Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Donald Trump's Dangerous Control of the Narrative

Although much of what Donald Trump is doing is disturbing, his single-handed attempt to control our entire national narrative warrants special scrutiny because this aspect of his modus operandi permeates everything else he does in ways that make the foundations of our government quake. All presidents attempt to control the narrative to some degree, but three things put Mr. Trump's version of this activity in a qualitatively different and more damaging category -- (1) he is personally silencing those who don't agree with him, (2) he is flagrantly ignoring the the truth, and (3) he is telling a profoundly negative story about our country.

Silencing dissent

Mr. Trump's attempt to silence the dissent has several pernicious aspects.

Delegitimizing the press. Our system of government relies on a free and independent press to bring carefully vetted information to the public and hold political actors accountable. For this reason, the press often is called "the fourth estate," or "the fourth branch," of government. Mr. Trump, however, asserts that the press is "the opposition party" with which he has "a running war," and that journalists are "among the most dishonest human beings on the planet." Whenever journalists demonstrate that Mr. Trump is being dishonest or ask him tough questions, he inevitably responds by saying the press is lying and making up "fake news." Mr. Trump in effect shoots the messenger and refuses to engage meaningfully on substance. This makes it difficult for the press to fight falsehoods with actual facts and hold Mr. Trump accountable, but they continue to try.

One wonders, in light of Trump strategist Steve Bannon's comment that the press should "keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while" (a principle he never practiced while running Breitbart News), whether at some point the Trump administration will try to silence the press altogether. Even if Mr. Trump doesn't go that far, his indiscriminate discrediting of the press and substitution of his own version of reality for independent reporting serve to distract and confuse the electorate. Mr. Trump's treatment of the press therefore undermines a system of government that relies on an informed citizenry.

Muzzling federal agencies. Our tax dollars pay for federal agencies to not only craft regulations but also do the important work of collecting, analyzing, and publishing information about developments in their respective areas of expertise. Mr. Trump so far has muzzled three agencies -- the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Agriculture and Interior -- but who knows what others agencies might be next. He also asked for names of individuals who work on climate change at various agencies. The purpose and outcome of this request remain unclear, but at the very least it injects an element of fear and uncertainty among those who work on this topic. Who knows what other topics might be next.

Although it is expected and proper that a president, especially a new one, will exert some level of control over the policy pronouncements of executive branch agencies, a blanket ban that prevents agencies from disseminating factual information is scary. By controlling what the public hears from certain agencies, Mr. Trump is cutting off a vital source of information and expertise. This further complicates the press's fact-checking role and impedes the ability of the citizenry to develop fully informed views on important issues. Denying the people access to the information and analysis for which they are paying, whether directly or by limiting the press's or lawmakers' access, undermines the integrity of a government designed to be by, for, and of the people.

Firing or publicly berating individuals who disagree. Mr. Trump fired the acting Attorney General, it appears he also fired top officials at the State Department, and his press secretary suggested that State Department officials who disagree with Mr. Trump should look for new jobs. Mr. Trump publicly berated the Bush-appointed judge who stayed his immigration ban, and even called his legitimacy as a judge into question.

Mr. Trump appears to view any form of disagreement as a personal betrayal that must be punished, rather than an important element of how a democratic system of government works. If he continues this punitive pattern, it is possible that key officials in the executive branch and the judiciary might become reluctant to challenge Mr. Trump or, if his ire proves severe enough, leave their posts and be replaced with people who will toe the Trump line. Either of these outcomes would further entrench his personal power and weaken the institutional safeguards meant to check it.

Attempting to direct the actions of an independent agency. In a development that has received relatively little attention, Congressman Patrick McHenry, apparently acting in coordination with Mr. Trump, recently sent the Federal Reserve Board a letter that (1) questioned the agency's participation in international work groups designed to promote global financial stability and (2) told the Fed to cease participating in these groups because "continued participation in [them] is predicated on achieving the objectives set by the new Administration."

In addition to mischaracterizing the nature of these groups' work and the Federal Reserve's role in them, Rep. McHenry's letter evinces a fundamental misunderstanding of the authority and mission of the Federal Reserve. By clear and intentional statutory design, the Federal Reserve operates independent of direct political influence or changes in party control of Congress or the White House. I eagerly await Fed Chair Janet Yellen's response to Rep. McHenry, which I trust will make these and other interesting points. 

The bottom line is that Mr. Trump's combination of undermining the free press, controlling the flow of information disseminated by the government, and attempting to control the actions of specific individuals within the government undermines the core principles of our democratic society. (This will be a topic unto itself on another day, but one wonders what the Republicans in Congress would be saying now if Hillary Clinton had won the election and tried any one of the above tactics. . . .)

