There is a lot of news hitting the world right now. I worry, however, that some may be sensing this is just another partisan battle rather than a tectonic shift in the politics of America, but I’m also worried that others may be overstating how quickly or absolutely we may be turning to a Hitler-like authoritarian state.
To begin, it is important to note that this IS a tectonic shift and you will be left in the dust if you think that this is partisan politics as usual. Trump’s advisor, Steve Bannon, has stated in the past that he is a “Leninist” who wants to “to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Bannon, in my estimation, did not mean this hyperbolically. Bloomberg noted that he is a man who despises what he calls “crony capitalism” and “established in Tallahassee to study crony capitalism and governmental malfeasance.”
Bannon’s strategy is not unlike fictional character Malcolm Tucker in British TV show The Thick of it where a Spin Doctor is hired to work as an extra-governmental official designed to keep what Obama referred to the metaphorical “aircraft carrier” of government running smoothly. Bannon, however, has vowed in the same Bloomberg article that he sees his job as finding “reporters staffing the investigative units of major newspapers . . . [and to recruit them] into his larger enterprise.” Bannon began to realize as he worked in the political sector that reporters at major news outlets were just as likely to buy into his stories as his brainchild Breitbart would if he could just give the reporters a juicy story to chase with facts at its backbone.
To quote a larger piece from the Bloomberg article:
But Bannon realizes that politics is sometimes more effective when it’s subtle. So he’s nurtured a Dr. Jekyll side: In 2012 he became founding chairman of GAI, a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) research organization staffed with lawyers, data scientists, and forensic investigators. “What Peter and I noticed is that it’s facts, not rumors, that resonate with the best investigative reporters,” Bannon says, referring to GAI’s president. Established in Tallahassee to study crony capitalism and governmental malfeasance, GAI has collaborated with such mainstream news outlets as Newsweek, ABC News, and CBS’s 60 Minutes on stories ranging from insider trading in Congress to credit card fraud among presidential campaigns. It’s essentially a mining operation for political scoops that now churns out books like Clinton Cash and Bush Bucks.
What made Clinton Cash so unexpectedly influential is that mainstream news reporters picked up and often advanced Schweizer’s many examples of the Clintons’ apparent conflicts of interest in accepting money from large donors and foreign governments. (“Practically grotesque,” wrote Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, who’s running for the Democratic presidential nomination. “On any fair reading, the pattern of behavior that Schweizer has charged is corruption.”) Just before the book’s release, the New York Timesran a front-page story about a Canadian mining magnate, Frank Giustra, who gave tens of millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation and then flew Bill Clinton to Kazakhstan aboard his private jet to dine with the country’s autocratic president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Giustra subsequently won lucrative uranium-mining rights in the country. (Giustra denies that the Clinton dinner influenced his Kazakh mining decision.) The Times piece cited Schweizer’s still-unpublished book as a source of its reporting, puzzling many Times readers and prompting a reaction from the paper’s ombudswoman, Margaret Sullivan, who grudgingly concluded that, while no ethical standards were breached, “I still don’t like the way it looked.”
This is not something that began with the Trump presidency, but the shift has been perfected now with Bannon at the helm. During the Obama years one of his chief strategists and close confidante, Ben Rhodes, was also accused of attempting to shape media narratives using the trusted press as his ally. There is a piece from The New York Times last year that I want to quote at length because of it’s importance in showing how information can be spun very easily by senior white house officials speaking on “background.”
. . . Rhodes has become adept at ventriloquizing many people at once. Ned Price, Rhodes’s assistant, gave me a primer on how it’s done. The easiest way for the White House to shape the news, he explained, is from the briefing podiums, each of which has its own dedicated press corps. “But then there are sort of these force multipliers,” he said, adding, “We have our compadres, I will reach out to a couple people, and you know I wouldn’t want to name them — ”
“I can name them,” I said, ticking off a few names of prominent Washington reporters and columnists who often tweet in sync with White House messaging.
Price laughed. “I’ll say, ‘Hey, look, some people are spinning this narrative that this is a sign of American weakness,’ ” he continued, “but — ”
“In fact it’s a sign of strength!” I said, chuckling.
“And I’ll give them some color,” Price continued, “and the next thing I know, lots of these guys are in the dot-com publishing space, and have huge Twitter followings, and they’ll be putting this message out on their own.”
The article’s author, David Samuel, is quick to note that the average age of a reporter in Washington is 27 and that “the most effectively weaponized 140-character idea or quote will almost always carry the day, and it is very difficult for even good reporters to necessarily know where the spin is coming from or why.” Rhodes also stated in the article that:
“All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he [Rhodes] said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
While everyone decrys the “end” of the print media and the swift ascendance of the digital tweetstorm, one should be quick to remember that boots on the ground foreign correspondents are light years ahead of some guy sitting in a cafe writing clickbait as a freelance journalist. While Samuel in his article of Rhodes does at times challenge the Orwellian tendencies of Rhodes, one might at least argue that Rhodes had a coherent vision and higher calling that guided their foreign policy in an effort to restore American political capital that had been spent by an overzealous Bush administration. It may have been this desire to keep that American capital that ultimately kept Obama out of Syria and forced Obama to his early withdrawal of American troops out of Iraq.
Bannon, on the other hand, seems to have a different view of America. In a podcast with ProPublica, Journalist Masha Gessen points out that all the discussion that we see on Sunday news shows talking about “strategy” and Trump “considering his options” and following a plan need to be thrown out the window. We must start imagining a world where the checks and balances traditionally adhered to by our branches of government are no longer in play (consider especially Gessen’s chess analogy which is very important to understanding Trump). I want to caution here as I did introducing this blog that throwing out checks and balances does not mean that we will descend into the throes of Czarist Russia or Nazi Germany. Both of those cases were particular and really sprung up out of their political situations. A series of tweets from Max Fisher that I read today about Trump’s actions during his first week in office paint the picture rather better than I think I could, so here they are:
In other words, I think that what we need to imagine is that the worst could happen. Governments come and go all the time and constitutions change every year. The myth of American exceptionalism will not help us in this case. We need to consider what steps we want to talk to deal with this new reality. I might have more to say about this in the future, but I felt I needed to write this as a starting point.