I was tempted to say this was a paradox. But it’s too straightforward for paradox. The key truth of Trumpism is that for all the purported hatred of “the media”, the main Trumpers are almost all fundamentally media creatures. They think in media terms. They are media creations.
Trump himself is a self-creation of the 80s and 90s New York City tabloid culture. His comeback in the early part of this century was driven more than most people understand by the success of The Apprentice. Why else do you think people in the Philippines or Kazakhstan paid millions to license Trump’s name? It was the brand driver of the licensing empire which allowed Trump to become the 45th President.
Steve Bannon was a publisher. Before that he was a movie producer. Jared Kushner bought a newspaper and used it to fight his battles in the press. On down the list they are all media people. They don’t hate the media. Indeed, they can only understand most battles in media terms. You see this in Kushner’s frenzied and inane demands to deploy communications office staffers to battle cable news producers over chyrons or “unleash surrogates immediately”, as a Politico story this afternoon has him demanding of Sean Spicer and Sarah Sanders.
They don’t “hate” the media anymore than fish hate the water. Shouting and messaging and attacks are the only language they really understand. What they hate is that they feel like they’re losing on the terrain they believe is the only one that really matters.
I’ve wrestled over the last few months and especially over the last few weeks with the sense that key players in this drama don’t understand the nature of the legal jeopardy they are in or – apart from legal matters – the challenges the White House has had doing things like pushing legislation. We’ve seen the comical and now perennial pattern in which you’ll read an article which describes a White House brought to its knees by some crisis almost entirely of the President’s making. The answer? Time to fire Reince Priebus. There’s a similar story with Sean Spicer. As risible a character as Spicer may be, the job he has is essentially impossible. No communications operation can fix the reality that Trump has created. Yet Trump and the chief people around him believe that challenges in the policy realm or political realm and most especially the legal realm can be converted into the currency of yelling, rapid response and message wars and won on those terms. Like I said, message and narratives – in a word, media, talking.
We live in a media age of course. Messages and stories are how we understand much of the world. They shape our understanding of the reality around us. In this sense they come very close to becoming something like reality. But they are not. Big federal investigations roll forward with an almost total indifference to shouting and message and winning the day. Spin means very little. Equally important, just because media storylines shape our understanding of much of the world around us doesn’t mean that your stupid new messaging idea will matter just because you say it a lot.
Throughout, there is this abiding belief that enough assertion and aggression can change anything. It’s like magical thinking. Or perhaps it is what you see when people who are used to power and privilege and getting what they want start operating in a new context with other powerful people and forces which are, if not intractable, much less than malleable that these people are used to grappling with.
If the reporting we see is close to reliable, Jared Kushner is in profound legal jeopardy. He must be scared and scarred by the time he spent in federal prisons visiting his father during his father’s incarceration. But the lesson Kushner apparently learned from this searing experience was to attack always and always harder. Not committing lots of crimes as a way to stay out of prison seems to be one lesson that didn’t break through.
Remember, Kushner helped goad Trump into firing James Comey. That made Trump himself the target of a federal obstruction of justice probe. And I suspect it’s part of the probe into Kushner as well. This is fascinatingly similar to what triggered Kushner’s father’s final downfall. Charles Kushner was the subject of a tax and campaign finance probe when he pulled a breathtakingly wild attempt to obstruct that investigation by hiring a prostitute to seduce his brother-in-law and videotape their sex. (The brother-in-law and Charles Kushner’s sister were aiding the probe.)
There’s a brew of magical thinking and self-destructive behavior at work here that I confess I have yet to fully understand or be able to make sense of. But I keep coming back to this focus on media, on ‘narratives’ and ‘storylines’ and talking louder. Consider this passage from the eye-popping passage from a piece out tonight from Politico …
A source close to Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a top White House adviser, said that while he doesn’t have an exact plan for an overall Russia response, he was angry that there wasn’t a more robust effort from the communications team. Kushner wanted them to complain about chyrons on cable news, call reporters to update stories with White House statements, and unleash surrogates immediately. He was angry that there were no talking points offered to surrogates, the source said. One senior administration official suggested that two aides from the communications shop be dedicated just to updating chyrons.
“Jared didn’t like the idea, he wanted people to get aggressive,” said an outside adviser who was briefed on the meeting. “Jared’s the guy who is rushing the front lines and other people are saying, ‘see, wait, hold, and let’s get a battle strategy.’”
Again, the disconnect, the belief that yelling and attacking harder can change broad-ranging criminal probes or the equally implausible belief that the Trump White House’s problem has been insufficiently aggressive attacks against those it perceives as enemies. Almost every problem the Trump White House has had, at least the President and in most cases his top advisors have seen it as a failure out of the communications office to sell the administration’s story.
None of what I’m saying here is surprising. It’s what we all knew last year during the campaign. It’s a media event, a media campaign – run for most of the campaign by the candidate more or less on his own, a man with long experience and an intuitive sense of marketing and message. Think about it. Trump seems to spend the better part of his time in the White House watching cable news. It’s not just an obsession with his enemies. It’s who he is, just the way policy people read policies papers. It’s the one language he understands and the only one he thinks – and most of his top advisors think – matters.