US President Donald Trump has been waging a war of words with the media over coronavirus politics. He has been lying, spinning, distorting, and saying outrageous (and outrageously false) things like: “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s got to be. It’s total.” And: “The federal government has absolute power.” Both claims are obviously false in light of the Constitution. Trump even ludicrously bragged that he saved “billions” of lives from coronavirus because “we made a lot of good decisions.” In reality, the total population of the US is only about one third of a billion, and Trump’s bad decisions will likely cost tens of thousands of lives.
Trump has also encouraged “reopen America” protests and encouraged gun enthusiasts to bring their weapons. He delayed economic stimulus checks, insisting that his name be printed on them. He continually promises to end the lockdown—first on April 12, then on May 1—and then wavers in his decisions. He endlessly lies about the fact that his foot-dragging approach to the pandemic is what allowed it to get a foothold in America in the first place. The media has responded by ridiculing Trump, pointing out the pathetic clumsiness of his response to the pandemic, and calling out his absurd lies.
Normally, the media’s unflattering portrayal of Trump would guarantee his defeat in the November elections. And, Trump’s botched response to the pandemic, and the resulting economic devastation, would be an even surer guarantee of the incumbent’s loss of the presidency.
But these are not normal times. Trump won the White House by running against most of the mainstream media. The more the media attacked and ridiculed him, the more his supporters loved him.
Trump’s war on the media was and remains unprecedented. In the past, all serious candidates for federal office in the United States assiduously courted the media. Their greatest fear was always the “gaffe” that would give the big TV news outlets and the nation’s leading newspapers an opportunity to attack and ridicule them.
Trump took precisely the opposite approach. He actually invited media ridicule by saying ridiculous and obnoxious things (as well as alluding to a few unspeakable truths, like Bush’s responsibility for 9/11, CIA Cubans’ involvement in the JFK assassination, and Bill Clinton’s claim to being a serial rapist). Trump’s impolite utterances predictably elicited outrage and hostility from the media establishment. And if that wasn’t enough, he viciously attacked the media as well as his political opponents. Trump had learned to operate that way from his mentor, Roy Cohn, the “lawyer” who ran New York for the world’s then-leading organized crime kingpin, Meyer Lansky. Cohn taught Trump to respond to attacks by mounting high-volume counter-attacks, the nastier the better.
Trump learned Cohn’s lesson well—and applied it in his 2016 presidential campaign in a unique and unprecedented way. Trump understood that by 2016, the American people no longer trusted mainstream media. The nation’s press and TV news outlets had lied to the people about such a long list of critically important issues, beginning with the JFK assassination and 9/11, that they no longer knew whom or what to believe. Trump exploited that mistrust by posing as the heroic castigator of the “fake news media.” A new pseudo-alternative pro-Trump media emerged via the de facto merger of alt-right and alt-light outlets like InfoWars, WhatReallyHappened, NaturalNews, and Breitbart on the one hand, with Rupert Murdoch’s gigantic Likud propaganda factory Fox News on the other.
So, Trump won in 2016, and has governed and survived impeachment since then, by polarizing both the media and the electorate. Can that strategy survive the coronavirus crisis?
It all depends on how the pandemic plays out. If America is still in chaos in November, plagued by a huge and continuing death toll necessitating continuing lockdowns, Trump may not be able to succeed in deflecting the blame onto scapegoats: China, the WHO, the Democrats, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the media, anyone but himself. At some point Trump’s scapegoating strategy—and the American people’s tendency to rally behind their leader, no matter how evil and/or insane, in a time of crisis—will start to wear thin. A resounding Trump defeat could be the result.
On the other hand, if the pandemic eases, and appears not to have been as bad as the media had predicted—and if the economy is rebounding in the fall—Trump will benefit politically. He will claim that the Democrats and mainstream liberal media tried to shut America down, while he, the brave and sagacious Trump, battled heroically to keep it open. He will take credit for the rebound, and promise better times ahead. If the HCQ-zinc coronavirus cure pans out, Trump will bask in its reflected glory, and rip the media for not trusting his amazingly prescient medical judgment. He will cast himself as the eternal optimist, while castigating the media for its unwarranted negativity and pessimism. And of course, he will flagellate Joe Biden as both “sleepy” (senile) and by rhyming implication “creepy” (Biden doesn’t just grope women’s private parts like he, Trump, does, but actually violates them.)
All of this might or might not win over enough voters to give Trump a resounding victory. But it could certainly allow him to prevail in the key swing states that will decide the election. (Assuming, of course, that the votes are being counted accurately, always a dangerous assumption in the black-box-voting-machine-run USA.)
Whatever happens in November, Trump’s battle with the media over the COVID-19 pandemic is a symptom of the larger collapse of the Western public’s trust in its media, politicians, and other authority figures. Even as the media and politicians successfully persuade billions of people around the world to abandon their jobs, stop attending their places of worship, and cower in their homes—a triumph of the art of mass persuasion—ever-increasing numbers of ordinary people doubt nearly everything they are being told. Trump feeds on that doubt, and exploits it. The media, and the billionaire oligarchy that owns it, increasingly demonize, deplatform, and sometimes even incarcerate the doubters. But their accelerating efforts to quell the doubts further feed the perception that the Establishment has something—everything—to hide.
The widespread breakdown of trust in authoritative Western institutions, which are overwhelmingly secular, and the marginalization of the Western religious establishment, has created a potentially favorable climate of opinion for those who wish to propagate the message of Islam. We should repeatedly hammer home the point that the underlying reason Western leaders are so often sociopathic and mendacious is the collapse of religious spirituality and the rise of secular materialism—which offers no moral foundations whatsoever. An honest, consistent secular materialist has plenty of compelling reasons to be a clever sociopath (wealth, power, pleasure) and no genuine, metaphysically-grounded reasons not to.
Additionally, the coronavirus crisis forces us to confront the reality of death. What meaning do our lives have, when they can end at almost any moment, due to a virus or accident or other act of God—and are certain to end all too soon in any case? Secular materialism does not have a satisfying answer to such questions. Islam does. Perhaps at least some of the people today who are being terrorized, locked down, and lied to by their leaders, will take the time to follow the Qur’an’s advice to ponder and reflect.