As Trump wages war on the media, the echoes of Erdogan grow louder
There is a surreal goofiness to President Trump’s relentless war on America’s mainstream media. The disgruntled president responds to negative covfefe with cheesy hashtags and nicknames for his perceived adversaries: There’s “psycho” Joe Scarborough and “low I.Q. crazy” Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC, the “failing” New York Times and The Washington Post (for the record, we’re both doing pretty well in the age of Trump), and Trump’s favorite target, “fake” or “fraud” CNN.
On Sunday, Trump, who was sitting at a golf course he owns in New Jersey, tweeted a childish clip of him wrestling down a person representing CNN.
At a time when a GOP politician has actually body-slammed a journalist, it wasn’t funny. Brian Stelter, CNN’s media reporter, tweeted a CNN statement saying it was “a sad day when the President of the United States encourages violence against reporters.”
But for Trump, the relentless drumbeat of anger against the press is a clear political tactic, designed to stoke his base and build up a narrative of victimization. The president has complained virtually nonstop since taking office about the supposedly unfair coverage surrounding the White House, casting journalists as the opposition. He has also repeatedly broken assumed conventions of decency in American politics, fanned the flames of right-wing extremism among his support, and shamelessly spouted numerous falsehoods on both trivial and consequential matters. His behavior has compelled the press coverage he now decries.
Of course, there’s a legitimate conversation to be had about whether the media is “biased” against Trump, a president who radically reshaped the political climate in Washington. This week, for instance, CNN was forced to retract a botched investigative story on the Trump camp’s Russian connections. The network even let go three senior journalists associated with the piece.
Trump and his supporters crowed about the mistake, but pointedly ignored CNN’s willingness to hold itself accountable for its mistakes — a willingness Trump never has displayed over his own misstatements and incendiary remarks. The president instead keeps using his social media megaphone and his proxies in the right-wing media bubble to denounce the entire media establishment as enemies of the American people.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) warned Trump against “trying to weaponize distrust” of the media. But no matter the (softly spoken) censure from fellow Republican politicians, Trump can’t seem to do any wrong in the eyes of his core supporters.
“They like him, they believe in him, they have not to any large degree been shaken from him, and the more the media attacks him, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy on the side of the Trump supporters who fervently believe the media treat him unfairly,” said Tony Fabrizio, the chief pollster for Trump’s campaign, to my colleagues. “It’s like, ‘Beat me with that sword some more!’”
Trump is hardly the first politician to “weaponize distrust” of the media. In the wake of Trump’s Sunday tweet, Richard Haass, the president of the indisputably bipartisan Council on Foreign Relations, likened Trump’s rhetoric to that of a more practiced strongman president.
The stakes in Turkey are, of course, profoundly greater. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan withstood a violent coup attempt a year ago, which prompted his government to embark on a vast purge of state institutions and civil society. More than 100 journalists have been thrown into prison or forced into exile. Dozens of media outlets have been closed or taken over by state authorities. Newspapers that were once titans of the establishment have seen their editors criminalized and offices raided.
But there are some important similarities to bear in mind. Both Erdogan and Trump channel a kind of majoritarian nationalism anchored in grievance at cosmopolitan elites. And both paint their critics as threats to the nation. Over the weekend, Erdogan labeled a peaceful opposition protest march from Ankara to Istanbul as the work of “terrorist” sympathizers.
The echoes of Erdogan in Trump’s political style offer an uncomfortable new reality for Americans, suggested Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman.
“It is that, given enough time, any democratic system is vulnerable to assaults from a determined, dictatorial leader,” wrote Rachman earlier this year. “Mr. Erdogan became prime minister in 2003 and, over time, utterly changed his country. As one Turkish intellectual put it to me … ‘Things that I would once have thought impossible are now happening on a daily basis.’”
“Trump is not yet going nearly as far as Erdogan, who jails journalists, but the preliminary logic is the same — an attempt to undermine the credibility of those who hold power to account,” wrote Brian Klaas, a fellow at the London School of Economics and author of a recent book on the erosion of democracies, in January.
The German newsweekly Der Spiegel put it most starkly in a February editorial: “Erdogan and Trump are positioning themselves as the only ones capable of truly understanding the people and speaking for them. It’s their view that freedom of the press does not protect democracy and that the press isn’t reverent enough to them and is therefore useless. They believe that the words that come from their mouths as powerful leaders are the truth and that the media, when it strays from them, is telling lies. That’s autocratic thinking — and it is how you sustain a dictatorship.”
Tellingly, the two leaders have defended the other from their critics. In the wake of Erdogan’s purge, Trump said the United States didn’t have much right to criticize the Turkish president’s crackdown; in the wake of Trump’s inauguration, Erdogan described protests against the new president as “disrespectful” and applauded Trump’s singling out CNN as “fake news” during a testy exchange at a news conference.
That day, Erdogan congratulated Trump for putting the CNN reporter “in his place.” It’s the same sentiment many Trump supporters probably feel with every new hashtag and barbed insult hurled at journalists.