Amid a heated atmosphere of anti-media Republican rhetoric that has at times turned into violence against journalists, McClatchy is reporting that Republican plans for the 2018 elections will feature a “deliberate strategy to help GOP candidates win elections fueled by public hatred of reporters.”
An open campaign against an institutional pillar of a democratic state would be a frightening thing to watch. There’s also every reason to believe it could work.
After all, President Donald Trump was elected last November after a campaign that regularly featured scathing personal insults against individual journalists and the institution writ large. His speeches were built in part on jeering at the press to the delight of his audience, including disgustingly ridiculing the physical disability of a reporter who had debunked one of his falsehoods. He threatened to change the laws to make it easier to sue reporters and to use the power of the state to retaliate against news outlets whose coverage he disliked. His campaign manager manhandled a reporter during a campaign event.
Trump’s attacks on the press regularly resulted in oceans of unfavorable coverage (but little collective action of the sort that might have brought a change in the candidate’s behavior). Commentators warned that he was setting the stage for authoritarianism. His mockery of the reporter’s disability was turned into negative campaign advertisements that were in heavy rotation in swing states.
In an election decided by so few votes, it is extremely difficult to determine the cause of victory. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he won because of his attacks on the press. But they were self-evidently not disqualifying.
Targeting the press might not move swing voters in the 2018 midterms -- indeed, polls show that voters broadly disapprove of such attacks. But that wouldn’t be the purpose of such an effort. As McClatchy explains, this is a base mobilization strategy aimed at getting “Trump die-hards” to the polls on Election Day.
Those voters are primed for such an effort. Conservatives have inculcated their voters for decades with claims that journalists are biased liberals who cannot be trusted. When Trump took that argument to its natural conclusion, lashing out at reporters at his rallies as a candidate and then as president, those voters cheered him on. Since his election, the president has sought to delegitimize the press and other sources of critical information about his administration, condemning their reports as deliberate efforts to push “fake news.”
Voters take their cues from their party’s leaders, and the available polling data show that the GOP base has followed the president as he has increasingly wallowed in these anti-media conspiracy theories. Polls show that four out of five Republicans agree with Trump’s statement that certain news organizations are the “enemy of the American people,” like the way he talks about the press, and believe the mainstream press frequently publishes fake news. Trust in the press has fallen throughout the public at large in recent years, but the numbers among the Republicans the reported strategy seeks to target are truly catastrophic.
The hermetically sealed media bubble that conservatives have built in recent decades serves both as a cause of this plummeting support for journalists and a key weapon for Republican strategists seeking to utilize this anti-press strategy. In order to build their audiences, outlets like Fox News and Breitbart.com regularly tell their viewers and readers that the mainstream press cannot be trusted. This has led to the creation of a parallel right-wing media apparatus that ensures conservatives can detach from reality in favor of a steady news diet of alternative facts. Those outlets are eager to assist the White House by delegitimizing any negative information reported about the president as more evidence of a biased press, and they will surely assist Republicans in their efforts to win votes by slamming the media.
It is dangerous to weaponize criticism of institutions at the heart of the democratic process for partisan gain. Such an effort echoes ones we’ve seen before in countries that used to be free. The consequences of this strategy could be dire for our political system.
Republican politicians should refuse to engage in these tactics. Republican leaders should disavow this strategy immediately. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI)* and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have an outsized influence on the political strategies their candidates use by virtue of the huge war chests they help assemble. If they want to stop it, they can.
Unfortunately, there is little evidence so far that they will. To this point, GOP leaders have responded to the president’s attacks on the press with polite statements of disagreement and disdain for the idea that they should have to respond to his statements. Since the campaign, they have put their desire for political victories over any worries about the disastrous downsides of Trump’s presidency. Meanwhile, rank-and-file members have started parroting Trump’s framing of negatives stories as “fake news.”
With Trump's agenda stalled and few legislative accomplishments to point to, conservatives have seized on a breathtakingly cynical strategy to maintain power. The most frightening part is that it might work.
*CORRECTION: This post originally identified Ryan as representing Ohio -- he is the representative for Wisconsin's 1st District.