The impunity is the point.

For days now, President Trump has been embroiled in a public feud of sorts with Fox News, because he’s angry that the network isn’t functioning dutifully enough as his 24/7 propaganda channel.

This is mostly being discussed as another turn in Trump’s ongoing war on the media, one in which his ire has boomeranged on his media supporters. But the story here is bigger than this: Trump’s battle with Fox illuminates the multi-tentacled manner in which Trump is corrupting our democracy and political system, in a new and interesting way.

On Thursday night, Fox’s Neil Cavuto unleashed a lengthy rebuke to Trump. In it, Cavuto pointedly noted: “Mr. President, we don’t work for you.”

This was a response to Trump’s rage-tweet excoriating the network: “We have to start looking for a new News Outlet. Fox isn’t working for us anymore!”

Trump is angry, Cavuto argued, because on occasion Fox doesn’t sufficiently whitewash his failures and lies. Cavuto noted that Trump chafes because Fox covers bad economic numbers, market drops and Trump’s ongoing trade disasters, and because Fox has pointed out that Trump lied when he claimed Mexico would pay for his wall, that Russia didn’t interfere in 2016, and that he inherited a recession from Barack Obama.

“To fact check him is to be all but dead to him,” Cavuto said, adding that many Trump supporters had contacted him to tell him that “I am either with him totally, or I am a Never Trumper fully.”

My purpose here is not to defend Fox. Yes, its news anchors sometimes do cover the administration aggressively, but the news coverage also has a heavy pro-Trump tilt, and its opinion hosts regularly traffic in outright pro-Trump agitprop and white nationalist conspiracy theories.

As Margaret Sullivan puts it, Fox writ large and Trump are the “conjoined twins of misinformation.” If anything, Trump’s attacks have given the network a way to hype its largely nonexistent independence from him.

Rather, what’s interesting here is Cavuto’s declaration that many Trump supporters have come to expect and demand from Fox absolute fealty to their leader.

Cavuto deserves some credit. In his rebuke, he exposed many of the false storylines that intertwine in Trump’s preferred narrative of the last few years: Russia never tried to sabotage our political system on his behalf. Trump deserves total credit for what has been good about the economy, having inherited nothing but wreckage from the Obama years. All the recent bad economic news is fake news, as are claims that Trump’s unhinged handling of trade is helping cause it. Trump’s buffoonish vow to subjugate Mexico and force it to pay for his wall has proved to be a mirage.

Trump expects and demands that Fox News hew to this propagandistic narrative entirely. But, even more to the point, he publicly and unabashedly tells his supporters that he expects and demands it.

Corruption of our discourse

The whole point here is the open declaration that something meant to be a news network should function as his personal 24/7 propaganda and disinformation outlet. It’s a double-fisted declaration of impunity: Trump must be immune from journalistic scrutiny and be permitted to operate and lie with absolute impunity, and he will publicly assert that an ostensibly journalistic institution should be entirely subservient to him with absolute, shameless impunity as well.

This is a form of insidious corruption — corruption of our discourse. All politicians shade the truth; politics inescapably involves artifice of one kind or another. But most hew to some kind of underlying belief that gaslighting voters too shamelessly treats them with a form of deep contempt; that at some point, factual reality has to matter; that journalism plays a legitimate institutional role in restraining political dishonesty; and that all this is a necessary foundation for deliberative democracy to function.

But Trump has crossed over into a form of autocratic disinformation that is designed to render fact-based deliberation and argument impossible. And Trump is openly declaring not just that his supporters have a stake in this; but also that they are entitled to their very own network devoted to it as well. If it doesn’t play this role, it has somehow betrayed them.

The impunity is the point

All this is also key to Trump’s public flaunting of his other excursions into corruption. When Trump declared his intention to hold the next Group of Seven meeting at his Florida resort; when Trump dangled pardons with what the special counsel determined was improper intent; when Trump calls for investigations of political opponents; when Trump declares his frustration with norms designed to prevent such manipulation of law enforcement — well, all of that is in plain sight.

Vox’s David Roberts and former Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer got at this in an interesting exchange:

Everything we know about Trump leaves little doubt that this is deliberately the case. Trump is openly asserting the power to do these things with impunity.

As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein observes, the fact that the lawlessness is by design so blatant itself undermines faith in constitutional government and “promotes contempt for the entire concept of the rule of law.”

Trump’s unabashed and open assertion of impunity is a central feature of his corruption. This public flaunting of that corruption — of our governing institutions and discourse alike — compounds it and makes it all the more corrosive.

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