A lot of Republicans love how President Donald Trump bashes the media. They think journalists at most major outlets are biased against them, and they think it’s about time that a Republican president hits back. He gets applause even when he seems to be attacking the First Amendment.
The premise that much of the press, from the New York Times and the Washington Post to NBC and CNN, displays a liberal bias is right. But in his nearly nine months as president, Trump hasn’t been very effective at reducing that bias or fighting its effects.
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No claim about Republican health-care plans this year was repeated more frequently than that they would “take away” health insurance from 15 million or more people. That contention was a distortion: It relied on reports from the Congressional Budget Office but misrepresented them. The CBO projected that most of those millions of people would leave the insurance rolls because they would no longer be fined for leaving. They would not be kicked off. Yet reporters routinely stated that the Republican plans would strip insurance from all those millions and ignored or played down the huge role voluntary decisions would play.
Did Trump or his White House try to correct the record? Did he call the press on a false storyline that was sinking his main legislative priority for the year? No. He tweeted about Mika Brzezinski’s plastic surgery, but not about that.
In conservative circles, you’ll often hear the argument that previous Republican leaders were too genteel to hit back as they should have done when unfairly criticized in the press. Maybe so. But manners are not the only difference between Trump and his predecessors. Those earlier Republicans were trying, much more than Trump, to influence how people outside their political base viewed them and their policies. That goal affected their approach to media management.
Trump isn’t better than George W. Bush or Mitt Romney at keeping the public from absorbing the negative portrayals of him in the media. A Quinnipiac poll finds that most people don’t think he’s honest or level-headed, or cares about average Americans. It also finds that 54 percent of the public trusts the media more than Trump, while 36 percent have the reverse view.
The success of the president’s media-bashing has been confined to his base. His supporters have a distrust of the press that reduces the impact of negative stories about him, even if those stories are true. Trump’s media-bashing reminds those supporters not to believe news reports that reflect badly on him and thus helps him retain their support.
It’s not helping him get legislation passed. It’s not helping get conservative viewpoints more broadly accepted. But it is, in its limited way, working for him, and he seems to enjoy it. Republicans who applaud him for it are acquiescing in their party’s reduction to a cult of personality.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”