President Donald Trump was a distracting entertainment from the moment he launched his campaign in June of 2015 — until he wasn’t.
His opening speech, in which he called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and told the world he would be the best jobs president “God ever created,” was looked at as the ravings of a man whose outsized ego was too big to be anything but hilarious.
News outlets such as CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC carried his run-on sentences and gesticulations seemingly every time he got behind a podium. The Huffington Post for a time only wrote about Trump in its entertainment section.
“They had a good time seeing him as a reality TV show, because he was a reality TV show,” said Terence Moran, a professor of media ecology at New York University.
And while he was being treated like news-as-entertainment, Trump became the president of the United States. It wasn’t long before Trump, emboldened by the power of the presidency, began to exhibit the media tactics and tendencies of authoritarian leaders both past and present.
We’ve seen this before
The Trump administration has just passed 100 days in office, and the president’s feud with the media shows no signs of weakening. Indeed, at a rally celebrating his time in office, he launched into yet another attack on what he called the “failing” and “dishonest” media.
Scholars of authoritarian regimes and advocates of press freedom who talked to Mashable explained that Trump’s rise to the White House and attempts at controlling and intimidating the press remind them of authoritarian leaders around the world who have disempowered the media around them.
Adolf Hitler — to invite perhaps the most extreme comparison — was a master of rhetoric, repeating key points in his speeches until people believed them. Trump, as Moran pointed out, has done the same. He’s repeated his notions about crime on the rise even though evidence shows crime has greatly declined since the early 1990s. He’s repeated his claims about massive voter fraud despite no evidence of voter fraud on anything resembling a wide scale. He’s done this, often, in front of audiences broadcast across the country, and in doing so has been able to drive conversation around his talking points.
Another example that draws a comparison to Trump’s behavior is Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan is at the center of a media crackdown in Turkey, which has seen more journalists imprisoned than any other nation in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Like Erdoğan, Trump casts himself as a man of the people, a populist nationalist who has repeatedly attacked the “elite media.” Like Erdoğan, Trump has tried to discredit specific news outlets and attacked what he has said is biased or unfavorable journalism.
In March, 2013, after a transcript of a conversation between two political parties was leaked to the press, an enraged Erdoğan publicly denounced outlets that had run with the information. “If this is the way you conduct your journalism,” he said, “damn your journalism.”
The rhetoric sounds all too familiar.
After his election but before he assumed the presidency, Trump held a press conference where he was visibly enraged by the recent publication of information found in classified documents. These documents alleged that Russian officials had “compromising personal and financial information” about Trump, which the then-president-elect flatly denied. He then got into a verbal spat with a reporter from CNN, which had published the report.
“Your organization is terrible,” Trump said. “I am not going to give you a question. You are fake news.”
Both Trump and Erdoğan also have an interesting relationship with the truth.
Protesters demonstrating outside Erdoğan’s Istanbul office in early June of 2013 fled a harsh police crackdown and took refuge in a nearby mosque. Soon, a rumor bubbled up on social media, accusing protesters of flowing into the mosque with their shoes on while drinking beer, both acts that would be considered disrespectful to anyone worshipping there. Erdoğan picked up the rumor and trumpeted his outrage, feigned or not.
“They entered Dolmabahçe Mosque with their beer bottles and their shoes on,” said Erdoğan, who was then prime minister. “They have insulted my headscarf-wearing daughters and sisters.”
The imam and muezzin of the mosque denied that anyone had worn their shoes inside the mosque, and said no one had consumed any beer. But this didn’t matter to Erdoğan, and facts have similarly not mattered to Trump.
Trump has claimed to have 1.5 million people in attendance at his inauguration. His press secretary, Sean Spicer, said the inauguration crowd was the largest in history, despite a tide of evidence disproving these claims. This led to Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway saying that the White House was simply presenting “alternative facts.”
Trump’s rise struck a chord with Bilge Yesil, an assistant professor of media culture at the College of Staten Island and the author of the recently published Media in New Turkey. In Erdoğan, Yesil sees many comparisons to America’s new leader — including his campaign of misinformation.
