After the midterms, Trump leans hard on his alternate reality

And the president needs a weakened press to pull off his cons

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Democrats won the House of Representatives on Tuesday, gaining control of key levers of power they say they will use to hold President Donald Trump and his administration accountable. Anyone who thought such a crushing defeat might lead to a change in presidential behavior was quickly disabused of that notion.

Instead, Trump made clear that his plan for the next two years revolves around maintaining an alternate reality. He will continue to depend on the support of compliant members of the right-wing media, while using the traditional press as a foil in order to diminish their ability to spotlight his lies.

Trump offered up his own twisted interpretation of “bipartisanship” at a threat-laden press conference Wednesday morning, telling Democrats that if they sacrifice their constitutional duty to conduct investigations into his deeply corrupt administration, he would be willing to consider their policy ideas. If they don’t, he said, the deal is off, “government comes to a halt,” and he will blame them.

Trump lashed out at journalists throughout the press conference. After one such combative exchange with CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta, a White House intern tried to take the microphone from Acosta, who refused to relinquish it. He came into contact with her, then apologized. The president castigated Acosta as “a rude, terrible person,” later adding that he is “the enemy of the people” because CNN reports “fake news.” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders subsequently pulled Acosta’s press credentials, circulating a video clip of the incident to falsely accuse him of “placing his hands on” the intern. (There’s an ongoing debate over what sort of edits were made to the video, generated by a staffer with the conspiracy theory website InfoWars, but either way, the charge is nonsense).

Soon after the conference ended, Trump finally took the advice from his Fox News cabinet and forced Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign. He announced as the new acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker, Sessions’ chief of staff and a Trump loyalist whom the president reportedly considered “his eyes and ears” at the Justice Department. Whitaker has the background you’d expect given that Trump believes the job of the attorney general is to protect the president and persecute his enemies. Before joining the administration, he led a right-wing nonprofit group that called for federal investigations into various Democrats, particularly Hillary Clinton, and was a frequent critic of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, which the administration now says he will oversee.

Trump’s worst traits -- thuggish, vindictive, authoritarian, mendacious, nakedly transactional -- were all on stark display yesterday. And pulled from the disparate realms of legislative affairs, media relations, and presidential appointments, these three cases share a common element: They put on display the White House’s constant smoke screen of brazen lies and bottomless bad faith.

Every other president has managed to simultaneously negotiate with Congress while submitting to its oversight authority, and Trump’s lack of interest in policy coupled with the intransigence of Senate Republicans makes his offer of cooperation an obvious ploy. Punishing a reporter based on bogus claims that defy clear video evidence is an abuse of power. And the new acting attorney general has been hand-picked to obstruct Mueller’s probe and, perhaps, usher in the political prosecutions the president so desperately wants -- and Whitaker may not even have the legal authority to exercise those powers at all.

Trump and his ilk depend on a right-wing propaganda apparatus that is willing to support their alternative reality narratives. They are sustained by the unwillingness or inability of reporters at traditional news outlets to explain to their audiences just how radical and deceptive the administration really is.

On the first day of the Trump administration, then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer effectively announced that the president was at war with the truth. In a bitter harangue, Spicer declared that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period -- both in person and around the globe,” and blasted journalists for reporting otherwise.

Spicer’s rant was a signal that the unending lies that characterized Trump’s campaign would continue -- and with them, the attacks on the press that those lies require in order to undermine a key source of contrary information.

The daily criticism of journalists emanating from the White House is not a sideshow, but a key facet of Trumpism, one necessary for its success -- while it may distract, it is far more than a mere distraction. The combination of unending lies and delegitimization of the press result in a Republican base convinced that Trump is the best source of information on himself and a broader public confused about whom to believe. From there his power flows.

Trump needs a weakened press to pull off his cons. He would like nothing better than to spend the next few years battering House Democrats for daring to provide oversight of his grifter administration, offering up lies about the great things they could have done together for the American people. He would love to prop up Whitaker as an independent pick. If journalists don’t vigorously scrutinize his lies, he wins; if they do, he will cry “fake news.” Meanwhile, the right-wing partisans at Fox News and elsewhere will have his back.

The spiral is continuing, and it’s only going to get more dangerous in the days to come.