This morning, Sen. Jeff Flake gave a speech on the Senate floor critiquing the president’s attacks on the news media in unusually strong terms, likening them to the tactics of a totalitarian dictator. Also today, the other Republican senator from Arizona, John McCain, published an op-ed making some of the same arguments. Both took issue with President Trump calling the media “the enemy of the people,” and referring to any report he dislikes as “fake news.”
This happened on the day Trump promised he’d be handing out his “Fake News Awards” to journalists and outlets that he finds displeasing, an “event” that is just about as crazy and idiotic as you’d expect from this president.
Which raises a question: Is Trump losing his war on the media?
There’s been an underlying assumption that there is not only a method to this war, but that it carries political benefits for Trump. That was probably true during the 2016 election: The media’s wide-eyed wonder at the Trump spectacle reduced his primary opponents to afterthoughts. It also meant that stories that would have ended the presidential bids of ordinary candidates were reported briefly and then pushed aside. Meanwhile, the media treated Hillary Clinton as someone who is fundamentally corrupt and whose every move should be greeted with screaming 72-point headlines.
And yet, through that campaign and for every day since, Trump has rained contempt and calumny upon journalists to a degree unprecedented in American life. During the election, the idea that the media was the enemy of him and everyone who loved him no doubt helped drive his supporters to the polls. But it may not be helping anymore.
As he has done on so many different topics, Trump has taken what others had implied and made it explicit. While Republicans built an alternative media apparatus on the notion that the mainstream media are hopelessly biased against them, Trump said outright that any story that didn’t offer him the praise he felt he deserved was literally “fake news.” For Trump, reality is a joke and lying is as reflexive as breathing, and the war on the media hasn’t been just about creating an alternate reality. It also involves relentless, angry, bitter, petty attacks on anyone who questions him. One of the consequences is that he has forced reporters to change how they operate — in ways that don’t help him.
For instance, Trump’s extraordinarily promiscuous lying has lifted the journalistic taboo on saying a politician “lied.” The media may still use the term sparingly, but the presumption every other politician of any party is granted — that when they say something, they’re telling the truth unless and until we have evidence otherwise — is no longer granted to the president. When he makes suspicious claims, reporters know they have to check them out, and will say forthrightly when they are false. Not all the time, of course, but more often than they’ve done in the past.
It is also obvious that Trump’s attempt to intimidate particular outlets and reporters — of which his Fake News Awards is only the latest and most cretinous example — hasn’t tamed them in the way he wants. Journalists such as CNN’s Jake Tapper or Jim Acosta have, if anything, become even more openly critical after Trump attacked them personally. Here again, the president took an old conservative tactic to an extreme, and it backfired. While conservatives found great success in charging reporters with liberal bias, which often led them to bend over backward to prove they were being objective, Trump’s personal attacks have only caused reporters to dig in on their professionalism and demonstrate that they won’t be cowed.
Then there’s the conservative information bubble. Trump wants his people to retreat further inside of it, so they’ll never hear a discouraging word about him and his greatness. So how is that working out for him? Is it keeping his approval ratings from being the lowest of any president in history at this point in his term? Does it enable him to win arguments over things like whether he referred to “shithole” countries? Is it keeping Democrats from winning one stunning victory after another in off-year and special elections? Is it going to stave off the anti-Trump wave election in November that even some Republicans now believe they can do nothing to stop?
No one is more firmly ensconced inside that bubble than the president himself. Despite having the collective resources of the U.S. government at his disposal, he prefers to learn what’s going on in the world from a daily three-hour immersion in the carnival of numbskullery that is “Fox & Friends.” But does this help Trump in any way? Does it allow him to make smart policy decisions or point him toward clever political strategies? He may watch for the unceasing ego massage the trio of nitwit hosts reliably deliver to him, but it can’t help but make him dumber every time he tunes in.
To be clear, I’m not saying that there aren’t many problems with the way the mainstream media have covered the Trump presidency, nor that having a supportive conservative media behind him doesn’t help him keep Republicans in line. But Trump’s war on the media is, on the whole, a failure. Given how enraged he gets whenever he sees even a bit of criticism in print or on TV, I suspect he knows it.