DougJ at Balloon Juice writes “The last two Republican presidents, Trump and W, are among the worst in American history.” Hear, hear. The Bush administration has been the subject of perhaps well-intentioned but ultimately harmful historical revisionism – Democrats eager to prove that Trump represents a unique threat to America have been too willing to say, “Even Bush didn’t do x”. Maybe true, but there are plenty of areas where Trump is a traditional Republican in the Bush mold.
One of these areas is journalism. For all the ink spilled about the Trump administration’s hostile relationship with the press, it’s worth noting that he represents the logical continuation of a decades-long war fought by Republicans. In other words, there’s nothing surprising about the enmity with which Trump treats (some parts of) the media. The Republican war on the press involves three tactics, all of which should be fairly obvious. First, promote conservative voices and disseminate Republican propaganda, either overtly or surreptitiously. Second, silence leftist media figures by accusing them of extremism and denying them coverage or funding. Third, confuse and cow the centrist/mainstream media, by, among other tactics, trading access for favorable coverage and by making them reflexively defensive against charges of liberal bias.
Let’s cover each of these in turn. (And I’ll split them over three blog posts so as to maximize your reading pleasure and minimize my work.)
Over the weekend I perused Lapdogs, written by Eric Boehlert, a left-wing media critic. He documents in reasonably thorough detail the way that the press failed to act as a check and balance against the Bush administration (at least until Hurricane Katrina, when the press finally realized that an incompetent boob Bush was). I was struck by the parallels between the anecdotes in his book, penned more than ten years ago, and what’s happening to our country now.
Let’s start with the promotion of conservative voices, as exemplified by the bizarre story of Jeff Gannon. Gannon was called on by George W. Bush at a presidential press conference in 2005. At the time, he was an almost unknown reporter working for a conservative organization called Talon News. Here’s the question Gannon asked Bush:
Thank you. Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S. economy. [Senate Minority Leader] Harry Reid [D-NV] was talking about soup lines. And [Senator] Hillary Clinton [D-NY] was talking about the economy being on the verge of collapse. Yet in the same breath they say that Social Security is rock solid and there’s no crisis there. How are you going to work — you’ve said you are going to reach out to these people — how are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?
After that softball, liberals started to investigate Gannon. Here’s Boehlert’s account:
[They discovered that] Talon was created by a Texas-based conservative activist organization called GOPUSA, that Talon’s “news” staff consisted largely of volunteer Republican activists with no journalism experience but lots of GOP campaign practice, that Gannon on occasion simply rewrote GOP press releases when filing his Talon dispatches, that Gannon was no his real name, and that just months before arriving at the White House as a would-be reporter Gannon was offering himself up online as a $200 an-hour gay male escort on sites like MaleCorps.com, WorkingBoys.net, and Meetlocalmen.com
Today, of course, the Trump White House gives out press passes to alt-right trolls like Mike Cernovich and raving lunatics like Jeromi Corsi at InfoWars. You might remember Corsi from his role in spearheading the (successful) Swift Boat Veterans for Truth hatchet job against John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign, or from his (unsuccessful) attempt to do the same to Obama in 2008. Corsi also later wrote a book in 2011 entitled, “Where’s the Birth Certificate?: The Case that Barack Obama is not Eligible to be President”, and advised Donald Trump on his 2011 “investigation” into the Obama birth certificate claims.
To be absolutely fair, Trump is certainly much more willing than Dubya to entertain fringe beliefs and paranoid delusions (I highly doubt Bush would have given InfoWars a press pass). But these two presidents share the belief that the press should be an almost propagandistic organization, subservient to the wishes of those in power. Critics of the administration in the press should be replaced with supporters, no matter how sycophantic and brazenly partisan. As Newt Gingrich explained, “[The Trump Administration] should rethink from the ground up the whole concept of the White House press corps, come up with a totally new grass-roots model, and not allow the traditional media to dominate and define White House press coverage”.
The Bush administration believed the same thing. Here’s Boehlert again:
When Vice President Dick Cheney sat down for a generous, thirty-five-minute television interview on December 15, 2003, the conversation turned to two favorite administration themes: a threat from without and a threat from within….The second [danger] was that the American press too often engaged in “cheap shot journalism” with the vice president complaining about reporters who “don’t check the facts”. The topics may have been predictable but two things were unusual about the interview. The first was how easy and utterly nonconfrontational the questions posed to Cheney were (i.e., “Why do you think the media is so obsessed in trying to tie you to Halliburton?”)….The other curiosity was the second-tier media outlet that scored the exclusive time with the normally press-shy vice president – a “rare interview” as NPR called it at the time. The host was the then little-known Sinclair Broadcasting operators of sixty-plus television stations in thirty-nine mostly medium-sized American markets.
Cheney’s interviewer was Armstrong Williams, a Sinclair political analyst who also happened to be “on the Bush administration payroll”, unbeknownst to anyone watching the interview.
