Trump ‘can be influenced in real time’ by a handful of television programs. That should be alarming

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Gage Skidmore / Flickr Donald Trump...
Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Over at Media Matters, senior fellow Matt Gertz has become one of the nation’s best decipherers of Donald J. Trump’s Twitter feed. Specifically, Gertz has been tracking Trump’s seemingly obsessive habit of tweeting out things that he has just seen on Fox News, often odd non-sequiturs that bear no clear relationship to policy debates or the news cycle but that pair up precisely to a specific segment on Hannity or Fox & Friends.

It’s not a minor enterprise. Trump is an obsessive television watcher, reportedly spending over half his day in “executive time” sessions that seem to consist largely of sitting himself down in front of the idiot box and phoning up friends to praise or complain about the coverage he’s receiving. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review‘s Anna Altman, Gertz makes some important points about the implications of having a president whose policies and core talking points can be reliably influenced, if not dominated, by a bare handful of television programs. “I think what we’re seeing is how the president can be influenced in real time—and the consequences that can have,” Gertz said.

It’s important to understand that this is not speculation. Fox hosts themselves know that they have Donald Trump’s ear, and programming is targeted at influencing his beliefs and suspicions directly. Fox programs contain constant, lavish praise of Trump, securing his attention in a media landscape in which every other news program is painting him in a less flattering light; this is interspersed with, in the cases of hosts like Lou Dobbs and Sean Hannity, direct messages to Trump about what he ought to be doing next and how grandly it will work out for him.

The sitting president is a child and one who can be and is torn away from the recommendations of his own advisers, the intelligence community, government experts, and fellow Republican officials with little more than a single misleading chart or quotable phrase. The ease with which government policy can be manipulated by the orchestrations of a single television studio is the stuff of dystopian fiction; it ought to be considered, by itself, a crisis.

Gertz told CJR in that interview that he fully expected Trump to declare a “national emergency” in order to build his obsessed-over border wall because Fox News hosts have been relentless in insisting he does so. The prior government shutdown was similarly caused by Trump trusting overconfident Fox rhetoric more than the recommendations of Republican lawmakers: He was reportedly baffled that it didn’t work out for him but does not seem to have connected the obvious dots as to why that might be. This is because—not Gertz’s opinion, but mine—he is not cognitively capable of doing so, too mired in destructive narcissism coupled with dementia-tinged public delusion to make complex, fact-based decisions.

But what are the responsibilities of Fox here? Its hosts are the channel through which a sitting president comes to believe a great many misleading statistics, false historical claims, white nationalist-promoted conspiracy theories, and other lies; their influence can be measured, and quantified, by doing what Matt Gertz has done in a long-term project to pair up Trump’s misleading or nonsensical tweets with specific Fox network segments. Air time on those programs is now a reliable way to bend American government policies toward any particular guest’s will, a commodity far, far more valuable than an inauguration ticket or Mar-a-Lago membership.

That the network is now a primary conduit through which a sitting president is exposed to misinformation and conspiracy theories seems like something a true news network would contemplate, and be alarmed by. The near certainty of a presidential audience also would seem to make arrangements between favored programs and eager would-be guests extraordinarily ripe for corruption and abuse. So far, though, few in the press seem to be treating the tactical manipulation of a dullard president by a handful of conservative puppet shows to be anything more than another Trump-era oddity.

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