Ethan Kessler: Eye wide shut

Friday, July 20, 2018 - 1:52pm

With regard to June’s widely publicized and widely criticized, summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, President Donald Trump had this to say about his totalitarian counterpart: “I made a deal with him; I shook hands with him. I really believe he means it.”  Beyond the narcissistic bluster of such a statement, made in the aftermath of a “deal” that saw the United States trade regional military presence for nothing more than a promise, such faith in a regime as martially motivated as Kim’s captures the stunning gullibility of our president.

Stateside, President Trump recently reminded us of his equally innate knack for dishonesty; paying no heed to his own administration’s endorsement of its family-separation policy at the southern border, nor to his own party’s legislative majority, he labeled the cruel policy a “law” of the Democrats’ doing and charged the Democrats with the responsibility of changing it.  While these egregious displays of poor leadership are by all means disheartening, the minimal fallout stemming from them – that is, the ability of Trump to continue leading confidently after making these statements – makes obvious the great power Trump wields over his party.  

To be sure, Trump’s general popularity is by all means reflective of his divisive tactics: Poll-wise, Trump fares, and has fared, worse than other modern presidents.  Frequent jabs at Trump’s policies and behavior in national media do, however, hinder widespread recognition of the ironclad grip he has on the GOP: Approval ratings of Trump among Republicans have peaked at 88 percent, up significantly since last year.  

As made evident by Trump’s domineering hold over the Republican Party, the myth of the “regular Republican” as anything but a negligible minority is just that.  Those Republicans – sold on free trade, wary of Russia, and willing to sacrifice short-term political gain for the maintenance of democratic civility, among other things – do not represent the devout holdouts of the Republican Party that have stuck it out. Rather, they constitute politically vagrant conservatives whose party’s shift towards obnoxious populism and near-absolute alignment with Trump happened blisteringly quick.  

America’s Trump contingent, therefore, is both overwhelmingly Republican yet proudly distanced from Republican tenets of yesteryear.  Beyond the usual socio-economic divisions that traditionally help define political preferences, the most salient issues for Trump’s congregation are indeed those pertaining to race and culture.  From here, typically lukewarm political allegiance has been exchanged for fervent devotion, of which the irredeemably race-obsessed maverick at the forefront of the new GOP is the subject.  As a result, Trump’s base, more so than other political cohorts, finds singularity in a very select and vocal slice of the news media.  

We grossly underestimate the power of this “Trump-ist” media, yet it serves as the lifeline for the Trump presidency and its often-disastrous survival. Trump’s mandate to rule, after all, is only as solid as the continued support of his Republican base. Trump-friendly media, namely the hegemonic Fox News, is the linchpin of this mandate, providing dedicated Trump voters with pro-Trump coverage on a scale unmatched by liberal media counterparts, and going beyond validation of existing beliefs by impeding access to new ones.  It is an age-old relationship between viewers largely informed by media and politicians keenly sensitive to the opinions of these viewers, only without the diversity of media sources found in most other cases.

One would reason, then, that stemming this flow of unabashedly dogmatic and sycophantic coverage with apt and well-received criticism could curtail its allure.  This could then soften Trump’s dominion over the Republican electorate and, suddenly, getting away with ludicrous statements would be a bit costlier for the president.

Some may find discomfort in this idea and view it as a biased assault on news media, which is guaranteed the right of free speech—up to and including false statements.  

However, protection of the press does not excuse an institution as large and influential as the news media from deliberately misleading large swaths of listeners to the scale and degree seen with Fox News.  The network has shed contributors hostile to Trump and tailored nearly all of its coverage to the president’s individual tastes, singularly aligning itself with a political figure and in the process transforming itself into an executive mouthpiece.  Especially in a time when print news is in decline, television media’s preeminence in the information realm really does matter, necessitating honest and fact-based coverage by the networks who wield this power.

In addition to its content, Fox News’ interaction with the president further embodies the novelty of the Trump problem.  While all news sources sometimes distort facts in advocating their political stances, the nature of Trump’s reliance on and his supporters’ subsequent attachment to, his preferential media sources is clearly unique.  That the president so heavily feeds off of his coverage on Fox News—all the while his political brand strays even further from old party ways—supports this characterization.

Unfortunately, this alarming relationship is clouded by boilerplate calls for intellectual diversity. While society should always promote willingness to consider conflicting points of view, the seemingly magnetic tendency to denounce “both the left and right” of equally vile partisanship amounts to nothing more than false equivalence (which brings to mind a particularly misplaced invocation of the “both sides” narrative).  Even if one could manage to write off several prominent anti-Trump Republicans jumping ship as a routine political shake-up, George Will calling for a Democratic takeover of Congress should sound some alarms.  Listening to the other side does not mean ignoring signs that things are clearly not normal.  

Trump’s power to lead in a manner devoid of both caution and beneficence lies squarely in the constituency he has cultivated.  Nourishing these new Republicans and steadily fueling Trump’s presidency – criticism of his decisions be damned – is Trump’s media corps, epitomized by Fox News and servile to the president insofar as its broadcasts resound through the homes of his devotees.  This is a dynamic as disquieting as it is underappreciated, and it demands a newfound scrutiny of our media. In turn, this would promote greater accountability of our president, something that should be appreciated by Trump’s loudest supporters and critics alike.