In normal eras, presidents tend to speak publicly in a manner that is broadly in line with public opinion. Brandon Rottinghaus, in a 2006 study, mapped the relationship between Presidential statements of public policy and public opinion from presidents Eisenhower to Clinton. He found that these presidents tended to remain mostly “congruent” with public opinion. In other words, the post-World War II presidents rarely stray very far from the mainstream as expressed by public opinion polls.
Of course, that is for a normal president. Starting with the election of George W. Bush on the back of an unprecedented partisan intervention by the Supreme Court into the electoral process, one could argue that presidencies in the 21st century have been abnormal compared to the post-WWII norm (at least for Republicans, who haven’t won the popular vote for the White House since 1988). There is significant evidence that the Bush White House undertook a widespread campaign to manipulate media coverage in his first term during the run up to the invasion of Iraq. Just as importantly, the political media corps relied primarily on sources loyal to the White House in order to produce coverage of the run-up to the war. The end result was a generally false portrait of the stakes, issues, and early outcomes. In other words, the president successfully whipped up war mania.
Under Barrack Obama, this continued though in a less pernicious manner. During his administration, Ben Rhodes, a former speechwriter whose mother got him a job on the 9/11 commission before he became a speechwriter for the President and then, inexplicably, the Deputy National Security Adviser, was instrumental in shaping how the White House related to the press. In a brutal 2016 profile, Rhodes voices open contempt for the journalists covering the White House and foreign policy in Washington, DC and explained how he intentionally worked to manipulate them into giving a policy better coverage (there is a lot more to this process, but that isn’t the point here). While Rhodes tried to walk back his comments, the sting they left was real — and revealed a troubling relationship between even a liberal administration and the press.
Donald Trump has carried Rhode’s contempt for the media into a high art form, and has made his distaste for the First Amendment — especially the media that cover his administration — a cornerstone of his presidency. Trump’s hatred of, and efforts to manipulate, the media matter a lot when it comes to understanding how he can shape policy issues like immigration. From the racist way Trump speaks about immigrants (literally where brown immigrants are bad and white immigrants are good) to the way he has enabled the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency’s bald-faced lying about its policies to actively cause physical and psychological harm to migrants here, Trump’s hostility to both the media and to immigration makes his administration a unique opportunity to think through how the President’s language has an effect on the way immigration gets covered.
In general, media coverage of presidential speechmaking creates a heightened awareness of the words the president uses to discuss policy issues. This means that the way Trump chooses to talk about a topic itself creates criticism — and when he uses or approves of patently racist, fear-mongering language to discuss immigration the media amplifies that language to the public at large. This is despite the fact that overall media coverage of the White House is in historic decline (hurried along by the White House opting out of press conferences to little outcry). Even so, public speeches and statements can still generate substantial coverage and public discussion – especially when controversial. And Trump loves controversy.
The way the media frame presidential remarks can prime the public to accept or reject policy proposals. Thus, when the press covers Trump rallies as if he were a normal aspirational figure, and not one who rode a wave of racist xenophobia to the White House, it matters. The way the media cover the president still plays a powerful shaping role for how the public reacts.
Many journalists are familiar with the conundrum of covering white supremacy and right wing violence — the act of coverage might promote and spread it as a belief system. It can also go the other way, as well: coverage framed as negative (versus neutral or positive) can fuel public sentiment against a policy. For immigration, the widespread, negative coverage of the “family separation” policy at the southern border helped to drive a massive backlash that led to the policy’s reversal. While the framing of the coverage can matter, there is a growing body of evidence that divisive rhetoric is more effective at shaping opinion that inclusive rhetoric.
There is a general principle at work: by definition, if the media are covering something it is because they think it is important, so therefore covering an act of abuse or a controversy can amplify its importance to the public – creating a feedback loop whereby even mentioning an issue makes it seem more important to people. And when the press covers or even amplifies divisive rhetoric, like what Trump used to rally his base both during the election and during his administration, it resonates more powerfully than inclusive rhetoric.
This is where Trump’s rhetoric on immigration becomes worrisome. Experimental data suggests that it is possible for a president to use the language of moral panic to prime the public to share his perception of a policy issue that he and his party “owns.” And previous presidents, perhaps unintentionally, have deployed the language of moral panic to shape how the public perceives and therefore reacts to things like the war on drugs, the war on Iraq, the war on crime (see a pattern yet?), and even on immigration.
So there is a process by which a president enjoys unique space to prime the public to embrace controversy by talking about a topic he is seen to “own” — and what topic does Trump “own” more than immigration? — along with a lot of evidence that presidents and their staff can use the language of moral panic to shape public opinion on that topic. Trump intentionally deploys the language of moral panic to talk about immigration (and sadly, draws on a long history of moral panic about immigration in America).
