President Trump is in full election mode. More than comfortable making the midterms a referendum on his own presidency, he is swinging away in public remarks against his now familiar foes.
Trump has often proven highly effective at defining his targets in unflattering ways, much to their consternation. But his continued reference to the news media as the “enemy of the people” is different. It’s not just wrong, it’s bad politics.
Election-year rhetoric is all about calculated risks. Americans are well aware of how it works. Long before Trump came along, candidates and pressure groups learned to push as far and as hard as they could in disparaging their rivals. But they also learned that the price of going too far could be steep. Trump has made going too far a modern-day art form. But if he has changed the standard of what’s unacceptable, he hasn’t changed the way the actual rules work.
So he’s been paying the price for his sloppy smear of the media. By calling them the enemy of the American people, he put himself on the hook for damaging political attacks if anyone seemed to take his criticism too seriously or literally. That’s just what happened when Cesar Sayoc mailed his homemade bomb kits to a laundry list of Trump opponents in and out of politics. Sayoc, an odd individual described as a “volatile nobody” by The New York Times, all too perfectly illuminated for nervous Americans the recklessness of Trump’s words. Suddenly Trump was on defense in the closing days of the campaign.
And there he stayed. Many national media figures have been yearning for a solid opening to land some counterpunches, and nursing frustrations that an effective opportunity has proven so elusive. In seeming to summon forth Sayoc with his clumsy bluster, Trump handed them just that. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was left to flail through a damage-control session in front of reporters who wanted to know just which outlets the president considered enemies of the people.
Sanders couldn’t say, raising the question of whether Trump was actually serious about his attack. For Trump, whose political brand is based on a reputation for meaning what he says, at least when he is slinging insults, the “enemy of the people” line is becoming a liability.
It’s instructive to contrast these problems with the success Trump has had with the “fake news” attack.
Americans of all political persuasions have developed a digital-age awareness that bogus reports, false objectivity and shameless hype run riot today, online and off. While Trump’s popularization of the “fake news” concept has led to some embarrassing excesses, such as foreign despots brushing off criticism as fake news, it caught on because it tapped into a real public concern, with clear examples everyone can point to.
The same can hardly be said of the notion that the news media is the people’s enemy. While an argument could be constructed that influential figures in the press have a strong desire to see Trump’s populist and nationalist agenda fail, everyone already knows that Trump sees himself in an adversarial relationship with those figures. Trump’s media smear is a leap into territory so bereft of evidence that even his own political instincts can’t help him. (DailyNews)