Petty. Shallow. Mean-spirited. Narcissistic. Thin-skinned. Vindictive. Factually adrift. This is the media’s take on President Trump. Alas, all of these descriptors apply to them as well. Trump keeps calling them out, and Americans keep noticing.
That the media and Trump are two sides of the same coin has become so obvious that even Jon Stewart, not someone you might describe as non-partisan, much less pro-Trump, is saying it. In an interview in which Stewart and Dave Chappelle sat down with CNN’s (congenitally insufferable) Christiane Amanpour, Stewart noted:
I think that journalists have taken it personally. They’re personally wounded and offended by this man. He baits them, and they dive in. And what he’s done well, I thought, is appeal to their own narcissism, to their own ego. Because what he says is, “These are the . . .” — and the journalists stand up and say, “We are noble. We are honorable. How dare you, sir?” And they take it personally. And now he’s changed the conversation to not that his policies are silly or not working or any of those other things; it’s all about the fight. He’s able to tune out everything else and get people just focused on that fight. And he’s going to win that fight. [Emphasis added.]
Trump keeps saying the media’s hostility to him is unprecedented, and they keep proving it. The media keep saying Trump’s hostility to them is unprecedented, and he keeps proving it. The two sides deserve each other. There are no victims here. It’s a fight between aggression addicts. It’s an Iran–Iraq War of words.
Somehow what the media and Trump think about one another has become just about the biggest story in America. Neither side can resist because each side loves, more than all else, to be talked about. Say, what’s happening out there in America? How’s the economy doing? Are workers more secure? Are wages rising? How are we doing on opioids? What about health care? It’s anyone’s guess based on what is running on CNN at any given moment. Picture turning into CBS on a football Sunday afternoon and all Jim Nantz can talk about is the mean things Mike Tomlin said about him.
Let’s look at just one outlet’s behavior in just the past few days. A CNN talking head (Julia Ioffe) claimed that “this president has radicalized so many more people than ISIS ever did.” When Trump-aligned panelist David Urban pushed back, moderator Jake Tapper responded, “Okay, you disagree with it,” as though Ioffe’s ludicrous assertion were simply a statement of opinion. “I think I exaggerated,” she said later, in a lame apology. Ya think? ISIS had tens of thousands of armed soldiers fighting for its cause. The reason CNN has people like Ioffe on the air is that they can be counted on to say outrageous things about Trump. It was Ioffe whose reaction to news that Ivanka Trump was taking a White House office traditionally used by first ladies was “Either Trump is f***ing his daughter or he’s shirking nepotism laws.”
Wednesday CNN’s John Avlon said calling the press “enemies of the people” put Trump on the same level as Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, and Hugo Chávez. “‘The enemy of the people’ isn’t a phrase you generally hear from the U.S. presidents,” Avlon said, “but it was used during the French Revolution by radicals that accused their enemies of — get this — spreading false news, to divide or trouble the people. It was trotted out again during the Soviet era to justify mass murder, by Lenin and Stalin.” Get this: Mocking fake news and calling the press the “enemy” goes with mass murder. As if the one naturally leads to the other. This certainly isn’t reporting. It isn’t even intelligent editorializing. It’s just hysteria.
CNN doesn’t bill Avlon as a partisan demagogue deploying extremist lines of attack against the president but as a sober “political analyst.” CNN could simply report that the president is calling the media “the enemy of the people” and leave it for its viewers to judge whether that is an accurate or wise thing for a president to say. But it knows that a lot of Americans actually agree with the president, so it feels it has to nudge the public into alarm mode, to inflame everyone into being as worried about this rhetoric as CNN is. So it jumps to visions of mass murder, and beclowns itself. Watching Trump and CNN go at it is like watching improv comedy, in which the only rule is, “Yes, and . . .” Each side takes what the other offers, and keeps pushing ever further into absurdity.
On Tuesday, CNN’s Chris Cillizza wrote, “Donald Trump wants you to be scared at the ballot box.” Cillizza was echoing a CNN host, Chris Cuomo, who ran a segment advising viewers of supposed GOP fear-mongering (“REPUBLICANS EMPLOY SCARE TACTICS AHEAD OF MIDTERMS,” said a chyron), claiming that “a fear campaign like no other” was underway. As Charles C. W. Cooke points out, “Be afraid of the other party” is what every party argues, always. The Democratic candidate for governor of Florida, Andrew Gillum, is at present suggesting “that his opponent is a racist who is fine with slavery,” Cooke writes, and that “your lives do depend on who the next governor is.”
Trump’s rhetoric about the media is unbecoming and unpresidential. He could critique or even mock reporters without calling them “the enemy of the people,” and he could refrain from praising a Republican congressman for body-slamming a reporter. He bears some responsibility for the ever-increasing vitriol in our political discourse. But the media could prove they are better — soberer, more judicious, more circumspect, less partisan — than he is. Instead they stoop to his level.