Donald Trump’s mounting assaults on the free and independent press are enough to make me wax nostalgic for Spiro Agnew. When Nixon’s veep denounced members of the Fourth Estate as “nattering nabobs of negativism,” at least there was a modicum of wit.
Not so the other night in Phoenix, where Trump chainsawed a constitutionally protected profession, because, in his supposed view, journalists are more dangerous and treasonous than neo-Nazis. A representative sampling of his oeuvre:
“It’s time to expose the crooked-media deceptions … Honestly, these are really, really dishonest people, and they’re bad people. And I really think they don’t like our country. I really believe that … These are sick people. You know the thing I don’t understand? You would think — they’d want to make our country great again, and I honestly believe they don’t. I honestly believe it.”
Some journalists, stung by Trump’s tripe, have felt compelled to say, on Twitter and TV, that they do like America, that they do want America to succeed. But I see no point in taking Trump’s bait. I prefer to side with Jessica Huseman, a reporter at the investigative website ProPublica, who tweeted this shortly after Phoenix: “I just fundamentally don’t give a f— that I’m being insulted” and “I’m not going to prove I’m a patriot by screaming about this speech.”
And never mind what Trump “honestly” claims he believes. Back in the ’50s, it was common knowledge that Joe McCarthy (whose toxic sidekick, Roy Cohn, became Trump’s mentor) was not the fervent commie-hater he professed to be; in truth, McCarthy was a cynical opportunist who latched onto red-baiting because it got him national attention. And today’s truth is that Trump is a pathetically needy boy who craves press approval; he cares a heckuva lot more about Joe and Mika than he does about his rally naifs, who twitch with Pavlovian joy whenever he rhetorically rubs their bellies.
But ah, there indeed is the rub. I don’t take his press-bashing personally; as a fellow journalist says, “If I wanted to be liked, I’d drive an ice cream truck.” I’m more interested in why he’s bashing the press — and it’s really no mystery. It’s a survival tactic that plays to the cultural grievances of his credulous Base.
Trump’s sole ideology is self-preservation, and what he sorely needs — as his relations with Hill Republicans continue to erode, as his legislative agenda teeters toward DOA, as Bob Mueller and the congressional probes continue to tighten the noose — is love and reassurance from his loyal 35 percent. If he can keep them happy, distracting them from his own failings by feeding them an enemy, by professing to hate the same “elites” they hate, he’ll have the best shot at hanging onto his job.
Basically, as we saw in Phoenix, the press is a stand-in for all the “elite” cultural and economic institutions that tick off the 35 percent: academia, Hollywood, scientists, Wall Street — whatever forces are perceived as being “arrogant” toward ordinary people. This kind of populism, this hostility toward “elites,” has long been a sporadic feature of American politics, dating back to the 19th century, and it was probably just a matter of time before a demagogic marketer came along.
It doesn’t matter that Trump has no particular interest in ordinary people; as the irrepressible columnist Charles Pierce tells the fans, Trump is “a guy who wouldn’t have 15 seconds for you on the street.” It doesn’t matter that he’s a showhorse instead of a workhorse, and that his promises to ordinary people are smoke in the wind. What matters is that he feeds their visceral needs.
Bashing the “elite” press validates all the years they’ve spent screaming at the TV and fuming at the printed facts they’re prefer not to know. Hollywood and Wall Street and academia don’t go to the rallies; journalists are there in the flesh, convenient targets for the fans’ hostility, unwilling pawns in Trump’s cynical game.
But in truth, the fans are his pawns.
If or when Trump is hit by the perfect storm, he’s counting on them to serve as his insurance policy. The big question – as the press relentlessly soldiers on, placing its faith in the accretion of facts – is whether Trump’s elite-haters will provide sufficient coverage.