherwise aren’t they just like Trump et al, in terms of only catering to their ‘base’?

Justin Wise says:

I’m curious if you also think Trump’s campaign to discredit the press gains additional traction due to the public’s understanding of journalism. Trump says that anonymous sources are made up and his base believes him. But how often are journalists explaining their practices behind the story to their distinct audiences. It’s become more common lately, but I wonder if Trump’s attacks on certain journalistic practices are easier to believe since the media may not have been as focused on elaborating on its practices before.

As Dave Farenthold(WAPO), Susanne Craig (NYT) and Daniel Dale( Toronto Star) pointed out in one public forum it is not their job to convert Trump’s base. Waste of time. All they can do is calmly and accurately research and report on all facets of Trump administration; and on all aspects of how Trump team behaved during campaign. However, the public responds to drama and to calling people out: Every time Trump team from POTUS on down publicly calls media “fake”, especially during live coverage, first media response should always be: “You know that’s not true. It is simply a tactic you’re using to distract and fool people. But our audience and the majority of voters are too smart to be fooled.”

Chris Bocking says:

If Trump’s base is made up of real people with real emotions, and they will not (cannot) change their minds when presented with facts – facts actually make them dig in harder – does that strategy of calmly presenting the facts make sense?

How could it be a waste of time to connect with people who seem to be acting irrationally, and figure out ways to engage them within their daily reality?

It seems like for people who are pissed off about ____ in their life or the world they see, the ‘story of Trump’ fills a void – and if their minds are going to change, they need a better story to replace it.

@Chris Bocking:
“If {mainstream journalism} is made up of real people with real emotions, and they will not (cannot) change their minds when presented with facts – facts actually make them dig in harder – does that strategy of calmly presenting the facts make sense?”

No. Trump, Trump base-supporters, and the mainstream media are too obsessed with their partisan ideology. Quite amusing from the sidelines.

Trump & mainstream journalists are easy to figure out by sober observers — but neither the Trump crowd nor journalists can recognize their own huge emotional ruts. Jay has been writing the same basic essay here since April– Trump Bad… Journalists Good. He’s preaching to the choir here and seems to enjoy the reverb.

Mainstream journalism is doing a horrible, stunningly biased & emotional job of covering Trump and national news. They proudly think they are fighting some epic battle between good and evil. A sober look at this current mess in journalism is urgently needed within the profession. The public deserves much better.

Dr. Gisala Maria says:

Very interesting perspective, but it seems incomplete without a mention of the role “Fox News” has played in this debacle. Thoughts?

I think that Trump’s anger toward the media has much to do with the fact that
in the 80’s and 90’s, the NYS-based media laughed at him)

(Here I’m thinking, not just of the New York Times, but many reputable business magazines based in NYC .

In NYC, both journalists and folks on Wall Street knew that Donald was a rube
He was not a mega-business man (like Gates, Bezos, et. a.)

Trump was just real estate con-man
— a type that New Yorkers know all too well.

Unfortunately Trump’s book (“The Art of the Deal”)
persuaded many Americans outside of NYC that Trump was a major entrepreneur.

I’m afraid that they were just naive, and persuaded by a book that he paid someone
a large amount of money to ghost-write for him.

Those readers—who tended to live in the middle of the country–then voted for
Trump

J. Smith says:

Please see the Facebook page “People’s Bill Of Rights For White House Transparency” — a measure to strengthen the working press against intimidation and abuse by the politicos of the press office and the occupants of the West Wing. It is the unfettered press that stands between the people and tyranny. Lend your support in solidarity. I am sharing a link to this pressthink article at that page.

Because of the number of targets. You mentioned that Obama and Clinton and democrats are no longer useful targets. But “the press” includes CNN and The Washington Post and the New York Times and thousands of other potential targets including individual reporters for those and other outlets. If he needs an enemy, there are thousands of journalists. Any one could be in the crosshairs on any given day. Easy peasy.

Right on…point by point you nailed Trump to a T. Brilliant analysis of the man/child in his efforts to retain what base he has left, now that independents are quickly leaving him.

Dave Goldenberg says:

All of these are likely true, but I think the real answer lies more deeply in Trump’s psyche; it’s a flaw in his moral architecture. To put it another way, he is amoral—a quality common among sociopaths. As Pres. Francis Underwood said, “There is no more right and wrong, only winning and losing.”

This alt-Manichean worldview does not understand why colluding with a foreign adversary would be wrong if it gives you a leg up. It sees no shame in a lie that brings advantage. As I said, it’s a-moral.

