Trump’s Press Revolution

A Conversation with Gerald Seib

by Justin Myers

Under Donald Trump, the presidential press room became a lions’ den branding journalists the “enemy of the people” and labeling sound reporting as “fake news.” With President Joe Biden now in office, these relations have begun to improve significantly, but his anti-media stance lingers in the rhetoric of those who still support him, still haunting political reporters.

Trump’s anti-press rhetoric, as with many aspects of his presidency, broke Republican party norms. The GOP, with its never-ending wariness towards institutions of all types, has always been skeptical towards journalistic media. That wasn’t new with Trump. What was new, however, were the heights to which the former reality television show host took that skepticism to.

Gerald Seib, executive Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal, in his new book “We Should Have Seen It Coming: From Reagan to Trump — A Front-Row Seat to a Political Revolution” follows how the business mogul-turned-president crafted a radically new system of party values that were an extreme departure from his Republican predecessors.

“People wonder two things: how did we get to the point where Donald Trump was the Republican president and the leader of the conservative movement when he was so unlike Reagan?” Seib said. “And then, secondly, they want to know, ‘Where does this go from here?’”

How did we get to this point?

Having grown up in a largely red-blooded community on the northernmost border of Springfield, Illinois, I lived in close vicinity to many of the political movements in Seib’s book leading up to and following Trump’s election. Despite this background, I have always been consistently taken aback by the degrees to which Republicans grew such vitriol against the press under Trump — a plague that affected many people I grew up around.

“It was an obvious political tactic to try to generate enthusiasm at the [party] base because, if you can attack the ‘liberal’ press, people will rally to that,” Seib said. “I think a lot of the attacks on the press that you saw from Donald Trump were calculated to appeal to base voters, not a reflection of genuine sentiment.”

In his book Seib describes how the former president utilized the same advertising tactics he gained through his reality T.V. experience to build up a personal brand, appeal to swathes of Republican reporters and protect his own self from scrutiny.

“The reason those … intimidation tactics are there is an attempt to stop the watchdog role that reporters and journalists play,” Seib said.

The Washington Post reported that Trump made 30,573 inaccurate or misleading claims over the course of his presidency, leading to plenty of reason for why he would want to attack the watchdog reporters. To accomplish this, Trump stood at rally lecterns and sat at the Resolute Desk, calling out reporters and news organizations by name, and built around him a new movement which hurled constant vitriol against those news outlets not branded with the Oval Office’s seal of approval.

“You get attacked by Trump supporters no matter what you write,” Seib said. “You have to have a thick skin.”

So, to ask the second question behind Seib’s book, where do we go from here?

As a DePaul journalism student who has spent most of my college days plagued by constant headlines of so-and-so from such-and-such newsroom getting kicked out of a White House press briefing, I’ve been asking myself this question a lot.

“What Donald Trump did was [that he] chose to fight every day with the media that covered him,” Seib said. “It was a relationship very much filled with animosity, and dangerous in some ways.”

Seib recounted stories of reporters forced to hire security guards to watch their homes around the clock due to threats they received at Trump rallies.

“There’s nothing like that in the relationship between Biden and the press or, really, most politicians and the press,” Seib said. “What you’re seeing in coverage of the Biden administration is a return to kind of more traditional … give and take between the White House and the press that covers it.”

If there’s any consolation to journalism students such as myself about to break free from the safety net of academia into a real-life newsroom battered by Trump’s press abrasion, it’s that Seib, who has interviewed every president since Reagan, sees Trump as an outlier.

“What you’ve seen in the last four years is not normal,” Seib said. “It doesn’t define the relationship between journalists and the people they cover or between journalists and the people they write for or broadcast for. It’s not a healthy situation … [but] it’ll change, and I think it will evolve back towards something more normal.”

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