The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s war on the press is a strategic calculation

President Trump berated the media repeatedly at his press conference on Feb. 16, calling CNN and other outlets "very fake news." (Video: Video: Reuters / Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Many journalists are reading President Trump’s attacks on the media as nothing more than demagogic assaults by a budding authoritarian out to manipulate news coverage of his administration and himself.

I think there is a more strategic calculation in his war on the press.

White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon tipped Trump’s hand last month when he blurted out that the media is “the opposition party.” That label captures Trump’s view of journalists.

We are regarded as rivals — dangerous adversaries standing between him and what he wants to achieve. He knows we are going to watch and report relentlessly on what he does — or fails to do; that we are going to throw light on dark places, and find stones that he would just as soon leave unturned.

And so Trump is out to bring us down in the public eye. His aim is to denigrate the work of the media so that our reporting and analyses are summarily dismissed by the public, regardless of the evidence.

Calling us the “most dishonest human beings on earth” and “scum,” repeatedly declaring “the news is fake”: These aren’t off-the-cuff invectives.

These are essential weapons in his war arsenal. It’s called branding. And it worked like a charm for Trump during the election cycle.

The New York Times offered a riveting account of Trump teaching a lesson on the subject last year.

“You know, you have to brand people a certain way when they’re your opponents,” he told an outdoor rally in Boca Raton, Fla., in March 2016.

“Lyin’ Ted,” Trump said to the audience about Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), spelling it out letter by letter: “L-Y-I-N-apostrophe.” “We can’t say it the right way,” he explained. “We’ve got to go — Lyin’! Lyin’ Ted.”

He held up Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as another example. “Little Marco,” he called him. Then Trump spelled out his preferred nickname for his opponent: “L-I-D-D-L-E. Liddle, Liddle, Liddle Marco.”

He branded Jeb Bush as “low energy.”

“We started off with 17 people who were up on this stage,” Trump reminded the crowd. They were all favored, he said. “Now,” he said, finishing with a flourish, “Trump is favored.”

“But you’ve got to brand people,” he told the crowd.

Lest we forget, there was also the “crooked Hillary” branding iron that Trump kept applying to Clinton, and it stuck.

Trump’s belittling of the intelligence community’s work and his questioning of their motives coincide with intelligence community reports concerning Russian interference and influence in our presidential election. Brand and degrade.

That is what Trump’s disparagement of the media is all about — to take us out before our in-depth reporting on him and his administration really sinks in. That’s how to handle the opposition.