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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Trump's media attacks are copy-pasted straight from the authoritarian playbook

Anti-media vitriol suggests Trump remains beloved by his base but could be losing control of the broader narrative
Loyal attendees at a rally in Indiana. Trump's opponents cannot seem to decide if he is politically unstoppable. Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg

With the November midterm elections looming, Donald Trump's increasingly volatile conduct suggests an incongruous blend of rising self-confidence in his presidential authority, along with unmistakable signs of vulnerability and even panic.

His opponents, too, seem to oscillate between certainty in his eventual comeuppance either at November's polls or at the hands of various investigators, versus the nagging suspicion he is somehow politically indestructible, if not unstoppable.

This week the long-running war to shape the American national narrative, and even the nature of truth itself, sharply escalated.

The latest development is a dispute between Mr Trump and Bloomberg over comments he made during an interview apparently insulting Canada. When the comments were published, his instant reaction was to denounce the story as “dishonest reporting” and claim the comments were off-the-record – while simultaneously admitting he made them in the first place.

This pattern of acting and then immediately denying the action, while blaming others for any negative consequences – often referred to as gaslighting – is what we have come to expect of this US president.

Mr Trump intensified his efforts to establish himself as the only reliable authority for accurate representations of reality and to denigrate all traditional sources of information and interpretation as fundamentally dishonest and hopelessly biased.

His latest targets are Google and other tech firms. Mr Trump has repeatedly accused them, without any evidence, of trying to “silence” him and other right-wingers by deliberately skewing internet search results towards "liberal" news organisations. He then threatened them with government intervention.

This claim is almost certainly false, although the secrecy with which Google and its rivals veil their algorithmic processes makes conclusively demonstrating that impossible.

Mr Trump was apparently basing his claims on a right-wing blog post that classified virtually all legitimate journalism as "liberal" and treated a great deal of bizarre and conspiratorial nonsense as equivalent "conservative" sources.

Equating the Associated Press with Breitbart, CNN with Infowars and the New York Times with WorldNetDaily.com doesn't reflect ideological balance. It abandons any distinction between factual, accurate and professional journalism from crude and often hateful propaganda.

Mr Trump long ago revealed his motivations for demonising the press when he told the veteran journalist Lesley Stahl that such attacks are intended to ensure unflattering reports about him are dismissed by the public as "fake news".

The same, no doubt, applies to search engines and other online sources.

It's also a case of making aggressive offence the heart of any good defence. Since the 1970s, the American right has been continuously whining about "liberal bias" in the media, academia and all other mainstream sources of analysis and information.

If you're consistently losing wars of ideas on their merits, a good fallback is to claim that the whole process is rigged from the outset.

So if Google tends to point people towards AP and CNN more readily than Breitbart or Infowars, rather than acknowledging an indisputable distinction in quality and accuracy, one can instead fulminate about ideological bias.

At best, tech companies will begin to actively skew their search results in a right-wing direction to avoid such criticism. At worst, Mr Trump’s followers can nurture yet another conspiratorial grievance.

Recent death threats against Boston Globe journalists informed by Mr Trump’s “enemies of the people” rhetoric demonstrates its chilling effectiveness.

And still Mr Trump and his minions rage against "fake news" and now “fake books” and insist reality is not what it seems.

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Read more from Hussein Ibish:

After a series of devastating blows, the legal walls are closing in on Trump

Rashida Tlaib's real victory is that she ran her campaign as a Muslim Palestinian woman and won

Why being a 'yes man' isn't quite what it seems

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When he first took office, Mr Trump’s then press secretary Sean Spicer insisted his boss's inauguration audience was much bigger than Barack Obama's, despite the opposite being plainly and demonstrably true. This obvious falsehood was then defended by another senior Trump adviser, Kellyanne Conway, as "alternative facts".

That initiated their ongoing campaign against verifiable realities. In July, Mr Trump even demanded his followers believe him rather than their own perceptions because “what you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening".

In mid-August, the logical conclusion was eventually reached when Mr Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani flatly declared that "truth isn't truth". He insisted that "nowadays" facts are merely "in the eye of the beholder”.

This attack on the media and other alternative sources of information is copied and pasted directly from the authoritarian's playbook. Any would-be caudillo must establish themselves with the general public as the ultimate authority on perception as well as power.

It smacks of Russian propaganda which conflates facts with opinion and renders all assertions equally valid to bolster outlandish lies.

In that sense, Mr Trump’s war against journalism and the truth reflects tremendous confidence and, it seems, alarmingly broad-ranging ambitions.

However, it also suggests a growing sense that although he remains beloved by his political base and those who see him as the tribal leader of white, Christian America, he might be losing control of the broader narrative.

Opinion polls show increasing support for the Robert Mueller investigation, new levels of disapproval of Mr Trump’s performance and even a mounting constituency for impeachment.

The guilty plea by his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, who implicated Trump in serious campaign violations during the last election, suggest the president faces potentially daunting legal and political challenges.

Still, even if Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives in November, Republicans in the Senate could protect Mr Trump from being removed from office if they remain united behind him.

Therefore his future depends entirely on shaping the perceptions of the public, especially core Republican voters, and successfully spinning whatever might come out from further reportage, Mr Mueller's investigation, other criminal inquiries or House committee probes.

Control of the narrative is now everything.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington