OPINION
05/18/2018 06:26 pm ET

The Media Is Handing Trump A Second Term

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

It’s often said that the definition of insanity is repeating the same behavior and expecting different results. In the case of President Donald Trump and the media, there really are two sides to this coin.

Whenever Trump uses provocative and at times deliberately offensive terminology ― maybe it’s “shithole” or “rapists” or more recently “animals” ― an all too familiar cycle plays out like a rerun of a bad reality-TV show.

First, you must remember that Trump is the emotional equivalent of a 5-year-old. Like a child, his actions are driven by positive reinforcement. When Trump talks tough on immigration, his base loves it. After all, Trump spent a year on the campaign trail basking in chants of “build the wall.” It was no accident that Trump selected parents of MS-13 gang victims to be his guests during this year’s State of the Union address. The standout moment won Trump effusive praise and headlines from the Fox News and Breitbart world, reinforcing his view that the address was a success. To Trump, this is a winning issue that he will return to over and over again.

But politically, he is also banking on the idea that the media will react strongly to any such comments. These condemnations then allow Trump and his allies to reinforce their narrative that the mainstream media has it out for him and that the political left would rather protect drug-dealing Mexican gang members than innocent American families. This is the script that unfolded this week. 

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Thursday.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Thursday.

In an exchange with Fresno, California, Sheriff Margaret Mims during a roundtable at the White House on Thursday, Trump said this:

We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in ― and we’re stopping a lot of them ― but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals. And we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before.

The use of the word “animals” touched off a firestorm. The New York Times tweeted that “Trump lashed out at undocumented immigrants during a White House meeting, calling those who try to breach the country’s borders ‘animals.’” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer responded by saying, “When all of our great-great-grandparents came to America they weren’t ‘animals,’ and these people aren’t either.”  

Trump defenders like Breitbart quickly sprang into action with headlines like: “Dems, Media Outraged After Trump Calls MS-13 Gang Members ‘Animals.’” The debate about context took shape with some media outlets like The Associated Press equivocating and deleting tweets that they said mischaracterized the president’s remarks.

By Friday, Trump seized on the media’s apparent misstep, tweeting, “Fake News Media had me calling Immigrants, or Illegal Immigrants, ‘Animals.’ Wrong!”

The entire episode illustrates the daily dilemma media outlets find themselves in: On the one hand, there’s a case to be made that this is the president of the United States and his words carry a lot of weight. His words warrant close scrutiny because they can literally move markets and provoke military conflict. Ignoring his provocative rhetoric only “normalizes” it, and that cannot happen ― especially when he is literally talking the way leaders do before they perpetrate a genocide of some kind.

On the other hand, it’s been almost three years since the Donald Trump show began. Defying “conventional wisdom,” his unorthodox approach to politics and persuasion, has found him on the winning side more often than not. Maybe it’s time to recalibrate how we react and respond to things Trump says, because he sure as hell isn’t going to change. Why would he? In his mind, at least, he’s winning. 

Trump’s most effective weapon is to make bombastic statements that lack substance and specificity. They can mean many things to different audiences. One segment effusively cheers him on while another attacks him. All the while, he casts himself as the victim of an establishment media hell-bent on lying about him. After all, if the media can’t be trusted to reliably report the context of what the president said, how can it be trusted to accurately report on the details of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

This is the game Trump and his Fox News accomplices are playing. And based on the media-on-media self-flagellation we saw this week, they’re winning.

This is the game Trump and his Fox News accomplices are playing. And based on the media-on-media self-flagellation we saw this week, they’re winning.

Trump’s path to victory was paved on the American people’s loathing of the political establishment and ignorance about the day in, day out happenings of Washington. The best weapon against Trump’s brand of fear-mongering and Fox News’ culture war is to vigorously report on the tangible activities of this president and his administration.

As president, Trump moved to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, putting hundreds of thousands of lives in a legal limbo that to this day has not been resolved. Last summer, the president pardoned former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt in a case examining his use of racial profiling. In March, the Trump administration unveiled plans to change the census to start asking about citizenship status for the first time in nearly 70 years, something critics warn will result in the undercounting of minorities.

Every day, this president and his cadre of yes men are taking executive actions with consequences that will far outlast the Trump presidency. Whether it’s the judges he is appointing, the regulations he is rescinding, the federal contracts he is approving or the laws he is signing, every day there are things going on inside Trump’s federal government that warrant our attention and outrage beyond what passing thought he had while watching cable news.

If we keep repeating this cycle of lurching from outrage to outrage, arguing over the precise interpretation of the president’s incoherent ramblings, nothing will change and we will have handed Donald Trump another four years in office.

Kurt Bardella is a contributor to NBC News’ Think. He is a former spokesman for House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.). Follow him on Twitter at @kurtbardella.

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