President Trump’s attack machine — the one that tells us who is unattractive or creepy, who is stupid or senile, who is corrupt or dangerous or traitorous or ought to be tossed in prison — is gearing up for the final stretch of the 2020 campaign.
The crazy talk and baseless assertions are reaching new levels of hysteria. Joe Biden has dementia! He’s a pedophile! He’s a socialist! Obamagate, which you probably never heard of before last week, was the “biggest political crime in American history by far”! Nancy Pelosi is “a sick woman” with “a lot of mental problems.”
It’s all part of the by now familiar Trump playbook: Inflame the base with outrageous charges, muddy the minds of the undecided with false equivalencies, fashion whole conspiracies out of the thinnest of facts, retweet the libels of others. Then add some incendiary language and superlatives — the worst ever, the most incompetent, the biggest crime, the most awful scandal — and poof, you’ve got a strategy.
It’s shocking how effectively these tactics were deployed in 2016. Remember the Hillary Clinton email server? Trump actually assailed Clinton for corruption “on a scale we have never seen before” while the credulous crowds shouted “lock her up, lock her up.”
And what did the press do? We lost our perspective and the email story repeatedly landed on page one and on the cable news repeat cycle, as if it were a truly significant story that deserved extensive coverage. A study by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard later found that Clinton’s controversies received more attention in the media during the campaign than Trump’s — much of it focused on the email story that Trump’s own State Department eventually concluded amounted to nothing, finding there had been “no persuasive evidence of systemic, deliberate mishandling of classified information” by Clinton.
Now the media have a second chance to get it right. But will it matter? Will it change anything?
Certainly today’s coverage of Trump is far more aggressive than it was in 2016. Over the last four years, news outlets have done great work exposing the president’s misdeeds, including on Ukraine and impeachment, on environmental rollbacks, on scandals in executive agencies. His lies are now routinely exposed.
Consider the media’s reaction to Trump’s recent assertion that Obama — Joe Biden’s boss in the White House — committed “the biggest political crime in American history by far.” It’s clearly a McCarthy-like smear, and Trump won’t even say what crime it is he’s referring to.
But this time, the press is pushing back. In a page one story, this newspaper called Obamagate “a sinister conspiracy theory ... in which [Trump] alleges, but never specifies, crimes by his predecessor.”
And there was this back-and-forth between the president and a Washington Post reporter.
Reporter: “You appeared to accuse Obama of a crime yesterday. What did he do?”
Reporter: “What is the crime?”
Trump: “You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you have to do is read the newspapers, except yours.”
But it’s not obvious at all, and if the president of the United States is going to assert it, he should back it up.
Then there was the despicable and entirely meritless assertion, pushed by Donald Trump Jr. last weekend to his 2.8 million Instagram followers, that Joe Biden is a pedophile. The press — or at least the responsible portions of the press — to its credit, immediately characterized the allegation as “incendiary,” “baseless,” “manufactured” and a “smear.” Under fire, the younger Trump backed down, relying on one of his father’s favorite tricks when caught out and insisting that he’d just been kidding.
But will more aggressive coverage make any difference? Covering Trump is like nailing Jell-O to the wall. He doesn’t play by the rules, he is unburdened by a commitment to honesty, he’s not restrained by the usual concerns about what’s irresponsible or dangerous for the country. And the people most likely to be taken in by his lies aren’t the people reading newspapers.
All the investigations and fact-checks and ad-watches in the world aren’t likely to reach those who matter most. Trump has his own direct connection to his people; he doesn’t need the media to get his message out. The New York Times may have 6 million subscribers, but Trump has 80 million Twitter followers. CNN may get more than a million viewers on a good day, but Trump has 19.7 million followers on Instagram alone. News organizations can and must challenge him, but it’s not clear whether they’ll be heard.
We’re a divided country, an angry country that can’t agree on a common narrative, a common history or a common set of values, much less a single coherent picture of President Trump.
Reporters must soldier on, doing their best to present the facts, fully, honestly and in their proper context, so that readers can draw informed conclusions and make their best possible decisions on election day. But getting the truth out in the current political climate is an uphill battle.