A journalist who wants to cover this without making the anti-immigration hysteria worse has few mechanisms to counteract the phenomenon. In the modern, fractured media environment, demagogues are more easily able to insert their ideas into public opinion under the disguise of open discourse. We are all familiar with the nasty trolls who antagonize people with targeted hate speech then whine that about the right to free speech being suppressed when faced with public opprobrium. Too many journalists, whether eager to demonstrate their radical centrism or simply operating in profoundly bad faith because it benefits them financially, decline to confront demagoguery and by default end up promoting it.
Moreover, the process of demagogues inserting extremist ideas into public discourse has been exacerbated by the rise of social media, whose companies are so ineptly run a majority of Americans think they are bad for humanity, and whose algorithms amplify polarization and social division.
So, what happens when a president intentionally tries “seed” public opinion by saying crazy shit to the media and getting lots of coverage for it? During the 2016 presidential election, the priming effects of media coverage played a strong role in fomenting the rise of Donald Trump in a crowded field of Republican contenders. As Thomas Patterson, a professor at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy noted in a detailed analysis of how the press covered the election, even the negative coverage of Trump amounted to free advertising that ended up promoting his extremist views to the public — some of whom picked it up and adopted it as their own.
Because of the long-shot, often unpredictable nature of his candidacy the political press gave him far more coverage than any other candidate in the race — and that coverage, especially at first, was largely positive even from ostensibly “liberal” outlets. Yet, as the race proceeded and one candidate continued to engage in racist speech against immigrants (and a whole host of other groups) while the other candidate did not, the media nevertheless covered Trump and Hillary Clinton in almost equally negative terms — a dynamic Patterson highlights as a major failure of political journalism:
Ixf everything and everyone is portrayed negatively, there’s a leveling effect that opens the door to charlatans. The press historically has helped citizens recognize the difference between the earnest politician and the pretender. Today’s news coverage blurs the distinction.
Donald Trump was that charlatan. An analysis of word choices made in his public statements shows that he adopted a combative tone filled with demeaning language couched in categorical terms lacking nuance – especially toward the media, which guaranteed that the media would cover it. (After all, the one thing the press like to discuss more than anything else is the press.) While Trump was open about his efforts to manipulate the media, it was still a novel phenomenon to modern presidential politics, where the press don’t expect to be attacked as “enemies of the people” by either a campaign or an elected official. They were unprepared.
Thus, Trump’s use of shocking language and a combative stance “aided his cause as a candidate because it signaled a rejection of both the status quo and political convention to a constituency eager to see those things shaken up,” according to academic researchers. In other words, by attacking the media as often as he attacked a specific policy target, Trump guaranteed that his viewpoint would be widely disseminated and got his toxic ideas framed as anti-establishment, rather than extremist. As a result, media coverage of Trump’s controversial statements had the paradoxical effect of enabling more people to express similar ideas.
The mainstream press remains unprepared to counter the effects of radical right wing partisans masquerading as journalists. Extremist right wing outlets like Brietbart, Fox News, and InfoWars decisively shaped the broader media environment during the 2016 election by creating echo chambers that amplified fringe conspiracy theories (like PizzaGate) into the mainstream on the right. Once a fringe idea made it into those outlets, it received coverage in the traditional media outlets and spread further — despite skeptical coverage.
More worryingly, both The New York Times and the The Washington Post partnered in 2015 with Peter Schweizer, a Breitbart contributor and protégé of white supremacist Republican operative Steve Bannon, to disseminate portions of his anti-Clinton book under the guise of news coverage. It didn’t seem to matter to them that many of the claims in the book were unsubstantiated, that it misunderstood the basic operating of federal agencies and the law, or that it segued into conspiracy theories. The blurring of the distinction between earnestness and charlatans that Patterson described was enacted into editorial policy.
When these mainstream outlets partnered with a radical partisan to direct their coverage of only one candidate in the race, they demonstrated how the modern political media is an environment in which demagogic language can get amplified through alternative media and seem mainstream much more effectively than in previous eras. This means that President Trump’s untraditional use of language to incite opposition to immigration has had a deeper effect on the public than it would have in previous eras. It is sort of new territory for everyone, and there remains a lot of study to be done about how this is going to play out.
However, it is not a given — not yet, anyway — that President Trump is turning the country against immigrants. Backlash to harsh policies like family separation and the travel ban suggest that there are limits to how far a president can push the public at any point in time. But the public does change over time, and we’ll look into that in part 3 of this series.