Donald Trump’s war against the media reached perhaps its weirdest point on Thursday afternoon when the president hosted a “social media summit” that excluded Facebook and Twitter, but included a number of right-wing conspiracy-mongers, provocateurs, and grifters. Defending the summit earlier in the day, he argued that he would be showcasing the future of media—and burying its past.
“A big subject today at the White House Social Media Summit will be the tremendous dishonesty, bias, discrimination and suppression practiced by certain companies,” Trump wrote in a series of tweets. “The Fake News is not as important, or as powerful, as Social Media. They have lost tremendous credibility since that day in November, 2016, that I came down the escalator with the person who was to become your future First Lady. When I ultimately leave office in six years, or maybe 10 or 14 (just kidding), they will quickly go out of business for lack of credibility, or approval, from the public…. Sorry to say that even Social Media would be driven out of business along with, and finally, the Fake News Media!”
Trump is not wholly wrong here: While Facebook, The New York Times, and CNN are not going to wilt as soon as he leaves office, Trump’s presidency has shown that social media can indeed be more powerful than the mainstream media. Trump’s ability to bend reality, 280 characters at a time, has been central to his political success. And his decision to host dozens of firebrands, including the QAnon-promoting Joy Villa and Bill Mitchell; James O’Keefe, the master of deceptively edited video; and Brent Bozell, who once told Sean Hannity to say Barack Obama looks like a “skinny ghetto crackhead,” is an acknowledgment of his increasing dependence on a fringe right-wing media ecosystem that consistently turns out and circulates hoaxes and conspiracy theories. It’s also suggestive of the president’s growing paranoia—and perhaps even dementia.
For much of his political career, Trump has cultivated a mutually beneficial relationship with Fox News. “Fox sycophancy dominates its prime-time hours, as Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity praise Dear Leader, and the morning shift, when the hosts of Fox & Friends supply him with ample supplication,” Jack Shafer wrote in 2017. “Trump completes this unvirtuous circle by tweeting back his approval. The ensuing feedback loop serves both the man and the network, making both seem larger than they really are.”
But that appears to be changing. Five days before Thursday’s low-rent summit, Trump took to Twitter to blast his most important ally in media, Fox News. “Watching Fox News weekend anchors is worse than watching low ratings Fake News CNN,” he tweeted on Sunday. “Fox News is changing fast, but they forgot the people who got them there!” Later reporting from the Associated Press revealed that Trump was particularly annoyed about a live broadcast from a bar where fans of the U.S. women’s national soccer team chanted “Fuck Trump,” and also that the network had cited a New York Times report about the horrific conditions that migrants were being held in at the southern border.
Trump’s disillusion with Fox is unlikely to last, but his growing reliance on, and legitimation of, far-right figures betrays an increasing desperation to find allies in media who will confirm his increasingly deranged worldview. With even Fox News breaking ranks from time to time, he has turned to a social-media and blogger network that has truly been created in his image, a group who show unflinching loyalty and spend every waking hour turning out memes, videos, and posts defending the president and attacking his enemies.
At the summit, though, he made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t really understand the numerous complaints being made by conservatives about social media companies. Instead, he spent much of his time alleging that his follower count was being suppressed by Twitter. “There’s no doubt in my mind that I should have millions and millions—I have millions of people, so many people I wouldn’t believe it, but I know that we’ve been blocked,” he said. “People come up to me and they say, ‘Sir, I can’t get you. I can’t follow you.’” It makes perfect sense that Trump would advance a conspiracy theory, given his audience.
Multiple supporters of QAnon, the conspiracy theory that Trump, Robert Mueller, and John F. Kennedy Jr. (who died in 1999) are working together to expose a massive network of pedophiles (including Bill Clinton), attended Thursday’s summit. So did Tim Pool, a YouTube conspiracy theorist who has suggested that Seth Rich, the former DNC staffer whose 2016 murder remains unsolved, was collaborating with Wikileaks on anti–Hillary Clinton releases. Earlier this week, Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff revealed that conspiracy theory was created by Russian intelligence officers seeking to disrupt the 2016 presidential election and provide cover for their own election interference efforts.
But the attendees are mostly a collection of propagandists. Charlie Kirk and Benny Johnson of Turning Point USA, the right-wing memesmith @CarpeDonktum, Human Events publisher Will Chamberlain—these are people whose entire existence is built around amplifying the president and his message, and never, under any circumstances, criticizing him. They are the shock troops that Trump has always wanted, but rarely found, in more conventional outlets. By gathering them around him, Trump is not just amplifying their voices but presenting them as a genuine alternative to the media organizations he rails against as “Fake News.” It recalls, to some extent, the widespread belief that Trump was planning on starting his own media organization if he lost the 2016 election: This is what Trump News might have looked like.
That may be the message aimed at Fox News and his other wavering right-wing allies: stop criticizing and start propagandizing. Trump doesn’t want conservative news organizations to act like news organizations—ever. What he wants is unflinching support, and he’ll go glad-handing in the darkest corners of the internet to find it.