President Donald Trump and his allies at Fox News have settled on a strategy to deal with the possibility of an oncoming economic recession: Blame the media.
The United States is currently experiencing the longest economic expansion on record, growing every quarter since the early days of President Barack Obama’s tenure. But no boom lasts forever, and key economic indicators suggest that the economy is now weakening and that a recession may be on the horizon. A recent survey found nearly three in four economists expect one by 2021, reflecting “growing skepticism among economists and investors that the U.S. economy will be able to withstand a protracted trade war with China without serious harm amid a weakening global outlook.”
Trump is reportedly worried about the impact that might have on his reelection campaign, and rightfully so, as sitting presidents who face recessions as Election Day approaches typically lose. His response -- along with talking up the economy while lashing out at the response of his handpicked Federal Reserve chairman -- has been to push the paranoid conspiracy theory that the press is deliberately trying to tank the economy to stop his re-election. This plays into Trump’s years-long campaign to delegitimize the press as the “enemy of the people.”
It is also absurd, a classic example of starting with the conclusion that your perceived enemy is responsible for your predicament and then backfilling the details. After spending years portraying journalists as vicious partisans out to get him, it’s a short step for Trump to declare they are willing to hurt millions of Americans in that effort.
But while one can always find an idiot pundit willing to sign on to a morally reprehensible position, the bulk of the press quite clearly isn’t cheering on a recession -- it is reporting based on economic data and expert analysis that one may be imminent.
In addition to the lack of evidence for the president’s narrative, it also doesn’t make sense -- even if you grant the premise that journalists are willing to create economic havoc just to hurt Trump (and you shouldn’t), would they really do that knowing that their industry’s already weak financial position means that their own livelihoods would be jeopardized?
The conspiracy theory’s fundamental stupidity hasn’t stopped the president’s loyal propagandists from pushing it. Fox commentators have played a key role in validating and popularizing Trump’s attacks on the press, and they’ve adopted his current salvo with zeal.
Indeed, Lou Dobbs, whose Fox Business show Trump watches religiously and who at times has advised the White House, levied the charge even before Trump did. On August 14, he responded to media reports that the inverted yield curve for U.S. Treasury bonds might signal a recession by accusing the “leftist national media” of “talking down the Trump stock market and the Trump economy” as part of an effort to elect a Democratic president.
Trump echoed Dobbs in a tweet the next afternoon, baselessly accusing journalists of “doing everything they can to crash the economy because they think that will be bad for me and my re-election.”
Blessed by the president, the narrative quickly took hold on Fox News and Fox Business as hosts accused the press of “talking down the economy deliberately” and trying to “make this economy go into recession.”
For Sean Hannity, this was evidence that journalists are willing to threaten the economic security of millions of Americans for political gain. “Some are desperately hoping -- hoping and praying, hoping and praying Americans will lose their jobs, lose their savings, see a major decrease in their retirement, 401(k)s,” he claimed on Wednesday night. “They want people to suffer. Why? So they can get back power and President Trump will lose the election. Do you know what? It doesn't get any sicker than what these people are doing.”
“How is it possible [journalists] don't want America to succeed?” he later asked Dobbs. “I'm the dishwasher, I'm the cook, the waiter, bartender, construction guy. I want all those guys to succeed. That's me.”
“Yes, it's the foundation of the American dream. We want everyone in this country to succeed,” Dobbs replied. “And the nonsense that is being spewed -- by the way, not just the radical Dems, but their complicit, national left-wing media friends -- they are basically building a drumbeat for a recession.”
Meanwhile, the president lifted up a segment from Fox News host Steve Hilton praising his economic stewardship as an example of good news coverage:
By Monday morning’s edition of Fox & Friends, the media’s “recession hoax” had become part of the network’s litany of purportedly false media narratives, along with Russian collusion and Trump’s racism.
Blaming bad economic news on the press might not help Trump with the majority of voters. But it will keep the base charged up against journalists -- and make them less likely to question whether Trump’s policies haven’t worked out, keeping him from facing accountability.