A study on the 2018 midterm elections from the Duke University Reporters’ Lab confirms a phenomenon that most of us already had surmised was taking place: Trump’s attacks on the press are now being utilized by dozens of other Republican candidates. The premise that American journalists are the enemy of the party, and that any news unfavorable to Republicans is by definition “fake” news spread in the conspiracy against them, is gaining a larger foothold in Republican rhetoric. The Poynter Institute reports:
Forty-six Republican candidates tweeted terms such as “fake news” and “enemy of the people” to negatively describe the media, but many more candidates also used the word “fake” to characterize other people and events, such as the sexual assault allegations against Justice Brett Kavanaugh and special counsel Robert Mueller.
Trump’s own use of the phrase stems from his malignant narcissism. He has long relied on blatant lying as business methodology, surrounding himself only with those who will not correct his pronouncements and doing business only with those that dare not object to them. It was almost a given that he would retreat to the narcissist’s shelter, declaring any evidence of his own flaws or failures to be a worldwide conspiracy against him personally and his obvious greatness.
That the rest of the party is so eager to follow him down his path of genuine mental illness is, however, on them. The base has long been primed for this message, both by the Fox News pundit insistence that it is the only legitimate source of non-biased news and, related, by the growing conservative obsession with conspiracy theories (Pizzagate; Jade Helm; birtherism; United Nations something something.) The usual Republican anti-intellectualism, long distrusting of scientists, economists, and other academics who are seen as too eager to put nuance to both ancient religious beliefs and modern capitalist desires is just as eager to believe that the messengers from those tawdry lands are as suspicious as the residents.
The problem is that this is tremendously dangerous. Asserting that a free press reporting unflattering things about our political leaders is illegitimate and engaged in fraudulent acts is tremendously dangerous in any nation, and no less so in our own; it is the process by which the populace steadily loses access to information about what its leaders are actually doing. Those that are corrupt always insist the fault lies with those that would expose them; those responsible for nation-bending errors always insist that the free press is obsessing unfairly over their acts. If voters believe the neutral arbiters are more dishonest than the politicians they cover, politicians are free to lie about anything. If politicians are free to bend facts in whatever manner they please, without consequence, then elections become a referendum on which figures can pipe up with the most pleasing deceptions.
The good news is that shrieking about “fake news” does not seem to be particularly effective beyond the die-hard conservative base already primed to believe it. Of the 46 candidates who engaged in such rhetoric, Poynter notes that only 14 went on to win their races. “[I]t’s possible”, says Poynter, “future campaigns will decide the press-bashing doesn’t help.”