Since the very early days of his presidency, Donald Trump has been in open warfare with the news media.
“I think the media’s the opposition party in many ways,” he told the Christian Broadcasting Network one week after his inauguration. Early that week, his senior aid Stephen Bannon made a the identical boast to the New York Times. A month later, he told a rambunctious crowd of conservative activists at CPAC that the mainstream media was not only the opposition party. They were, “…the enemy of the people.”
Over the succeeding months, the war has steadily deteriorated. From petty cracks on twitter, to coordinated assaults by his surrogates on cable news, to public scoldings by his press secretary in the White House press room, the attacks have been unceasing, and constantly escalating. The President himself has led the charge, picking fights with reporters at press conferences both at home and overseas and taking swipes at networks during interviews.
6 months into his presidency, and his bully act continues to play well with his hard-core base of supporters who have been with him since the primary, and with his many allies in the media, for whom his combative rhetoric and tactics, if nothing else, make for good TV. But for congressional GOP leaders, this is largely fake news.
Republican leaders in congress, however, aren’t buying it. They’ve largely remained on the sidelines, refusing to participate in his war on the media. Many are even growing tired of the President’s schtick and are worried not only about its implications for their legislative agenda, but for its potential to backfire.
In many ways, this is nothing new. Rank and file Republicans have long considered themselves victims of the news media they see as overwhelmingly populated by Liberals. Subconsciously or conspiratorially, the seem to only promote Democratic and socially progressive values at the expense of their traditional values, they feel. Conservative talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh drew listeners by the millions by playing to these suspicions, attacking the ‘main stream media’ at every turn.
In the late 90s, Fox News brought the conservative talk radio formula to cable, adapting the anti-Liberal media tone and tenor almost verbatim. For a generation now, Fox News, the hordes of right-wing websites and bloggers, and resilient talk radio hosts have provided a complete echo chamber of conservative noise that has reinforced the anti-Liberal, anti-media message.
Donald Trump didn’t create this world, or its messaging. He just took their messaging out of the echo chamber and greatly amplified it, and took the vitriol, the fear mongering, and the conservative-as-victim language to a level never imagined. Attacking the media is no longer a convenient tactic to advance a narrative. It’s no longer just something conservatives tell themselves in the echo chamber. Delegitimizing the press is now a central goal of this White House.
And that’s a bridge too far for Republicans in congress. Buzzfeed interviewed a host of them recently, and they’re no longer buying what the President is selling when it comes to the media. They see the threat his campaign against the free press poses, and they’re combatting it in different ways. Here’s what some of them had to say to Buzzfeed.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) – “I love the media! I mean y’all are real people, and I’m a real person and you’ve got a job to do and my thing is, provide you access, provide clarity, be direct, be honest, and trust in the integrity of the reporters that are covering you. And I’ve not been disappointed by 98 percent of the reporters that I get to work with.” 2
Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) – “The Founding Fathers had it about right: a free press is a good thing, not a bad thing. And politics is rough and tumble, dealing with the media’s a bit rough and tumble, but I don’t think it’s sinister in any way. Actually I think it’s helpful. They ask questions, that’s their job; they report stories, that’s their job. Part of our job is to try and educate our constituents and the public and the media on at least what it looks like on this side”
Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) – “This is public work, so the fact that you can come up and ask me about it like, well, it is public work. Therefore, you need to answer those questions.”
Rep. Tom Rooney (R-FL) – “I like you guys. I’ve always, you know, sort of been of the mindset that you guys have jobs, you guys have families, you guys have got to put food on the table too.”
Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ) – “The tax reform we’re working on is the biggest thing that’s gonna happen in my political life. And for every question I get on that I get a dozen on a tweet. Are we in this weird world where actual work doesn’t have payoff in current media? Flare, shiny objects, snarkiness is news now. Not actual work. And have we finally reached the pinnacle of the dumbing down of the conversation? So the political discourse as arbitrated by the news media, now — ‘If it’s complicated, screw you. Give me, can you say something inflammatory or stupid or can you take a dumb picture.’”
It’s clear these and many other Republicans want no part of the President’s war on the media. But their continued silence may not be an option for much longer. With his attacks only escalating as the press and investigators close in on members of the administration for their roles in Russia’s intelligence operation to undermine the 2016 presidential election, everyone will soon have to take sides.