Trump knows that his real enemy is the media—less so the weak Democratic Party. We should not underrate his intelligence in this respect. In other words, his war is against fact and truth. If he wins the war (he needs only to win his constituency, a minority in the country and a majority in the swing states), his administration is secure.
To win he need only convince his base that any adverse event resulting from his actions is not happening or is caused by his adversaries. He has already the built-in advantage that his supporters are less interested in the truth than in his views on immigration, Muslims and manufacturing jobs and in his aggressive personality, which they perceive as strength. He and his surrogates have several strategies in this war. They endlessly repeat the following. 1) The media is biased against him. 2) He may exaggerate, but it is the truth that he exaggerates for effect, so we shouldn’t take literally what he says. Attend to his actions, not to what he is says. 3) Truth is not objective: Trump’s truth is not the media’s truth and you have a choice. By flooding the media with tweets, he overwhelms the capacity of his audience to pause, sort out and discriminate among tweets.
Committed as it is to objectivity, the mainstream media is criticized for betraying the standard of objectivity by charging Trump with lying in their reporting —as if the lying is not an objective fact. Lying is engaging in intentional deception. Trump is not a liar only if he truly believes the falsehoods he asserts, in which case he can be viewed as unhinged, a condition worse than outright lying for a leader of a country. Even the repeated assertions of a falsehood again and again exposed by the media may not qualify as lying, if he is incapable of taking in the fact that what he utters is untrue. Not being able to determine what is inside Trump’s mind, the media should focus on the falsehoods and leave the question of motivation in suspension. He has the advantage of setting the bar so low for truthfulness, competence and presidential dignity that when he keeps a promise, no matter the value of the promise, he maintains the support of his following and when he delivers a speech without his usual bluster and insult, he is praised for having sounded presidential. Without core convictions, Trump is a promiscuous flip flopper on almost every issue. David Brooks, at times a very severe critic, chooses to view it as a sign that he may be learning. He is, for instance, reassured by Trump’s apparent move from populism to corporatism, which is more conventionally Republican. The question of the virtue of corporatism apart, we know how little we can trust Trump’s consistency in moving in any direction. Brooks is grasping for straws, hoping against hope, instead of remaining consistent in his criticism. Commenting on Trump’s first 100 days, Matthew Dowd, another severe Republican critic of Trump, sees virtue in him as a disrupter, while expressing disappointment that he doesn’t deliver on the promise to be transformative. What does it mean to be disruptive in a broken system? Does Dowd believe that it’s possible for Trump to be constructively transformative, given his lack of thoughtfulness and core principles? Apparently not. Then why should he approve his role as a disrupter. Even some of his critics rate him as a winner during the early days of his presidency for whatever little he has accomplished. The Congress has the power to impeach and indict him for crimes and misdemeanors, but it is safely in his corner, since his party controls both branches of government and they fear the loss of power should Trump be removed. Gone is the capacity for integrity the Republican members of the Congress possessed during the Watergate era in their political conduct. Only the fourth estate, the media, is free from his control, but they have only the power of affecting public opinion, and that is the ground on which the war is being fought, so far to a stalemate. We should note that when we speak of the media, we have the print media and major TV channels in mind. The social media and talk shows in “the heartland” have a strong Trumpian constituency.
The media by and large has accurately graded the first 100 days of his presidency as a failure. Trump and his hardcore supporters have judged them as a success. He has not been able to repeal and replace Obamacare immediately as he promised during his campaign. He has not succeeded in getting funding for the wall he promised to build on the Mexican border. His executive order banning entry of visitors from Muslim countries has been blocked by the courts. He has in fact failed to get any significant legislation through the Congress. His signal success has been the appointment of a Supreme Court Justice, hardly an impressive achievement, given Republican control of the Senate and its willingness to rewrite the rules of confirmation. He has been prolific in issuing executive orders undoing many of the regulations put in place by the Obama administration concerning finance and climate. For his followers this counts as the virtuous fulfillment of promises, for his opponents a destructive action. (There is no indication by Trump or his staff that thought went into the undoing of the regulations. The fact that he has simply deregulated what Obama regulated is celebrated as an achievement.) Trump may have the lowest early approval rating of any president in modern history, but he would still have a good chance to prevail in an election against the candidate he defeated in the election if it were held again, according to polls. And his party, which seems incapable of enacting legislation despite its control of both branches of Congress, is less unpopular than the opposing party. Unlike previous presidents who tend to move to the center after being elected, Trump continues to appeal to his base, content not to lose support, while feeling no need to expand his base. What we have, to repeat, is political stalemate with no prospect of let up.
