Politicians have always toyed with the truth, outright lied or sought to cultivate self-serving versions of reality. No one, though, has done it so brazenly or effectively as Donald Trump. Here we are, just a few weeks removed from his fantastical victory, and he has already declared without any evidence that millions of people voted illegally, repeatedly antagonized CNN and the New York Times (his twin obsessions), and suggested he would violate the Constitution by jailing or revoking the citizenship of flag-burners. This is insane.
All of Trump’s most ludicrous pronouncements have come through his favored medium, Twitter, and this has sparked a furious debate among journalists about how to cover this black swan presidency. Should every tweet be a top news story? Trump has clearly gamed the traditional model of covering the White House, which is to treat just about every utterance from the president as headline-making news. When presidents were not particularly inflammatory or overtly deceitful, this made enough sense. At its most basic function, this is what the “news” has been about: an important person saying something as journalists scrutinize and amplify it for the masses.
A new model for covering (and reacting to) the Trump presidency is needed. Consider that Trump is a serial liar before you cry out, once again, that the latest tweet heralds the end of democracy as we know it. Until something changes, Trump’s words are often worthless. He has vowed to prosecute Hillary Clinton, torture suspected terrorists, rip up the Paris climate accords and build that big beautiful Wall. Now he’s reneged, to some degree, on all of these promises, and he may revive them if the mood strikes. Trump can’t be judged by his words anymore. Little he says is literal. Statements and interviews are ephemera. Most journalists aren’t used to that.
Treating Trump’s incitations figuratively deprives him of his desired outcome: sowing confusion and obscuring uncomfortable truth. Save your outrage and scrutiny for the actions Trump has taken already. Georgia Congressman Tom Price, his new Health and Human Services secretary, wouldn’t mind privatizing Medicare, something most of Trump’s elderly supporters don’t want. Incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions will probably scrap all the sorely-needed investigations into racially-biased police departments. Twitter freakouts overshadow Trump’s foreign and domestic entanglements and the fact that he may be in violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause.
By piling on falsehood after falsehood and watching as these eclipse far more consequential news, Trump is able to craft an alternate reality that undermines the fact-based consensus undergirding healthier democracies. When Trump’s next misleading tweet inevitably comes, news organizations must note first that the new president is propagating a lie, and not simply rehash a baseless accusation in a headline. The accusation must be called baseless. It also shouldn’t dominate a news cycle.
For news producers and editors, the struggle will be to balance the volume of tweet coverage with everything else. Television, CNN in particular, can’t resist the allure of an incendiary tweet owning the day — as other news organizations follow suit. The tweets shouldn’t be the story any longer. How Trump wields his authority is what counts. For the many millions united against Trump, this means knowing where to aim your attention and fury. Trump’s Twitter musings, no matter how vile, are not the point. The government that actually emerges is.
For the media and the public, Trump represents a singular challenge: somehow keeping your eye on the ball, when the new president has 20 different multicolored balls, some with racist slogans scrawled on them, and he’s hurling them in 20 different directions
I won’t advocate completely ignoring Trump’s tweets because that is impossible. But journalists do have to understand, as Politico’s Jack Shafer has convincingly argued, how they’re being played. Trump’s Twitter account is a weapon to distract from unflattering news. It’s also a way to provoke a horrified (and predicable) reaction from the left, inviting further backlash from Trump’s furious base. Trump, like his emerging Svengali Steve Bannon, is a master provocateur, ideologically fluid and savagely opportunistic.
Just as I reject the notion that Trump is a pure-bred fascist, I’m also skeptical that Bannon is an unrepentant white supremacist, which is a label most liberals want to slap on him these days. Trump and Bannon are trolls first; they thrive on inciting reactions from the type of people probably reading these words. Trump doesn’t promise a fascist dystopia. What he offers instead is a right-wing government that will thrive on misdirection. In this thicket of unrealities, the only thing real is the power he will exert.
For the journalists, activists and minorities who now feel under assault, know that your energy and outrage must be marshaled for the fights that matter. Words are much hollower in Trump’s America. Actions, more so than ever, are paramount.