All of this is about making Trump appear strong and successful, no matter what. And that’s essential for a person who wants to stay in power. As my colleague Vann Newkirk wrote, “dogged by unprecedented public disapproval, confronting questions of legitimacy, relying on a base fueled by partisan conflict, and facing extensive grassroots opposition, Trump’s campaign will be indefinite.”
Trump is a master provocateur, perhaps because he has a reputation for being thin-skinned himself. He knows how to needle people. He knows which buttons to push. It’s why people adore him and despise him, because he knows how to get to them. He seems to have intuited that journalists, who believe deeply about the importance of their own work, will leap to defend the significance of what they do. Journalists writing about their own indispensability run the risk of underscoring the perception that they are elite, privileged, and somehow separate from “the people.”
It’s no mistake that Trump describes “the media” as a monolith, despite his recent insistence that only some news is fake news. This has a dehumanizing effect: These aren’t your fellow citizens questioning the people in power on your behalf, he suggests, they’re the media.
At the same time, Trump’s list of objectionable outlets appears to be expanding. With the exception of Fox, he has called every major TV news network “fake,” including ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN. The New York Times, in particular, has been an obsessive target of his lately.
Three months ago, Trump complimented the paper. “I have great respect for The New York Times. Tremendous respect. It’s very special,” he said in a November meeting with the newspaper’s leadership. (Trump also complained that the Times was “the roughest of all” in what he saw as unfair media treatment toward him, but concluded that the Times was a “great, great American jewel. A world jewel.”)
Today he refers to the paper as “the failing @nytimes,” on Twitter, evoking the nicknames he bestowed on political rivals like “crooked Hillary” Clinton and “lyin‘ Ted” Cruz. News organizations that were blocked from attending an off-camera White House press briefing last week included The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, BBC, CNN, Politico, and BuzzFeed News. “As you saw throughout the entire campaign, and even now, the fake news doesn’t tell the truth,” Trump had said earlier that day in his remarks at Conservative Political Action Conference. “...it doesn’t represent the people. It never will represent the people. And we’re going to do something about it, because we have to go out and we have to speak our minds, and we have to be honest.”
The absurdity of using the First Amendment as justification for repeated attacks on a free press raises a lingering question in all of this about whether Trump himself is faking it. It’s not such a stretch to see bluster against journalism as the ultimate Donald Trump performance—the product of a cultural convergence that includes pro-wrestling, reality television, conspiracy theories, and Trump’s singular talent for making up sophomoric catchphrase-insults. The temptation to see things this way is dangerous.