Donald Trump is exploiting a weakness in our media — its quest for eyeballs at any cost. Trump is best at gluing eyeballs to the screen — he inflames his supporters and infuriates his detractors. Meanwhile, he oversees a train wreck of an administration that dominates headlines. “If it bleeds, it leads” — and our country is bleeding under his leadership.
Media owners seem to see synergy here: empower Trump with free and sweeping coverage and watch ratings and profits soar. But Trump is a parasite. He’s drawing strength from the media even as he sucks its power and influence dry. But the biggest loser is democracy, since the Trump-media nexus is degrading (and perhaps destroying) fact-based decision-making.
These thoughts came to mind as I read Tom Engelhardt’s latest article at TomDispatch.com. Trump, Engelhardt notes, has the unique and ultimately pernicious ability to drive — and often to dominate — discourse:
Never, not ever, has a single human being been so inescapable. You can’t turn on the TV news, read a newspaper, listen to the radio, wander on social media, or do much of anything else without almost instantly bumping into or tripping over… him, attacking them, praising himself, telling you how wonderful or terrible he feels and how much he loves or loathes… well, whatever happens to be ever so briefly on his mind that very moment.
Engelhardt highlights an important truth later in his piece: Trump’s true “base” is the very “fake news” media he’s so happy to attack.
Of course, Trump has always been a relentless, even ruthless, self-promoter. Now that he’s president, the media can’t exactly ignore him (or can they?). But what’s truly shocking is how the mainstream media is so supinely subservient to him. How unwilling they are to call him a liar when he lies; and how unwilling they are to critique their own obsequious coverage in a way that would lead to meaningful changes.
The media can’t get enough of Trump. Knowing this dependency, Trump exploits it, relentlessly. He reminds me of Agent Smith in “The Matrix” movies. He’s a rapidly-replicating virus that, if left unchecked, will destroy the matrix of American democracy . The question is: How is Trump to be neutralized, or at least contained, when the media keeps feeding him?
Breaking News: Jim Acosta got his press pass back. Big deal. Now Trump can score more points off of CNN and its “fake news” machine.
9 thoughts on “Trump and the Media”
I am curious why a CNN reporter has the right to a press pass, while if you or I wanted one – no chance, I suspect. Just like it would be quite difficult to get the New York Times to publish anything someone who doesn’t have an ‘in’. Tom Friedman can spout pseudoscientific gibberish so long as he feeds his audience what they want to hear, but would they give someone like Noam Chomsky a regular column?
Political news is a genre. Not that much different than science fiction, fantasy, or even romance. The primary difference is that political news is held by the good and the great and the educated to be special, and written by people who follow a particular ethic and serve the public good. But in practice, they sell narratives that appeal to a coherent audience, which attracts advertisers. So long as there are people who want to buy what Friedman is selling, he’ll keep his column.
The media goes to great lengths to avoid discussing this essential internal metabolism. Much like authors of genre fiction usually try to avoid exposing the tropes they rely on to establish a sense of narrative. It breaks the spell, so to speak. But because the average person relies on political news to understand what is happening in the world, this places the media in a position of power – and humans love to accumulate and wield power.
As writers like yourself and Tom Englehardt (I found Bracing Views through TomDispatch) point out, Trump is exploiting this dynamic, knowing that whatever he says, CNN will repeat. And even better, because it and all the other media outlets effectively ‘translate’ Trump-speak into whatever their readers want to read (whatever their position on the content), he can turn around and use their interpretation as evidence of their own bias.
But the media is complicit in all this, because their business model relies on filling pages and attracting eyeballs. And the more afraid and outraged people get, the more they seek ‘news’ to help understand what is happening, and what will happen. But all they’re going to get from CNN et al., is more curated narratives that entirely miss the deeper issues.
The news in America is another form of entertainment. I mostly follow it to get a sense of what narratives are getting popular – and which old ones get recycled again and again. The mythos of the “Swing Voter” is one of my favorites. Despite pretty much zero actual evidence that swing voters actually exist (you would need a record of individual voters actual votes over time to prove this), the Democratic establishment is once again hanging its hat on this trope, seeing hope for 2020 in their winning rust-belt suburbs that swung from Red to Blue.
Maybe they’re right, but I think they’re chasing phantoms. Statistically speaking, the observed ‘swing’ effect in those suburban counties could easily be due to the pool of actual voters changing between elections, and have nothing to do with actual behavior at the level of the individual voter.
