For years now Republicans have gotten a lot of mileage from their base by railing against the media – or as Sarah Palin says, “the lamestream media.” Throughout his campaign and transition, Donald Trump jumped right into that fray. More recently, during his remarks at the CIA this weekend, Trump talked about being at war with the media.
After Sean Spicer’s bizarre statement to the press on Saturday afternoon in which he lied about the size of the crowd at the inauguration, most of the reporting has been framed as part of that “war.” There is a way in which that frame is accurate. But it deserves some examination if, for no other reason, than because it is the frame Trump wants us to adopt.
The truth is that Trump loves media attention. Those who have watched him over the years point out that he revels in it – especially when it is rooted in conflict. His entire presidential campaign was able to forego spending much money because he soaked up all the media attention with inflammatory rhetoric. That is Trump’s lifeblood.
In a way, Kellyanne Conway’s remarks to Chuck Todd yesterday demonstrate that this is more than a war with the media. She labelled Spicer’s lies as “alternative facts.” In case you missed it, even the folks at Merriam Webster weighed in on that.
????A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality. https://t.co/gCKRZZm23c
— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) January 22, 2017
Unlike his love of media attention, Trump is at war with facts. Here is how Ezra Klein put it:
Trump lives off media attention and delights in press coverage. His war is with facts. And it’s there that his tactical skirmishes with the press begin to make sense. Delegitimizing the media is important to Trump because delegitimizing certain facts is important to Trump…
Delegitimizing the institutions that might report inconvenient or damaging facts about the president is strategic for an administration that has made a slew of impossible promises and takes office amid a cloud of ethics concerns and potential scandals.
Greg Dworkin described it this way:
Trump exists to disrupt. The idea he's here for jobs and security is an illusion. There is no security with a disruptor, no stability.
— Greg Dworkin (@DemFromCT) January 23, 2017
This is why Trump’s inaugural speech (which we now know was written by Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon) was so belligerent. To disrupt and create chaos is their strategy. I suspect that Trump’s long history of being unacquainted with the truth simply makes him a perfect foil for their purposes. Take a look at how Tim O’Brien (author of TrumpNation) describes him to Michael Kruse:
Kruse: Can any of you think of one time that a subordinate had to tell him something bad, something he wasn’t going to like? And what were the consequences?
O’Brien: You know Jack O’Donnell is a case study of that in the casino business. He routinely brought Donald bad news, but Donald either ignored it or pretended it didn’t exist. Any number of people who have worked with him in his real estate dealings in New York will tell similar stories. News that contradicts his worldview gets flushed down the sort of emotional and intellectual dispose-all that I think he carries around with him from the second he gets out of bed to the minute he goes to sleep each night.
As for the actual strategy of operatives like Miller and Bannon, if you’ve been paying attention, you might recognize the goal. For example:
But insisting on the lie, the Kremlin intimidates others by showing that it is in control of defining ‘reality.’ This is why it’s so important for Moscow to do away with truth. If nothing is true, then anything is possible.
Although the topics may vary, the goal is the same, Mr. Lindberg and others suggested. “What the Russians are doing is building narratives; they are not building facts,” he said. “The underlying narrative is, ‘Don’t trust anyone.’”
It will be tempting for a lot of journalists to buy into the idea that they are the ones who are under assault. But they will do their jobs if/when they recognize that it is the truth that is under attack and the goal is to create the kind of chaos where anything is possible.