President Trump had a fitting warmup guy for his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference. His chief strategist and darling of the ultra-right, Steve Bannon, told the crowd Thursday that the Trump administration was basically dismantling the government structure, which would explain why some Trump Cabinet appointees — labor, energy, education — have been long-time foes of the policies of those agencies if not the agencies themselves.
Bannon displayed utter contempt, of course, for the press, which he called the “opposition party,” and that kind of extremism may explain why Trump’s made the media his target of choice. Bannon earlier had suggested the press “keep its mouth shut.”
Friday, the president took his turn before the CPAC crowd, most of them white and conservative and true believers still enjoying “their” victory over Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.
But Trump gave them no new ideas to cheer for, no hopeful thoughts, no positive goals — and most disquieting of all, no words to bring together a country so profoundly divided by the election and the year that preceded it, a year of angry, bullying attacks by Trump.
No, instead, Trump treated the CPAC gathering as a campaign rally, spending much of the beginning of it (about about 25 percent of his total time) bashing the press.
Dating to a printer named Benjamin Franklin and carrying right on through to Woodward and Bernstein and beyond, those in power have long enjoyed making the press a target.
Such obsessions on the part of politicians are related in part to sensitive — and large — egos, and often to the goading of subordinates who want to defend the boss with whatever weapons they have. The press typically is the last target, when reason and fact and truth have been exhausted.
Trump is perpetually annoyed by media reports, about his failure to release his tax returns or even the mildest criticism of his political or show business careers. (Reporters from several prominent news agencies were petulantly barred from an informal press briefing hours after Trump’s speech.)
So it is no surprise that Trump is continuing to blast the press. But he is president now, not some minor-league politician using the local newspaper or TV station for sport. A president ought to have better things to do than poke his fingers in the eyes of those who don’t bow down to him.
Make no mistake, the press is not perfect. But Trump applies the term “fake news” not to false stories but to any story which contains critical comment about his policies. The new term is “opposition party,” which isn’t going to please people at Fox News, or the conservatives of the Wall Street Journal editorial page or even the Brietbart News organization formerly headed by Bannon or conservative writers such as George Will or Charles Krauthammer, whose work appears in The News & Observer. For they are all “media.”
Blaming the media is a sign of desperation. Trump’s CPAC speech had other signs: the crowd trotted out the “Lock her up” chant from campaign rallies, cheered Trump’s mention of the Second Amendment, loved it when he said the Democrats will “beg for help,” applauded when he reckoned the National Rifle Association representatives “love our country” (presumably gun-control advocates do not in his world).
This was not a president and his agenda. This was a candidate trying to focus a constituency on indulging its anger, not its hope. And anger focuses best when something’s in the bull’s eye, which is where Trump has put the “media.”
In so doing, the president woefully underestimates the long-term savvy and intelligence of the American public. The media will take a beating for a while. But soon, very soon, the people will demand of their president something more that bombast and bravado.