Donald Trump is either a mad genius who has cracked the media code in a way no politician before him was able to do, or he’s a kind of political Mr. Magoo, stumbling randomly about yet achieving one success after another. We may never know which it is.
Perhaps, as some have suggested, Trump tweeted his ridiculous lie about millions of fraudulent votes on Sunday in order to distract people from this lengthy investigation in the New York Times of the overseas partnerships that present unprecedented conflict of interest problems for his foreign policy. But even if that wasn’t his intent, it’s what happened — and he accomplished some other things as well.
The first thing it does when Trump kicks off a frenzy like this one is thrill his supporters (and I’ll admit that I was among those who said that just playing to his base wouldn’t be enough to win him the election). Here’s how the cycle works. First, Trump says something outrageously false, but which his supporters either believe already or would like to believe. Then Trump gets criticized in the media for it, and his supporters say, “There they go again, the liberal anti-Trump media.” Instead of convincing everyone that the claim was false, the criticism only reinforces for Trump’s fans the idea that nothing the media says can be believed, which further undermines their ability to act as neutral arbiters in any debate.
The more outrageous his claim, the more coverage it gets. At first, a disturbing amount of that coverage just passes along what Trump is saying, particularly in headlines and brief mentions on television, which often take the form of “Trump says world is flat.” Then the news media find their footing a bit and begin explicitly calling him out for the falsehood. But the more it ends up looking like an argument between Trump and the media, the more that even Republicans who are skeptical of Trump will get pulled to his side, because they’ve long been invested in the idea that the media are hopelessly infected with liberal bias.
The entire sequence of events enables Trump to create a meta-message, which is that there’s no such thing as truth and no such thing as genuine authority. Think about it: the president-elect is claiming that an election that he won was beset by fraud, because he heard it from a lunatic radio host who thinks that the Sandy Hook massacre was staged using child actors and the 9/11 attacks were carried out by the U.S. government. At the same time, the conspiracy-theorist-in-chief is turning away the intelligence briefers who are prepared to deliver him daily updates on the world’s hotspots and potential dangers to the United States — what one might call the actual conspiracies we have to be worried about.
Trump has revealed that the entire journalistic system is based on the assumption that political actors will stay within certain parameters of truth and sanity. Some are more dishonest than others, but there’s a limit. “The President said this today” coverage can be problematic, but much of the time it’s perfectly reasonable, since he’s the most important person in the political world and his words and beliefs have a profound effect on what happens not just here but around the globe.
Trump realizes that when you step outside those limits, you can manipulate the media at will because their normal ways of doing things are inadequate to the task. You can take any idea, no matter how preposterous, and make half the country believe it. And when journalists push back, it’ll only make your supporters more firm in their loyalty.
This is part of a broader assault Trump is mounting on almost every institution of public life in America — the government, the media, the education system, even democracy itself. He’s been doing it from the beginning, not only spreading lies in a volume that had never been seen before, but continually arguing that established authority couldn’t be trusted. Unemployment figures? A fiction. The justice system? Bogus. The election? Rigged. In the confusion and rootlessness that remains, the only choice is to turn things over to a strongman who will govern by his whims.
Before long, we’re going to have an extended debate on a serious policy issue, like the Republicans’ plan to cut taxes for the wealthy or privatize Medicare. When we do, there’s little doubt that Trump will throw up a cloud of falsehoods around it — and Republicans will reinforce them all. As political theorist Jacob Levy pointed out, transmitting obvious lies shows Trump who is truly loyal by forcing his subordinates and allies to publicly proclaim that two plus two equals five. And once they do, they’re complicit in his lies and thus even more dependent on him.
The question isn’t whether the news media will be able to cut through to the truth — that’s the easy part — it’s whether anyone will listen when they do. So when Trump makes his next ludicrous claim, what are the options?
First, they could just report the whole disagreement as a he said/she said, which happens far too often and is obviously unacceptable. Second, they could do what many news outlets are doing now, which is to make the story, “Trump said this false thing.” That’s more accurate, but it can inadvertently spread the lie.
If we take as a given that journalists have to refute the president’s falsehoods, there’s one more judgment they can make, which is the choice for how much play they’re going to give the story. There’s no law saying that every tweet Donald Trump sends has to result in screaming headlines and lead that night’s news broadcast. “Trump makes false claim” can be a short item on page A14.
You can argue that the fact that the president-elect is calling into question the results of the election based on an insane conspiracy theory is, objectively speaking, big news, and therefore it must be covered as such. Perhaps. But that means that Trump is once again getting his way with the media. I wish I had a better answer for what could be done about it.