Monday, 27 February 2017

Trump the Proto Dictator

Last week Donald Trump doubled down on his rhetoric about the media, continuing his facile fake news meme, or at least what he is trying to turn into a meme and railing against the media's use of anonymous sources. This is the same president who used to be his own anonymous source when in business and was during the campaign trail too, at least in the earlier stages. Indeed he famously even used to pretend to be someone else so that he could be a source about how great a lover he is and what enormous attributes he has.

Anonymous sourcing must be irritating, every government gets furious about leaks and those on the inside speaking about things they would rather remain secret. But that does not mean it is not a perfectly legitimate form of reporting, especially in areas like those of national security and the military.

And most politicians leak. Trump leaks. When you read a story that says 'sources close to' that is a leak by a politician about him or herself. It's not always the politician him or herself that does the leaking as Trump used to, but its usually done with their knowledge and approval. It is an example of people saying things and telling things to reporters they don't want to go on the record about but want in the public domain. It is spin, it is using the media to get their version of events out. But it is also a way of holding the powerful to account by ensuring that what they do is reported and thus accessible to the public who elect them.

Trump does not like this. Of course he doesn't. It shows him up to be the chaotic, scatter-brained, ill-educated, small-minded, meretricious dummy that he is. The reason his administration, which is only five weeks old remember, is leaking so much is because those who can see it from the inside are appalled and want him held to account. This is a man who cannot and must not be allowed to operate in secret. This is a man who is capable of appalling excesses if left to his own devices and instincts. So the leaks and anonymous sourcing is a perfect example of the system working, of the fourth estate doing its job.

This is how Mike Flynn was brought down. Trump says Flynn did nothing wrong, but why in that case was he forced out? He was forced out because the Washington Post got, through an anonymous source, information about what he had been up to with the Russians. Trump has actually claimed that it was fake news but has also complained about The Post getting its information from a leak. Well it can't be both. The most worrying thing is that Trump may be too stupid to see that those two statements are incompatible.

Trump claims that the sources quoted by newspaper organisations don't exist. Here again he contradicted himself in such a bone headed way it gives one a headache. They claimed nine sources, he said, before going on to claim that he knows this cannot be true because he knows all nine of the people it could have come from and knows that they didn't leak. Where do we even begin with how dumb that is, how contradictory, how irrational, how off the wall stupid?

Anyway,  of course the sources exist, indeed they are likely from his own inner circle at least in part. What is driving him mad is he doesn't know who they are and so cannot fire them. But then that is why they wanted to remain anonymous. Remember this is part of a tradition of reporting in most western states. Organisations try to remain secret. Leaks emerge. Governments get furious and call for a leaks inquiry. The leakers are never found.

None of this is so very different to the way Watergate emerged. It came about thanks to an initial case into which two reporters started digging. They dug and dug, often using anonymous sources including the infamous Deep Throat who was right at the top of the Nixonian administration. But Deep Throat was an anonymous source so anonymous he was only used on deep background. Nevertheless he led Woodward and Bernstein to revelations about corruption and cheating that brought down a president and saw several senior figures jailed.

Trump is an autocrat. His businesses were and are deliberately opaque for the very good reason that he doesn't want people to see what he gets up to, the strokes he pulls, the dodges, the weaves. He has been successful, not because he is a genius at the art of the deal but because he is a liar, a cheat, a bully and a crook. It is why, for all of his celebrity, he is detested by large numbers of people, this blogger included and since long before he became president or even a candidate.

In business he forced those who worked for or did business with him to sign non-disclosure contracts. His ex-wife Ivana was made to sign one before she was paid off, meaning that certain allegations about Trump were kept from the public.

This is why Trump has been so guarded about what information about him is in the public domain. If he were open and accountable then there would be no need for leaks. If he had published his tax returns then there would be no questions about his finances and where his money comes from. The reason that his administration is leaking is precisely because he is trying to do things under a cloak of secrecy, only allowing out information that he sees fit to share.

In this of course he is no different to anyone else. Few of us want people prying into our private affairs or the way we work. But then he is not a private individual anymore. He is the most powerful man in the world working with public money on behalf of the American people. He has to be held to account by whatever means are at the disposal of the media.

The press is part of the way the American and other western democratic systems work. It is part of the checks and balances built into the constitution. It is not perfect and is not perfectly objective. The Washington Post and New York Times, CNN and the major networks are not perfectly objective because nobody is. But they are professionals doing a job. Do they make mistakes? Of course they do. Do they allow their own prejudices to intrude on their reporting? Of course they do. But any government has to trust the public to form their own judgement about claims and counter claims.

But on Friday, in an act of petulance, several organisations were banned from the so called huddles that reporters go to away from the cameras when the president's press spokesman briefs the press. This, ironically, is a form of anonymous briefing, a kind of deep background reporting that has gone on for generations. This ban is also, quite simply, wrong. The press spokesman of the president is a public official paid for with public money. He does not get to act this way, to pursue petty vendettas against people doing their jobs.

But is all of this bluster, or is the constant refrain of fake news a precursor to something? Is Trump conducting this vendetta simply because he is an autocrat or because he fears that things are going to come out about him that might severely damage him or even bring him down? Is he trying to create in the minds of the public doubts about the honesty of the press in preparation for revelations about him that will inevitably emerge as reporters do more and more digging and as the leaks become impossible to plug? Is he, in short, getting his retaliation in early?

Calling people names is part of Trump's standard modus operandi. It is remarkably effective when levelled against political opponents like 'little' Marco Rubio or 'crooked' Hillary Clinton, remarkable in particular because Trump has tiny hands and is only rich because he is crooked. But it is less likely to be effective against whole news organisations like the New York Times, BBC, Washington Post, CNN and all three major networks in the US. After all, what is more likely, that all of them are reporting fake news, or that the president is a pathological liar who is afraid of the truth?

Trump is losing this fight already and he knows it. This is why he keeps getting ever more furious about it. But you cannot take on most of the established news media and expect to win. The best way is to engage with them, be open and accountable, use charm and persuasion. Bluster and anger will never hold sway.

The great irony of Donald Trump is that all of this masks his terrible insecurity and frustration. What was all of that talk about how popular he is and how well attended his inauguration was? It was because he knows he's not and it wasn't. He keeps being rude about the New York Times because it has always been sniffy about him and refused to give him the credit he thinks he deserves. He watches a lot of news and sees himself on there being given less than the fawning adulation he thinks he deserves. Why does he keep going down to Mar a Lago every weekend? Because there he gets the applause, the plaudits, the praise, the obsequiousness he so enjoys that would feel cloying to most normal people. Trump is in possession of a massive ego and a massive narcissistic personality disorder and that is why he behaves like the spoilt brat he undoubtedly is. But he also undoubtedly has a great deal to hide. If and when that is revealed his fury will be a sight to behold.

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