The guy who said, “Never quarrel with a man who buys his ink by the barrel,” didn’t anticipate Donald Trump. Since becoming president, Trump has argued the news media to a stalemate thanks to the power of his alliance with the Fox News Network and his 44 million-follower Twitter account, which functions as one of the world’s largest printing presses. And the ink is free.
What makes Trump’s success at media-jamming so remarkable is that it coincides with a national press that has bird-dogged his every appointment, his every policy decision, his every political flip-flop, and of course, every ripple in the Russian investigation. The stronger the press gets, the greater Trump’s powers of deflection become, a spiral destined to take both to heaven or at the very least to hell.
Trump isn’t the first American president to square off against the press, obviously. President No. 2, John Adams, sought to silence his press critics with the Alien and Sedition Acts. President No. 18, Ulysses S. Grant, bawled in his second inaugural that he had been “the subject of abuse and slander scarcely ever equaled in political history.” President No. 37, Richard Nixon, told his consigliere Henry Kissinger that the press was the enemy, and his White House put some of the day’s best journalists—Mary McGrory, Jack Anderson, Stanley Karnow, Tom Wicker, et al.—on an “enemies list.”
By defining the press as his prime adversary—not a foreign power or “terrorism” or an energy crisis, as previous presidents have—Trump has changed the way we view the press and the way the press views itself. For Trump, the struggle is Manichean, with him representing good and the press representing bad. In a recent tweet, he wrote, “Wow, more than 90% of Fake News Media coverage of me is negative, with numerous forced retractions of untrue stories. Hence my use of Social Media, the only way to get the truth out. Much of Mainstream Meadia [sic] has become a joke!” At an August rally, he said journalists are “sick people,” “liars” who are fomenting “division.” In statement after statement, he and advisers like Steve Bannon have cast the national press, not the Democrats, as “the opposition party.” This trick of classification has paid steady dividends—it allows him to nullify every critical story as politically motivated and corrupt.