The Media Is Dangerously Unequipped to Deal with Tonight’s Trumpian Propaganda Circus
The president’s speech on the border “crisis” and The Wall will likely be completely detached from reality. We’re not up to the challenge of covering it live.
BY JACK HOLMES. JAN 8, 2019
Around 1823, according to legend, a boy named William Webb Ellis was playing soccer at the Rugby School in Warwickshire, England, when he decided to just pick up the ball and run with it. Sure, this violated the one most essential rule of soccer—don’t use your hands—but it was way easier, and must have granted him an immediate advantage over his opponents. After all, they were stuck using their feet. That is, until rugby became an entirely new game in itself, one with new rules and a whole new level of hard-nosed brutality.
The myth came to mind Monday after I read a tweet from Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler, who has followed pretty much every word that Donald Trump, American president, has produced over the last two years. He wondered the following about Trump’s upcoming speech about the supposed “crisis” on the southern border.
This is quite simply amazing. Having dutifully fact-checked thousands upon thousands of Donald Trump’s public statements as president of this country—and found more than 7,600 were false, including 15 per day in 2018—Kessler still believes the president is concerned with whether something he says is or isn’t true. This is Charlie Brown with the football—or like chasing William Webb Ellis around the field, whistling and shouting, “Handball!”
Donald Trump is not playing soccer. He probably never has. The president does not believe in the concept of truth—the idea that there are things we can empirically learn about the world through observation and the scientific method, and that these facts come together to form a framework known as objective reality. For Trump, the truth is whatever you can get enough people to believe. What he wants people to believe is whatever is most useful to him right now. When called on this, he fights back hard—never producing evidence—or abandons the claim and pretends it never happened. Never does he admit there is a reality we all inhabit whose contours he can’t mold to his personal benefit.
On The Apprentice, he would occasionally fire the week’s best-performing contestant because he didn’t much know what was going on and didn’t care. The show’s producers would then have to reverse-engineer reality to accommodate this new conclusion. The same happens each day in the White House, as aides scramble to explain some evidence-free nonsense he’s tweeted—a conclusion in search of jerry-rigged justification. For his whole life in privately held business, Trump was above accountability because his minions would simply make his visions real—until, of course, the business went bankrupt. There were no voters or shareholders to answer to. And even in those lowest moments, he would always personally skate by, inventing new worlds for himself to escape into.
Many in The Mainstream Media think of themselves as referees of The Discourse. They throw on the zebra stripes each morning and call fair and foul. They are neutral, disinterested, scrupulously unbiased. This is, in itself, a bit tenuous. It would seem to fly in the face of the fact that media people are human beings who often know the most about current events. The idea they do not have opinions, or that those opinions do not at least subliminally impact their decisions—what issues or public figures to cover, how to frame that coverage, which voices they allow to weigh in—requires more evidence than is often supplied.
The problem now is not so much that candidates are getting boxed out, but that the media is running around the field whistling at people who are not playing their game. Most big-time journalists are used to being able to classify some things as false—and some things as radical or unrealistic—and pulling their subjects back to the game we all agreed to play. Trump and his allies simply do not believe the rules apply to them. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Sunday that many of the 4,000 terrorist suspects—a loose term in the first place—captured trying to enter the United States illegally were found at the southern border. According to Customs and Border Protection, the number is 6.
These people are not interested in what is happening in the world, only what they can get away with saying to benefit themselves politically. All politicians lie, but this is an administration—and a supportive right-wing media ecosystem—entirely untethered from reality. Far too many in the media establishment seem to think they are dealing with a very rude president and his roguish staff—not a man with nakedly authoritarian tendencies who has no regard for the norms and rules of democracy, including the idea we should base our debates and our decisions on facts about the world. They are trying to perform the role of Neutral Arbiter, a tough one in the best of times, and getting run over by a ball-carrier playing a whole new game. Which brings us to the upcoming festivities of this Tuesday night.
President Trump announced via tweet Monday that he would deliver an Oval Office address tonight concerning the “crisis” at our southern border, and the need to Build The Wall. This event is based on an entire architecture of false premises. First and foremost, illegal border crossings are down significantly in recent years. In 2000, 1.6 million people were apprehended trying to cross. In 2001, 1.3 million were. In 2017, 310,000 were. In 2018, it was up slightly to 400,000.
The steep decline is mostly due to the recession, which contracted the economy and job opportunities up here. In 2017, Trump’s immigration crackdown may have discouraged some people. But moreover, the net flow into the U.S. is around zero, or even negative. The “caravans” of relatively small numbers of people from Central America are primarily made up of people seeking an asylum hearing—as is their right under international law—on the basis they are fleeing violence and persecution. In another time, we might call them refugees.
A Honduran child and her mother, fleeing poverty and violence in their home country, waits along the border bridge after being denied entry from Mexico into the U.S. on June 25, 2018 in Brownsville, Texas.
Then there is Trump’s solution. The Wall will not stop the significant share of undocumented immigrants who arrive at airports and overstay their visas. Planes go over The Wall. No one serious believes it will stop the flow of drugs. It will be a legal and logistical nightmare to build, requiring the government to seize private land—and reservation land from Native Americans—and disrupt local ecosystems and wildlife habitats.
It will be extremely expensive (even the $5.7 billion Trump would get in his dreams is not nearly enough to finish it) and, again, not particularly effective—except as a monument to White America’s resentment of the changing world outside.