The press is an institution founded on liberal democratic ideals, promoting integrity and transparency in the name of the common good. These ideals just do not compute with Trump. Thus, if they attack him, they are simply another enemy to be vanquished. Like McCain’s service record, like the Gold-Star parents of Humayun Khan, like his ad hominem insults against even his fellow republicans.

Simply put, it’s because he lacks a moral compass, and thus any opponent—and that describes the press above all—deserves nothing but total defeat.

Dave Logan says:

Trump is a ratings whore. He’s truly our first Reality TV President, a hero to his core who see educated people (a.k.a. “Libtards”) as uppity elites. They are the Duck Dynasty generation.

Everything about this administration centers on pointing out metrics that “prove” he’s winning. If the numbers don’t make his point, Trump insists they’re rigged or the media is misinterpreting them and then offers his own read on reality. This works for his MAGA followers would rather feel good about themselves than face facts. Unfortunately for Trump, this constituency can only shrink.

The media still spends too much time as an enabler of his vanity because he creates ratings for them. Once they start fighting as hard for the sake of journalistic truth and a free press as they do for ratings, they’ll win.

If Donald Trump was an 8 year old child, most parents would have grounded him a long long time ago, and they would be ignoring him almost constantly, since continually paying attention to any person throwing a tantrum is a form of enablement. He is a child in a man’s body, and no amount of taking him seriously will change that.

The media needs to treat Donald Trump like the child that he is, ignore him, and devote their energy to finding out facts about what his administration is really doing. That will be more useful and will allow them to slowly build back the credibility that they have been squandering since 9/11, when they mostly became willing dupes of politicians, and then spent years mostly in denial about it.

David Rubien says:

The flip side to this analysis is that Trump counts on an increasingly powerful alternative media to bolster his positions and power. These are the Fox/Limbaugh/Breitbart/Infowars media, about to be enhanced by Sinclair Media’s rollout. These media are de-facto state media, 90% propaganda, not very different from the press in Russia, and they have tight control over their listeners. So when Trump shouts “fake news” he knows he can count on the assent of loyalists who don’t need to be convinced. They’ve been trained for decades to believe lies fed to them, and in the 21st century they have a media infrastructure that rivals the MSM in size and scope. By this dynamic the media war is a facet of the larger culture war. I fear at some point it could break about into a real civil war.

Trump’s “war on the media” is actually connected to the GOP’s long running attack on arbiters of truth. The GOP has spent the better part of the last 20 years undermining the very idea of expertise- that facts are knowable. Journalists, when at their best, are engaged in fact checking- describing what is knowable and true. Vilifying the media goes along with attacking science, the CBO, universities and education.
Trump’s “war on the media” thus fits in with the overall strategy of the Ailes/Murdoch GOP. Trump is the id of the Republican party. He has stated boldly what Republicans have been saying in code: Mexicans are rapists, Muslims are terrorists, Obama is not American, The media are the enemy. The GOP had no answer to Trump because they didn’t fundamentally disagree with him. They could attack his vulgarity, but the moral and ethical bankruptcy was theirs as well.
Furthermore, the GOP itself has become product of right wing media. Just as Trump seems uninterested in governing, so too has the Republican party. They have spent 8 years obstructing and 7 years railing against Obamacare, yet never once thought seriously about how they would approach healthcare. It was always for show. It is not just Trump administration that has shown itself incapable of governing, it is the Republican party as well. The GOP arrived at this point because of talk radio & Fox’s effect on the party. The right wing media echo chamber emboldened the fringe that was never interested in governing and got them elected to Washington. These right wing ideologues replaced moderate members of the GOP. It was the moderates who relied on facts and figures (interpreted through a partisan lens) and were able to govern through compromise. Those moderates who remained have been cowed into towing the increasingly extreme party line by threat of being primaried. The Republican base that actually shows up for primaries is so steeped in the “information” environment of talk radio, Fox news and Brietbart, are virulently opposed to anything from the MSM- most of all that which would challenge their propaganda induced beliefs.
Trump will continue to attack the media (which of course excludes Fox) for all the reasons you state, but also because the he and the Republican party he heads have a vested interest in undermining truth tellers. They seek nothing less than the annihilation of the very concept of verifiable truth.

Richard Aubrey says:

The piece would be stronger if it included some excuses/rationalizations for various stories of the more egregious fake style.
Putting this in terms of “me or your lying eyes” invites reflection, and not in a good way.
Anybody know how Palin’s suit against the NYT is going?

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