President Donald Trump despises “fake news.” The Washington Post, The New York Times—these are “enemies of the people.” He has urged the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Election Commission to force Saturday Night Live off the air to punish the comedy show for making jokes about him.
What he likes are independent and honest voices who say things such as: Vaccines cause autism. President Barack Obama’s birth certificate is a “carefully crafted fake.” Democratic Party insiders organized the murder of a staffer to cover up their nefarious plan to blame Russia for the hack of their emails. Sharia police are enforcing sharia law in Minneapolis. The Sandy Hook massacre never happened; the dead children were paid actors. (These are all false claims.)
After Facebook on Friday banned far-right figures and organizations from their platform, including the site Infowars, the president threatened to “monitor” social-media sites in retaliation. Through much of the late evening of May 3 and early morning of May 4, the president used his Twitter feed to champion the people who earn a large living spreading false reports. He hailed them as conservative thinkers whose free-speech rights have been abridged by social-media platforms.
One thing at least will follow from the president’s Twitter campaign: It will become even more difficult than before for the shamefaced remains of what used to be mainstream conservatism to separate themselves from these grifters, racists, and liars. According to the president, they are now martyrs, saying things that deserve to be heard. There have been times in the past few years—especially during the hoax to shift blame from the Russians for hacking the Democratic National Committee—that Fox News and Infowars blurred into each other. Those days will now return.
Yet even as the president engrafts conspiracists and racists onto mainstream conservatism, it’s worth wondering: Why is he starting this fight? What does he hope to accomplish? In the past, when presidents publicly criticized major corporations by name, they got results.
In April 1962, President John F. Kennedy criticized, at a White House press conference, “a tiny handful of steel executives whose pursuit of power and profit exceeds their sense of public responsibility.” Kennedy was angry about steel-price increases that he regarded as inflationary. He spoke even more harshly in private, calling the executives “bastards” and “sons of bitches.” Within 48 hours, the price increases had been rescinded.
In June 2010, a ruptured deepwater rig spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. President Obama described the spill as the “worst environmental disaster the United States has ever faced.” He vowed that the owner of the rig, BP, would pay for whatever damage had been done; $20 billion was ultimately collected from the oil company.
But what happens if Facebook … just ignores the president? Facebook—long the premier channel for distributing hoaxes, scams, and Russian propaganda—seems to have made a business decision to clean up its act. Or at least begin to clean up its act. Perhaps presidential pressure will change Facebook’s mind. Or perhaps Facebook will calculate: Trump’s agitation will be forgotten by tomorrow. He’ll move on to the next thing. He’s just venting. He never follows up.
One observer of social media speculates that Trump hopes to deter Facebook from enforcing its rules against him and his 2020 campaign. In that case, wouldn’t Trump fight on the strongest ground, not the weakest? Identifying “my team” with some of the worst characters on the internet seems a prelude not to a hard fight, but to an embarrassing retreat.
Instead of preparing for a trial of strength against a corporation that a president should easily win, he has joined his personal brand to a gaggle of shady characters in an outburst likely to be forgotten in a day or two. Or, at least, forgotten by him.
But other and more determined actors are “monitoring”—and monitoring more attentively and persistently than the president himself. Trump’s Twitter rampage coincided with a North Korean missile test. For months, Trump has been touting the suspension of North Korean missile testing as proof that his concessions to that dictatorship delivered results. By resuming the testing, the North Koreans were administering a calculated humiliation to Trump, gambling that they can extract more from a president who talks tough in international relations, but acts weak. Now Facebook has set him a test of strength at home.
Trump has staked the prestige of the presidency on a gang of bad actors with shady histories who use social media to profit from deceit and the inflaming of racial and religious hatred. They are his supporters, after all, and he does not have so many to lose. But now Trump needs a win. North Korea is watching, and so are even more serious world actors.
The Washington Post reported that foreign governments have learned to shrug off Trump’s bluster and tough-guy talk. “He has shown us that what’s black at 9 a.m. can be gray at 3 p.m. and white at 7 p.m.,” said a Mexican diplomat of the president’s revolving pronouncements.
Past presidents spoke. Trump just … talks. Trump’s racist, conspiracist con-artist friends may be about to learn that sad difference firsthand too.
This article is part of “The Speech Wars,” a project supported by the Charles Koch Foundation, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, and the Fetzer Institute.
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