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Trump Versus the Media: This Could End Badly

January 27, 2017


The first week of the Trump presidency has seen an extraordinary and unprecedented confrontation between, on one hand, the new leader and his spokespeople, and on the other, mainstream American media outlets including the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, and CNN.

On Saturday January 21st, Trump press secretary Sean Spicer made an issue of the size of the previous day’s inauguration crowd, insisting that it was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.” When the New York Times called this a “false claim” and other news organizations showed photos clearly demonstrating the bigger turnout for Obama’s inauguration in 2009, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway responded that the Trump administration was merely adhering to “alternative facts.” Then, only a couple of days later, the new president insisted that massive voter fraud was responsible for the popular vote victory of his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Again, press secretary Spicer backed him up, and again the press called the claim (for which no evidence has been produced) a “lie” and a “falsehood”—terms that news outlets named above are not in the habit of using to describe statements issuing from the government’s executive branch.

How will this tug of war play out? Don’t expect Donald Trump to back down; it’s not in his character. After all, he still hasn’t apologized for spending years promoting the “birther” fallacy, which held that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States and was therefore legally unqualified to be president—even though Trump later quietly acknowledged that Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate is genuine. Rather than saying he’s sorry, Trump is far more likely to double down on his claims, counterclaims, denials, and accusations—as he is doing by insisting that all the women accusing him of sexual assault are lying. And he can draw some justification for his antagonistic feelings toward the press: he’s not alone in objecting to its unquestioning embrace of allegations of major Russian hacking in the election.

For their part, the media are hardening their own position. By focusing so much attention on symbolic issues about which the administration is clearly dissembling, they effectively shunt to the second page actual policy changes that will have major impact on the direction of the country. (Thom Hartmann argues that the media have “a higher commitment to sensationalism than to issues that impact everyday Americans.”)

So, again, how will this shooting match end? Here are two of the more easily identifiable possibilities.

First, the Trump administration will be tamed (which is highly unlikely) or discredited. As a result of media standing up to blatant falsehoods, all “serious people” will simply stop taking the administration seriously. The president will become an object of derision among an increasing share of the general public. Only a dwindling core of loyalists will soldier on as the Trump White House’s messaging hurls the Republican brand toward disaster. At some point the adults in the room will find a convenient way to remove Trump from office. Already, according to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, “I am hearing from Republicans, and other reporters are as well, that there is open discussion by members of the President of the United States’ own party about his emotional maturity, stability…”

In the second possible end game, the president will find an excuse to proclaim emergency powers, then effectively shut down the mainstream media (this could mean putting them out of business or merely forcing them to toe the line). Press censorship is standard operating procedure in authoritarian regimes, and plenty of current (China, North Korea, Vietnam, Russia) or historic (Germany, Italy, the Philippines, Japan) examples could be cited. One bellwether of the concern that people have about this possibility is the factoid that George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984—in which the fictional-future Ministry of Truth goes about its bureaucratic business of manufacturing a daily litany of falsehoods—now sits atop the Amazon best-seller list. If this is the way things go, the media could be seen as playing into Trump’s hands, as they reveal which outlets, and which reporters, are friendly and malleable, and which should be the first to shut down when the appropriate time comes. On the other hand, a suitably severe crisis might lead the media simply to censor themselves, as largely happened in post-9/11 America. The managers at the New York Times and CNN are no doubt keenly aware of these possibilities, but their strategic options are constrained (partly by their own inside-the-box worldviews, and partly by their for-profit business models and their deep but mostly secret ties to the U.S. intelligence establishment).

Think of the Trump team, then, as a presidency in search of an emergency. Without a suitable crisis, prospects are fairly bleak. But given a financial meltdown, an epic natural disaster, a war, or a spectacular terrorist attack, opportunities open up.

One way or another, we’re in for a big show—one that’s impossible to turn away from. And sadly, the distraction of having to practically deal with, and mentally process, the events of the coming weeks, months, and years is inevitably going to draw energy and attention away from the long-term work of building alternatives to the industrial growth economy that seemed to work so well in the twentieth century, but is failing increasingly in the twenty-first. (Its failure, in my view, was a major contributing factor to Trump’s victory.)  Right now, many elites in the media, in politics, and even in the financial world are pining for the more stable business-as-usual of a Barack Obama or even a George W. Bush (never mind that nasty hiccup of a financial crash back in 2008). But that’s as much a denial of reality as Donald Trump’s crowd estimates or voter fraud claims. The crack-up of the U.S.-dominated global industrial-political-financial system has proceeded to a new stage (Donald Trump is symptom and proof of that), and there is no going back.

What might be implied by “the way forward” in this context may be scary to contemplate. Unfortunately, much of that trajectory may be out of the hands of ordinary people: giant forces are at play, including political parties, intelligence agencies, national governments, major media outlets, financial conglomerates, and more. Most of the population will stand back and watch, petrified or thrilled but nevertheless transfixed. Many will protest and resist. Hopefully some who have managed to attain a big-picture understanding of the inevitable overall trajectory of the human project in this century (i.e., the end of growth and the need for resilient alternative economic arrangements) will continue the important work of building local cooperatives, of finding ways to meet human needs with less energy and material resources, and of wrapping the results in satisfying and inviting cultural experiences. In the long run, that’s the only work that will get us through the mess that lies ahead.

Featured image by Diego Grandi via Shutterstock.