Trump’s nonsensical and self-serving blatherings are easily translated into policy by his administration. The insane calumny about the press is just the latest example.
It’s a contention of this blog that Donald Trump is, despite his hints at apostasy, a perfect conservative Republican. For one, in his raw racial nationalism, he’s part of a line that stretches back to Goldwater (or at least his supporters, who saw his unyielding devotion to states’ rights as a way to extend apartheid), through Wallace* and Nixon, through Buckley’s paternal segregation, through Reagan and Gingrich, Rehnquist and Roberts, and up to the alt-right.
But there is another way in which he is perfect as well, one that has become more and more clear since he actually was inaugurated: his own personal pathologies, which include a literally limitless self-absorption, are the ideal match for pushing Republican policies. He hates the thought that more people voted for Hillary, so he’s easily able to convince himself that the popular vote was riddled with massive fraud, and hey– that’s a conservative line! That enables voter suppression, which happily is easier thanks to the Roberts Court. What a happy surprise!
Now, you can argue if Trump is really on board, is the leader, is being used by Bannon and Miller and Sessions, or if they are playing off each other. I personally think he hears things that people like Bannon tell him, mutates it through the funhouse mirrors of his mind, and it comes out as an idea that they can use (it comes out as his idea).
A perfect example of this was his speech at MacDill AFB in Tampa, to a group of senior officers, all of whom has to know that the President is unhinged. After all, he says stuff like this, after reciting a list of places where terrorists have attacked, including 9/11, Orlando, Boston, San Bernadino, and overseas.
“It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported,” he told a group of senior commanders. “And in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it.”
This is obvious nonsense. These events all received wall-to-wall coverage, as well they should have. (Indeed, the President preceded himself with a contradiction by saying “You saw what happened in Paris, in Nice”, which is hard to do if no one is reporting it.)
But honesty is obviously not the point. The point is two-fold: to tar the press and paint them as essentially sympathizers to terrorism (“doesn’t want to report it”, not even just that they don’t report it, which would still be a lie). The second is to heighten fear.
To accomplish this took the next step. When asked about the President’s fantasies, Press Secretary Spicer made it clear that the President meant “under-reported”, which he obviously didn’t, because if so that’s what he would have said. He didn’t say “unreported”, which a generous person could attribute to a slip of the tongue. He said “it’s not even being reported.” So there was the immediate attempt to cover up a clearly off-the-reservation President, which is what happens when you have a spoiled dauphin take the throne.
But then it went further: they promised to release a list of terrorist attacks that weren’t reported, or were under-reported, and almost surprisingly, they made good on that. Sort of. Here’s the full list, which runs from September of 2014 to December of 2016, for some reason.
The list is pretty astonishing, for many reasons (not least of which the term “attacker” is misspelled about half the time, and is a weird term to use, anyway). It includes San Bernadino, Nice, Paris, and Orlando, and the Russian plane brought down over Egypt. All of these received extensive news coverage, as of course they should have. Indeed, they received such comprehensive coverage, that the name of the first four at least have become all-encompassing nouns that you can use as shorthand.
And the others? It is true there is a long list, and there are some that the media barely covered (a knife attack in Australia, the killing of a policeman in Bosnia). But one can hardly blame the media for that. Most received coverage, especially in the countries directly impacted. So why make this a story?
You can think of a few reasons. One is that Trump said something nonsensical, and they scrambled to make it seem like it wasn’t just the improvisations of a deeply ignorant man. That’s plausible, and the slapdash and generally insulting nature of the list speaks to that possibility.
But of course, it can go deeper. A spokesperson gives it away.
Lindsay Walters, a White House spokesperson, claimed that the list demonstrates how terrorist attacks are losing perceived news value because of their frequency. “The real point here is that these terrorists attacks are so pervasive at this point that they do not spark the wall-to-wall coverage they once did,” she said via email.
“If you look back just a few years ago, any one of these attacks would have been ubiquitous in every news outlet, and now they’re happening so often – at a rate of more than once every two weeks, according to the list – that networks are not devoting to each of them the same level of coverage they once did.
“This cannot be allowed to become the ‘new normal’, and the President, for one, is not going to be satisfied until the American people are much safer and more secure.”
I think there is an element of truth here. Self-radicalization is easier, and so you will have more of these free-floating, small-scale attacks. And that is frightening, but as often as not these small attacks are perpetrated by people whose “allegiance” to ISIS is a pose to cover their desire for dark glory and mental health issues, and are no different than regular murders except they blurt “Allah” at the end.The big ones, the ones that are clearly coordinated, or that do maximum damage, get a ton of coverage.
The big ones, the ones that are clearly coordinated, or that do maximum damage, get a ton of coverage, which they should. But the Trump camp is saying that ALL attacks that could be lumped under the vaguest descriptor of “terrorism” (Islamic terrorism; Dylan Roof or the Quebec murderer and absent from this list) should receive wall-to-wall press. And if they don’t, it is due to a complicit media.
This, then, is the goal. To make Americans more scared, to think that a guy with a knife in Australia and an IED in Mosul are the same thing, and they are both essentially next door. To take the random spread of murder around the globe and make us think that we are doomed, that this ragged collection of millenialist soldiers and easily-influenced internet junkies are an existential threat.
They want us to pick up the paper every day and feel that we are doomed, as if these terrible deaths are actually an existential threat. That’s how they justify the white nationalist plan of banning immigrants, especially Muslim ones. It’s how they justify civil liberty crackdowns. It’s how they promote chest-thumping militarism. And it’s how they silence dissenters, especially in the press.
They want hysteria because it serves their ends. And that feeds Trump’s ego because there are a lot of people who for some reason believe that he is “tough”, as if they can see the medals and bandoliers of his imagination.
I still don’t know if people around Trump say things like “the press isn’t reporting on terrorism”, knowing he’ll blurt it out, and for many people it will become truth (look for rabbinical parsings in the right-wing press about how much press coverage is “enough”). I don’t know if Trump just says things because they feel good and through a happy accident it becomes right-wing fodder and matches up with policy goals. It’s probably more the former: they feed goals and he transforms them into hysterical lies which people believe.
I just know the end is the same: sewing distrust of all institutions except for the President and creating more fear, so that anyone who goes against him is explicitly opposed to our security, and implicitly the ally of terrorists (see also his tweets blaming the judge for letting “bad people” “flood” into the US- he does have a knack for punchy and frighteningly effective babytalk). That’s where our government is at now. That’s why dissent is imperative, and why institutions like the press need to be supported and strengthed. Only numbers can give them the backbone to keep fighting back.