Why Trump's Unfounded Allegations Will Likely Get Worse by Luke Perry
Trump’s recent allegation that President Obama tapped his phones was unprecedented, but the role of Breitbart was not.
Early presidents did not campaign. Honor and reputation was supposed to speak for itself when being considered for public office. Well . . . sort of.
Presidential candidates relied on newspapers to “go negative” on their behalf, dating back to George Washington’s second term and the election of 1796, the beginning of competitive presidential elections.
The number of newspapers grew from 50 in 1776 to 250 in 1800. Impartiality was abandoned by a new wave of editors as Thomas Jefferson, and other anti-Federalists, cultivated an oppositional press. Scandalous falsehoods targeting political opponents became the norm, prompting the Federalists to legally prohibit criticism of the president through the short-lived Alien and Sedition Acts (1798).
Self-proclaimed news organizations have increased exponentially in the current digital world. The advance of communication technology, including social media, has obliterated the role of gate-keeping commonplace just a generation ago.
Citizens must fend for themselves in determining what is true and what is not. Hyper-partisanship has filled the void. People tend to consume news that conforms to their worldviews. This is not good for democracy, but hard to rectify, when the very notion of objectivity is increasingly considered moot.
In this way Breitbart is a modern throwback to early attack papers. Breitbart is devoted to advancing a sectarian view, unrestrained by journalistic integrity, willing to create, spin, or regurgitate any content that furthers its ideological agenda. The more the objectivity is discredited, the better off they are.
What is new is having the leader of such an organization operate a campaign and become the top adviser for a sitting president. Steve Bannon’s daily fight for the deconstruction of the administrative state led by coastal elites and international institutions clearly encompasses elite media institutions.
The Trump administration’s self-proclaimed war on the media is not trying to discredit a sitting president, as in the past, but discredit and silence media elites critical of him from The New York Times to CNN. Ironically, these elite media institutions have only become more dedicated to scrutinizing this presidency, seeing their watchdog role under attack and buoyed by increased distribution and ratings.
This context helps explain Trump’s unfounded and felonious allegation toward President Obama. Breitbart regurgitated speculation from a conservative talk radio host, which was then circulated within the White House. Senior White House officials were reportedly stunned by President Trump’s tweets on Saturday, but they shouldn’t have been.
The president is using media organizations consumed by his base to attack his political opponents. This is not so much a diversion, but a new normal (again), that Trump and Steve Bannon will continue to cultivate until their supporters demand otherwise.
No recent president has done this, but this is more of the beginning than the bottom. The greater the scrutiny of this administration, the more outlandish the response will become.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Chair and Associate Professor of Government at Utica College.