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When a demagogue is president: Why the media are baffled by Trump

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

When a demagogue is president: Why the media are baffled by Trump

Stephen H. Provost

“Did he really say that? But didn’t he just say the opposite?”

Media pundits are scratching their heads over the mixed messages coming from Donald Trump and the people who supposedly work for him. He’s shooting himself in the foot, they exclaim, because he can’t settle on a consistent message. One minute, the White House issues something like a standard political statement (read: carefully crafted rhetoric that says very little of substance); the next, he’s gone off on another tweetstorm of bluster and accusation.

Trump’s defenders often say, “Why are you picking on our guy? All politicians do this sort of thing.” They also say they like him because he’s not a traditional politician, which kind of contradicts any defense that relies on him being one, but that shouldn’t be surprising, either. People online howl about hypocrisy and a lack of consistency, but it’s really not that unusual in American politics.

What is unusual is the extent to which Trump is going to send these mixed messages, and the fact that he happens to be president of the United States.

We’ve seen demagogues before, and we’ve had 44 other presidents. But we’ve never seen someone who happens to be both.

Divide and conquer

How often have you seen a politician make nice at a summit with some foreign leader, then go home and tell his constituents the same leader is the devil incarnate? (On Trump’s own just-concluded foreign trip, he spoke of finding common ground with Muslim nations in stark contrast to his anti-Islam rhetoric during last year’s campaign.)

Then there’s the well-known strategy of playing to your base during the primary and moving toward the center for the general election. Same politicians, different messages.

It’s all about realizing that the person who goes to see “The Fast and the Furious” is often not the same as the one you’ll find watching “Brokeback Mountain.” You can deliver one message to the first audience and another to the second, because very few people will be in both places to notice the difference. Members of the mainstream media are exceptions, outliers: They follow a politician/president through all phases of a campaign, monitor his domestic policy and follow him on trips abroad.

Unless, of course, he tries to discredit them and shut them out – which is exactly what Trump has done with his dismissive “fake news” accusations and decision to bar members of the U.S. media from his Oval Office meeting with Russian officials (while letting members of the Russian media in!).

Such tactics would never have worked in the era of Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley. But the power of the mainstream media isn’t what it used to be. With today’s media marketplace so diluted by blogs and news outlets that target niche audiences, it’s easy to avoid or shout down the mainstream media – the voices of those who have seen both movies.

Preaching to the choir

Consciously or not, that’s what Trump is doing. What makes him different, other than his near-obsessive use of Twitter, is his emphasis. Most politicians pitch both messages with something close to equal fervor, trying to “sell” themselves to both audiences. But there’s a broad enthusiasm gap with Trump. He loves adulation, so he plays to his base like a symphony conductor at the Hollywood Bowl, while mailing in half-hearted press releases to appease everyone else.

The result is predictable: Trump has abysmally low approval ratings … except among his base. The vast majority of the roughly 40 percent who approve of Trump’s performance are Republicans, with a few independents thrown into the mix. This number has remained stable, remarkably so, considering the series of difficulties he’s faced.

The reason is that Trump has been just as effective at retaining his base support as he has been at alienating everyone else.

He talks about being a champion of “the people” while tailoring his message to a specific segment (his base) and demonizing everyone else. They’re foreigners: Muslims, Mexican immigrants and even the “Kenyan” president Barack Obama. They’re purveyors of “fake news.” They’re conducting a witch hunt. Et cetera.

If members of the media are mystified about this, they shouldn’t be. It’s classic demagoguery – the same kind of methods employed by the likes of Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace and others who achieved various degrees of political success. One might also cite Jim Jones, David Koresh, Rush Limbaugh, Louis Farrakhan, Charles Coughlin, William Jennings Bryan and a host of others.

But none of these people became president. It’s the stage that Trump’s operating on, not his methods, that are new. To his followers, he does represent “the people,” writ large, because they are the people. No one else is to be trusted. Whoever is not for us is against us not (to borrow a phrase from the original Star Trek episode The Return of the Archons) “of the body.”

Waiting in vain

Time and again, people have speculated that Trump would tone down his rhetoric and work to broaden his appeal once he a) became an official candidate, b) won the nomination or c) became president. That assumption has been proved wrong time and again, and not surprisingly. If it’s not broken, why fix it? Besides, Trump relies so heavily on public adulation – the fuel that fires many demagogues – that it’s doubtful that he could fix it if he wanted to.

Trump himself has said he’s motivated by the thrill of the chase: “The real excitement is playing the game.” Now that the chase has concluded and he’s won the presidency, the only way to sustain his interest is by staging more campaign-like events where he can be the center of attention or creating a new “chase” by injecting drama into the job of governing. He does this by writing outrageous tweets and (consciously or otherwise) becoming embroiled in a controversy of the week by insisting on doing things his way.

His followers, meanwhile, never blink because they identify with Trump as a sort of savior figure – yet another classic feature of a demagogue. He’s created a cult of personality that transcends issues and sold an image of himself as someone who can do no wrong. Demagogues have succeeded throughout history by cultivating precisely this sort of image. They’ve just seldom succeeded on this level before, which is why the media are confused.

But it’s not confusing at all. There’s a method to the madness, and it’s just plain scary.