Late last year Josh Earnest, President Barack Obama’s press secretary, was asked by CNN to offer his successor, Sean Spicer, some advice about how to handle his new job. “Make sure you know where the president’s head’s at,” Earnest said. “Because your ability to faithfully represent his point of view is critically important.” He added, “Honesty and credibility and trustworthiness is the most important part of this job.”
This wasn’t false naïveté. White House press secretaries, like all people who work in political communications, quickly learn the difference between bullshit and lies. They can be endlessly tendentious and retain credibility, but if they tell the public x, when the truth is y, they damage not just their reputations, but the agenda they aim to advance.
No less a figure than Spicer himself claimed to grasp this simple distinction when he spoke to students at the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago just two weeks ago. “I’ve never lied,” he said, “and I’d argue that anyone who is an aspiring communicator adhere to that, because if you lose the respect and trust of the press corps, you’ve got nothing.”
This professional maxim is premised on the idea that the press has the institutional power and public trust to shape opinion, and thus the trajectory of campaigns and policy. There is another theory, by which the media’s credibility could be so damaged with a portion of the population that it functions as an inverse validator. If enough people believe the press has been corrupted in this way, officials can hold on to political power not just despite incessant lying, but through it as well.
Spicer can charitably be accused of having enough shame not to poison the idealism of college students, or of having a rapid change of heart, because his first official comments as President Donald Trump’s spokesman were in that second category: ludicrously false, ministry-of-propaganda style lies meant to discredit the national media, and convince Trump’s supporters that he’s more popular than he really is. He claimed not just that Trump’s “was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period—both in person and around the globe,” but that efforts to accurately portray the ceremony as a dud were part of a conspiracy to “lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration,” for which the press will be held “accountable.”
Two days later, White House reporters are still processing what happened, and what it means for how they go about their jobs. The simple answer, of course, is that reporters should just tell the truth without fear or favor. But this case may be the rare exception where thinking about the issue in horserace terms—how does it play?—might help reporters regain confidence in their own agency.
It is fortunate in a way that the Trump administration’s first strategic imperative was to gaslight the media about its own work, rather than about, say, the number of people who will be insured a year from now. This is a bit like teaching a child to swim by pushing him into the deep end. He’ll learn quickly. The hope is that when Spicer (and the rest of the Trump press office) moves on to lying about issues that are less trivial than crowd size, he won’t benefit from the common-yet-unfortunate assumption that if a powerful person says something on the record, there must be some merit to it.
The danger for Trump in all this is hard to overstate. Yes, he managed to win the election with this exact media strategy. Perhaps he and his aides have decided that the election vindicates every aspect of his approach to politics in perpetuity.
To the contrary, though, it is very unlikely that Trump will win reelection unless he performs better in 2020 than he did in 2016. Barack Obama was able to win reelection despite a popularity slide because his first victory was quite substantial; George W. Bush only won reelection by doing considerably better in 2004 than he did in 2000 when he, like Trump, lost the popular vote.
For this to work, Trump’s propaganda strategy has to recruit more support to his side, rather than drive existing support away. He has to assume that his base hasn’t maxed out, and that he can grow it with easily disproved lies.
Reporters who don’t accommodate Spicer’s ridiculous deceit will thus be highly empowered. Trump’s effort to insulate himself from accountability to his own supporters by discrediting the non-Pravda press is insanely reckless and demoralizing. It would be better if it weren’t happening. But it doesn’t mean the press will be neutralized as a shaper of public opinion. Instead, it’s likely that Trump has made the wrong bet here. The failure of his presidency will stem from assuming that the media will make issue of his lies, but no one will believe us.