Donald Trump and the GOP may lack a coherent governing agenda, but they have no doubt about their electoral strategy: Run against the media.
The campaign against the media is not simply a reflection of the president’s notoriously thin skin or a sideshow distraction; it is central to Team Trump’s political style and his agenda. Trump needs an enemy and in the absence of a polarizing figure like Hillary Clinton to run against, the “fake news” media will do just fine. Even though the national press corps won’t be on the ballot in 2018, the GOP will run against it as aggressively as it runs against the Democrats. This is, after all, how you motivate your base.
To see Trump-era politics simply as matter of dueling policies is to fundamentally misunderstand the current dynamic. Actual achievements are less important than striking the right pose and attacking the right enemies. The New York Times’s James Poniewozik explains that politics today “is attitudinal, not ideological. The reason to be for someone is who is against them. What matters more than policy is your side’s winning, and what matters more than your side’s winning is the other side’s losing.”
Indeed, as Republican health care reform efforts floundered, Washington Post reporter Robert Costa tweeted that most Republican elected officials were not fearful of a primary challenge if they opposed the repeal of Obamacare. “They see [the GOP] base,” Costa tweeted, “as grievance/fake news obsessed, not [Obamacare] obsessed.”
And for Trump, the media is the perfect foil. The president himself tweeted out a GIF depicting him body slamming a figure labelled “CNN,” after the cable network admitted it had published an erroneous story and fired three of their journalists. For Trump and his supporters, it was a triumphant moment, and a taste of what is surely to come, especially if Trump’s political position continues to deteriorate.
Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, notes, “It’s all they know. They aren’t prepared for anything else.” For Trump, running against the media also “makes good sense, what with the Republican base in a permanent state of rage at ‘cognitive elites,’” he notes. “It makes even better sense for a President with a base-only strategy.”
Not surprisingly, the campaign against the media has become the one consistent, permanent feature of this White House. Charlie Warzel and Adrian Carrasquillo of BuzzFeed observe: “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.”
Early signs suggest that the strategy is working, at least among Trump’s hard-core supporters. The relentless attacks, they write, have convinced much of Trump’s base “that the mainstream media is corrupt and reckless.” “Trust in the media has been steadily declining for years in public opinion polls,” they note, “but Trump weaponized it during his campaign and now uses the full influence of the White House to promote the anti-media agenda.”
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Of course, not all of this is new. Years before Donald Trump derided the media as “fake news,” Vice President Spiro Agnew famously labelled journalists “nattering nabobs of negativism.” But that was a very different era and the media need to understand that the challenges they now face are broader, deeper, more complicated as they become central players in the election campaign rather than simply observers.
All of this increases the pressure for the media to get it right.
This has always been important, but now that errors are weaponized by partisans to discredit the “fake” media, the pressure to avoid self-inflicted wounds has intensified. Even routine mistakes are seized upon to discredit the entire enterprise of journalism. This is the harsh reality check: No matter how good American journalism is, much of the electorate has been conditioned to reject it as “fake.” The last campaign saw an explosion of hoaxes, fabrications that often seemed to overwhelm legitimate news on social media.
This ought to be have been the canary in the coal mine for conservatives, but in a stunning demonstration of the power and resiliency of our new post-factual political culture, Trump and his allies in the right media quickly absorbed, disarmed, and turned the term “fake news” against its critics, draining it of any meaning. Now any news deemed to be biased, annoying, or negative can be labelled “fake news.”
Trump and his supporters now routinely conflate journalistic errors or lapses with intentional distortions; and many voters seem willing to accept the president’s chronic falsehoods or are indifferent to the deceptions.
The result is a toxic and challenging environment for journalists. They can answer the challenge with reporting that is aggressive, accurate, thorough, and fair. The next few years will be a referendum on whether they succeed.