He's gaslighting them and they fall for it every time.
Why are the relations between
Donald Trump and the press so bad? There are two reasons. One is that Trump is a Republican, and the press consists overwhelmingly of Democrats. But the other reason is that Trump likes it this way, because when the press is constantly attacking him over trivialities, it strengthens his position and weakens the press. Trump’s “outrageous” statements and tweets aren’t the product of impulsiveness, but part of a carefully maintained strategy that the press is too impulsive to resist.
The first thing to understand is that one of the changes going on with Trump generally is the renegotiation of various post-World War II institutional arrangements. One of those is the institutional arrangement involving the press and the White House. For decades, the press got special status because it was seen as both powerful and institutionally responsible. (And, of course, allied with the Democrats, who were mostly in charge of setting up those postwar institutional arrangements). Press quarters inside the White House and daily press briefings made it easy for everyone to get together on the story of the day.
Now those things have changed. If the press were powerful, it would have beaten Trump. If it were responsible, it wouldn’t be running away with fake news whenever it sees a chance to run something damaging to Trump. And, of course, there’s no alliance between Trump and the media, as there was with Obama.
So things will change. The press’s “insider” status — which it cherishes — is going to fade, with Trump’s press people even talking about moving them out of the White House entirely, and ignoring their existing pecking order in press conferences. (This is producing waves of status anxiety, as are many other Trump-induced institutional changes). And, having abandoned, quite openly, any pretense of objectivity and neutrality in the election, the press is going to be treated as an enemy by the Trump administration until further notice.
In fact, Trump’s basically gaslighting them. Knowing how much they hate him, he’s constantly provoking them to go over the top.
Sean Spicer’s crowd-size remarks on Saturday were all about making them seem petty and negative. (And, possibly, teeing up crowd size comparisons at this Friday’s March For Life, which the press normally ignores but which Trump will probably force them to cover).
Trump knows that the press isn’t trusted very much, and that the less it’s trusted, the less it can hurt him. So he’s prodding reporters to do things that will make them less trusted, and they’re constantly taking the bait.
They’re taking the bait because they think he’s dumb, and impulsive, and lacking self-control — but he’s the one causing them to act in ways that are dumb and impulsive, and demonstrate lack of self-control. As Richard Fernandez writes on Facebook, they think he’s dumb because they think he has lousy taste, but there are a lot of scarily competent guys out there in the world who like white and gold furniture. And, I should note, Trump has more media experience than probably 99% of the people covering him. (As Obama operative Ben Rhodes gloated with regard to selling a dishonest story on the Iran deal, the average reporter the Obama White House dealt with “is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns.” In Rhodes’ words, “they literally know nothing.”)
If you read Don Surber’s election book, Trump the Press, it becomes pretty obvious that the press hasn’t been very good at understanding Trump’s strategies, or at responding to them. So far, there’s no sign of that changing as we move from the
Trump campaign to the Trump administration.
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So what should the press do? It can keep responding the way it has responded so far, or it can change its approach. But the latter may require more self-discipline than it’s got.
The killer counter-move for the press isn’t to double down on anti-Trump messaging. The counter-move is to bolster its own trustworthiness by acting (and being) more neutral and sober, and by being more trustworthy. If the news media actually focused on reporting facts accurately and straightforwardly, on leaving opinion to the pundits, and on giving Trump a clearly fair shake, then Trump’s tactics wouldn’t work, and any actual dirt they found on him would do actual damage. He’s betting on the press being insufficiently mature and self-controlled to manage that. So far, his bet is paying off.
That’s too bad. If we had a better press, we’d be much better off as a nation, and Trump’s strategy of capitalizing on the press’s flaws is good for Trump, but will probably make that problem worse, if such a thing is possible. But the truth is, we don’t have a better press. And as long as the press is mindlessly partisan and bereft of self-discipline, capitalizing on that is just good politics.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a
University of Tennessee law professor and the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.