Utter Disregard for Truth

Another insidious aspect of Mr. Trump's narrative about the state of the world and his plans to change it is his complete disregard for the truth. There are numerous fact checkers devoted to debunking the Trump administration's dishonest assertions, including FactCheck.orgPolitifact, and the Washington Post's real-time tweet fact checker, and numerous individual stories reported by the major papers and other non-partisan news sources. Most important for purposes of this post, the policy changes Mr. Trump advocated during his campaign and now seeks to implement are predicated on false claims about our country, as the next section will amply demonstrate.

Sheer Negativity

The 2016 presidential election campaign revealed that large numbers of hardworking Americans were concerned about issues such as jobs, income disparities, and access to affordable health care. These are all very real concerns that are worthy of serious attention. Instead of identifying root causes and proposing credible solutions, Mr. Trump played to public anxiety and created a fear-based campaign that painted the United States in an overwhelmingly negative light.

The underlying assumption of his slogan -- Make America Great Again -- is that America is no longer great. In explaining his grim assessment, Mr. Trump relied upon the following lines of rhetoric. Each of his rhetorical points repeatedly failed fact-checking exercises, as I will briefly note in the parentheticals below.
  • Illegal immigration is getting worse. (Although border security can be difficult to evaluate, on balance there is a strong argument that Mr. Obama strengthened it, e.g., the number of border patrol agents went up, illegal border crossings went down, and deportations of illegal immigrants were at record highs.)
  • Immigration threatens jobs. (Many more jobs have been lost to automation and shifting priorities, such as a move away from fossil fuels, than to immigrants; plus, the overall unemployment rate is well below the historical norm.)
  • Immigration threatens the safety of American citizens; Mexicans brings rape and drugs and Muslims bring terrorism. (Experts agree that most domestic terror and crime is homegrown.)
  • Our cities, particularly the black communities within them, are marked by carnage, chaos, and rising crime. (The overall crime rate steadily decreased during the Obama years. Although there was a slight uptick in the rate of some violent crimes in 2015, crime rates when Mr. Obama left office still were comparatively low historically.)
  • Our military has become weak and "a disaster." (Although military spending has gone down, according to Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. Paul Selva, "At no time in my career have I been more confident than this instant in saying we have the most powerful military on the face of the planet.") 
  • Other countries and international organizations like NATO and the UN take advantage of us and are unnecessary. (The United States typically provides military support and aid to other countries because doing so is in our own self-interest, and NATO and the UN are bodies through which we foster alliances and promote international stability.)
  • Obamacare is "a disaster." (While the rollout was rocky and health insurance remains too expensive for some, the uninsured rate is the lowest on record and more people have access to decent care.)
  • Our election system is rigged. (State election officials of both parties and others who study the electoral process say ballot box fraud, which is the focus on Mr. Trump's claim, is exceedingly rare. However, the U.S. intelligence community agrees that Russia engaged in other forms of election tampering, which Mr. Trump only recently and reluctantly acknowledged.) 
It may at first seem trivial to focus on the negativity of Mr. Trump's message, but on further reflection this facet of his narrative is critically important. Playing on the public's fears is a conniving yet time-honored tactic to get people to vote for someone who seeks to centralize power. This tactic also rests on the idea that kindness, openness, and peacefulness betray weakness while tough talk and brute force signal strength, when our experience as a country often has shown the opposite to be true. Finally, we humans, both individually and collectively, tend to weave the facts of our lives into narratives we tell to and about ourselves, and tend to act from the mindset cultivated by our chosen narrative. The light in which we choose to cast ourselves and the world around us has great power. When our president repeatedly tells us that we live in a dysfunctional, unsafe, and weak place, have been taken advantage of, and get no respect, how long before the citizenry behaves as if that is true?


The Unknown Commenter on my last post argued that Mr. Trump's muzzling of the agencies was the most troublesome aspect of his conduct thus far. Although so much of what Mr. Trump is doing is troubling that it is difficult to point to any one thing as the worst part, I tend to agree with Unknown Commenter that muzzling federal agencies and other forms of narrative control are at the top of the list. Narrative control relates to every other aspect of what Mr. Trump is doing, and the manner in which he is controlling the narrative is anti-democratic in spades.

In her speech at the Golden Globes, Meryl Streep said the following: "OK, this brings me to the press. We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call him on the carpet for every outrage. That's why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in the Constitution. So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists, because we're gonna need them going forward, and they'll need us to safeguard the truth."

I just took Ms. Streep up on her request to donate to the Committee to Protect Journalists and ask you to consider doing the same. We need a free and independent press now more than ever to hold those who seek to abuse power accountable.

I also think that those in charge of humor and satire are critically important to holding politicians accountable nowadays. Humor is powerful and fun, and can reach audiences that the New York Times, the Washington Post, and National Public Radio (and this tiny blog) can never hope to reach. On that note, I leave you this:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8W7LtIS4aBA. Please make sure your bladder is empty before you watch it.

* This blog post consists solely of the views and opinions of its author.

1 comment:

  1. Mitch McConnell silencing Elizabeth Warren last night. I don't think it's possible for there to be a more crystalline example of stifling dissent than that.