With the coronavirus tragedy and re-election time for Trump, political warfare is heating up and gloves are coming off in the media battles, writes Dr Lee Duffield.
AMERICAN PRESIDENT Donald Trump's reputation is of a wild man, possibly mentally ill, but his strategy is textbook electoral politics depending on keen, orthodox, focused media management — if they can get away with it.
TEXTBOOK ELECTIONEERING AND MEDIA
Textbook electioneering recognises that the one reliable shot is to consolidate the candidate’s support base, which includes addressing this base through news media. People pay attention to what they already agree with; media is otherwise known to be useless for persuasion against other influences on audience members’ beliefs.
Trump accordingly puts out his erratically changing messages through free-kick interviews on Fox News, essentially a propaganda outlet where whatever he says, true or blatantly false, is accepted. When in contact with other news media – professional journalists instead of professional propagandists – he tries to discredit them, insulting the reporters, squabbling, claiming incredibly they are liars.
The strategy holds up fairly well, with very many loyalist voters staying loyal no matter what. While consistently disapproved of and running behind Democratic Party candidates in polls over four years, his position does not get much worse and he remains within range of another freak win.
He will need to add some votes to the shored-up loyal core. His outbursts against the World Health Organisation (W.H.O.) and China can be seen as part of that, as a distraction that might connect with voters especially stirred-up by the issue, possibly racist.
TRUMP IN THE POLLS
In a more conventional political contest, the aggregated opinion polls would be indicating a win for the Democrats, set to hold their majority in Congress and obtain at least a 50-50 outcome in the Senate and likely to defeat the incumbent president. The polls come out daily and a scan of results over a five-day period in May reflects the long-term trend.
In reviews of the president’s performance, he is disapproved of in 25 out of 27 national polls, the disapproval margin averaging 9.5%. One poll had Trump approved by 1% and one other was a neutral outcome. Historically, these are very threatening results for any U.S. president five months ahead of polling day.
For the presidential vote, Donald Trump is trailing his 2016 performance across the board. He unexpectedly won three key states by margins well under 2% (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin) giving him 46 electoral college votes and his majority (306 to 232 against Hillary Clinton).
On polling during April and May 2020, he is behind by 7% in Michigan, 5% in Pennsylvania and 3% in Wisconsin. The state of Texas, 38 electoral college votes, has been solidly Republican for over 20 years, going to Trump by 9%, that lead now down to 2.5%. The current news based on polls focuses on leads established by the Democratic candidate Joe Biden over Trump, in three states now rated as “battleground” contests: the big state of Florida with 29 electoral college votes, Arizona and Virginia.
As the polls clearly show, there is another side to America than the picture generated by Trump, attention-getting as it is with the crazy uncivil rhetoric, spectacularly inept governance, bands of armed supporters.
A dilemma for professional journalists is how to be actually fair. Do they blandly report lies and erratic actions from the head of government — for example, in a few weeks, reporting that America is withdrawing all funding from the W.H.O., then is going to pay only what China pays, then is going to pull out of the W.H.O. altogether? They can “balance it” with criticism from other political quarters, so the outcome will be that the public gets a loaded overall product: propaganda services from the likes of Fox, plus balanced services that include an extra dose of the propaganda.
These orthodox outlets, much trusted across the country, have kept their head, arguing for reason, reporting lies but with accompanying corrections — a lot of hard work. The prospect of a Biden presidency is being described in commentaries as restorative. For example, it is posited that American foreign policy would deploy and respect officers with expertise serving U.S. interests and go back to international cooperation like handling COVID-19 through the W.H.O. They are defining the issue as a return to statecraft and truth. Going further, with the current crisis and approaching election season, several writers have had enough and are directing hard critiques at the madhouse, taking the gloves off.
GLOVES OFF IN COMMENTARIES
The New York Times on 27 March called out Donald Trump for a ‘distant relationship with facts in his responses about the coronavirus pandemic’. Linda Qiu, a fact-check reporter who must have been working overtime since she joined the newspaper in 2017, delivered a both-barrels, direct attack:
For months, the president has downplayed the severity of the pandemic, overstated the impact of his policies and potential treatments, blamed others and tried to rewrite the history of his response.
President Trump appeared on Fox News and expressed doubt about shortages of medical supplies, boasted about the country’s testing capacity, and criticised his predecessor’s response to an earlier outbreak of a different disease… The president made the statement in spite of government reports predicting shortages in a severe pandemic — and he reversed course on Friday morning, calling for urgent steps to produce more ventilators...
So it continued, example piled on example.
The New Yorker, a bugbear for Trump in his home town, normally sticks to serving its urban and urbane market while pouring satirical acid on the man in Trump Tower.
In a horror season for coronavirus in New York (the U.S., worst in the world, has had 1.62 million cases of COVID-19, 96,354 deaths and climbing), its editor, David Remnick, on 20 April launched a commentary on the “politics of the virus”, blaming Trump and listing him as a ‘risk factor’:
From the beginning he practised social distancing from anyone who told him what he didn’t want to hear… A nation facing a common threat normally pulls together, but Trumps’ reflex is always to divide; he has invoked a multiplying litany of enemies. He directs his fire at the Obama administration, the WHO, and at governors from Albany to Sacramento, with their constant pleas for ventilators, test kits and face masks. The Democrats are to blame for everything…
The contempt has become a trans-Atlantic phenomenon. In England, The Guardian, archetype of liberal-minded journalism, has monitored the confused ideological partnership between Trump and their own wayward Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. They've been seeing the impacts of their “small government” economics and poor government services come out in the current disaster.
Britain is worst-off in the European region, with 250,908 cases of COVID-19; 36,042 people have lost their lives. The Guardian’s highly experienced columnist and assistant editor Simon Tisdall has penned a considered and caustic critique of the giddy politicking and ineptitude in office, on both sides of the “pond”.
Britain, he said, on 10 May, was in ‘unsplendid isolation’:
The disease’s sudden onslaught is the third national disaster in almost as many years. The first was the decision to walk away from Europe. The second was the advent of Donald Trump and his anarchic America First agenda... On the climate crisis, on Iran, on NATO, on Israel-Palestine, on the U.N. and boycotted agencies such as the Human Rights Council, on multilateralism in general, on the primacy of international law, on relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and on limiting new nuclear weapons, Trump has mostly ignored Britain’s views.
To this sorry list of spats, splits and schisms may be added Trump’s support for big cuts in foreign aid, crude Islamophobia, the militarisation of space, commercial exploitation of the Arctic and his worrying contempt for democracy, honesty and accountability, as revealed by the Mueller Inquiry and his Senate impeachment… Trump, the greatest of all coronavirus failures, is dangerous to know.
Such commentators enjoy much public trust; the toughened-up tone has got them into the political fight. If Trump and his team on Fox News should complain, there are two responses: the journalists are doing it to support demonstrable truth and, in any event, it takes one to know one.
Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.
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