How to explain the continuing hold that Trump has on his supporters? Let’s begin with the status quo that Trump is challenging. He appeals to a desire to disrupt and break up a system from which the unemployed and underpaid employed are suffering. The hope is that out of the debris of disruption transformative solutions to problems will emerge. Trump persuades by the aggressiveness and vehemence of his rhetoric. He speaks and acts with force. The incoherence of his actions and speech is discounted, what is heard is the promise of radical change. If his followers paid attention to his incoherence and inconsistency, what they would learn is that he in fact is not the bold and decisive political operator he affects to be. The incoherence blurs what he stands for, indeed, if he truly stands for anything. He tends to act according to the advice of the last person he speaks to and feels no responsibility to what he has said or done at an earlier time that might contradict his latest statement. He denies without an apparent twinge of conscience past statements and actions, even in the face of documented evidence. Perhaps most revealing is the utter irresponsibility in his treatment of other persons. He accused Obama of being Kenyan born and when the evidence decisively showed that Obama was born in Hawaii, he accused the Clintons of the allegation and claimed to have ended the controversy by ending the campaign of slander which he waged. He accused Obama of surveilling him in Trump Tower in New York, characterizing his predecessor as bad and sick. When it was pointed out in an interview by John Dickerson that according to his own intelligence agencies that there was no evidence of it, he abruptly and rudely ended the interview. In the past, the mere display of such behavior in the media would be enough to bring discredit even among his supporters. Trump has been able of habituate his supporters to his behavior. As he boasted during the campaign, he would lose no supporters even if he shot someone on Fifth Ave. Trump, surely ignorant of the tradition, is an antinomian who believes, as do his supporters, that he is locked in a state of grace and can do no wrong.
Here is a paradox. Trump’s life experience and his appointments in the domestic realm is corporatist (top/down), his foreign policy, to the extent that there is one has a militaristic bias and yet he has been able to assume the role of an anti-elitist populist. How? By making symbolic gestures such as occasionally pressing companies to keep jobs in the states, removing environmental regulations that limit coal mining thus saving jobs, licensing the construction of pipelines. These are hardly systematic policies that will transform the economy as he and his acolytes promise. They are, one might say, theatrical gestures. In fact, the direction of his policies is unmistakably anti-populist. American politics has become a species of low level entertainment. The Trump presidency is like one of those unspeakably bad films, for instance, Dumb and Dumber, that “succeeds” because of its very badness.
The media has no qualms about “vilifying” (i.e. accurately characterizing) Trump’s falsehoods, insults, ignorance and incompetence in behavior and speech, but it is careful not to alienate Trump supporters in their reporting, viewing, as it does, the reasons for support as legitimate grievances (loss of jobs, lack of respect for their cultural and religious values by the elites of the coastal states). When reporters interviewing Trump’s supporters mention his egregious behavior, his indifference to fact and truth and point to the wide discrepancy between his rhetorical populism and the billionaires he has chosen to run his government, the supporters tend in their responses to mirror his indifference to truth and to fact. They often express indignation against the media for what they perceive as a vehement bias against Trump as if he himself didn’t provoke it by his crude and indiscriminate treatment of all adversaries from the very beginning of his campaign for the presidency. No other president has ever been treated so badly by the press, they protest, ignoring the fact no president has ever behaved so badly, indeed so crudely, to those who have opposed him.
Should his supporters be exempt from the judgment we pass on Trump? They, after all, are responsible for imposing his rule on us. This is not a matter of legitimate differences between left and right sides of the political spectrum in a democracy. It is a matter of egregious incompetence and possibly (I’m tempted to say probably) criminal behavior. The reasons for not applying the same judgment to his supporters as to Trump are strategic and pragmatic. The political opposition wants to be able to change minds, knowing that this will occur only if it can be shown that the Trump supporters’ own interests will be negatively affected by his actions. The press, from a democratic reflex, needs to show respect for those who elected him. But this doesn’t excuse the inexcusable. Can 60 million be profoundly and dangerously wrong in their political behavior? The answer is Yes. See the French film, The Sorrow and the Pity for an accurate representation of the widespread support of the Vichy regime during World War II. I’m not saying that Trump is a fascist. He is too ignorant, incoherent and unprincipled to subscribe to any ideology. He is not outside the mainstream, a plausible place to be in a democracy; he is beyond the pale.
In authoritarian countries, the media is on the defensive, subject to censorship, suppression and imprisonment. In a democracy, particularly one in which freedom of expression is inscribed in the Constitution, an executive with an authoritarian disposition cannot simply impose himself on the media with impunity. He must find ways of undermining freedom without appearing to do so. Trump speaks of expanding the reach of libel laws to protect himself from what he characterizes as fake news directed against him. Since the power of the media in a democracy is great, he can turn himself into its victim and evoke the sympathy of his substantial base of supporters. The media sees itself as speaking truth to power. Trump turns it into oppressive power, “the enemy of the people.” Trump’s success, perhaps his very survival as president, depends on his ability to continually weaken the authority of mainstream media. In 1984 the state determines the truth. In 2017 in the United States, undermining the very idea of objective fact and truth becomes a strategy for securing power.