“The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for awhile,” Mr. Bannon said during a telephone call.
“I want you to quote this,” Mr. Bannon added. “The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.”
There will be a lot of outrage on the part of the media over this. A lot of self-righteous monologues about the media being “The Fourth Estate” and all of that high-minded stuff that people who got into journalism in the wake of Watergate like to bleat on about, but the proper response to this is not outrage. It’s laughter. Mockery.
Yes, the media has more than its share of problems. It missed the 2016 election badly. Even worse: there will now be a lot of Boomer journalists self-righteously speechifying as a result of all of this. But the idea that reporters are going to shut up because Steve Bannon tells them to is silly. Indeed, his words are more likely to inspire some complacent members of the press corps to go harder after Trump than they might’ve otherwise done.
But Bannon probably knows this. He doesn’t necessarily want it to happen, but he had no choice because Donald Trump is drowning and its Bannon’s job to throw him a life preserver.
Trump is not weak, mind you. He’s issuing ill-considered and damaging executive orders and promising changes, cuts and initiatives which will do real tangible harm. But he is nonetheless drowning. Drowning in the waters he most prefers to swim and which he usually finds most refreshing. The public spotlight. In front of the cameras and the crowd. For the past 40 years they have been where he has felt most at home and shined the brightest. Now, however, he is not a mere celebrity. He’s the president, the press and the public are obligated to criticize and scrutinize the president, the attacks are just beginning, he does not know how to fend them off and he’s already beginning to get paranoid and defensive.
So he’s sending out his propagandist-in-chief to rally the base.
Which is totally what this is, by the way. It’s overlooked because of all of the talk about economic anxiety and anti-immigrant sentiment and people’s distaste for Hillary Clinton, etc., etc. but a singular defining trait of the Trump campaign was its ability to cultivate distrust in the media on the part of its rump base, which is around 30-35% of the electorate.
It did so by utilizing — and, I should add, being utilized by — media outlets like Bannon’s Breitbart, The Drudge Report and Infowars. By pushing or riding on a message that the United States is under siege, that it has some very specific enemies which can very easily be neutralized and that, above all else, our problems are not of our own making or incumbent upon us to solve via hard work and sacrifice. Things would only be better if we could do these simple things to take us back in time to when everything was good — to Make America Great Again — and here is how we can do it. With a wall. Or a ban on muslims. Or big tariffs.
The Breitbarts pushed this narrative and, going further, told their readers and listeners that any media outlet which did not push this narrative was lying to them. That they were complicit in the work of our enemies. It was many steps beyond the standard Republican thing about how the media has a liberal bias. It was about how the media is an active evildoer, intent on America’s downfall.
I know a few Trump supporters personally. People who, if you’re not talking to them about politics, you would never consider unreasonable people. Indeed, they’re highly intelligent people who, in the normal course, would not be raving about Mexicans and Muslims and admiring Vladimir Putin. They’re not even necessarily strongly opinionated about conservative causes that Paul Ryan and his gang plan to use Trump to effect.
No, a huge reason they latched onto Trump was because they bought into the idea that all but a couple of self-selected media outlets were the enemy and the only truth which can be found is within the pages and on the video and audio feeds of Breitbart, Drudge and Infowars. They overstated the peril our nation is in, understated the work needed to address the peril which existed and supported someone who gave them the easiest, most painless answers to do so. They were people whose concerns about the future are real but who were totally rooked by charlatans into believing that they had the answers.
This is who Bannon is counting on to mobilize once again. He knows that that rump base isn’t as big as those who oppose him and his boss. They’re sizable enough, however. Sizable enough to where, if they are mobilized, he can claim that they represent a silent majority and then begin the work of marginalizing the true majority who never wanted Trump to be the president in the first place and who now stand appalled at his first week in office. Even some of that media he told to shut up will likely buy into that story, because among the media’s other faults is its love of phony balance.
Trump is in deeper waters than he’s ever been in his life. He’s drowning, and his life guard is trying to save him. He wants everyone out of the water as he does it.
Screw him. Keep swimming.