“You don’t even know how to begin calling them out on their propaganda,” she said. “You become so fatigued.”
The American media environment is full of journalism, made-up stories masquerading as journalism, stories that contain falsehoods written by Trump-friendly outlets, and misinformation provided by Trump’s White House, among other bits. It’s a storm of information nearly impossible for news professionals to follow, let alone members of the public.
“You can’t keep up with the fact-checking,” Moran said.
The Trump administration’s combative relationship with much of the media has also drawn at least one comparison to how Chinese government officials handle reporters, which often involves misdirection, misinformation, and threats.
In the same interview in which Conway mentioned “alternative facts,” she also seemed to imply that the administration could easily limit press access. She told NBC’s Chuck Todd that the White House might have to “rethink” its relationship with media outlets if Todd and other journalists called the administration’s inauguration crowd claim a “falsehood.”
Writing for NPR, Frank Langfitt, a journalist who spent a decade reporting in China, said Conway’s message sounded like a threat he’d heard before. He was used to Chinese government officials painting their own reality and voicing their displeasure when a different reality was given legitimacy by outside media.
“Like the new White House,” Langfitt wrote, “the Chinese government has tried over the years to convince citizens not to believe their own eyes.”
The weakening of a free press
This is a battle over information that has the potential to further erode trust in the press, but Trump has also brought up going after media outlets in a more structural manner. During his campaign, he suggested weakening libel laws to more easily bring lawsuits against news organizations.
Freedom House senior democracy scholar Arch Puddington says the U.S. has among the most press-friendly libel laws in the world, but scholars also say Americans should be on the watch for attacks on those laws. In Turkey — where Erdoğan again offers a good example — government officials have filed nearly 2,000 lawsuits against people accused of insulting Erdoğan during the president’s first 18 months in the office.
“You can destroy a reporter or an entire newspaper by fining it hundreds of thousands of dollars for a lawsuit,” Puddington said.
That shouldn’t be news to Americans. Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and venture capitalist who has become a close advisor to Donald Trump, recently financed a lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker, offering a blueprint for the destruction of media companies that may get easier going forward.
Charles Harder, the same attorney behind the Gawker lawsuit, is now coming after the publication Techdirt. His client, Shiva Ayyadurai, claims to have invented email, despite evidence to the contrary that Techdirt has published. The $15 million lawsuit could destroy Techdirt, regardless of who has verifiable information on its side.
Manipulation of the legal system is but one structural maneuver available for use by authoritarian governments looking to erode the strength of the press, but Puddington and Yesil said residents of the U.S. are less likely to see these methods emerge. It would be difficult for media outlets to be shut down by the government as the U.S. has strong pillars in place to prevent this, such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), libel laws, and the strength of several media institutions themselves.
The Russian government has forced many independent media outlets into being sold to friends of the Kremlin, and similar fates have befallen outlets in Turkey and Venezuela. But in the U.S., according to Puddington, several private media companies are simply too powerful to be forced into some type of buyout.
In authoritarian nations such as Turkey and Hungary, the ruling party can control media through regulatory agencies. Imagine, for example, if Trump got to give the FCC power to oversee content produced by U.S. outlets. It’s easy to see how that could result in a crushing form of information control, but it would be difficult for the FCC to be granted such power. The Communications Act prevents the FCC from issuing any regulations that might curtail freedom of speech, as does the First Amendment.
Trump’s administration has hinted at many of the hallmarks of an authoritarian regime bent on weakening the press, according to experts. In a January interview, Trump advisor Steve Bannon didn’t play coy with regard to his feelings toward the media, calling the press the “” and saying the media should “keep its mouth shut.”
Weeks later, Trump wasn’t quite that direct, but he was startling nonetheless. The president tweeted that the media is the “enemy of the American People!”
If the media is not his enemy, but the country’s, then all of Trump’s forthcoming attacks on the fourth estate aren’t in defense of himself.
It’s a simple cloak, but so far he hasn’t needed anything more complex.