When ‘alternative facts’ Trump the reality

The contentious relationship between the new US president and the media over who is telling the truth will not benefit either and will not serve democracy, says Peter Apps.
When ‘alternative facts’ Trump the reality

By the middle of the first day of Donald Trump’s US presidency, the Washington Post front-page was refuting his claims of what the weather had been like 24 hours earlier.

Trump’s relationship with the media seems set to be uniquely toxic and that will serve neither party’s interests, and certainly not those of readers, viewers, or democracy.

As the week got underway, the White House was doing a better job of painting itself as running the government.

Many of its early moves — on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, women’s health, immigration, Obamacare — are deeply polarising. But they look like a president putting his pledges into action.

The bizarre row over attendance numbers at the inauguration, however, may linger. Thanks to verified photographs of the inauguration crowds and a host of other evidence, including pictures from social media and reports from Washington’s Metro system, we can be certain that turnout at Donald Trump’s inauguration was lower than at either of Barack Obama’s.

Beyond that, though, both the Trump White House and, to a slightly lesser extent, the US and global news media, are being both stupid and disingenuous in how they approach the battle.

It was bordering on insanity for Trump, his White House, and press secretary to maintain the false claim that Trump’s inauguration had record turnout. It was also a mistake to make the issue one of the main points of the president’s news conference at Central Intelligence Agency headquarters.

During the campaign, such behaviour worked — indeed, by fighting with journalists so volubly, Trump won himself considerable free media coverage. As president, however, it plays terribly.

The irony is that if the Trump administration was not trying to deny reality, it would be possible to have some sympathy for them.

With the exception of Fox News and some other outlets long-biased in a right-wing direction, much of the US media is liberal and clearly opposed to Trump. As such, they have not always treated him fairly.

Nor has the international press. Take this piece in the UK Independent, on “the most awkward inauguration moment ever”. This turns out to be the moment, on Friday, when Melania Trump arrived with her husband for a church service with the Obamas.

She was carrying a gift for the outgoing first couple, and Michelle Obama briefly looked unsure what to do with the item, before it was handed off to one side. It’s not exactly ‘fake news’, but it’s hardly real news, either.

The insinuation of much of the coverage of the inauguration turnout — particularly contrasting the figures so unfavourably with Obama’s inauguration — looked like a deliberate attempt to paint the presidency as less legitimate, and less widely supported.

Trump did get 3m fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, but that shouldn’t have been the point here.

Inexplicably, however, the president chose to make it relevant again, on Monday, at his first meeting with lawmakers, by repeating a debunked claim that he would have won a popular vote majority were it not for millions of unauthorised immigrant voters. The outcome was another terrible headline.

There might not be such a thing as ‘alternative facts’, but there are — sometimes — alternative explanations. The main reason why more people turned up in Washington for Obama’s administration than for Trump’s could be very simple.

Washington is packed with Democratic voters, many of them African-Americans, for whom the election of the first black president was likely an enormous personal moment. Trump’s voter base might be equally enthralled by him, but many live further away.

As Trump himself inevitably pointed out, the TV ratings for the inauguration were also very strong — indeed, stronger than for Obama in 2013, although not than in 2009.

Many of the media outlets that made such a big deal about turnout at Trump’s inauguration did not make nearly so much noise when the number of people at Obama’s second swearing-in fell almost by half.

Through Obama’s tenure, the White House press corps quite rightly rebelled against some of the Democratic administration’s attempts to muzzle it, but they do themselves few favours by going to war so aggressively with Trump so quickly. If the Trump administration is going to state outright lies from the beginning, however, the press may simply have no choice.

There may, of course, be a strategy in beginning the Trump administration with an attack on the media and even on reality itself. One of the principles long-used by both unpleasant governments, and individuals, is to assert their will by questioning people’s sense of reality and morality.

If you can’t trust anyone, the thinking goes, then it becomes more difficult to question those in authority.

It has been a central part of Russian disinformation doctrine, under President Vladimir Putin. Rumours are spread that often, later, prove false. One example, last year, was the alleged abduction by asylum-seekers of a Russian-German girl in Germany. The incident, authorities and journalists later concluded, never happened.

There’s even a term for when it happens within intimate human relationships — ‘gaslighting’. It means to drive one’s partner mad — or at least, force them to question their sanity — to exert one’s will. (The phrase was popularised by the 1944 film, Gaslight, in which a manipulative husband drives his wife mad by turning gaslighting in the house up and down, while denying doing so.)

Something similar might be going on here, but I doubt it. At the very least, the White House is simply making it look as though the incoming president cannot tolerate the idea of underperforming his predecessor in any way possible, even if it is perfectly inexplicable and ultimately meaningless.

The Trump administration deserves a fair hearing from all elements of the press, not least because it was elected as a consequence of the very real concerns of a significant electorate. But this has not been a good way of starting.

  • Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalisation, conflict, and other issues.

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