Thursday, February 2, 2017
#OyVeyDonaldTrump's Main Hombre, Key Alt Right Wingman' Steve Bannon's War on the Press #AmericaHangsItsHeadInShame ( again and Again)
In an interview with the New York Times, Steve Bannon said the media should “keep its mouth shut.”Photograph by Chris Kleponis / Bloomberg via Getty
Somewhere in the West Wing of the White House, I’m guessing, Stephen Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief political strategist, is chuckling to himself. A quick call with a Times reporter, and, a day later, there was his mug on the paper’s front page, next to a story in which he was quoted as saying, “The paper of record for our beloved Republic, the New York Times, should be absolutely ashamed and humiliated. They got it 100 per cent wrong.” Talk about hitting the enemy where it lives.
Of course, the Gray Lady didn’t give Bannon front-page treatment simply for trolling her. In his interview, Bannon delivered a broadside at the press more generally, saying, “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” Bannon also said, “I want you to quote me on this. 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.”
When the Times posted its story online, the reaction in some quarters was one of righteous outrage. Jacob Weisberg, the editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, said on Twitter, “ ‘The media should keep its mouth shut’ is a terrifying, tyrannical comment. It’s coming from inside the White House.” CNN’s Christiane Amanpour asked, “Sorry, what country are we living in?”
Outrage is evidently what Bannon intended to produce. A former Goldman Sachs investment banker and Hollywood producer who remade himself as a leading figure in the alt-right, he enjoys playing the role of provocateur and bomb thrower. At a cocktail party in November, 2013, he described himself as “Leninist” to the writer and historian Ronald Radosh. In a piece at the Daily Beast, Radosh recalled that Bannon had said to him, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” (Bannon subsequently told Radosh that he didn’t recall the conversation.)
To a good Leninist, the very notion of an objective press is a liberal piety. Media outlets like the Times and the Washington Post are merely the ideological arm of highly educated urban cosmopolitans, liberals, and financiers—the “donor class,” Bannon calls them—who have benefitted from globalization and large-scale immigration. “I’m not a white nationalist,” Bannon told the Hollywood Reporter’sMichael Wolff shortly after the election. “I’m a nationalist. I’m an economic nationalist. The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia.”
The first part of this statement was dubious. Regardless of Bannon’s personal views, about which there is some dispute, he undoubtedly provided a platformfor white nationalists, racists, and other right-wing extremists when he ran Breitbart News, a conservative Web site. But Bannon’s reading of the past thirty years of American economic history wasn’t entirely off the mark, and neither was his claim that some in the media underestimated Trump’s appeal—and still do. To many of Trump’s critics, myself included, his first week has amply demonstrated why he isn’t fit for office. But many of his supporters, I’d be willing to bet, see a strong President who is carrying out his campaign pledges to build a wall, protect American jobs, and put America first.
Where Bannon lapsed into hyperbole was in claiming that the media is the “opposition party.” During any Administration, the relationship between the White House and the press corps is somewhat adversarial. All Administrations try to spin things their way, and the media, to a lesser or greater extent, depending on the circumstances, tries to push back. But there is also a symbiosis between the two sides. The news media needs content, which the Administration provides. The Administration needs distribution, which the media provides.
Even the advent of the Internet—and Trump’s 22.5 million Twitter followers—hasn’t altered this logic. While Bannon was lashing out at the Times and other media outlets, his boss was busy exploiting the huge amounts of free airtime that the broadcast networks continue to afford him. On Wednesday and Thursday alone, Trump conducted two hour-long interviews in prime time (ABC and Fox News) and delivered two speeches, which the cable-news networks carried in full (one at the Department of Homeland Security, the other at a Republican retreat in Philadelphia). On Friday, he held a press conference with Theresa May, the British Prime Minister. A host of networks carried the event live.
What’s new isn’t that we have a President who uses the media whenever he can. It’s that, simultaneously, he has made demonizing the press a central part of his political strategy. During the campaign, Trump’s attacks on the “dishonest media” fired up his base and kept him in the news. Now, judging by Bannon’s remarks, the aim is to portray the media as a political adversary rather than an independent monitor, so that when damaging stories appear the Administration can dismiss them. “Much of the media—not all of it—is very, very dishonest,” Trump told Sean Hannity, of Fox News, on Thursday. “Honestly, it’s fake news. Fake. They make things up.”
To repeat what I’ve said many times before: Trump is a menace. And Bannon is his eager accomplice. Even Richard Nixon at his most demented never levelled the sort of charges that Trump hurls on a daily basis. And as far as I know, there is no precedent for a senior White House official telling the press to “keep its mouth shut.”
In the months and year to come, if the Trump Administration goes beyond merely berating reporters, and tries to restrict their activities, journalists might well have to fall back on the foundations of a free media, starting with the First Amendment, which says that “Congress shall pass no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” However, as two law professors—RonNell Andersen Jones, of the University of Utah, and Sonja R. West, of the University of Georgia—pointed out in a recent Op-Ed in the Times, the Constitution provides “only limited protection for the press,” which doesn’t necessarily include the ability to gain access to information or to protect the anonymity of sources. Moreover, public confidence in the press has fallen to a historic low, many lower courts have become less favorable to reporters, and the Supreme Court hasn’t taken on a major press case in more than a decade. “Like so much of our democracy, the freedom of the press is only as strong as we, the public, demand it to be,” Andersen and West wrote.
Fortunately, large numbers of Americans are rallying behind the media just when their support is most needed. The unprecedented protest marches all across the country last weekend demonstrated the existence of a huge and active popular resistance, which is urging the press to hold Trump to account. While Bannon may be tempted to portray the marchers as out-of-touch intellectual-property lawyers and globalists, their sheer numbers belie such a description. (According to some accounts, Saturday’s marches were the biggest political demonstration in American history.) As Trump’s Presidency gets under way, marches and protests provide an essential reminder that, although he rallied an impressive number of alienated and dispossessed white voters, the majority of Americans rejected him, and still reject him. They are the real opposition, and they are too many for Trump and Bannon to silence.
Another reason not to despair is Trump himself. During his first week in office, he was the person who did most to undermine his credibility and authority. By repeatedly saying things that weren’t true, or even nearly true—that his Inauguration drew the biggest audience ever; that he would have won the popular vote but for enormous voter fraud—he invited criticism and ridicule, which duly poured down upon him. Perhaps his ravings didn’t do him much damage among his core supporters: they tend to cheer anything he says. But the impetuous behavior unnerved Republicans on Capitol Hill, some of Trump’s business supporters, and, judging by the steady stream of leaks to reporters, even some of his own staff and appointees. On Friday, Brian Beutler, of The New Republic, pointed out that, in the past few days, the Times, the Washington Post, and Politico have all published stories “sourced to the White House—portraying Trump as a fragile, erratic, television-obsessed snowflake.”
Trump’s tender ego and impulsiveness aren’t his only vulnerabilities. In refusing to divest his businesses, he has invited the suspicion that he intends to enrich himself and his family. In cozying up to Vladimir Putin, he has invited speculation about whether the Russians have some sort of hold over him. Going forward, both of these areas will continue to provide target-rich environments for investigative reporters and other Trump antagonists.
Bannon, by the way, has had some critical things to say about Putin in the past. “I think that Putin and his cronies are really a kleptocracy . . . an imperialist power that wants to expand,” he said in a speech in 2014, according to a transcriptobtained by BuzzFeed. The next time a reporter gets Bannon on the phone, that quote might be worth bringing up. On Friday, Trump confirmed that he is weighing whether to lift economic sanctions that are aimed squarely at Putin and his cronies.