The Media Are Not on the Ballot

Whether Trump likes it or not, he's running against Joe Biden.

Hello,

I got an email yesterday from the Trump campaign. It begins:

Friend,

President Trump isn’t running against Sleepy Joe Biden. He’s running against the Radical Left, the Deep State, the Do-Nothing Democrats, and their partner, the real opposition party, the Fake News media.

They are vicious and crazy, but as long as we have you on our team, we will win and we will WIN BIG!

Despite their best efforts to take him down, President Trump continues to put America First with every decision he makes. In fact, his approval ratings are SKYROCKETING among the Republican Party and voters in swing states.

President Trump knows that the corrupt media will never report the FACTS. He wants to get the TRUTH, which is why he asked us to go straight to the source - YOU, the American People - to take the Official May Approval Poll.

YOUR answers will represent the views of EVERY voter who lives in your zip code.

It goes on like this for a while. But this is more than enough to make my point: The Trump campaign thinks his supporters are idiots.

First of all, Trump’s approval is not “skyrocketing” among Republicans, nor among voters in swing states, in any actual polls. Unless, of course, you think this “Official May Approval Poll,” in which I will be the official voice of every voter in my ZIP code, is a serious thing. And if you do, you should probably just stop reading now and go buy that fish tank cleaner cocktail you’ve been meaning to get.

But none of this is particularly important. Other campaigns do this kind of moronic fake poll crap, too.

Who’s on the ballot?

What is important is the first line: “President Trump isn’t running against Sleepy Joe Biden.” It’s important in part because there are smart and decent people who nod along when they hear statements like this. They think it’s true, in some real and vital way, that the president is running against the media, and the Deep State, and all of the forces of darkness. Yes—on some superficial level, there’s some truth to it. On another, it’s all nonsense—because as a matter of basic reality, he is, in fact, running against Joe Biden.

But Trump doesn’t want you to think of it that way, because by any measure Biden is much more popular than he is. So, he needs his voters to think he’s really running against the monstrous horde Biden is allegedly the front man for.

Trump needs to do this for several reasons: For one, he will lose if the election is a referendum on him. That’s because Biden is more popular than he is—and because Biden is also more popular than Hillary Clinton was in 2016 (which is why the president and his campaign reportedly long for a rematch).

The mythic narrative of Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 is that only he could have defeated Hillary Clinton because he was the only candidate willing to attack her. It’s certainly true that another nominee wouldn’t have encouraged “Lock her up!” chants, or invited some of Bill Clinton’s sexual assault victims to a debate. But Donald Trump didn’t make Hillary Clinton unpopular. She did that herself, albeit with the help of conservatives—including yours truly—going back almost 30 years. We now know that Clinton’s candidacy didn’t just make Trump more palatable, it also artificially made Bernie Sanders more attractive to the many Democrats who didn’t like her, either. The best proof is the fact that, in the primaries, Biden destroyed Sanders in the same states where, four years earlier, Sanders crushed Clinton. As I’ve argued before, this means Hillary Clinton is one of the most influential political figures in modern history. She was so toxic she midwifed the transformation of the GOP into a nationalist party, at least for a while, and came very close to transforming the Democrats into a socialist party (or at least accelerated the transformation).

Anyway, the real point here is that Trump needs an enemy for Republicans (and Republican-friendly independents) to hate or fear enough to justify re-electing a president many of them dislike. That’s where all the Deep State, radical left and, most of all, the “the real opposition party, the Fake News media” stuff comes in. They’re the Enemy Within that must be stopped.  

Now, I will happily stack my record of criticizing the mainstream media against just about anybody’s. I’m happy to concede that outlets like the New York Times carry water for the Democrats like Gunga Din for the British Indian Army. But here’s the thing: Gunga Din isn’t on the ballot. And no amount of “punish the media” from Trump’s Gunga Dins on the right will change that.

I’m not outraged by the tactic of running against the media, which is hardly original. It was an old idea by the time the 1992 Bush campaign sold their first official bumper sticker “Annoy The Media: Re-Elect Bush.” (It didn’t work.)

A warless wartime president.

What I do find outrageous is that this isn’t merely Trump’s re-election strategy. It is central to his idea of governance because it is central to his own psychology. He needs to delegitimize everything and everyone who criticizes him or exposes inconvenient facts about him. He doesn’t care whether the criticisms or exposés are true. And he certainly doesn’t care if his counterattacks are true—his execrable insinuation that Joe Scarborough murdered a former staffer to cover up something sordid is just the latest example of immoral demagoguery going back to his birtherism, or his peddling the idea that Ted Cruz’s father killed Kennedy. He’s furious about the threat to free speech posed by fact-checks to his tweets. There is no assault on free speech there. But in response, he threatens to do great violence to free speech as payback.

This raises the funny irony of all the folks insisting that reporters deserve to be demonized, belittled, or humiliated because they get the facts wrong or are unkind to Trump. These same people never seem to have any problem with a president who does precisely what they accuse the media of doing. To their credit, the editors of the Wall Street Journal noticed the hypocrisy. Trump is doing with Scarborough precisely the sort of stuff the anti-media Comstocks and Steele dossier obsessives decry, just more flagrantly—and they love it.

The president has been running a wartime presidency adapted to the culture war. Amazingly, when given the chance to actually fight a war of sorts against the pandemic, he couldn’t manage it because it was too damn hard to stay in character. So he turned the pandemic into a culture war spectacle, because that was in his comfort zone.

