When Donald Trump’s transition team dangled word that potential senior-level officials in his administration include billionaire Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as U.N. ambassador and former presidential candidate Ben Carson as secretary of housing and urban development, the media took the bait.
Playing the race and gender cards was a cheap parlor trick for a master manipulator like Trump, but it beguiled the media nonetheless. The picks shifted attention away from a White House being stocked with despots and demagogues. Days earlier Trump had tapped Mike Pompeo, a Christian fanatic, as head of the CIA, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a blatant Islamophobe and conspiracy theorist, as national security advisor, and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a “symbol of black voter-intimidation,” as U.S. attorney general.
With Trump assembling a regime eager to roll back everything since the Renaissance, it’s an open question if mainstream journalism can adapt to the alternate universe we now inhabit.
The corporate media is still operating by the old rules in which they defer to power by taking each presidential announcement and action at face value. That’s been a dubious approach for years, especially in the post-9/11 era in which the Bush administration boasted about creating “our own reality.” Now the media are confronted by a Trump administration whose chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, was likened to notorious Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl with “sincere admiration” by dead fabulist Andrew Breitbart.
The media need to wrestle with how Trump will be all about affect—the emotional bond and mood he creates with his supporters will outweigh any allegiance to fact or reason. In October Trump lied about stopping Ford from building $2.5 billion worth of factories in Mexico. On Nov. 17 Trump lied about preventing Ford from moving a separate plant from Kentucky to Mexico. Then on Thanksgiving Trump claimed he was “making progress” in stopping Carrier from moving an air-conditioner plant and its 1,400 jobs from Indiana to Mexico. The company acknowledged it was talking to Trump but added, “Nothing to announce at this time.” Months earlier Trump lied about being able to impose a tax on Carrier’s goods imported from Mexico if it moved the plant—only Congress can do that. He also lied about U.S. manufacturers paying a 16 percent tax in Mexico as the tax applies to all manufacturers there.
Trump has not saved one job, but he’s lining his pockets by treating the presidency as an extension of his branding empire. He’s banking on the frenetic action and deal-making making his supporters feel as if the country, and by extension their fortunes, are being revived. Trump will likely bully some companies into not shipping jobs abroad, which will provide the appearance of truth just as senior officials like DeVos and Haley provide the appearance of diversity. But beneath the veneer of deception will be unrelenting brutality carried out by his administration.
This is why the media need to revive their role as an adversary to power, rather than a mouthpiece, and even more important to base their coverage on the reality that Trump has not changed.
The starting point is everything Trump does as president, as he did during the entire campaign and his life for that matter, is a cocktail of falsehoods, deception, nepotism, and graft. The Times gets one thing right when it says Trump’s transition phase is “an exercise in conspicuous self-promotion and carefully choreographed branding.” Most of the time the media get it wrong, however. They are eating up the images of his New Jersey golf club with its prime ministerial-style entrance serving as a catwalk for the pageant of thugs, opportunists, and autocrats seeking appointments and favors.
Traditional journalists are wandering dazed in the rubble of Trump’s Twitter-powered candidacy crashing into history. During the New York Times sit-down with Trump, the paper of record fretted he was “unapologetic about flouting some of the traditional ethical and political conventions that have long shaped the American presidency.” But it also proclaimed that Trump “moderates views.”
In fact, the Times missed the story based on its own transcript: he’s the same old Trump with the grievances, bravado, ignorance, lies, and misdirection intact.
After spending more than a year heaping vitriol on the media, Trump sucked up to the Times editors and executives, saying the paper was “a great, great American jewel” even as he whined about being “treated extremely unfairly.”
He lied about his vote totals with African-Americans, saying he got almost 15 percent when in fact it was barely half of that, 8 percent.
He displayed his dictatorial side in saying his purpose as president was “taking care of the people that really have proven to be, to love Donald Trump, as opposed to the political people.” That’s right, those who love Donald Trump will get taken care of.
He became petulant when asked to condemn his supporters giving Nazi salutes at a prominent gathering in Washington, D.C., telling the questioner, “Boy, you are really into this stuff, huh?”
He double-downed on his false claims, without being challenged, that companies that move operations out of America won’t be able to sell their product here.
He displayed an utter lack of knowledge about industrial policy saying “robotics is becoming very big” when in fact it already surpasses $100 billion in annual revenue. He added, “Right now we don’t make the robots,” when in fact the United States is tied with China and surpassed only by Japan in robotics technology production.
Trump made waves by saying he wouldn’t flatly reject the Paris Agreement on climate change. The Times declared Trump had moderated his views, but during the interview he veered repeatedly into denialist nonsense. He dredged up a fake controversy about emails showing scientists fabricating data, which was debunked by six separate investigations. When confronted with the devastating storms that have struck New York recently, Trump said, “we’ve had storms always.” When it came to the science, Trump said “you can make lots of cases for different views” and “I’m not sure anybody is ever going to really know.” The Times failed to point out that Trump indicated even if he accepted climate change as human-caused, he would take no action because “It also depends on how much it’s going to cost our companies [and] our companies are noncompetitive right now.”
Trump is still playing the media for suckers. He may be the new normal, but treating his presidency as normal aids and abets a monster. What matters is what Trump does, not what he says, the track record of the people he appoints, not their melanin or genitals, the mundane policies he pushes, not the incendiary Tweets he fires off. A Trump administration will make the disastrous Bush presidency look like an “age of reason.”
One step is to use proper terms, such as calling the Alt-Right “white nationalists” or “white supremacists,” which ThinkProgress said it will do. Another is to replace horserace and personality reporting with issues and policies. The corporate media almost completely abandoned this during the 2016 campaign, with the three major nightly news programs devoting a pathetic 32 minutes of coverage to issues.
The most important rule comes from the great muckraker I.F. Stone: “All governments lie.” That should be the guiding assumption for everything a Trump administration says or does.
Arun Gupta contributes to The Washington Post, YES! Magazine, In These Times, The Progressive, Telesur English, and The Nation. He is author of the forthcoming, Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste, from The New Press. Follow him @arunindy or email at arun_dot_indypendent_at_gmail_