America

Pressing Trump

By Andrej Mrevlje |

As the president-elect’s government slowly takes shape, America transitions into unknown territory with much guessing, many unanswered questions and a feeling of uncertainty. But while the podium and stands for the inauguration parade are being built at the Capitol in D.C., one thing is certain, at least: the ceremony that will conduct the new president into the Oval Office will be Donald Trump’s first successful presidential deal. The president-elect envisions collecting $75 million from his donors for the occasion! That is $32 million more than the amount President Obama spent for his parade in 2013. So it appears that Trump is preparing a lavish self-celebration. There will be a lot of shine, with golden decorations and symbols of American power — no doubt about it. The question is, how much of the show will be a transplant from Las Vegas?

Judging by the prices of the ticket packages that Trump’s organization offers for those interested in attending the ceremony (including some VIP receptions  that cost up to $1 million), this year’s parade will be much more expensive than previous inaugurations, while the streets of the capital will no doubt be less crowded and less enthusiastic. In talking to long-time residents here in D.C., I have learned that many of them are trying to use the time around the inauguration for short vacations in warmer places. Here, the president-elect is still largely considered a barbarian who conquered a city that he does not even like. Especially with the announcement that President-elect Trump will spend as little time as possible in the Oval Office and the lodging quarters of the White House, he is still considered hostile.

However, Trump’s presidency will definitely be a very unique one. Perhaps less so for me, since I had the chance to follow the setup of Silvio Berlusconi’s power in Italy during the mid-’90s.

So I was thrilled to see my predictions confirmed in the president-elect’s video in which he addressed the nation while wrapped up in tight negotiations high in his own tower. If Trump continues to follow in the footsteps of his slightly less rich fellow tycoon from Italy, then the next video will come with a waving flag behind him and be embellished by some soft background music. Like Trump, Berlusconi (now semi-retired) was considered “un grande comunicatore” — a great communicator — often claiming one thing in the morning only to deny it in the evening. Berlusconi, too, promised to change Italy and make it more prosperous. And like Trump, Berlusconi — a successful businessman — was convinced that any country can be run like a corporation.

There are many other similarities between the two tycoons. The Berlusconi story is well-documented, and if one wants to better understand the mechanics and the unpredictable nature of a businessman thrown into politics, one should study Berlusconi’s case. It is not fun reading, though, and the outcome is not funny, like all those “bunga-bunga” parties might make it sound.

One thing is certain, though: There will plenty of Donald Trump in this country for the next four years, so the media will be more than busy. Because Trump, like Berlusconi, wants to be loved permanently.

One way to achieve that is to make everybody talk about him constantly. It doesn’t matter whether the discussion is good or bad — as long as he is center stage, he will feel happy and fulfilled. In order to achieve this, Trump needs the media. He can’t survive without it, even for a single day. The only time when Italy got some rest from Berlusconi was during the short periods when he was hospitalized or had to rejuvenate his face with plastic surgery.

Media should be aware of this and be more confident in the power that they possess. I find it extremely bizarre when I hear journalists complaining that they have been treated badly by a person whose manners we learned very well over the last couple of years.

So what has to change? Any part of Donald Trump’s personality? No. What must change is our — the media’s — behavior. Donald Trump is no longer a private citizen. So when he calls and invites important news organizations to his private residence for an off-the-record chat, editors and executives should simply not return the call. Instead, as David Remnick describes, this is what it happened:

Then came Monday’s astonishing aria of invective and resentment aimed at the media, delivered in a conference room on the twenty-fifth floor of Trump Tower. In the presence of television executives and anchors, Trump whined about everything from NBC News reporter Katy Tur’s coverage of him to a photograph the news network has used that shows him with a double chin. Why didn’t they use “nicer” pictures?

For more than twenty minutes, Trump railed about “outrageous” and “dishonest” coverage. When he was asked about the sort of “fake news” that now clogs social media, Trump replied that it was the networks that were guilty of spreading fake news. The “worst,” he said, were CNN (“liars!”) and NBC.