But the ‘swing voter’ myth sounds good on paper, and scratches a peculiar liberal itch – the idea that people are persuadable, that rational argument and good policy wins votes. Trump ‘wins’ because he embraces the tribalism that actually defines the electorate. Democrats will only win if they can do the same, and tell Americans a story of how we are stronger as a diverse nation, how different perspectives allow us to tackle complex challenges – and actually back up the rhetoric with action. Something, so far, they have not tried hard enough to do. And the media, which is winning in material terms from the degradation of public political discourse, has little incentive to go against the mythos. The blind lead the blind straight to hell.
Maybe I should apply for a “Bracing Views” White House press pass. I’m sure it’ll come quickly.
The Democrats did better this time around because a higher percentage of people voted. I think it’s true what Bernie Sanders says: The higher the turnout, the more likely it is Democrats will prevail, esp. in suburban areas.
The Dems have to figure out how to inspire people. Being anti-Trump isn’t enough.
Nancy Pelosi is literally more of the same. Ditto Hillary. Ditto Biden and Kerry. Fresh ideas aren’t coming from them. The Dems need to embrace their new image in Congress: a younger, more diverse, more vibrant one than the Republicans, who are almost literally the party of While male privilege and angst.
And I love it when my posts inspire “rants” like this.
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Good, it’s quite therapeutic!
I’m still waiting to see turnout maps come available (and some time to assess). Based on the few reports I’ve found so far that focus on the geography of it all, I get the sense that turnout was up in both Democrat and Trumpist strongholds. And the Democrat wave in 2006 (how is Pelosi still around?!) brought in all those ‘Blue Dog’ Dems who ended up voting along with the GOP half the time.
The Dems also can’t seem to wrap their heads around the fact that the party is too big-tent. It can’t cater to everyone, at least not when the Clintonite neoliberals/former Rockefeller Republicans are under the canvas. Especially not in an era where our political culture is more and more defined by revulsion to hypocrisy – and we, thanks to the internet, have unprecedented capabilities in terms of ferreting it out.
Of course, I voted for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a write in, despite her not actually running in my district. So my thinking is probably too outside the norm to convince a diehard Democrat.
“How is Trump to be neutralized, or at least contained, when the media keeps feeding him?”
Although I agree, from an observational point all both you and Tom E write, I have a different feeling on what may be actually going on. I don’t believe he is doing all that well at this point. It feels like he is (behind the scenes) coming apart. I must admit I am not a big fan of Pierce, but he put in words what I was feeling here.
Having been a student of psychology for 40 years I approach situations and people from a psychological point of view. IMO, everything in life is essentially related to our emotions, and that is where our strengths and weaknesses come from. They are what cause and drive our actions.
That said, the way to defeat Trump is to attack him on an emotional level. Most all authoritarian leaders, in my view, operate out of emotional weakness, and their apparent strength is illusory. They require (in fact demand) loyalty and subservience from everyone, and challenge, or questions, regardless of how real or meaningful, are dealt with harshly. Force and violence are their stock in trade, but not used until necessary. This strong emotional reaction, (against Acosta,) exposes his weakness, and shows the technique we should use to have him crumble.
Question him publicly on issues like compassion, empathy, acceptance and secrecy, to name some. This is where he is dead wrong and really weak. Arguing about his lying, or the law, or his policy decisions play his game. Attack his ego and weak self confidence. Force him to answer by questioning again and again the avoided issue. (Like with follow up questions.)
Possible examples. Don’t say “You should release your taxes!” Instead ask “Why aren’t you releasing your taxes?” Then, what ever his excuse, pursue with further questions defeating his excuse. Don’t accuse him of being a bad business man. Ask him how many bankruptcies he has filed. Then ask him if having those failures show that he understands how to be successful. The questions alone, phrased right, will destroy him. The technique is to embarrass him and make him look like a fool, where ever he is wrong, evasive or hiding. Attack and expose his weak ego.
Using this approach will, no doubt, reap heavy reaction and pain. I expect that is why it isn’t being done. The Acosta reaction was used as a fear tactic to prevent such challenges. “Be subservient or be hurt” is the message. It will take lots of guts by many people acting together, to make it work. But, work it can!
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Here is another column, this one from Politico, about the anxiety and strain within the Trump Administration.
It notes, for example:
“Mueller obsessives, political junkies and Washington insiders have been scrutinizing the president’s every mannerism, such as snapping at a CNN reporter for posing a “stupid question” about whether he wanted the new acting attorney general to stymie the Russia investigation.
