In the dust storm kicked up last week over former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, a big story seems to have been obscured: that of Reality Winner, the young defense contractor who slid a classified National Security Agency document to The Intercept website.
Putting aside Winner’s motives, of which I haven’t a clue, the document described an effort by Russian military intelligence hackers not just to steal and float negative information about Hillary Clinton, and thus attempt to tilt our election to Trump, but to penetrate our voting software, the very heart of our democracy, presumably to change votes.
The document doesn’t say if they succeeded or not, but this is big stuff — headline stuff. Instead, to the extent the story was covered at all, it was reported as the story of a treasonous government leaker — that bane of the president’s existence. Score one for Trump.
Trump hasn’t had too many victories lately against his sworn enemies, the mainstream media. It has been open season on him, and the media, in doing their job, can’t help but describe his incompetence, his amateurism, his unsuitability for the job, his personality flaws, his lies, his greed, his corruption and so on. But that doesn’t mean that Trump won’t win his self-declared war on the media. In some ways, negative coverage notwithstanding, he already is winning because the outcome won’t be determined by the favorability of his press, but by how many people trust Trump more than the reporting. And by that standard, he is still very much in the game.
In fact, he has quite a few things going for him, including one that’s very important: an unshakable cohort of Americans who no longer believe in the idea of facts. And they may be a larger group than you think.
Trump is hardly the first president to rail against the media. No president seems to have liked his coverage, not even John Kennedy, who often received worshipful press. But Trump’s antipathy is different, not only in degree, but also in kind. As two legal scholars at the University of Utah and Brigham Young University have analyzed it, Trump has actively tried to turn the media into an illegitimate institution, an “enemy” of the state that would justify the “compromise of ordinarily recognized liberties.”
I would go even farther. As I have previously written here, Trump is engaged in an epistemological battle against the very idea of fact and truth. Other presidents griped about bias, but the independence of the press and the idea of objective facts were not at risk. They are now. Previous presidents professed to be fighting for the truth. Trump is actively fighting against it.
Trump fully realizes that the people who support him don’t pay any mind to the negative portrayals of him in the mainstream media. People believe what they want to believe; they skew any report to their own predispositions. This isn’t new with Trump, though he certainly encourages it.
But the widespread distrust of the media is new. As late as 2005, according to a Gallup poll, 50 percent of Americans trusted the media either a “great deal” or a “fair amount.” Last year, that number declined to 32 percent. Score another one for Trump.
Some of this is no doubt driven by the fact that while, in the past, there was more or less a consensus on facts, regardless of political orientation, today there is not only lack of consensus, but anyone can find a news outlet that plays to his or her own prejudices — as if facts don’t even exist. Certainly that helps Trump.
Long before Trump, conservative Republicans waged a campaign to discredit the media. Since Richard Nixon at least, they have caterwauled that the media were all liberal and biased against the GOP. They may invoke bias, but they really hate the media because they don’t seem to like facts, and they don’t like facts because facts don’t support the conservative view of the world, whether it’s the magic of markets to provide health care or the power of tax cuts to stimulate the economy or the economic boost sure to come from ending government regulations like Dodd-Frank.
With this sort of confabulation, conservatives aren’t really a party or an ideology, because those ordinarily have to face a reality check. Conservatives are a cult, where reality is viewed as an intrusion. And as with all cults, they feel duty-bound to take on those who dispute them.
So no one will be shocked to find that the folks who distrust the media the most are Republicans, wrapped in their cocoon of alternative facts. How big is the gap between them and their fellow Americans? Big — whopping, in fact. Fifty-one percent of Democrats have a great deal or a fair amount of trust in the media, according to that Gallup Poll. Thirty percent of independents do. But only 14 percent of Republicans.
This poll was taken in the middle of the campaign last year, when Republicans were complaining about Hillary Clinton’s favorable coverage, so it’s important to note that according to Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Clinton actually received highly unfavorable coverage. Despite that, Democrats believed in the press not because they were oblivious to bias — especially the bias of false equivalencies that damaged Clinton — but because they continued to believe in basic principles of fact and truth.
The media-hating truth deniers and post-factualists who support Trump are not going to abandon him. Why? Because they are impervious to a fact-based media. A Fox News poll last February found Americans about evenly divided between those who trusted White House reporters and those who trusted Trump, a congenital liar, to tell the truth. A Morning Consult poll conducted in April found the public trusted Trump more than the media — by 37 percent to 29 percent — though these numbers are skewed by Republicans who trusted the White House over the media by 72 percent to 10 percent — and 72 percent of them found Fox News “very” or “somewhat” credible. (Which is itself incredible. Remember: these aren’t Republicans who just support Trump, a much higher figure; these are Republicans who find him truthful!)
Morning Consult concluded that “when Donald Trump holds a position, a significant segment of his voters chooses to follow suit, regardless of what is being reported.”
A March McClatchy-Marist poll has similar numbers.
It bears repeating that these truth deniers cannot be persuaded otherwise, which means that unlike the rank-and-file Republicans who were susceptible to argument and who eventually turned on Nixon during the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, these folks won’t turn on Trump because there is no countervailing institution in which they believe. He’s got them signed, sealed and delivered.
But there is another group of truth deniers that give one even greater pause because there are more of them than there are Republicans, and they can be cultivated by Trump: whites without college degrees. According to the McClatchy-Marist poll, fewer than 30 percent of them trust the media, a bit more than the Republican figure, though not enough to give the media, or the country, comfort.
This is what I mean when I suggest there are more potential truth deniers than you might think. Whites without higher education, not all of them Republicans, are potential soldiers in Trump’s anti-truth army, too.
And here’s why that is worrisome over the long haul — and Republicans think long haul. Just as they have been waging an assault against truth, Republicans across the country and in Washington have been waging a frontal assault against education.
In Kansas, education has suffered such severe cuts under the Republican ax that even some members of the party are pushing back. In Republican Oklahoma, the ax has chopped the school calendar. One-fifth of the school districts in the state are moving to a four-day school week.
Eleven of the 13 states with the lowest high school graduation rates are reliably Republican.
Fourteen of the 16 with the lowest US News high-school rankings are unshakably Republican. According to a National Education Association report, the 11 states with the lowest expenditures per student from K-12 in 2013-14 as a percentage of the national average typically vote Republican.
You don’t have to be of a conspiratorial frame of mind to see a correlation here and to realize that the poorly educated are the Republicans’ and Trump’s best hope for not only discrediting the media but for discrediting facts — the key to Republicans’ impregnability.
And it isn’t too far a leap to believe that education isn’t a Republican priority quite possibly because an educated electorate endangers the party — or at the very least, the party’s way of thinking about the world, which is not fact-based. (Of course, there is another possibility: They just don’t believe in education, period. It’s elitist.) The old, insulting sexist adage was to keep women barefoot and pregnant. The equivalent insulting political adage is to keep the electorate dumb.
You can say that Trump is on the wrong side of the demographic divide. More Americans are getting a college education than ever before, and that is good news for the objective media and for America.
On the down side, the college educated still constitute only a third of Americans, which means there are a whole lot of folks for Trump to woo. As those polls indicate, most of them don’t like the media much either. And that’s why, no matter how much the media may batter him, Trump isn’t imperiled, and why he just might beat the media after all.