The actual crisis of the moment is the government shutdown, which Trump single-handedly caused and for which he once readily accepted the blame in a televised meeting with Democratic leaders. Trump was ready to sign a funding bill Congress had settled on to keep government open that did not have Wall funding, but then he got chewed out by Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter and the rest of the right-wing punditocracy. It was, after all, his campaign promise, an idea he likely got from talk radio anyway—another conclusion in search of evidence. Who cares if he has to subvert democracy in order to live up to a promise for once?
Because there is nothing worse for Donald Trump than people saying bad things about Donald Trump on the teevee, he went nuclear and refused to sign any bill that didn’t have funding for The Wall—an initiative that has been rejected by the majority of the American public. If you don’t believe the polls, look at the 2018 midterms, in which Trump went full propaganda about The Caravan and the border and The Wall and got absolutely trounced. This is not Washington Swamp-Dwellers subverting the will of the people. He has no mandate to build this thing.
Now, Trump has floated declaring a state of emergency, an action that grants the executive vast powers which he and his lackeys believe include seizing taxpayer money that has not been appropriated by Congress to build a wall. This appears nakedly unconstitutional, and would almost certainly face a court challenge.
But more to the point, declaring a state of emergency to respond to an entirely fabricated crisis is dangerously authoritarian behavior. Vice President Mike Pence and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen went to Congress yesterday evening to get Republicans there on board with this treacherous scam. My colleague, Charles P. Pierce, suggested yesterday it might be time to “start fireproofing the Reichstag.” More recently, one thinks of the questions swirling around a failed “coup” against Turkey’s authoritarian President Erdogan, after which he consolidated his power further. Chaos is a ladder, and all that—especially when you create it yourself.
So the current crisis is completely manufactured and potentially dangerous to the republic. But just as when Trump deployed active-duty military on U.S. soil to combat a nonexistent “invasion” at the southern border in the closing stretch of the 2018 midterms, the American establishment media is basically going along with this as normal. No one often mentions that the crisis is not real. Afraid of being accused of bias by the right-wing, which will always accuse them of bias, many of our Neutral Referees are covering the process questions in all this. Will Congressional Republicans go along? (Yes.) We’re all getting dragged around again, just like with The Caravan and The Emails and The Ebola Panic.
But worst of all, all the major networks have announced they will carry this obvious propaganda live in primetime, ensuring the firehose of bullshit sprays as many Americans as possible.
“Hopefully surrounded by fact-checking,” Brian Stelter says. He works for CNN, which was among the first to announce it will carry the speech—and will, almost certainly, host Rick Santorum before and after on its patented Debate Panels. They will likely not, as journalist Soledad O’Brien predicted on Twitter, feature many immigration experts or Hispanic commentators. But they will feature people like Santorum, whom CNN pays to defend the president no matter what he says. Will the networks fact-check the president in real-time, on-screen, during the speech? If not, he’s got a free bullhorn to blast out his racist propaganda. Stelter added later that the big networks will broadcast the Democratic response, but based on the State of the Union every year, how many people are going to watch the response—presumably delivered from a diner in Pennsylvania, or whatever?
It’s here where we might add that President Barack Obama sought to give a live, primetime speech on immigration in 2014—and the networks passed on the basis it would be too partisan. Surely, Trump’s won’t be partisan at all.
All this is eerily reminiscent of the Year of Our Lord 2016, of course. Before that election cycle, MSNBC was in fairly severe financial straits, and the future for CNN wasn’t particularly bright. The advertising model supporting digital and print media was beginning to crumble. And there, out of nothing, came a carnival barker, a true showman, who guaranteed the clicks and the eyeballs. All three cable networks would show an empty podium for long periods before a Trump rally, convening panels to discuss what crap he would soon spew, while other presidential candidates were actually on-stage elsewhere giving speeches.
Someday, assuming we get that far, all we media people will have to grapple with our role in promoting this vicious buffoon to the grandest stage because it generated cash in the short term. For what it’s worth, network executives are not doing any such reflection yet:
Everyone knows he’s going to lie constantly for the duration of the speech. Everyone knows they are spreading dangerous propaganda. And everyone knows it will get eyeballs. It’s great TV—just like the Dean Scream. So it goes ahead, with the phony excuse that Trump will criticize the networks as biased if they don’t. At this point, if you don’t understand that Trump and the right-wing will never stop criticizing mainstream outlets as insufficiently right-wing, you really need to get a grip. The attacks are not good-faith critiques of network programming. They are a constant, relentless attempt to drag the dialogue farther rightward.
And that brings us back to The Rules of the Game. Whatever game the fact-checkers and the network executives are playing, Trump and his allies ain’t playing it. The president is exploiting the corporate profit motive to glorious effect, knowing full well no TV producer worth his salt—or, more importantly, whose job security depends on ratings—will turn down a chance to air this nonsense extravaganza. They’ll go wall-to-wall, with a pregame panel and a postgame panel and analysis and commentary and questions like, How Will Democrats Respond? Does Nancy Pelosi Have to Come to the Table? Meanwhile, the fact that this entire thing is built on a foundation of complete and utter bullshit will rarely go mentioned.
It’s a new game now. You can pick up the ball! What, isn’t that handball? Let’s just run with it.