It seemed bizarre. But Donald Trump’s choice last week of a renegade, far-right news executive to lead his campaign was an inevitable culmination of a candidate’s war with the mainstream media and his embrace of his party’s most incendiary voices.
Trump’s obsession with the media has been one of the few constants in his campaign. He rails against “scum” reporters, withholding credentials from major news organizations and lashing out on Twitter this week against the “failing New York Times,” while granting lengthy interviews to those same outlets and basking in their attention. He exploits the divide in conservative media to bash enemies and create safe zones on select television and radio shows. He questions the core tenets of the 1st Amendment and flouts the judgment of fact-checkers with abandon.
“You have all these websites that create this echo chamber — that’s kind of an old term,” said Charlie Sykes, a conservative radio host in Wisconsin. “It’s gone beyond an echo chamber” to competing realities.
While trust in the media has fallen precipitously in the country, the drop among conservatives is especially large over the past two decades. Only about one in four Republicans surveyed by Gallup in 2014 said they trust the mass media, roughly half the level of trust expressed by Democrats. Earlier polling by Pew showed similar results, with large and widening gaps in the trust levels held by Democrats and Republicans in specific news organizations such as CNN, NBC and the New York Times. A Morning Consult poll released Friday found a plurality of Americans of all political stripes — 38% — believe the media is biased in trying to help elect Hillary Clinton president, a far greater percentage than the 12% who said the media is biased in favor of Trump.
Republicans have long fed off that trust gap, but Trump has made it a central talking point. His loudest applause at rallies often comes when he points out the “dishonest media” confined to a cordoned-off pen. For a time this month, his own campaign took the unusual step of blasting out negative stories about Trump in news releases titled “Media Bias Offender.”
“If the disgusting and corrupt media covered me honestly and didn’t put false meaning into the words I say, I would be beating Hillary by 20%,” Trump tweeted this week.
“The establishment media doesn’t cover what really matters in this country, or what’s really going on in people’s lives,” he said during a rally in North Carolina on Thursday. “They will take words of mine out of context and spend a week obsessing over every single syllable, and then pretend to discover some hidden meaning in what I said.”
Trump has used that distrust to join with sites like Breitbart in crafting what some observers see as an alternate reality where Trump is favored to win the election despite polls showing otherwise, where voter fraud is rampant in spite of evidence that it’s not and where stories that reveal darker aspects of Trump’s past are either examples of media bias or do not exist at all.
In tapping Stephen Bannon, the editor of Breitbart News, as his campaign’s chief executive officer, Trump has elevated a kindred spirit who, like Trump, relishes trafficking in taboo subjects and conspiracies once relegated to the far corners of conservative dialogue.
“Trump just hired a mirror,” said Ben Shapiro, a former editor at Breitbart who left in anger this year over what he saw as Bannon’s determination to create a “Trump media complex” at the expense of authentic conservatism. Shapiro has since criticized the site for promoting so-called alt-right voices who espouse white nationalism.
Breitbart and other sites have also helped bring rumors and conspiracies closer to the mainstream.
The latest rumor to reach Trump’s rhetoric: Clinton’s allegedly failing health. In two speeches this week, Trump said she “lacks the strength and stamina” to fight terrorism. The comments alluded to unsubstantiated speculation on conservative websites, highlighted by Breitbart, that Clinton is too ill to serve as president. Clinton fainted and suffered a concussion in 2012; her doctor wrote later that she suffered symptoms, including a blood clot and double vision, that were resolved within two months. But that did not quell speculation that has circled since.
Trump’s longtime political ally, Roger Stone, insisted in 2014 that Clinton would not run for president “for health reasons.”
“Remember you heard it first from the #StoneZone,” he tweeted.
The rumors have festered, relying on forged documents, speculation from doctors who never examined Clinton and pictures showing Clinton sitting on a stool or using a pillow during events. One Breitbart story quoted a former New York City police officer who had no direct knowledge of Clinton’s health but claimed in a tweet that another unnamed “strong source” told him Clinton took a long bathroom break during a debate in January due to a “flare-up of problems from brain injury.”
