The First American Demagogue

How Donald Trump creates his own bully pulpit via social networks, sidestepping journalism to directly influence the populace, and its correlation with demagogues worldwide

“I am not going to give you a question. You are fake news!” Donald Trump’s lashing to CNN’s reporter at his first, and likely only news conference as President-elect.  A stark break with his predecessors, with Presidents-elect Barack Obama and George W. Bush having held 18 and 11 press conferences, respectively.

Trump has crafted his own bully pulpit via Twitter and rallies, sidestepping (and in many cases ridiculing) the mainstream media to promote himself and his agenda.  Such an agenda draws distinct parallels to other populists in recent years who have built their platform not based on policy, but themselves – from Rodrigo Duterte to Silvio Berlusconi to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.  The world’s new demagogues use these new media tools which their predecessors did not enjoy, which are immune to public scrutiny and follow-up questions. Their tactics employ the following elements.


  • Sidestepping journalism

“I speak every day to the media, when I go to events and reporters put a microphone in front of me, I answer…the press in this is neither objective, nor independent, and press conferences should not be a focus of the presidency.” That comment came not from Donald Trump, but Cristina Kirchner, answering not a journalist, but a 19-year-old Georgetown University student’s question on why she didn’t hold press conferences.  At that time, my President in my home country was Barack Obama, who as he concludes his second term, can account for having taken unscripted questions from the press a total of 163 times.  Kirchner’s answer eerily parallels Trump’s emphatic, long, but relatively simplistic rebuttals.  The decline in quantity of press conference format limits trained journalists’ access to and scrutiny of public officials.


  • A personal bully pulpit for one-on-one fights

As a man who is about to take the highest office in the United States, Donald Trump has used his own bully pulpit of his Twitter account not to take on policy, political rivals, or even the media itself, but individuals.  Just three days ago, Golden Globe-winning Meryl Streep expressed her dismay in Trump’s mocking of a disabled reporter.  Instead of advancing with his agenda as president-elect, Donald Trump fired back via Twitter, calling Streep an overrated celebrity and a Hillary flunkie, thus extending the media coverage on an otherwise limited issue, and advancing Trump’s personal persona in the process.

This occurrence sparked my memory of living in Argentina when actor Ricardo Darín criticized Cristina Kirchner during an interview for Brando magazine.  The story received some coverage from other media outlets for a day and half and began to die off.  But then, Kirchner responded in her own letter published on the Presidential Facebook page addressed directly to Darín, reviving the media firestorm.  I remember watching the coverage and thinking one thing: with all the pertinent issues facing the nation, why take time out of the presidential agenda to go head-to-head with an actor?  I would like to ask Donald Trump the same question today.


  • Scattering the media’s attention

The timing of Donald Trump’s press conference is itself a tactic of his administration to dilute media attention to his initiatives and thus reduce analysis and criticism.  I was watching the US Senate question Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson on his positions on human rights, Russian war crimes, and foreign sanctions, and climate change, when CNN suddenly cut to the Trump Tower because The Donald was about to take the podium.  This same tactic has been employed by governments the world over pushing through controversial measures.  Again, my personal memory kicking in, to April 25, 2013, when Cristina Kirchner hosted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to a state visit and gala at the Bicentennial Museum, the exact same day that her party’s judicial reform bill – criticized by democracy advocates and the opposition alike for threatening an independent judiciary – was pushed through, and passed Congress.


Looking Forward

A fundamental element of democracy is the citizens’ access, scrutiny, and debate of public information, so that they can make informed decisions in electing their leaders, enshrined in the principle of freedom of the press, in the US Constitution as well as many others.  Two hundred and twenty-seven years later, an increasingly self-righteous, global breed of politicians choose to communicate via the 140-character tweets or one-ended monologue speeches to adoring supporters, with both formats free of follow-up from educated journalists.  While the media is a viciously competitive industry, they all find their relevance and existence under threat when one is attacked.  When BuzzFeed, for example, reported a classified government document with unverified Russian claims, Trump fired back yesterday at both BuzzFeed and CNN, spending a significant amount of his first press conference as President-elect blasting the organizations instead of discussing policy.  The result of his invective against the media for publishing “fake news”, is a reinforcement of his message to his American base, a message repeated by demagogues the world over: you can’t trust the press, or anyone else, just follow me on Twitter.

About Nicolas Carver

American-born editorial director having begun his career at Save the Children in Kosovo, now working for The Worldfolio on investment and development publications with seven projects worldwide to date. Currently stationed in Buenos Aires.

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