This illuminates the fact this is all just a stupid game for clicks, ratings, and votes, and most importantly, it’s a way to provide an excuse for not holding the president of the United States accountable for his actions. Pay attention. His most successful defenders will often dodge the substance of a valid criticism of the president and pivot to “What about The New York Times?” Or, “the real issue is the media”—blah blah blah—as if the Times’ or MSM’s conduct has anything to do with the fact that he botched the response to the coronavirus, fired inspectors general, openly invited the Russians to meddle in our election, or spouted countless daily lies on matters great and small. The New York Times, love it or hate it, isn’t the president of the United States and denouncing it as a defense of his conduct has as much logical force as saying “What about Domino’s Pizza!?”

About Ms. McEnany.

Which brings me to Kayleigh McEnany, the new “It” girl of MAGA world.

On Fox News Sunday, I criticized the new White House press secretary’s conduct as grotesque and indefensible. And all the usual suspects got very angry. Michelle Malkin, who is not outraged by Holocaust-denial or racism, is very cross with me. Seb Gorka is going full Gorka (Protip: Never go full Gorka).

After reading all of their arguments and thinking about it a bit, I’ve concluded: They’re all wrong and I was right.

The first thing that needs to be pointed out is why McEnany was given the job in the first place. But that requires some context. She has no real experience in journalism or communications. She is one of these people—Washington is full of them—who just wanted to be on TV. When being anti-Trump got her on TV, she was anti-Trump. When the incentive structure changed, she changed her views accordingly (a very common tale). Anti-Trump McEnany denounced Trump’s racist comments about Mexican immigrants. Pro-Trump McEnany hailed the president’s comments on Charlottesville as—I defecate you negatory—a “message of love and inclusiveness!

In short, she’s in the entertainment business, as are so many of the pundits who will admit in private so many of the things they passionately deny in public. Indeed, there’s a whole theoretical framework out there that says conservative commentators should only say what their audiences want to hear, not what they think is true. She is good at this dumb game, and it got her the press secretary job. Kudos to her.

But she’s not there to answer questions from the press, she’s there to play this dumb game—again, during two national emergencies. Specifically, she’s there because the president’s coronavirus briefings were a disaster. He used them as substitute MAGA rallies, a kayfabe spectacle for his own ego, which was not what most people facing a pandemic and an economic catastrophe were interested in. Initially, he got a rally-around-the-president bump in approval, but he frittered it away.

Meanwhile, virtually every U.S. governor (and most world leaders) has gained support during the pandemic—because they took it seriously. Trump’s aides and allies spent weeks trying to convince him that he was hurting himself by using all this “free media” (his term) for his schtick. Once he realized his mistake and stopped doing the press conferences, he literally concluded that there was no point to having a coronavirus task force at all. The only benefit to the task force, after all, was the opportunity to mug for the cameras. Remove that and you remove the need for the task force in Trump’s mind. He was stunned to find out that his own task force was so “popular” (again his word) and reversed the decision. A normal president—hell, a normal person—wouldn’t think popularity would be a factor. Either it was necessary to have a task force to save American lives or it wasn’t. That just wasn’t a big part of the equation for him.

But Trump was still frustrated that he couldn’t do his rally schtick. So they brought in Kayleigh to do it for him. Trump doesn’t like having White House press secretaries speak for him, if that means actually trying to do the job. But having a smart and attractive woman play all the Dear Leader hits, well, that’s a different story.

The specific exchange that I found grotesque and indefensible came last Friday when reporters asked about Trump’s vow to “override the governors” if they didn’t do what he wanted and open the churches.

She dodged and caviled for a bit until the following exchange:

Q: But just to follow up what Kristen asked, what specific provision of federal law allows the President to override a governor’s decision?

MS. MCENANY:  The President will strongly encourage every governor to allow their churches to reopen.  And, boy, it’s interesting to be in a room that desperately wants to seem to see these churches and houses of worship stay closed.

That’s red meat and fan service.

I keep hearing how journalists are so terrible and need to have their terribleness thrown back at them. This is much more important, it would seem, than providing clear information about the pandemic or the economy or, in this case, the president’s constitutional powers as he sees them.

And that’s the weird thing. If all of these people droning on and on about the evil, biased press had their way, isn’t this precisely the kind of question they would want asked? I guarantee you that if President Obama asserted the authority to override governors and force churches open (or closed!), the very same people turning McEnany into Joan of Arc would be setting their hair on fire in outrage.

Because I know so many of the players—and so much about them—performatively attacking me, I’m so very tempted to opine on their motives. But I’ve learned in the last few years that the human mind is perfectly capable of creating a worldview to back up a decision that was initially made for cynical or careerist reasons, so I’ll assume everyone is sincere.

But sincerity doesn’t transmogrify bullshit into gold. President Trump can’t govern. He doesn’t know how. This means, as many of us have argued for a long time, he’s not Hitler or even a strongman. Real dictators know how to use all the powers at their disposal. As Ross Douthat recently argued, he doesn’t want real authority—because with real authority comes real responsibility. That’s the last thing he wants. What he does want are ratings, and praise, and to be the center of attention—and to get reelected for more of the same. To do that he needs a domestic enemy, a new “Evil Empire” to rally the faithful. And for now, that’s the media.

Fine, beat up on the media all you like. But don’t tell me the media is on the ballot or that the media’s shortcomings absolve the president’s. And don’t tell me that, amid a pandemic that has taken more than 100,000 lives, and tens of millions of jobs, that this crap is the “real issue.”

Or at the very least, don’t tell me these things as if they’re serious things serious people say. Because they’re the kind of things Kayleigh McEnany says.

Photograph of Donald Trump by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.