Every day seems to bring something unprecedented out of Washington, something entirely outside normal political and journalistic life. We can now add to that the present conflict with North Korea, which is unlike any conflict American journalists have ever covered.
The threats by North Korea’s Kim Jong Un are an historical anomaly, as unprecedented as the fact of Trump himself. The reality of the threat and the surreality of the president who is confronting are what make covering the stand-off with North Korea so difficult. On the one hand, you have a ruthless, erratic, desperate tyrant. On the other, you have a president whose election has been under a cloud of illegitimacy since November, and who now is the subject of a criminal investigation–perhaps several criminal investigations. North Korea’s rapidly growing nuclear capability is real. But to what extent is Trump’s response calculated bluster that will unnecessarily raise tensions with North Korea while serving as another important distraction at home?
After Trump’s election, there was an outpouring of commentary urging the media not to “normalize” Trump, an admonition that seemed unnecessary, given that Trump was such an outsize political aberration. Yet if ever there was a moment to resist the process of normalization it is now, when talking about the possibility of war with North Korea.
The media needs to remind itself of the role it played in the months preceding the Iraq war, when the mainstream media swallowed wholesale the Bush administration’s line about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction. Part of the reason for the media’s credulity was its fear of appearing unpatriotic. The media’s resistance to Bush, as it had been to Reagan, had become so relentless that accusations of liberal bias began to sting. In that moment, when what was at stake was not some domestic policy but, so it seemed, the fate of the country, the media could not afford to appear partisan.
The media so far has left the military-speak of Trump’s generals untouched.
At this juncture, the media’s resistance to Trump is more intense than it has been to any president in modern American history, even Nixon. How much greater, then, is the fear of appearing unpatriotic when it comes to fateful issues; how much greater for the media is the temptation to prove its lack of bias by raising its voice against a threat to the nation.
The media so far has left the military-speak of Trump’s generals untouched. About two months before Trump and Kim started trading threats, Defense Secretary James Mattis testified in front of a Congressional committee about the possibility of war with North Korea. “It would be a war like nothing we have seen since 1953,” he said, “and we would have to deal with it with whatever level of force was necessary … It would be a very, very serious war.”
Instead of merely quoting Mattis without comment, here is the kind of journalistic thinking that would be useful: The generals are experts in warfare and we need their expertise. But having thrown their lot in with Trump, they do not want to lose his support. And being generals, in a political context, they will have a natural tendency to want to expand their power, to turn political events into military ones, which they may then turn to political advantage. Remember that MacArthur was fired by Truman precisely because MacArthur wanted to expand the Korean War by invading China. The generals have already gotten their way with Afghanistan.
Recently Mattis and other generals have shown prudence with regard to North Korea, publicly urging diplomacy as an alternative to armed conflict. But they are generals, and they are sworn to obey the commander-in-chief. Their instincts are entirely military. So while it is important to acknowledge the generals’ capacity to counteract Trump’s irrational outbursts, it would be a mistake to regard the generals themselves as bastions of rationality, moderation and disinterestedness.
Even as it reports on the prospect of war, the media must continually broaden and deepen its analysis beyond the military perspective. Would China, on which North Korea almost entirely depends, allow Kim to start a conflict that might lead to a nuclear confrontation? Is Kim, who has spent his life preserving himself, ready to immolate himself in response to a mere threat, or insult?
Much to the media’s relief, a soothing narrative is finally beginning to take shape around Trump, of which Steve Bannon was until recently a part, and this narrative has the potential to distort the coverage of the accelerating tension with North Korea. Trump is irrational and dyspeptic; the generals know all about the costs of war, even as they speak more and more about it becoming reality; the grown-ups in the administration are too focused on China to allow a war with North Korea to happen; the Republican party is becoming disillusioned with Trump; Mueller is coming to save us.
The media must resist this fall into a false narrative clarity. If there is some type of clarity, it is coming from a different direction. In all the promiscuous commentary after Trump’s election comparing the country’s imminent future to the world portrayed by Orwell in “1984,” little of it mentioned one aspect of that book that has become increasingly relevant: Orwell’s conceit of his totalitarian regime sustaining itself through the tactic of perpetual war.
In Trump’s case, the media should factor into its approach to covering Trump the possibility that, lacking the full support of the military, and lacking a majority of Americans behind him, Trump will not lead the country into war, but rather will keep the pot boiling with the perpetual threat of armed conflict both internationally and domestically. In the age of Trump, the need to try to see through appearances even as journalists accurately report on appearances is more pressing than ever before.
Trump is using the media’s hostility toward him against it. Knowing that the media will react swiftly and sometimes hysterically to his slightest provocation, he is harnessing the media’s antipathy toward him and making it run in one direction after another. You get the feeling that the threat of perpetual war was always a strategy that he was waiting to use. Bannon’s exit will not make a jot of difference. Trump, to an extraordinary degree, has surrounded himself almost entirely with military people. It is the perfect atmosphere in which to make military peril a perpetual threat.
Trump is using the media’s hostility toward him against it. Knowing that the media will react swiftly and sometimes hysterically to his slightest provocation, he is harnessing the media’s antipathy toward him and making it run in one direction after another.
The ugly fact is that the strategy of perpetual conflict has worked very well for Trump, from North Korea to Charlottesville. The one obstacle to his reign, the Russia investigation, has disappeared from the headlines. A few hundred white supremacists and neo-Nazis responding to a nationwide call to converge on Charlottesville are now being discussed in the media as a possible mainstream political movement, just as last week, and now once again, the media is discussing nuclear apocalypse as a real and imminent event, thus making the unspeakable a more and more acceptable aspect of the possible.
The media has to try to keep its focus. It has to treat situations like North Korea and Charlottesville as both complex and manipulated events. The threat of permanent war and the reality of perpetual conflict mean the consolidation of permanent political power, especially for a president who lacks numerical support.
Finally, journalists must not allow the stand-off with North Korea, confrontation with the alt-right, or any other threat of conflict, to become just another phase in the endless media feast on Trump. On the one hand, the media has to resist the pull of turning everything into a commercially friendly spectacle, as well as the impulse to seize on every event as the one that will finally bring Trump down–thus eclipsing situations that are unfolding in political life. On the other hand, the press cannot allow itself to succumb to criticism that it is not acting in the national interest.
We are in the most perilous political moment of our lifetimes. Everything depends on how the peril, in all its constantly proliferating facets, is projected to the public.