Why Trump Is Blaming the Media Down the Homestretch
The president’s decision to go on the offensive at a moment of fear and division could be cold political calculus—or it could reflect his press-obsessed worldview.
Traumas and tragedies change people, at least briefly. They change lives for those closest; they emotionally affect those farther away; sometimes they change society as a whole.
One remarkable thing about President Donald Trump’s reaction to the massacre Saturday at a synagogue in Pittsburgh is how little it seems to have influenced him. As I reported over the weekend, his initial remarks were fairly detached; he later offered a more full-throated condemnation. But he seems incapable of compassion and consolation.
Moreover, he opted to move forward with a campaign rally Saturday evening in which he reprised a new line of attack this week: blaming the press for division in the country. On Thursday, before the FBI announced the arrest of a Trump admirer in a string of mail bombs, the president tweeted that the media was to blame for “a very big part of the Anger we see today.”
On Friday in Charlotte, North Carolina, he said that “the media’s constant unfair coverage, deep hostility, and negative attacks … only serve to drive people apart and to undermine healthy debate.” He attacked journalists again on Saturday. And Monday morning, he tweeted this:
There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2018
....of Anger and Outrage and we will then be able to bring all sides together in Peace and Harmony. Fake News Must End!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2018
These attacks are surprising insofar as the press is a victim of the attacks—at least one explosive device was sent to CNN—and insofar as Trump’s own rhetoric, as my colleague Adam Serwer explores, is a far more obvious touchstone for both the Pittsburgh massacre and the mail bombs.
Of course, it’s hardly new for Trump to attack the press. It’s been his go-to maneuver for years now, and it has decades-long roots in the conservative movement. It’s an attack that began more or less in bad faith—Trump has always loved the media, and has fine-tuned ways to make it work to his ends over decades in business—and has gradually transformed into a more genuine anger, as he is frustrated by the critical coverage he receives. (A good rule of thumb is that if you’re not thick-skinned enough for critical coverage, it might not be wise to run for president.)
But Trump’s latest talking point is different in degree, if not in kind. In the past, he has attacked what he labels “fake news” as dishonest and bad, and he has singled out specific stories and reporters for abuse. But his current critique, which lays most of the rupture in American life at the feet of the press, is broader and more forceful than his previous attacks. He has also pursued it consistently for several days now, avoiding distraction even amid major news events—unusual for him. It seems likely this will be Trump’s favorite rhetorical turn over the closing week of the campaign.
What accounts for the barrage against the press? One obvious factor is that there’s an election on November 6, and Trump is worried that Democrats could capture the House of Representatives, which would make it harder for him to move his agenda through Congress and could produce damaging inquiries into his administration and business.
Trump grasps the value of having a villain, but he struggles to find an effective one these days. He likes to talk about Hillary Clinton, but she’s not on the ballot. Bashing Nancy Pelosi has proved less effective than he might have hoped. Chuck Schumer, fuggedaboutit. That leaves the press and immigrants, both of which have been useful targets for him in the past. As Trump knows, the press is broadly unpopular—though it has actually enjoyed a bounce since his presidency, and is more trusted than he is.
Trump also knows that the press is bad at defending itself. For one thing, reporters are terrible at message discipline, which is one reason conspiracy theories about media coordination are so absurd. There’s also a tendency for journalists to get hung up on petty issues—remember the oversized controversy when Trump tweeted a GIF that depicted him body-slamming CNN?—that makes the press seem whiny and self-pitying.
This interpretation assumes that the president is acting in bad faith—which, given his track record, is never a bad assumption. But what if it’s wrong? Perhaps Trump is genuine in his critique—which doesn’t make it any less misguided, cruel, or dangerous.
Trump is likely to blame the media because he interprets the world almost exclusively through the press. The Oval Office is an isolating setting for every president, but no previous president has been as media-obsessed as Trump is, or so content to allow cable news to, well, mediate his relation with the world. More than any previous president, he deeply cares what the press says about him—and unlike predecessors who cared mainly because of the effect that it had on their ability to get things done, he seems to take it personally. Despite his vitriolic comments about reporters, he still speaks frequently to a few reporters, affording a more direct window into the president’s thinking than in most administrations.
He spends hours a day watching cable news, producing a remarkable feedback loop on display once more in the case of the migrant caravan. A Politico story Monday shows just how much of the president’s day is unstructured time, or “executive time,” which he seems to fill with a great deal of media consumption. Meanwhile, he shows little interest in following presidential briefings or learning much about the government or the world from other sources. When your entire worldview is mediated through cable news, it’s no surprise that you’d start to blame the media for anything that went wrong.
It’s interesting to think about the ways that Trump’s critique of the press echoes those that come from Trump’s own critics. Serwer, for example, writes, “Much of the mainstream press abetted Trump’s effort to make the midterm election a referendum on the caravan. Popular news podcasts devoted entire episodes to the caravan. It remained on the front pages of major media websites. It was an overwhelming topic of conversation on cable news.” Matt Lewis, a Trump-critical conservative, writes, “Cable news is frequently a shout-fest that brings more heat than light—more passion than illumination.” He also points to the excessive coverage Trump received early in his presidential run, which helped propel him to the lead in the Republican primary.
What both Trump and his critics agree on is that the press tends to focus too much on the wrong stories, giving oxygen to polarizing and divisive debates. Where they diverge is that for the critics, Trump is at the heart of most of these debates. For Trump, the problem is that the press has the temerity to criticize him.