President Trump’s explanation of what happened in the 2016 election hinges on the assertion that millions of votes were cast illegally.
He began making this case shortly after the election, once it became apparent that his victory would always carry the asterisk of having lost the popular vote. It wasn’t rooted in any evidence that led Trump to the conclusion that perhaps something untoward had happened; he started at the conclusion and, since, has tried to cobble together evidence to support it. Or, more accurately, he has repeatedly made overtures toward proving his point, instead mostly offering wispy, misinterpreted evidence for his indefensible argument — just enough to convince those who started at the same conclusion that it happened.
This is also exactly what he’s doing when he talks about “fake news.”
On Thursday, the latest in the salvo that’s come to define his presidency.
The initial response to this from outside observers would, justifiably, be to point out that the Senate Intelligence Committee has limited resources and is focused at the moment on investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election (an investigation that, we were told Tuesday, has reinforced the belief that this meddling happened).
Others will note that it’s unusual to the point of alarm for a president to ask for an investigation of the media as an entity, given that, even if you never read the entire Bill of Rights, you’d probably have noticed the media protections in the first bullet point.
Those reactions are correct and, to some extent, are a symptom of Trump’s having talked fakenewsfakenewsfakenews constantly since his inauguration. (At the 100-day mark, we noted that it was his most-discussed topic on Twitter.) But we have those responses because we’re largely inured to the “fake news” charge.
It, like “voter fraud,” is not an actual problem.
Sure, there have been cases in which news outlets (including The Washington Post) have had to correct news reports after they ran to clarify points or ensure factual accuracy. Sure, the media have reported tips that haven’t been borne out. Sure, there have been cases in which bad actors have simply made up news reports — the original “fake news” that was a focus of attention after the election — but those reports weren’t from reputable mainstream outlets. There were also four cases of voter fraud last year (mostly from Trump supporters), but just as those scattered examples of fraud don’t prove a concerted effort to throw the 2016 election, a few corrected news stories don’t prove Trump’s claim that there is a massive effort to make up negative stories about him.
Why does Trump talk endlessly about fake news? For the same reason he talks about voter fraud: to soothe his ego and hoodwink his supporters. In a world where voter fraud threw the election and a nefarious news media make up stories to embarrass Trump, Trump is actually the popular, effective pick of the American people. That’s a much nicer thing to be than the broadly unpopular and at times fumbling leader of a country in which a majority of voters preferred someone else.
The real question is whether Trump actually believes either of these claims. Does he actually believe that, somehow, millions of votes were cast illegally without any evidence of that emerging a year later? And, probably more important, does he actually believe that the news media make up reports?
We know that at least early in the Trump administration, some in the White House intentionally fed bad information to the media, as Politico reported in April. We know, too, that Trump himself used to feed gossip to the New York tabloids (sometimes in the guise of his own spokesman), so he may believe that the same editorial standards he saw from the New York Post’s Page 6 apply to The Post’s front page. (They do not.)
We also know that his main source of televised news is Fox News Channel, a mainstream outlet that has been accused of having manufactured a story that indirectly aided the president. He also has been an avid consumer of media from the conspiratorial fringe, which may color the way in which he sees more traditional outlets both in believing they should cover the nonsense he saw at Infowars and in believing that, perhaps, traditional outlets are similarly lax in what they run.
Or, perhaps, he doesn’t really believe it, any more than a wrestling fan believes the story lines in the WWE. They serve a purpose and are fun to parse, but ultimately they solely serve the bigger purpose of entertainment. Arguing that voter fraud and “fake news” are rampant problems serves the bigger purpose of repositioning Trump as a successful, popular president.
It’s just that Trump has the power of the government to make people’s lives more difficult in service to that mythology. His “voter integrity” commission, which will seemingly inevitably propose new voting restrictions that cut down on the number of (mostly Democrats) who vote. A congressional investigation of the media would be damaging for other, more severe reasons.
The main question: Who’s he trying to convince, his supporters or himself? And which of those options is more problematic for the country?