Let's end this media charade about Trump
Has any recent president snatched political defeat from the jaws of victory quite the way Donald Trump has done over the last few days? Watching the Democratic Party become ensnared in a nasty civil war being fought among House leaders and insurgent freshman congresswoman, Trump inexplicably entered the fray over the weekend by posting blatantly racist tweets about how the congresswoman of color should "go back" to the countries they came from. (Three of the four were born in America.)
After his racist rhetoric ignited a firestorm of controversy, which featured a handful of Republicans condemning him, the story then dominated headlines for days as Trump got into shouting matches with reporters and watched the House vote on a resolution condemning his rampant bigotry. As for the looming Democratic civil war? That story has been shelved for now, all thanks to Trump.
Despite the sprawling miscue, some media players actually scored Trump's racist attack on Democratic congresswoman as a tactical win, and once again credited him with being a masterful manipulator and communicator. This has been a constant media refrain since Trump entered the presidential campaign in the summer of 2015, as journalists routinely credited him for playing 3-D chess while his opponents played media checkers. It's a rather astonishing narrative considering Trump has wracked up some of the most consistently awful approval ratings in American history. Yet the narrative endures, even against the backdrop of his recent racist firestorm.
"Trump has completely succeeded in drawing attention away from the conditions at detention centers on the border," tweeted Jonathan Weisman, deputy editor of the New York Times' Washington, D.C. bureau. "On Saturday the nation’s media were aghast at the images that came out of Pence’s visit. One presidential tweet storm later and we have completely changed the subject."
First of all, the saga of how immigrants and refugees are being mistreated by the Trump administration is one that's been in the news for the last year, and will likely stay in the news for another year. So the idea that Trump's tweets magically made the disturbing story disappear is false. Secondly, the idea that Trump "succeeded" politically by launching an openly racist crusade against Democratic women tells you a lot about the starting point of so many D.C. journalists these days, and the extraordinary double standard they have adopted for covering Trump. Do you think if President Barack Obama or President Bill Clinton had ignited a firestorm by releasing blatantly hateful and anti-Semitic commentary that D.C. journalists would have been talking about how Obama or Clinton had deftly "succeeded" in changing the news topic? I certainly do not.
"This fight w/ the squad is exactly where Trump wants 2020 fought," stressed Amy Walter, national editor for the Cook Political Report, referencing the four House congresswomen ("the squad") who became the target of Trump's bigoted wrath. "The more media/Dems engage him, the better for him. All this fight does is re-polarize the partisans and leaves the up-for-grabs voters (who want to hear about bread-butter issues) tuned out."
Ah, Trump has Democrats exactly where he wants them because they're defending members from ugly, nativist attacks. What exactly, in this scenario, are Democrats supposed to be doing? Apparently, in order to not be out-maneuvered by Trump they're supposed to not "engage him" when he unleashes unprecedented hate speech from inside the White House. Doesn't this view seem like a can't-lose proposition for Trump? He baselessly tells sitting members of Congress to "go back" from where they came from, and if Democrats protest Trump is declared the winner, and if Democrats ignored Trump, he's allegations go unheeded.
Writing at NBC News, Jonathan Allen credited Trump for "flipping the script" on Democrats by leveling racist attacks against four of their members. "Trump surely saw an opportunity to frame the pair of dust-ups for his own base and swing voters as twin examples of Democrats unfairly accusing political rivals of racism," Allen wrote, while awarding Trump points for giving his loyalists another reason to hate Democrats based on their identity.
Note that at the end of last week, a Washington Post piece marveled at how Trump took a humiliating defeat on the issue of putting a citizen question on the U.S. census and turned it into an optical victory by holding an event at the Rose Garden. "Ever the brand strategist, Trump rarely gives up quietly, instead preferring to invite the cameras in and make the case that his losses are actually unexpected victories," the Post reported. "Trump has proved adept at seeing—and promoting—the bright side of failure."
By the way, here's what happened at the brand strategist's White House last week. Trump’s attempt to lower drug prices crashed and burned in the courts. Trump’s attempt to include a citizenship question on the 2020 Census crusade crashed and burned. And Trump Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta crashed and burned after he became caught up in the Jeffery Epstein sex scandal. If a Democratic president ever staggered through a week of defining losses like that, the D.C. press would have been writing his or her political obituary. Period. But with Trump, the Post ended the week noting his tactical savvy.
It's all part of the storyline the press wants to tell about how Trump is a uniquely skilled communicator, and how he can bypass the press to forcefully speak directly to Americans. But that's all nonsense, as Trump has had virtually no luck moving public opinion on any of the key points of his political agenda. For instance, he's been trying to sell the border wall along the southern U.S. border for four years and probably hasn't convinced three people during that time it's a good idea during that time frame. Trump has the biggest, loudest megaphone in America and he's been touting that wall relentlessly … and nobody's listening. Look at the polling on the issue. But he's the masterful manipulator?
He's not. He's a bully and quite often a buffoon. The press should in no way confuse that with being a skilled communicator.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.
This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.