Donald Trump, a promoter of the historic Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks heavyweight title unification bout in 1988, picked up some tricks from the favorite trade of the Marquess of Queensberry. The president counterpunches, and he purposefully does so to his antagonist’s weakest spot.
The media claimed the scalp of Labor Secretary nominee Andy Puzder this week. He employed an undocumented woman as a maid, which, strangely, scored no points in his favor with the Fourth Estate. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn resigned at the president’s request when his characterizations of pre-inauguration conversations with the Russians omitted much. Some in the press once dismissed sub rosa meetings with Russians by numerous high-level Franklin Roosevelt administration officials as evidence of a witch hunt. Times, and witches, change.
The president hit back at a Thursday press conference that more resembled a 15-round marathon than the 90-second Tyson-Spinks sprint. Whereas past Republicans played obedient punching bags, Trump revels in the fight.
“I’m making this presentation directly to the American people,” the president said, before tellingly adding, “with the media present.” Like President Barack Obama obsessing over the economic “headwinds” with which his predecessor burdened him, Trump claimed, “I inherited a mess, at home and abroad.” He noted the stock market’s robust response to his election and industry returning to the Rust Belt.
After this conventional boosterism of his accomplishments and blame for problems on his predecessor, Trump went unconventional. Like a mafia don, the Donald began to take out, by name in some instances, the very outlets that he called to the room for the meeting.
Trump characterized CNN’s coverage of him as “so much anger and hatred.” He recalled CNN passing on debate questions to Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries. The network’s Jim Acosta retorted, “Just for the record, we don’t hate you” — the type of denial that indicts by the necessity of stating it. When a BBC reporter labeled his state-run network “impartial,” he received a presidential “yeah, sure” response. “I know who you are,” Trump informed.
In a more general sense, he informed those gathered: “You have a lower approval rate than Congress.” He prophesied that some journalist somewhere would headline an account of the presser, “Donald Trump Rants and Raves at the Press.”
The press took the bait, behaving as antagonistically as their antagonist says they do as a matter of course. They argued and talked over him (after he behaved likewise). Trump portrayed them as the opposition. Their behavior affirmed this. He deftly staged a press conference, with reporters unwittingly playing the roles assigned, to illustrate the bias against him. He didn’t make his case. The people mocking his case did.
The press conference served as further inoculation against press attacks. This recalls the self-inflicted wounds journalists nursed during the campaign. The more zealously they attacked Trump, the more they strengthened an indictment against their objectivity. Here, the president says the emperor has no clothes and counts on his partisans, and the few on the fence, to see naked partisanship. He wishes not to cultivate a cordial relationship with those attempting to derail his presidency. Instead, he publicly acknowledges his enemies. The payoff for this gamble, the administration believes, comes by way of Americans filtering out negative reporting as politics by other means.
Trump, a man with many faults, possesses a positive quality that his opponents lack: honesty. He can’t pretend to like someone he dislikes the way the media feigns objectivity in covering the people they see as boogiemen. To do otherwise, journalists would show themselves as something other than journalists — Crusaders? — which immediately results in a loss of audience. So, rather than admit they despise a figure, they continue a charade of objectivity. Objective people see through this.
Describing the media as “out of control,” Trump declared, “The press has become so dishonest that if we don’t talk about it we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people.”
Whatever service the president did for the American people on Thursday, he did himself the biggest favor. The kryptonite of journalists works its magic when those they seek to expose instead expose their slant.
Unlike past Republicans, Trump does not strive for the press to like him. He seeks to make the people like the press even less. That’s no easy feat.