To judge by the unfiltered contents of President Trump’s psyche as expressed through his Twitter feed, there is nothing he cares about more as president of the United States — not health care, not regulation, not taxes, not trade — than his ongoing battles with the news media. And whenever he says or tweets something more appalling than the last thing he said or tweeted, what ensues is a regular and repeated pattern that goes like this:
- Trump tweets something despicable.
- Elected Republicans say, “I don’t approve of this.”
- White House spokespeople offer laughably pathetic defenses of his behavior.
- Journalists and commentators point out that as vulgar and infantile as Trump is being, his base loves this stuff, and therefore it may be a clever strategy and not just a hypersensitive, insecure man-child having a tantrum.
The latest, of course, is this:
The problem with Step 4 of this cycle is twofold. First, by assuming his supporters are in fact a bunch of Cro-Magnon mouth-breathers who grunt in approval at any intimation of violence from their hero, it is deeply condescending. And second, it lets Trump off the hook, in effect excusing whatever he does as long as it can be hypothesized that it will be met with approval by his supporters.
From the beginning of his campaign and continuing into his presidency, Trump created conflict with the media in part as a way of riling up his most ardent fans and in part because it was sincerely felt. We know from numerous biographies and profiles that he has always been obsessed with his news coverage and consumed with slights and affronts. On the campaign trail, this had a ritualistic aspect: At rallies he would point to reporters confined to a fenced-in area and tell the crowd that journalists are the worst people in the world, a bunch of lying jackals out to get him. He once even mocked a disabled reporter who had the temerity to contradict Trump’s lie about thousands of Muslims supposedly celebrating the 9/11 attacks on rooftops in New Jersey. The crowd would boo and jeer, then toss epithets at the reporters as they walked out. It was ugly and disturbing, but while Trump openly advocated violence directed toward protesters, he never explicitly told anyone to beat up a reporter.
Posting this video is as close as he’s come, and there’s no question that there are some Trump supporters who do in fact thrill to the idea of Trump literally beating up reporters, and might even do so themselves if they got the chance. One of them actually did, and he’s now a member of Congress; his unprovoked assault on a journalist was cheered by conservative media figures (see here and here and here).
But when we say that Trump’s base loves this stuff, we should be clear about what we mean when we refer to his “base.” As Trump’s pollster Tony Fabrizio said:
“They like him, they believe in him, they have not to any large degree been shaken from him, and the more the media attacks him, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy on the side of the Trump supporters who fervently believe the media treat him unfairly.”
However, that may be only partially true. Trump’s approval ratings are down in the 30s, meaning there are quite a few Republicans who voted for him last year but don’t approve of him now. In one recent poll by NPR and PBS, Republicans were evenly split on whether Trump’s use of Twitter is “effective and informative” or “reckless and distracting.” A Fox News poll asking a slightly different question found that 21 percent of Republicans approve of Trump’s tweeting, 59 percent said he should be more cautious about it, and 18 percent outright disapprove of it.
So if we say that “Trump’s base” likes what he does with Twitter, we have to acknowledge that the “Trump’s base” we’re referring to is a minority of Republicans. That puts the question of whether this is a clever strategy in a very different light.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t a strategy at all, only that if it is, it’s probably a foolish one. Perhaps the most revealing story about White House thinking of late was this article from Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker after Trump’s repugnant attacks on Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, in which they revealed that “to many inside the White House, as well as outside allies, what looked like a public relations debacle amounted to an abundance of ‘winning.’ ” There was a caveat, however: “Some White House advisers said they were frustrated that the Brzezinski feud … overtook the president’s fight with CNN, which seemed in their eyes to have clearer villains and heroes.”
Soak that in for a moment — they were worried that his feud with the hosts of “Morning Joe” might distract from his far more productive and important feud with CNN. We should remember that the next time anyone suggests that the Trump White House is staffed by shrewd operators who know what they’re doing.
But more importantly, if you react to the latest vile Trump tweet with “Whatever else you want to say about it, Trump’s base loves it,” you’re excusing his behavior. You’re putting it into a value-free context where the only thing that matters is whether it works. It probably doesn’t work, but even if it did, the president of the United States is sending out videos created by racist Reddit trolls that fantasize violence against the news media. That’s what’s important here, and if you don’t acknowledge that central and horrifying fact, you’re doing everyone a disservice.