“You can see it in Trump’s body language all week long. There’s something troubling him. It’s not just a couple staff screw-ups with Melania,” said a senior Republican official in touch with the White House. “It led me to believe the walls are closing in and they’ve been notified by counsel of some actions about to happen. Folks are preparing for the worst.”
In my view, what is threatening him, is the fear that his whole facade could come crashing down at any time. To be seen as the fool and circus clown he knows he is, instead of being revered and admired by the masses he is courting, must scare the crap out of him. (Tricky Dick’s “I am not a crook.” comes to mind.) Emotional desperation leads to abnormal reactions.
A strong and confident man does not act or react as Trump does.
Hell of it is, though, that America’s system has managed to put someone with exactly the wrong psychological tendencies in a position to end human existence as we know it.
Which sounds apocalyptic and rhetorical, but is in fact the damned truth of things these days.
So my one concern with the whole getting under his skin argument, is that if he succeeds, he has the power to escalate disputes to a pretty severe level. I’m not saying he’d nuke someone as a result of missing his evening Big Mac, but so far the Dems seem to be going to great lengths to avoid provoking a Constitutional Crisis, and I’m afraid that if he *did* do/order something insane, no one would actually step up to check/balance him.
That’s part of why stuff is so broken. The system relies on people actually having the integrity to do their jobs, foresee risks and act to mitigate them, even at risk to themselves. But in contemporary America, at least in Washington D.C., this quality seems to be… lacking.
“So my one concern with the whole getting under his skin argument, is that if he succeeds, he has the power to escalate disputes to a pretty severe level. “
Just a couple of thoughts on this.
Semantics aside, “getting under his skin” would not be my intent. Destroying him politically by having him expose himself to the The People was my point. People can be easily be fooled by accusations, lies, distorted self serving media, etc., but when a person shows themselves, (under provocation,) to be a fool, a jerk or just plain bad, the people can recognize that. Goes to that old saying. “Who are you gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes?”
And secondly, Trump can escalate the situation in any way he wants, right now, regardless of what we do. (Recognizing that, inaction out of fear, or even ignorance, plays into his game. Power only recognizes power. They thrive on subservience! You must confront a bully to gain respect, even if he beats the shit out of you!) We The People need the guts to confront, en mass, these neo-corporatist fascists, and both risk and accept the consequences of our actions.) If he is seen as the clown he is, his whole administration can come into question. I.e. (“Hey, if this guy is such a jerk, what kind of people is he choosing to run the country? Who is this DeVos woman, anyway?”) BTW, I am not for impeachment, even if it would be possible, except as a disabling tactic, as Pence, the christian right wing cult fascist, is far more dangerous than the orange clown.
Your thoughts and concerns are well stated, and I agree with you.
It’s crucial to stand up to Trump. To call him a liar when he lies. To reject his claim to being a “nationalist.” To challenge his bigoted and racist statements.
The media is supposed to be a watchdog, not a lapdog. And a watchdog is not only supposed to bark: it sometimes has to be willing and able to bite.
President Agent Orange is with a high degree of probability the most intellectually vacant President we have ever had. Since I live in Indiana I can also say Pastor Pence is President Agent Orange’s equal in intellectual vacancy. Pastor Pence was selected as Veep, One he would not challenge Agent Orange, Pastor Pence would remain in background robotically smiling and nodding in agreement, Two, Pastor Pence could speak Bible Thumping to the Evangelicals. Even though Agent Orange is hardly a personal role model for “family values” he serves a purpose in the selection of Reactionary Judges and Cabinet Members. It is two for one deal with Agent Orange – Evangelical Authoritarianism, married to Authoritarian Steroid Corporatism.
President Agent Orange has an instinctive grasp for publicity. He knows given the McMega-Media’s quest for ratings/profits he can tweet and say the most outlandish lies and insults and rely on 24/7/365 coverage.
Fox News will spend an entire day validating Agent Orange’s brilliance and coverage of the Scare-A-Van, or ballot box stuffing.
CNN and MSDNC will like wise spend an entire day slamming away at Agent Orange, with tortuous circular logic and unnamed anonymous sources that proves blah, blah, blah. A damaging assertion at the beginning of the hour segment becomes fact by the end.
All three of these networks know that whatever the spin President Agent Orange is the rating/profits gift that keeps on giving. He is the goose that is laying the golden eggs.
All this said President Agent Orange these days is looking puked out.
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