Fox News host Sean Hannity, a close Trump ally, devoted significant air time to the issue in recent weeks, asserting that a reporter was scared when Clinton jokingly shook her head in an exaggerated “seizure-esque” manner during an unexpected encounter with the press. The reporter in the middle of the scrum later wrote that she was not scared.
This week, after commentators claimed seeing a “Clinton handler” wielding an anti-seizure pen in a photograph, Clinton’s director of communications weighed in on Twitter.
“That is a U.S. Secret Service agent with a pen,” Jennifer Palmieri wrote. “Normal writing pen.”
It wasn’t a pen, either, according to the Secret Service. “It’s a flashlight, period,” said Nicole Mainor, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Trump has capitalized on two decades in which conservative outlets have helped transform legitimate gripes with the media’s liberal slant into a “post-truth environment,” said Sykes
Sykes pointed to Trump’s previous foray into politics — his promotion of the myth that President Obama was born outside the U.S., a persistent conspiracy theory that gained the label of birtherism.
“Now we have a Republican nominee who’s the nation’s premier birther,” said Sykes, whose tough interview with Trump was credited with diminishing Trump’s chances in the state’s spring primary, which he lost. “These things don’t happen in a vacuum.”
Sykes said that when he talks about news stories on his show that are critical of Trump, such as a Washington Post investigation showing Trump’s apparent lack of charitable donations, his listeners push back, asking why he would sell out by quoting the liberal media. He said people who get news purely from Breitbart, the Drudge Report, commentator Ann Coulter and the like were led to believe that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) was in serious danger of losing a recent primary election to an outsider candidate who aligned himself with Trump. Ryan won with more than 80% of the vote.
“What [Trump] and his enablers are doing and have succeeded in doing is to delegitimize the media altogether, and that is important to him because that inoculates him against legitimate fact-checking and against legitimate investigations of his record,” Sykes said.
Supporters at Trump’s rallies often echo the talking points of conservative media. Dalton Behie, a 19-year-old college student who attended a recent rally near his Virginia home, said he follows a variety of news sources on Twitter, including Breitbart, but also more mainstream news outlets that do not share his conservative viewpoint.
Still, he was unaware of major stories this week detailing alleged financial ties between Paul Manafort, who resigned Friday as Trump’s campaign chairman, and a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine. Yet Behie had seen numerous stories questioning Clinton’s health, which have been largely limited to conservative media. He did not find the evidence conclusive, but he was curious.
“It definitely raises legitimate questions,” he said.
Similarly, he dismissed Clinton’s lead in the polls as unbelievable because some of his liberal friends who supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary have told him they will not support Clinton in the general election.
There is also a sense among many of Trump’s supporters that the media fails to grasp the sarcasm in some of Trump’s more inflammatory remarks or takes them out of proportion. That’s in part because Trump tends to repeat those remarks, amplify them and resist opportunities to back down — ensuring they get maximum coverage. But there are moments that lend fuel to such critiques, including a rally where Trump did in fact seem to be joking when he told the mother of a crying baby to leave the room.
Trump’s formula for remaining in constant controversy seemed to help win him the Republican nomination. And the media was just one more institution that he was tearing down.
“This has been taken to an extreme that is unprecedented,” said Michael Lempert, a University of Michigan linguistic anthropologist who has written about presidential politics. “Mavericks aren’t enough. An ostentatious outsider like Sarah Palin is not enough.”
Yet many mainstream Republican consultants have been frustrated with that tactic as Trump has fallen behind in general election polls. Kevin Madden, a former spokesman for Mitt Romney, said he does not believe Trump’s constant battles with the media constitute a deliberate strategy at this point, nor does he believe it resonates with most voters Trump will need to overcome Clinton’s polling advantage.
“It’s a reflexive one, in that it’s a reaction to the very poor position that the campaign has put itself in,” he said. “He’s not going to accept any blame himself.”
8:35 a.m. Aug. 22: This story was updated with comment from the Secret Service.
This story was originally published Aug. 20.