For most Republicans, what matters most about Donald Trump is that he’s demonstrated resolve against the enemy — not the Islamic State or the Taliban, but the media.
The media has become for the right what the Soviet Union was during the Cold War — a common, unifying adversary of overwhelming importance. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, religious conservatives and libertarians could agree that, whatever their
other differences, godless communism had to be resisted. This commitment was the glue of the GOP coalition, and the basic price of admission to conservatism.
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Now, a policy of containment, preferably rollback, of the mainstream media occupies that central role. Trump may not know how to get anything done, may not have a well-developed philosophy, may not be delivering on his agenda, may not be an admirable person, but he’s a righteous, unyielding warrior against the media. And this is the one non-negotiable. To put it in terms of the famous Isiah Berlin essay, the fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one thing — CNN sucks.
The right’s hostility toward the media is longstanding. It has always represented the liberal establishment and the coastal elite and, therefore, an obstacle to be diminished and worked around. In fact, over the past 50 years, no one has improved on what Spiro Agnew said in a famous speech in Des Moines, Iowa, in November 1969, or even really said anything new.
The media is biased. Agnew complained that on TV after President Richard Nixon gave a speech on Vietnam, “his words and policies were subjected to instant analysis and querulous criticism.”
The media is too powerful. Agnew rued how “a raised eyebrow, an inflection of the voice, a caustic remark dropped in the middle of a broadcast can raise doubts in a million minds about the veracity of a public official or the wisdom of a government policy.”
The media is in a bubble. “To a man, these commentators and producers live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington, D.C., or New York City,” and “talk constantly to one another.”
The media is due for a fall. It’s time to question why such power is “in the hands of a small and unelected elite.”
Anti-media politics isn’t hard to pull off. Even the courtly George H. W. Bush got it right in a contentious exchange with Dan Rather during the 1988 campaign. According to The New York Times, afterward the offices of CBS and the Bush campaign were swamped with calls “overwhelmingly supportive of the vice president and negative toward CBS.”
More recently, Newt Gingrich demonstrated the transformative potential of theatrical attacks on the moderators in his show-stopping performances in two debates before the South Carolina primary in 2012. He wouldn’t have won the state without them.
Trump’s insight was basically, “What if every day were like that?” After witnessing the fate of two candidates who got savage coverage in the general election, despite being a media darling in the case of John McCain and being an earnest, well-meaning man in the case of Mitt Romney, Republican voters were ready for harsher stuff. The famous George H. W. Bush bumper sticker from 1992 was, “Annoy the Media: Re-elect Bush.” In 2016, it became in effect, “Drive the Media Out of Its Ever-Loving Minds: Vote Trump: Elect Trump.”
Trump had long had his own problems with the media, not that it was too liberal, but that it wasn’t nearly favorable enough to Donald Trump. With his talents as a showman, his knack for branding (“fake news”), his taste for combat, his instinct for what energizes an audience, and his high tolerance for controversy, he was ideally suited to transfer his long-developed personal sensitivity to slights from reporters to the ideological realm of Republican presidential politics. Almost as much as anything else, he rode his mutual enmity with the media to the White House.
It remains a lifeline. Most commentators saw Trump angrily saying indefensible things about Charlottesville at the news conference last week; most Republicans saw him gamely standing his ground in front a group of braying reporters. At his rally in Phoenix, Trump upped the rhetorical ante against the media and used its lack of credibility to try to undermine the critique of his Charlottesville remarks.
He’s pushing against an open door with his audience because the media is, indeed, worse than ever before. As the media environment has fractured, organizations feel less obligation to try to cultivate a broader audience. And as politics becomes more culturally charged, the divide between the heartland and the coasts where the media lives and works becomes even more stark and important. Then, there’s the reaction to Trump himself. Since he is genuinely outrageous, especially to coastal sensibilities, the media feels justified in its unremittingly harsh coverage, perhaps even believing that if it is breathlessly hysterical enough, it can drive him from office.
Some in the media are happy to play along with the role Trump allots them, as long as it serves the twin goals of self-referentiality and ratings. CNN at times appears to be a network devoted to covering things that the president says about the network. Prior to Trump’s rally in Phoenix, CNN relentlessly promoted the event. Then it took the whole thing, and devoted the rest of the night to blow-out coverage of commentators pronouncing themselves outraged and dismayed. At the end of the end of the day, what had really happened? Nothing much, but at least something entertaining had filled the air.
Trump might well have been hate-watching much of it, pleased somewhere beneath his anger and disgust that he had, once again, proved to have the right enemy.