In the old parable about a group of blind men trying to describe an elephant, each man can only feel a specific part of the animal, and so their descriptions of it are accurate, but still fail to capture the reality. President Donald Trump’s White House press conference on Thursday was not unlike that elephant. Depending on your perspective, it was either a disaster or a triumph.
Much of the mainstream media responded to the press briefing in a similar way. They described it as a rambling, disjointed, incoherent mess riddled with inaccuracies and bizarre tangents. Jake Tapper at CNN (twx) called it “unhinged.” Reporters at the press conference whispered that it was “insane.”
Interestingly enough, even some commentators on Fox News (fox)—which traditionally has been seen as supportive of Trump and his administration—gave the president’s performance a big thumbs down. Anchor Shepard Smith said that it was “absolutely crazy,” and criticized the president for “repeating ridiculous throwaway lines that are not true.”
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Most conservative media outlets and Trump supporters, however, saw something very different: They called the press conference a triumph, an epic beat down of the dishonest media, and a show of strength by Trump. Where much of the liberal press saw a president making up facts, his conservative supporters saw him taking credit for following through on his promises.
Kevin Felty of Norfolk, Va. called it “the most impressive presidential press conference” of his life. “It was hyper adversarial between the president and the press,” Felty said. “And yet he was able to control the questioning and the tone and the mood in the room.”
As with so many of the Trump administration’s interactions with the mainstream media—whether inside or outside the White House—the press was used during his speech as an all-purpose punching bag, a scapegoat for any and all problems that might be affecting the government, including leaks about ties between former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and the Russia government.
At one point, Trump argued that the information leaked was simultaneously not a big deal and also “fake news” concocted by outlets like CNN. Mouths may have gaped at the press briefing, but it’s likely that none of Trump’s supporters even blinked an eye.
This approach of making the media the enemy was set in motion early on in Trump’s campaign, when he would put reporters in a literal pen at his rallies and encourage his supporters to dismiss them as “dishonest scum.” And that strategy has continued into his presidency, underpinning almost every interaction that he or his administration have with the press.
Press secretary Sean Spicer has attacked the White House press corps on multiple occasions and has singled out conservative outlets to respond to rather than traditional mainstream news publishers like the New York Times or Washington Post. Trump strategist and former Breitbart chairman Steve Bannon has repeatedly referred to the press as “the opposition party.”
This rejection of the media may have triggered an outpouring of anxiety and existential outrage at mainstream outlets, but it has played extremely well with Trump’s base of conservative supporters and others who have come to distrust what they see as the liberal press.
As Trump likely knows—and Bannon almost certainly knows—trust in the media is at an all-time low, and according to some estimates, those levels are even lower among conservative voters sympathetic to Trump. They see much of the press as bicoastal elites who are in league with the forces of government that the president campaigned against. Trump put this into words during his briefing:
This environment makes Trump’s strategy of attacking the media almost foolproof. The more the press cries out in horror at his statements—or portrays them as the ramblings of a demented fool—the more his supporters reject those portrayals and cheer on Trump. It’s a vicious circle that seems destined to continue until one side or the other snaps out of it and decides to confront reality.