With the New York Times breaking the story of a June 2016 meeting involving Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort with a Russian lawyer (according to Trump Jr. himself) who claimed to have damaging information on Hillary Clinton, the excitement is again mounting among Trump critics that (as an ABC headline put it) “fire peers out from Trump-Russia smoke.” Trump Jr.’s initial claims that he attended the meeting not knowing much about the identity of Natalia Veselnitskaya, and did not initiate the discussions, have been rendered absurd by the release (in his own Twitter thread no less) of the email thread that led up to the meeting. We know that he was explicitly told: “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” The revelations not only worsen his father’s political situation — they potentially place Junior in legal peril.
But, as the various stages of reporting on the meeting in June 2016 have played out, the reaction from Trumpland’s corner of the news media has not betrayed any fear that the president’s own family might have been caught colluding with an agent of a foreign power who sought to tamper with a U.S. national election. The New York Post’s Michael Walsh called the story a “big yawn” and an effort to revive a “resentful smear cooked up in the immediate aftermath of Clinton’s stunning defeat last fall.” Power Line’s Paul Mirengoff said Team Trump begging for dirt on Clinton was absolutely fine so long as it had not “promised to implement certain policies in exchange for the anti-Clinton information.” (There is, it seems, a fine line between clever politics and treason.) Fox News is focused on undermining the idea that Veselnitskaya was a “Kremlin crony” at the time of the meeting. Kellyanne Conway answered a question from Chris Cuomo on CNN about the new revelations with the deeply entrenched Trump countercharge that his enemies have created the Russia story to distract attention from the administration’s brilliant successes: “Aren’t you the least bit reluctant, if not embarrassed, that you now talk about Russia more than you talk about America? Doesn’t this bother you?”
What bothers me is, there does not seem to be any type of disclosure about Team Trump and Russia that shakes its aggressive self-confidence. And that may be because it had done such a good job of convincing its political base that all criticism is maliciously partisan. At Vox, Lindsay Maizland reports how deeply Trump’s “fake news” charge about the Russia investigation has been absorbed by his fans in precisely those heartland rural and small-town areas that did so much to lift him to the presidency:
When I recently visited my hometown and one other small town in Michigan that went for Trump, I talked with residents about the investigation. Nearly every single person I spoke with said the same thing: The media just needs to leave Trump alone, and the Russia investigation is a distraction.
A message of total disdain for media reporting is certainly falling on receptive ears. As a survey from Pew Research records, among self-identified Republicans the approval/disapproval ratio for “national news media” is 10/85. Republicans have a much, much more positive attitude toward their ancient enemies, the labor unions (they come in at 33/46).
This bad temper toward “the media” has obviously been building for a long time, but Trump seems to be the first national politician to exploit it fully by suggesting that media types aren’t just “biased” or “elitist,” but are consciously fabricating what they report. This gives him, at least among “the base” and its own allied media outlets, an extra layer of heavy insulation against bad news. In Trumpland, to a considerable extent, bad news is by definition fake.
Comparing Trump to previous “troubled” Republican presidents like Richard Nixon or George W. Bush, he has an asset his predecessors could have only dreamed of. Yes, Nixon and Bush both worked hard to arouse tribal cultural loyalties and to identify political and media opponents with the kind of people their supporters intensely disliked. It was Nixon, after all, who first deployed the resentful “silent majority” label for his allegedly despised and disempowered followers, and no one hated the media more than he did. But in an era when the Fourth Estate was both more consolidated and better respected, Nixon had to play a lot of the political game on enemy turf, instead of simply asking his supporters to treat reported facts as ipso facto incredible.
So while Frank Rich is absolutely correct in suggesting that Trump has only begun to experience the agonies that beset the Nixon White House during the much-longer-than-remembered Watergate scandal that led to the 38th president’s resignation, Trump does have this one advantage. He can quite literally talk his “base” into ignoring adverse information. That will in turn make it harder for his Republican Party to abandon him as it abandoned Nixon in 1974.