THE CONSERVATIVE| June 2017| Issue 4| Pages: 31-35
by Madhav Das Nalapat
“Treat me as an outsider and I’ll behave as one,” was Rupert Murdoch’s warning to editors who behaved as if their publication belonged to them and not to the proprietor. It also sums up President Trump’s attitude to the media. His administration has sought to box journalists into harmlessness through denial of access and serial invective. Even the sacred Beltway ritual of the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner was boycotted by the 45th President of the United States, who owes much of his fame to artful management of the media.
As a businessman, Donald Trump was generous in the time he gave journalists, including those who were far from being admirers. There were, of course, threats, legal notices and even lawsuits, but such shadows quickly passed. The Donald bestowed so much of his undoubted charm on reporters that even supposedly negative reports contained anecdotes designed to make readers like him. It helped that Trump was a compulsive reader of newspapers and viewer of television channels, his favourite topic being a certain New York billionaire with a glamorous wife and an unusual hairstyle. He didn’t need to be told that the media were outside the gravitational force of the Trump corporate empire, and therefore needed to be handled more delicately than his employees.
However, a career incorporate life – or, for that matter, the military – may not be the best way of adapting to the scrum of a political career. Businessmen and generals understand hierarchy and its attendant order, but they are less familiar with the pathways and limitations of politics. Now that he is in the White House, we can see that Trump spent too little time thinking about what needed to get done the morning after the election, including picking his staff. Brave words notwithstanding, it seems that Team Trump was less than certain of defeating Hillary Clinton, whose machine was supremely confident of victory.
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On November 9, journalists who had wasted so much effort cultivating the Clintons began to work out their anger on Trump. This was predictable – almost none of them had voted for him – but Trump made things worse. This was the day on which he needed to forget past dust-ups. Instead, he seemed to think that his business had expanded to cover the entire country, including the media. He behaved as though he had no further need of them, tweeting his contempt to the world.
Interestingly, doling out tough love to the media has worked for the leader of an even larger democracy. The Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has barred most journalists from travelling with him on visits abroad, while traditional press conferences no longer happen. Yet the press in India is largely adulatory – perhaps influenced by the fact that it is owned by individuals who depend on government goodwill for their profits. If Modi’s winning streak comes to an end, the fawning pack is likely to turn on him.
Had President Trump followed the same playbook with the Washington media as Businessman Trump in New York, he could have avoided much of the vitriol now being directed at him. Approaching journalists in small batches, or singly, he could have demonstrated the warmth that is natural to the man, rather than the faux-disdain affected by him and the entire top tier of his team.
Newspaper columns have been viciously critical of the new president, going out of their way to represent him as a dangerous break with the past. The result – despite his disdain for the press – is that he seems to have decided not to break with the past. In that sense, the media are winning: their incessant criticism is turning Trump into a president who – certainly in the area of foreign affairs – pursues far more conventional policies than expected. Policies, in other words, with which many media commentators are comfortable, even if their tribal dislike of Trump means they are reluctant to admit it.
For example, both Trump’s national security advisor H R McMaster and defence secretary James Mattis are more conventional in their approach to Nato, Afghanistan- Pakistan and the Middle East than Donald Rumsfeld was 16 years ago. Mattis, for example, wants to persuade the Taliban to surrender their weapons and behave as good citizens. This gravely misunderstands the jihadist psyche, but the Washington establishment is comfortable with delusions of “de-radicalisation”.
As for McMaster, after more than a decade of steadily de-hyphenating India from Pakistan, he has pushed US policy back to the Bill Clinton era by flying into Delhi directly from Islamabad with a roomful of suggestions for better relations between the two neighbours, one of which was born as a consequence of hatred of the other. This has kindled Indian anxiety about future Arabia, Turkey and other backers of Wahabbism. It is extraordinary that Whitehall does not ask itself why Christians, Druze, Shia and even moderate Sunnis flee from zones taken over by Western allies; perhaps it is the threat of being beheaded by these “moderates”.
"Newspaper columnshave been viciouslycritical of the newpresident, goingout of their way torepresent him as adangerous breakwith the past. Theresult – despite hisdisdain for the press– is that he seems tohave decided not tobreak with the past."
In short, if the media war on Trump was designed to ensure that he would revert to the Clinton-Bush policy course and abandon the unorthodoxy promised on the campaign trail, it is succeeding. Bear in mind, too, that members of Trump’s inner circle are above all determine to save him from future impeachment and prosecution: they apparently think that embracing familiar policies will help achieve that result. They are wrong. The more President Trump moves away from Candidate Trump – who pushed aside more than a dozen Republican worthies in his fight for the nomination – the faster his approval rating will fall to the low 20s, a level at which it will be safe to call for his impeachment or worse. All that is preventing such a descent are the flashes of the real Trump occasionally visible from the White House, the most important of which is the greater freedom he has given to the military to meet its objectives.
Unlike the closet pacifist Barack Obama, Donald Trump has deferred to the generals, so much so that there is finally a chance that the kinetic force needed to ensure the safety of the US, Japan and South Korea from Pyongyang will actually be unleashed. However, to ensure victory in Korea, Trump will need the neutrality of Russia and the participation of Taiwan. Recent policy reversals make both those things unlikely. Unless, that is, Trump becomes Trump and places his stamp over policy the way that FDR or Lincoln did. In their desperation to “save” the president, his intimates are creating the conditions for his downfall, by diluting him with liberal doses of Clinton and Bush. After his first 100 days of waffling, it is time for the real Donald Trump to stand up. A good first step would be make sure that his administration understands that we are now living in the Indo-Pacific century, and that the foundations of American policy no longer lie on the other side of the Atlantic.