“Not he who is ignorant of writing but ignorant of photography will be the illiterate of the future.” – from “A Short History of Photography,” by Walter Benjamin, 1931
It is now one week into the first season of The White House Apprentice, and we are getting a very clear picture of what the Trump presidency is going to look, feel, and smell like. Lights, camera... action! Roll the camera. Post to Facebook. Tweet it, then beat it.
The first made-for-social–media presidency began with a series of bumps and crashes that, when viewed through a longer lens, suddenly appear to be wholly planned and orchestrated, willful and implemented by design.
This President is completely focused on the optics of being President. Once again, we take him lightly at our own peril. Trump is feverishly projecting a visual image of a dynamic, action-oriented executive who is cracking the whip on the gridlocked Washington bureaucracy and taking immediate action on his each and every campaign promise. If it appears he is still in campaign mode, he is. He is tweeting, texting, shouting, and stepping on toes, all to make sure his base knows that is implementing what he promised. And those who voted for Trump by talking themselves into the belief that he would not or could not implement some of his more outlandish campaign vows have had a rude awakening. Yes he can.
How is Trump achieving this? So far, largely with executive orders, tweets, vague proclamations, confrontational language, and his trademark willingness to combat inconvenient truths with his staff’s splendid new invention: “alternative facts.”
Perhaps highest on his priority list – above campaign promises and saber rattling – this President is making his biggest assault on that shockingly vulnerable barrier between perception and reality. It is a fact that Trump’s opinion is that fact is now a matter of opinion. And he is elevating this dispute to the level of a full-on culture war by declaring that his enemy is not the Democratic Party, but the news media.
This was no nuanced implication. Donald Trump’s Satan-In-Chief, Steve Bannon, not only formally declared but begged to be quoted in an interview in which he said that the media was actually the “Opposition Party.” Bannon’s role, it appears, is to devise a strategy to ensure that the credibility of the media is thoroughly crushed in the cerebrums of the Imperial Storm troopers who represent Trump’s core supporters. Steve Bannon is in the business of manufacturing Teflon for his boss: he is setting out to create a world in which any press report that is critical of Donald Trump can be immediately dismissed precisely because it is the product of a biased, untruthful, deceptive, and manipulative news establishment that has only the goal of undermining the Trump presidency. This is the Nadia Comaneci of twisted logic: the very fact that a news report is negative about Donald Trump is presented as the proof that the news service is biased against him.
If the party philosophy of the past eight years had been Mitch McConnell’s famous declaration that his goal was to make Obama a one-term president, Bannon’s clarion call is the philosophy going forward: anything or anyone who attacks Donald Trump is a product of the biased liberal news media that is out to get Donald Trump. Crush the media and you have crushed the true opposition.
In this culture war, facts are the casualties, and the reports from the battlefield are alarming.
The audacity of Bannon’s propaganda war was comedic at first. The Donald ordered his press officer to step out to the podium and announce that his inauguration was the most watched and most attended in the history of our union. Then Trump told congressional leaders that he actually would have won the popular vote but three to five million undocumented aliens all voted illegally for Hillary Clinton. And then – best of all – he announced that the sun actually broke through the rain clouds the moment he started his inaugural address.
All three of these statements are as groundless and erroneous as asserting, say, that the New York Jets will be playing the Cleveland Browns in the Super Bowl next week. Or that Mary Tyler Moore never threw a hat. Or, while we’re at it, that Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
Donald Trump’s rain of error is already well underway, but do not be misled: it is not based exclusively on stupidity, ignorance, or insecurity, as many have hypothesized. It is a playbook. It is a willful and intentional plan to make every single possible daily occurrence an opportunity to create confrontation between the Trump White House and the news media. Bannon’s bet is that every such confrontation will further solidify the core identification that Trump has created with his base: a pervasive sense of victimhood that Trump’s supporters feel in the face of powerful entrenched establishment forces in Washington, Wall Street, and the news media.
