Donald Trump, the media and the politics of grievance

In spending half an hour excoriating the media at the Phoenix rally, Donald Trump may have shattered his own record for such a lengthy indictment by an American president.

He called journalists “sick people.” He said “I really think they don’t like our country.” He said the “crooked media” are “the source of the division in our country.”

And, of course, Trump blamed the fourth estate for malpractice in reporting his remarks after the Charlottesville violence: “The only people giving a platform to these hate groups is the media itself, and the fake news.”

His base, as always, loved it.

But in this MSM member’s view, what happened Tuesday night was a missed opportunity for Trump, who is elevating his disgust with those who cover him to a major element of his case to the public. And it was a missed opportunity for the media as well.

Trump, as is well known, always needs an enemy. With Hillary leaking excerpts from her forthcoming book, with Alec Baldwin on summer hiatus, with Mitch McConnell telling associates he wonders if Trump will make it (at least according to the NYT), the press is his main punching bag.

The president’s message comes down to this: the media treat me with monstrous unfairness, they are also unfair to you, and they view you with condescension.

That’s fair game, but here’s why this attack did nothing to expand his base or further his agenda.

Just 24 hours earlier, Trump had given a generally well-received speech on sending more troops to Afghanistan, and won some media plaudits for the deliberative nature of the consultations with his generals. Slamming the press (along with John McCain, Jeff Flake and dangling a pardon for Joe Arpaio) booted that story from the news cycle.

While the president seemed to be on offense, in a larger sense he was on the defensive. He was relitigating the Charlottesville story, the fallout from which was just starting to fade. When he did denounce the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists, he told the crowd, the media reaction was “it should have been sooner. He's a racist.”

But that put him in the position of insisting he’s not a racist. And while it’s fine to punch back at the coverage, the president was wrong in insisting that he media ignored his remarks such as “racism is evil.” They were covered and replayed again and again. (He also left out the part where he said both sides were to blame for Charlottesville.)

But some in the media also went too far, reinforcing the view that they have deep hostility toward the president and no interest in fairness.

CNN anchor Don Lemon told viewers they had just seen “someone who came out on stage and lied directly to the American people and left things out that he said in an attempt to rewrite history, especially when it comes to Charlottesville. He is unhinged, it’s embarrassing, and I don’t mean for us, the media because he went after us, but for the country.”

MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell actually interrupted Trump’s speech to say: “This is the president lying about the media. He is telling his audience that the media lies about him.” Imagine the MSNBC reaction if some Fox host had interrupted a Barack Obama speech to assail him.

And CNN commentator Ana Navarro tweeted that Trump could “maybe” be suffering from “early-onset dementia,” adding on the air that “the only defensible explanation is if he is not mentally well, because if he is, then he is just such an incredible, self-centered, narcissistic, unfit jerk.”

All this plays into the hands of those who believe the media refuse to treat the president with respect.

But with a widening gap with Republican lawmakers and some corporate executives distancing themselves, the politics of grievance will only take President Trump so far.