(If Williams’ name sounds familiar, that’s because he was a senior adviser and close confidant to Ben Carson during his 2016 Republican primary run. He also uttered this amazing quote about Carson’s nomination to HUD: “Dr. Carson was never offered a specific position, but everything was open to him. Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience; he’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.” Don’t worry, Armstrong: Ben doesn’t even make the top 20 list of White House officials crippling the Trump presidency.)
The fact that Williams (a “journalist”) was paid by the government to essentially spew pro-Republican propaganda became a scandal in 2005 – the USA Today reported that Williams was paid nearly a quarter of a million dollars to “to promote the [No Child Left Behind] law on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same”. The Government Accountability Office ruled that these payments were illegal. And Williams wasn’t the only journalist secretly on the White House payroll. There was also Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus, paid to promote the Bush administration’s “marriage initiative”.
The Bush administration also bent government media in a conservative direction. Boehlert devotes an entire chapter to the Bush administration’s war on PBS, including this disturbing passage about Voice of America:
VOA staffers during the Bush administration repeatedly charged that newscasts were skewed in order to make them overtly sympathetic to the White House, that reporters were told to emphasize the “good news” stories in Iraq while turning away from car bombs and terrorist attacks, and were chastised for quoting Democratic members of Congress who were critical of Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism. (VOA’s reporting is supposed to be neutral and professional.) “With management reportedly censoring critical stories,” the American Prospect reported in 2004, “morale at the VOA has plummeted.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that Trump has continued in the same vein. As The New Republic reported,
A month after Trump was elected, Republicans in Congress changed the VOA’s governing structure, replacing its independent and bipartisan board of governors with a CEO appointed directly by the president. And in January, the Trump administration dispatched two young staffers to monitor the VOA’s operations and assist with the transition: Matthew Ciepielowski, who hails from the Koch-founded group Americans for Prosperity, and Matthew Schuck, who worked as a staff writer for the Daily Surge, a right-wing news site that traffics in “alternative facts.” Taken together, the moves indicate that Trump is poised to turn the government news service—which reaches a global audience of 236 million every week through its radio and TV broadcasts—into a mouthpiece for his personal brand.
Propaganda is at the core of Republican politics. As Jacob Weisberg at Slate explained, the Bush presidency was a “propaganda presidency”:
At phony town hall meetings, Bush’s audiences are hand-picked to prevent any possibility of spontaneous challenge. At fake forums, invited guests ask the president to pursue his previously announced policies. New initiatives are unveiled on platforms festooned with meaningless slogans, mindlessly repeated (“Plan for Victory”). Anyone on the inside who doubts the party line is shown the door. In this environment, where the truth is not spoken privately or publicly, the suspicion grows that Bush, in his righteous cocoon, has committed the final, fatal sin of the propagandist. He is not just spreading BS but has come to believe it himself.
With Bush, promotion of conservative voices and dissemination of conservative propaganda was used for the purpose of advancing specific policy objectives of the administration – the Iraq War, the No Child Left Behind program, etc. The same cannot be said of Trump. He has no grand plan for an “information war”, no elaborate strategy for achieving his policy goals by manipulating the press. This is partly because he can only think in tactical, not strategic terms, and partly because he has almost no policy goals that are not purely venal.
On the one hand, this fact makes Trump far less effective than Bush (or, say, Mike Pence) at advancing Republican policy. On the other hand, Trump’s propaganda, as self-centered and myopic as it is, may ultimately be much more corrosive to American democracy and our political norms. He has taken the Republican war on truth to its natural (and truly horrifying) endpoint. I can’t put it any better than Matt Yglesias:
For Trump, the constant bullshitting serves as a highly effective filter. Senators like John McCain and Ben Sasse, who’ve overwhelmingly voted with Trump when it counts, have nonetheless refused to echo his bullshit — proving their integrity to the world and their disloyalty to Trump. But formerly obscure figures such as Lord and Nunes who’ve proven their subservience to Trump are on the upswing, while other longtime players in conservative politics are debasing themselves on Trump’s behalf.
“Since his selection as vice president,” Abby Phillip writes at the Washington Post, “[Mike] Pence has been unflagging in his loyalty and deference to Trump. But in return, the president and White House aides have repeatedly set Pence up to be the public face of official narratives that turn out to be misleading or false.”
The upshot is a conservative movement and a Republican Party that, if Trump persists in office, will be remade along Trumpian lines with integrity deprecated and bullshit running rampant. It’s clear that the owners and top talent at commercial conservative media are perfectly content with that outcome, and the question facing the party’s politicians is whether they are, too.
The common thread of the Trumposphere is that there doesn’t need to be any common thread. One day Comey went soft on Clinton; the next day he was fired for being too hard on her; the day after that, it wasn’t about Clinton at all. The loyalist is just supposed to go along with whatever the line of the day is.
This is the authoritarian spirit in miniature, assembling a party and a movement that is bound to no principles and not even committed to following its own rhetoric from one day to the next. A “terrific” health plan that will “cover everyone” can transform into a bill to slash the Medicaid rolls by 14 million in the blink of an eye and nobody is supposed to notice or care. Anything could happen at any moment, all of it powered by bullshit.