Normally when I’ve spoken of “press failure”, it’s a sharp indictment, one of various ways the political press has failed to probe deeply, challenge its own assumptions, resist being played by political actors and other vices. This is a bit different. The failure is great. But the causes and how to rectify it are a bit less clear. In this case I’m talking about the fact that the US press still seems to have very little ability to find out what President-Elect Trump is doing. Just as simple as that. The press is largely in the dark.
It is hard of course to prove a negative. How do we know Trump is doing a bunch of stuff secretly if we don’t know about it? That’s a good question. But here’s how. As we noted a few weeks ago, we keep finding out about Trump’s on-going business projects because we hear about them in the foreign press. So yes, we know about them. But we’re reliant on the foreign press or, in many cases, foreign individuals who happen to discuss their dealings with Trump publicly or on social media. One example is the building project in Buenos Aires. Or, remember the meeting that Trump had with his Indian business partners in Trump Tower a few days after the election? We only learned about that because the business partners posted some pictures of the meeting to Facebook and those pictures were picked up in the Indian press (which helpfully for American journalists is in many cases published in English.). We see the pattern again and again.
Now we have another example. We learned overnight that Trump’s designated National Security Advisor Michael Flynn met secretly in Trump Tower with the chief of the Austrian Freedom Party. The Austrian Freedom Party is not just any foreign political party or even any right-wing populist party. The Freedom Party was founded in 1956 by former Nazis, though that lineage can be slightly misleading. It is not and was never simply a refounding of the Austrian Nazi party. Still, it is a far right nationalist party, made up in its early years disproportionately of former Nazis which for many of these early years was shunned in national politics but also provided a home for people who were shunned by or unwilling to join the country’s big two political parties. In more recent years it has had surges of popular support as a far-right anti-immigrant party.
The party made news yesterday for a new pact it has signed with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party but also for the meeting with Flynn. What’s critical though is that both were only revealed in a Facebook post (first reported by the Times) by party leader Heinz-Christian Strache. Before he posted the news on Facebook, we didn’t know this meeting had happened.
This has been a rather circuitous way to get around to this point. The fact that Flynn chose to meet with Strache is a big deal. We likely wouldn’t ever have known about it if Strache himself hadn’t disclosed it. That’s a problem. In the most recent episode of my podcast, I talked with Josh Green about Donald Trump’s and Steve Bannon’s plan to bust apart the EU by first striking a free trade agreement with the UK and then trying to break up the EU by striking individual bilateral trade agreements with Germany, France, Italy, etc.
Whether or not that is really plausible, whether that is something a Trump administration could really pull off, the goal is wild and extremely newsworthy. Yet, there’s virtually no discussion of it. There are other meetings like the one with Strache that we are not hearing about.
Bannon and Breitbart News are big supporters of all the far-right anti-immigrant parties in Europe. Trump basically ran as the US far-right anti-immigrant candidate. So it’s not like this is surprising. Bannon would be on very solid ground saying, ‘What’s the surprise? This is what we said we would do.’ He at least, if not Trump, would be right. Still this is extremely important stuff.
The US has spent more than half a century trying to prevent the rise of far-right European nationalist parties to national leadership. Now the incoming administration appears to be trying to create a sort of far-right white and anti-immigrant international to ally itself with. This is a big deal. We need to know a lot more about this. But we’re getting very little information. The Trump Transition seems to be very effective – much as they’ve been with on-going business deals – at keeping it all secret. I don’t think this is necessarily a case of the national press not trying to find out. But whatever the cause, they’re not finding out. And that is a big problem.