Since the circumstances of the meeting with the president-elect were informal and held in a private residence, it was  ethically inappropriate for members of the media to attend. But dressed-up media executives nevertheless came to this bizarre encounter, obviously in hopes of creating an opportunity for future business with Trump. Folks like Wolf Blitzer from CNN, George Stephanopoulos from ABC, and others went to the wrong place. This is not to defend Mr. Trump, who is known for his rude manners. But the media folks exposed themselves, and Trump was in a position to say anything he wanted to. In the same way as when President Obama mocked Trump a few years ago during the White House Correspondents Dinner. What was Donald Trump doing there to begin with? And today, what are journalists doing at these kinds of dinners in a situation that is such an obvious collusion of power?

As Remnick writes in his short report, the media representatives were under the delusion that with the election, there would be some sort of normalization of Donald Trump — meaning that in his new role, he would become more presidential and less erratic. But that did not happen. It was that private meeting that created alarm among the media establishment to the extent that Christiane Amanpour felt the need to raise her voice in defence of American journalism, as Jelani Cobb wrote in the New Yorker:

On Tuesday evening, Christiane Amanpour delivered an address to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in which she discussed the tides of authoritarianism sweeping the world. Amanpour began with the chilling words “I never in a million years thought I would be up here onstage appealing for the freedom and safety of American journalists at home.” In the immediate aftermath of the election, it was not entirely uncommon to hear practitioners questioning whether journalism mattered. The excavation of Trump’s past and the vast canon of lies he told during the campaign had, after all, with the possible exception of his braggadocious admission of sexual assault, left little discernible impact.

I think that the New York Times handled the matter pretty well this time. They invited Trump into their bunker and even obtained the right to get him on the record, recording everything said in the discussion room. It was not much — I doubt Donald Trump will never say much in his life. He is a manager and will stay that way. But the record of an hour or more of Q and A at the New York Times is an interesting read if you want to get into the mind of the loquacious man who is set to become the new president of the United States.

If the conversation with the Times editors and reporters seems to have an aftertaste of flirting with power, it says something that two days later, the same paper published an investigative piece on all of Trump’s businesses and real-estate properties around the world. It exposes the president-elect’s potential conflicts of interest, as well as serious security issues that Congress should discuss. For example, what will the government of the U.S. and their president do should some terrorist group attack two Trump towers in Istanbul? In this sense, the the New York Times piece is a map of future world crises and conflicts.

Instead of discussing these issues, the president-elect is inundating us with his tweets — as he will obviously continue to do after January 20, when he formally takes office. People say that he is addicted to Twitter. Do they think that he counts his followers or communicates with them? It seems to me that he tweets to make sure that the media amplifies his blurbs in the early hours of the day. He makes sure that his tweets land for the early morning  shows — like Morning Joe, which in many ways sets the political day in this country. Once Morning Joe reads, comments and gossips about the tweet, the food is served. It then jumps to all the other media sources — even NPR and CNN — and rolls the whole day, to the delight of the early morning tweet-sender.

Micheline Maynard puts it similarly in Forbes when it comes to the self-pitying media:

But now, he’s president-elect, and with journalism’s reputation in shambles, it’s time for those covering Trump to come up with a plan.

I suggested on Twitter that journalists keep two lists: one of Trump’s tweets, the other of events from which he is trying to deflect attention.

It’s exactly what business journalists have learned to do as they cover companies teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. It’s also what people who covered the old Soviet Union, and more recently, China, have had to do. They have long taken official pronouncements with a grain of salt, and dug deeper for the true meaning.

The current young crop of political journalists may not have that kind of experience, and covering Trump this way will be more difficult than many expected. It certainly won’t be as routine as other White House assignments have been.

It will no doubt be hard. And sometimes also boring. But it is a job that the media has to do. Like what the Washington Post did in its reporting on the apparent success of keeping Carrier production within the U.S..

And it’s not just Trump. If this country wants to avoid an authoritarian economic model that no doubt would be more efficient (just look at China!), then both public opinion and the media have to also discuss the other side of the political reality.

The Democrats bear no less responsibility than Republicans in bringing this country to Trump’s American brand of Brexit. The once liberal Democratic Party is now ossified and idealess, deeply rooted in the 20th century. Time to give this country to younger people, starting with Congress.

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