The second front in this war of optics is the steady flow of grand proclamations from Trump’s White House. Surely we must all take a moment and admire the cunning. Trump’s campaign focused heavily on the fact that our government “does not work,” that nothing gets done, and that stupid leaders and gridlock combined to create a government that does not serve its people. He is now doing every possible thing he can do create an aura of rapid, decisive action. And he is no dummy in doing this: everyone is already counting down the days to the mid-term elections, and Trump needs to have his resume polished with accomplishments within 18 months or his crucial majority is up for grabs.
The proclamation of intent to repeal Obamacare – with no replacement in place – is typical of Trump’s optical delusions. He has made great theater of delivering on a huge campaign promise, while Republicans privately stew in the realization that there is no healthcare system on earth that can maintain the level of coverage achieved under Obamacare without preserving the mandate. Trump couldn’t care less what actually happens, and indeed he’s probably banking on Democrats in Congress blocking Republican efforts to implement new legislation, as this would provide a very convenient excuse for his failure to actually replace Obamacare.
Banning 134,000,000 people from seven largely Muslim countries from entering the United States? It’s outrageous, offensive, ignorant, and as likely to spur on terrorists – and support for terrorists – as it is to “keep us safe.” But as an exercise in optics, it’s a home run. It has generated intense visibility and enabled Donald Trump to make the claim to his base that he is taking the necessary steps to protect us from terrorism. Trump sees no downside to this ban, and is completely unconcerned about that little matter of our long-standing principles as a nation. The Twitterer-in-Chief might care about such things if there was a daily “trending” update on our moral fiber, and if he could check Facebook to see how many people “like” having inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Drill, baby, drill. Get those pipelines back in motion. Sign the proclamation, check the box, pose for the camera; tweet it and then beat it.
Was it one China and a two-state solution in the Middle East, or a one-state solution in the Middle East and two Chinas? Who knows? Who cares? Go with your gut. Rattle some cages. Piss some people off. No matter; there will be awesome news coverage.
Mark these words, folks: Donald Trump’s approval rating is about to jump. Most people out there believe that action is inherently better than inaction, and most people think that the appearance of having kept campaign promises is a big improvement over Gridlock, D.C. Most Trump supporters probably believe that the same people in the news media who were wrong about the election are wrong about counting the crowds in the Capitol Building, analyzing voter fraud, and the weather report on Donald Trump’s inauguration. And, hey, you don’t need a weatherman… ah, never mind.
The bottom line is this: if Donald Trump is saying that the news media is the opposition party, then the news media better start acting like it is. We see some promising signs in the tough belligerence of Chuck Todd taking it to Kellyanne Conway (“’Alternative facts’ are not facts. They’re falsehoods”), and the willingness of the New York Times to use the word “lying” in its headlines about Trump.
But for too long our news services have worried about appearing to have a liberal bias, and, as a result, they tiptoed around Donald Trump while he steamrolled them to the White House.
It is time for our news organizations to start playing the role they used to play, during times when Edward R. Murrow took down Joseph McCarthy, Walter Cronkite directly challenged the leadership of Lyndon Johnson, and Ben Bradlee let loose the full force of the Washington Post to prove that Richard Nixon was a crook.
Much has been made about the corrupting influence of money in our politics. This pales next to the potential implications of an utterly corrupted rogue media empire manufacturing an alternative reality and foisting it on those eager to be comforted by its disinformation.
We need leaders in the news media who are ready to step up and spill some blood -- and maybe even some ratings – in service of the truth.
Because the next four years are not about Republican vs. Democrat.
This is about Donald Trump’s media machine vs. the established news media. Whose version of the truth will prevail?
This is about the convenient untruths of Trump vs. the inconvenient truths of reality.
It wasn’t long ago that we all thought it was impossible that Trump would win the last battle. Let’s not make that same mistake now we are fighting for the idea of truth.