Trump: It's us against them

In president's 'cult of personality,' the media are made the scapegoats 

 President Trump bids farewell to steelworkers after his speech in Granite City last week. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

President Trump bids farewell to steelworkers after his speech in Granite City last week. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

In covering President Trump's speech at the U.S. Steel Granite City Works last week, reporters got called "fake news," but evidently didn't quite merit his more vitriolic nickname for the media — "enemy of the people."

I guess Illinois reporters are just too decent, for better or worse.

But in covering Trump in person for the first time in three years — since I stood arm's length from him in a news conference following his appearance at the City Club of Chicago — I found it clear that he's refined his tactics in engaging with the media since he started off on the 2016 campaign trail.

Trump regularly used a teleprompter in Granite City, but went off script at carefully chosen breaks in his prepared speech. It took him just over eight minutes to make reference to "the fake news back there," at which point the close to 1,000 people in attendance turned to look at the TV cameras, photographers, and correspondents on the risers in the back of the steel-coil warehouse where the event took place.

Reporters are trained to have thick skin, but it's never comfortable to have hundreds of people glaring at you with suspicion if not outright hatred.

But that's part of the Trump game plan, and the strategy became more transparent as the speech went on. Trump works hard to create an "us versus them" dynamic, never more so than when it's "all of us" in the United States against some perceived international slight.

 Donald Trump strikes a confrontational pose at the City Club of Chicago in 2015. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Donald Trump strikes a confrontational pose at the City Club of Chicago in 2015. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

As I wrote last week in my original coverage of Trump's speech, the running theme was stated most clearly when the president spoke of his talks with NATO and his bid to get allies to pony up more in defense spending. "Our country was being taken advantage of," Trump said. "Not anymore. Not anymore."

That was his defense for his trade war, as well: it's us against them, and they're taking advantage of us. "To all of the media critics and lobbyists who don't want us to defend American jobs," Trump said, "I say to them, we are not starting a trade war. We have been in a trade war for many years, and we have lost for many years, but the last year and a half we are winning. We are back, and we are winning."

Speaking to an appreciative audience of steelworkers, many of whom, yes, owed their jobs to the protectionist tariffs Trump imposed in March, Trump tried to draw farmers — who've suffered at the hands of retaliatory tariffs from Canada, Mexico, and China — over to his side.

"This includes protecting our great farmers," Trump said. "Our farmers are patriots, remember that. Our farmers are patriots. And they are saying, 'The president is doing the right thing.'"

Except, of course, that not all farmers are saying that. In fact, as I noted in a followup story last week, Lynn Rohrscheib, Illinois Soybean Growers chairwoman and a soybean farmer from Fairmount, rejected tariffs and Trump's offer of a $12 billion national bailout to make up for the damage they've done by saying, "If trade is our problem, aid handouts are a poor solution."

Facts are stubborn things, said one of "our" Founding Fathers, John Adams, and journalists, as members of the Fourth Estate established in part by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, are devoted to nothing if not the facts.

"We will not let anybody bully our wonderful American farmers," Trump said. "We are going to stick together and win for our farmers, our factory workers," and anyone else on his side.

"It's really our point of view," he added. "It's not my point of view. It's our point of view."

Which is fine, until one realizes that for there to be an "us" and an "our," there has to be a them, and for Trump the media become the them, responsible for all of the bad news and for hiding the good news.

"Attacking the press is a major feature of that 'us versus them' — that reality is what he says it is," said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. 

Trump attempted to undercut criticism of the way he cozied up to Russian leader Vladimir Putin while criticizing NATO allies on a recent European trip by blaming it all on the media. "They said I was too nasty to NATO and too nice to Russia," Trump said. "Figure that one out."

That's because Trump did kowtow to Putin in their joint appearance, while nettling the nation's closest allies, and the media and the nation have been trying to figure that one out since, because it certainly would seem to gibe with what anyone's worst fears are about what special prosecutor Robert Mueller's investigation might eventually turn up.

Instead, Trump projected that conflict onto the media, suggesting they were saying, "Did he say something positive about Russia? I think he loves Russia." In other words, it takes a nattering nabob of negativism to be at all concerned about the Mueller probe.

"You don't want bad news," Redfield said. "And one way to deflect bad news is to attack the source. If you can convince people the problem is with the messenger, then that removes you from political scrutiny going forward."

Yet "us versus them" and "divide and conquer" are tried and true political tactics. They might have been refined to an art form by Trump, but they are not exclusive to him. Bruce Rauner has used them on the campaign trail and in his tenure as governor, as when he vetoed a change in the state funding formula for education as a "Chicago bailout," even though it would have benefited low-income school districts across the state. Like Trump, he has also attacked institutions, questioning the legitimacy of the state Supreme Court.

While Rauner has indulged in attacks on the media, as when he called even the business publication Crain's "collectivist," he doesn't go to the extremes that Trump does. "He ignores the press more than anything else," Redfield said.

And he has not been as successful as Trump in compelling legislators to follow his lead. "Rauner was not able to leverage a budget crisis to get the legislature to do what he wanted," Redfield said, adding that he also lacks the motivated political base that has sustained Trump, thus far, through thick and thin.

Rauner's "unwillingness to govern, to accept the basic structure and the political institutions and the basic political process," Redfield said, has led to "chaos."

 Gov. Rauner's "unwillingness to govern, to accept the basic structure and the political institutions and the basic political process," has led to "chaos," says Prof. Kent Redfield. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Gov. Rauner's "unwillingness to govern, to accept the basic structure and the political institutions and the basic political process," has led to "chaos," says Prof. Kent Redfield. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

"The American political system relies on consensus and compromise," he said. "Gridlock is a natural result of a lack of compromise."

Trump, however, is an entirely different political animal. "There are always matters of strategy and political belief," Redfield said, "but this goes beyond that.

"The glue of American democracy," he said, "is a faith and trust in the institutions." Rauner has railed at political institutions, such as the autonomy of the General Assembly, but Trump has systematically undermined them in a way, Redfield said, in which "you have to go back to Nixon" to draw comparisons.

Trump has called into question the entire law-enforcement apparatus, as well as the reality projected by the media. "Just remember," he said last week, "what you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening."

"If the truth and reality becomes focused on an individual," Redfield said, "then you get a cult of personality"  and "you delegitimize any objective critical analysis of what the president is doing.

"The only thing you can believe is the fearless leader, and that's the stuff of authoritarian regimes," he added.

"You get people justifying separating parents from children and talking about detention centers as 'summer camps,'" Redfield said. "One of the dangers is people become cynical about the whole political process," producing "a pervasive cynicism where no one has any faith in institutions or people. All motives are suspect. All individuals are suspect. There's no center.

"This is dangerous territory," he added. "This is not a healthy development for American society. We've unleashed some dangerous forces."