Despite having made it to the White House, the president has not changed his bullying ways. Yet he remains in the saddle.
At first, there was the false hope that Donald Trump would change his bullying ways and replaced them with more presidential behavior once he made it to the White House. After the inauguration, the new commander in chief continued attacking the press and spreading false claims. This resulted in journalists convincing themselves that, eventually, the leader would sink himself with his impulsive reactions, his lack of self-control and his insults.
Trump’s hypersensitivity toward the press, his obsession with TV networks like CNN and MSNBC and “liberal” newspapers, ranging from The New York Times to The Washington Post, made mainstream journalists feel like they were once again in the middle of the ring after the disorientation (and self-criticism) that followed the election of the billionaire president. However, Trump keeps charging headlong with his increasingly grotesque and extreme attacks against the media, which react in turn with indignation and fact-checking. Day after day, these weapons are turning out to be less and less effective, at least as far as conservative voters are concerned.
Trump is lessening the prestige of the presidential institution with the gravity and vulgarity of his attacks, which include insults to women and remarks that some may interpret as instigating violence against journalists. One has the sense that he is running at breakneck speed through a dark tunnel. However, now the press is also beginning to fear that it, too, may have ended up in a dead end tunnel.
It must also wonder whether marketing guru Seth Godin is right. According to him, no matter which field you operate in, you sell “not because of what you can do, but because of your capacity to entice with the story you tell.”*
Up to this point, Trump has mostly been telling the story of a great press conspiracy against him. Of the 121 tweets that he posted in June and surely posted personally, only three of them are about actual political problems. The rest consist of attacks on the media. This paradoxical situation, without precedent in American history, astonishes governments all over the world, as well as the media. Every morning, TV networks set up the stage for the indignation show. Every day they say that Trump has hit bottom, only to discover the next day that he has no problem sinking even lower with vulgar accusations and false claims.
The media make mistakes of their own as well. CNN had to retract a report about the Russia connection of one of Trump’s aides during the transition. It then fired the three reporters of this story as well as the TV stars who directed violent metaphors against the president, who therefore had the opportunity to answer in kind and even more harshly, without regard for the fact that words from the leader of a superpower carry much more weight. The media show the falsehoods in many of Trump's claims. Maureen Dowd states in The New York Times that America is ruled by a gossip columnist, but Trump scoffs at his critics, accusing newspapers of being the true manufacturers of lies, and almost admits Dowd is right when he hints that he can use the National Enquirer, a scandal sheet, as a cudgel to punish his opponents.
The public indignation against Trump rises, as do the ratings of TV networks and subscriptions to the liberal press. “The Donald” always seems on the verge of falling into the abyss. This is only one part of the story, though. We saw the other part on Saturday, when, before a large audience of veterans and activists for faith-based organizations, Trump described CNN as “garbage journalism” instead of speaking of homeland and faith. The crowd reacted to these words with standing ovations. And again: Not only did Trump not back down after having been buried under criticism by Democrats as well as Republicans over his attack on MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski by bringing up her facial surgery, he also went so far as to defend his media style: "My use of social media is not Presidential - it’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL,” Trump said.
There is a method to Trump’s bullying. The people who voted for him like his style, whereas his adversaries lack the means to dethrone him. “The Donald” feeds the narrative of a press that is conspiring against him. (“The fake media tried to stop us from going to the White House, but I'm President and they’re not”) because he feels most at ease and gives his best when he is delivering punches in the ring. Probably this also has to do with the fact that he now has to play with stories and suggestions, as he has no concrete facts to offer Americans. His health care counter-reform is stuck in the Senate, and the first page of his much discussed fiscal reform has yet to be written.
In the meantime though, he is still in the saddle. The only ones who can topple him are the Congressional members of his party, the people who are most alarmed and frightened by Trump's actions, a president who is turning the Republicans’ political terrain into a desert. However, the Republicans themselves are weak and vacillate before right-wing voters, and they lack the courage to challenge him openly.
*Editor’s note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.