Democracy & Government

A Great Danger to Our Country

The twisted art of intimidating with slander to help build “a new political order.”

A Great Danger to Our Country

So blared the tweeter-in-Chief at 10:09 p.m. Friday, rounding out a full day spent ranting against The Enemy Within. Trump, whose prime rhetorical instrument is percussion, used the word “dishonest” seven times to describe journalists — not all journalists, mind, only the ones who “knowingly [don’t] tell the truth.” Earlier that day, Trump strutted into the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and repeated his charge that what he calls “FAKE NEWS” is “the enemy of the people,” meaning that “they have no sources, they just make it up” — a practice with which he has some familiarity, having sourcelessly cast aspersions on Barack Obama’s birthplace; and invoked “thousands and thousands” of New Jersey Muslims who cheered after Sept. 11 ("It was on television. I saw it"); and made up a Swedish riot; and declared that a grieving mother must have stood mute while her husband memorialized their fallen son because she was under her husband’s thumb; and….oh, never mind.

Make no mistake: such remarks from [Sean] Spicer and Kellyanne Conway as well as the Bully-in-Chief are not throwaway lines. This crowd means to intimidate dissenters and to exhibit them as bogeymen. They mean to stick it to truth-tellers.

Trump went on to denounce “large media corporations that have their own agenda. And it’s not your agenda and it’s not the country’s agenda, it’s their own agenda.” Agendas, like bad breath, are something only other people have. He was probably not thinking of Rupert Murdoch’s obvious agenda, either the overt political one (Lewinsky! Whitewater! Kenya! Benghazi! Hillary Clinton’s emails!) or the one pursued in-house by the Fox News chief who got away with serial sexual harassment for years as he presided over what Gabriel Sherman, the biographer of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, called “a culture where this type of behavior was encouraged and protected….[W]omen routinely had to sleep with or be propositioned by their manager, in many cases Roger Ailes…if they wanted to advance inside the company.”

Trump knows something about beauty-contest culture, but this was not his subject as he preened before CPAC. No, Feb. 24 was his day for cutting an honest, displeasing press down to size. The same day, his press secretary, Sean Spicer, barred reporters from The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, BBC, Politico and BuzzFeed from a briefing, while taking pains to include representatives of three low-circulation right-wing outfits: Breitbart, The Washington Times, and the One America News Network. Spicer told the approved reporters that the goal was to “push aggressively back.”

Make no mistake: such remarks from Spicer and Kellyanne Conway as well as the Bully-in-Chief are not throwaway lines. This crowd means to intimidate dissenters and to exhibit them as bogeymen. They mean to stick it to truth-tellers. They may not mean to directly incite legions of trolls, but they have that effect.

Aggressively messing with journalists’ minds is a key component of what Trump’s Grand Vizier Steve Bannon, in his own appearance before CPAC, called the creation of a “new political order,” which is to consist of “three verticals of three buckets”: (1) “national security and sovereignty” (a slightly fancier way of saying “America First”); (2) “economic nationalism” (raising tariffs); and (3) “deconstruction of the administrative state” (gutting the civil service so as to permit the deregulation of everything under the sun). Bannon was clear that the “corporatist, globalist media” stand in the way of this titanic project.

Perhaps because, unlike his boss, he is known to read books, Bannon is credited here and there as “Trump’s brain.” The conservative writer Christopher Caldwell considers him to have “a gift for thinking systematically,” as if slopping together a number of general propositions and a wish list for an authoritarian government constituted systematic thought. The most systematic element of Bannonism would seem to be the heralding of a global clash of civilizations that collide as if they were firm, unchanging, impermeable tectonic plates. In the canon according to Bannon, something called “Judeo-Christian” culture (it’s hard to know which is more thinly defined, the “Judeo” or the “Christian” part) is deep into a “global war,” a “war of immense proportions” against an enemy that, in a sketchy, helter-skelter 2014 speech that passes for his magnum opus, Bannon referred to as “jihadist Islamic fascism,” “Islamic fascism,” “radical Islam” and “Islam” (buttressed by secularization).

Caldwell writes euphemistically: “Mr. Bannon does not often go into detail about what Judeo-Christian culture is.” No, he doesn’t. But Bannon is clear that the eye he casts on this world-historical clash is a belligerent one: “If you think they’re [the “they” is unspecified] going to give you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken. Every day — every day — it is going to be a fight.” The fight is not in behalf of democracy, or liberty, or enlightenment, or justice, or the survival of humanity, but in behalf of what Bannon called “a nation with a culture and a — and a reason for being.” This is the culture war to end all culture wars.

This is the culture war to end all culture wars.

So what’s new in a presidential crusade against the mainstream press? Didn’t Richard Nixon and his attack-dog vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, indulge in accusations of liberal bias? It’s true that on Nov. 13, 1969, Agnew chastised the TV networks at length for failing to “represent the views of America,” as if the purpose of the First Amendment was to guarantee that the public not be bothered with views it did not already hold. Agnew complained about the “concentration” of the means of manufacturing public opinion “in the hands of a tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by government.” News broadcasters, he said, constituted “a small and unelected elite. The great networks have dominated America’s airwaves for decades. The people are entitled to a full accounting of their stewardship.” What he meant by a “full accounting” was left menacingly unclear, though the immediate object of his wrath was the network practice of giving voice to on-air “instant analysis” of the president’s speeches. “The president had a right to communicate directly with the people,” Agnew said, without having his words “characterized through the prejudices of hostile critics….”

As for Nixon himself, he kept his own diatribes within closed doors. The difference today is that Trump is his own attack dog. It’s essential to understand that Trump is speaking publicly — in the manner of “dictators and authoritarians,” as Carl Bernstein has pointed out. “Nixon attacked his enemies in private.”

Here was Nixon speaking in private in 1971:

The press is your enemy. Enemies. Understand that? … Now, never act that way … give them a drink, you know, treat them nice, you just love it, you’re trying to be helpful. But don’t help the bastards. Ever. Because they’re trying to stick the knife right in our groin.

As Avi Selk and Kristine Phillips pointed out in The Post,

Nixon was talking to one person when he made those remarks in February 1971: Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time. His comments wouldn’t be made public until later.

Trump is a verbal knife-fighter more exhibitionist than Nixon. Where Nixon kept his snarls private, Trump rails against leakers. He sees enemies lurking everywhere and wants everyone to know it. He fears not only sticks and stones but any loss of control over the image — the brand — that is his proudest achievement. The con man has conned himself. The would-be strongman quivers lest he be unmasked as a ‘pitiful, helpless giant.” The ultra-sensitivity of such men is the flip side of their ultra-narcissistic needs for endless applause.

Or is it that, of these two greatly damaged men, Trump is the more strategically minded? Whereas Trump used to suck up to his critics in order to bend them to his will, does he go nasty so often now to pump up an audience for his kept corps of obliging propagandists, the Breitbarts, Gateway Pundits, Infowars, Hannitys, Carlsons and Limbaughs? Does he step up his attacks in order to demoralize journalists, humiliate them, weaken their resolve? Does Trump have it in mind to incite his legions of trolls to unload hell on dissenters? To distract from the fact that he won’t keep his promises?

Over the long, long weeks to come, evidence will accrue as to the name of the game Trump is playing — or the game that is playing him. If I may hazard a psychological hunch: Whether or not Trump’s skin is really as paper thin as it appears, a man who delights in nonstop combat is a man who lives in fear that, underneath, he is nothing but a bombastic weakling who has weaponized his bottomless hunger for a power that will always, always, elude him.

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of 16 books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.