Trump and US media: The competition of 'fake' news

M A Taslim | Published: July 30, 2018 22:30:48 | Updated: August 04, 2018 21:27:06

Disclaimer: This paper could be regarded as the view of a non-specialist.


The Trump-Putin summit generated a rather bizarre reaction in the US media. By and large the summit was regarded in the rest of the world as a good step toward establishing good relations between the two largest nuclear powers of the world. But the 'liberal' media (as epitomised by CNN) regarded the meeting of the two leaders as a disaster for USA. The logic of the media's fulminations against President Trump betrays a darker side of media liberalism and show that they are no less capable a purveyor of 'fake' news than they accuse the President of.

Soon after the two presidents left the press conference at the conclusion of their summit meetings in Helsinki all hell seemed to have broken loose in the CNN studio. A large number of formidable commentators that it had marshalled for the occasion angrily described the summit as a great humiliation for the USA and a decisive victory of Putin diplomacy. Some characterised it as a disgrace, others regarded it an abject surrender to Putin. One former CIA director went to the absurd length of calling it treason! This barrage of bad-mouthing Trump left the audience confused and wondering what was so disgraceful to elicit such venomous outpouring of condemnation because nothing consequential was evident to them.

After watching the CNN coverage for many hours following the summit my take was that the media anger at their own president derived primarily from two issues. First, why did he meet at all the greatest enemy of the USA; and second, why did he not unequivocally aver his confidence in the report produced by the US intelligence services on Russian meddling in 2016 US election?

What is 'fake' about the public show of indignation of the liberal media? It is almost impossible to believe that the extremely important and knowledgeable commentators in CNN programmes could have forgotten so quickly that Trump had sought his people's mandate to meet Putin and try to improve relations with Russia when he campaigned for the US presidency. On the election day he received the mandate he sought. Given that USA is a democratic polity did he really need anybody else's permission or concurrence to engage in dialogues with Putin?

The fundamental premise of all these people in CNN programmes was that Russia was the greatest enemy of the USA. However, there is not much credible evidence of Russia plotting to do serious harm to USA let alone executing any such plots;  but a great deal of evidence exists that USA took many steps, including encircling Russia (previously Soviet Union) with a string of military bases, to threaten and destabilise it. Indeed, it is very doubtful that Russia has the minimum capacity to get into any extended conflict with USA that will require it to go much beyond its borders, but USA does have that capacity and frequently uses it. The table below will make this clear.

The staying power of a country in a military conflict in the longer term is determined mainly by its gross domestic product (GDP), population and military spending. In short-term conflicts its effectiveness depends on the size and quality of its military and armaments. The table below shows that GDP of Russia is a paltry 8.0 per cent of US GDP. Russian population is only 44 per cent of the population of USA, and growing at a much slower rate than the US population. Russian military spending is only 10 per cent of that of USA. In terms of these metrics Russia is hopelessly outmatched by USA in the long-term relative strength. The table also includes China and India for comparison. The data suggests that the only country which may exceed USA in all these metrics (except warheads) in the next 10-20 years is China. India might do so perhaps in 30-40 years.  

However, Russia is evenly matched with USA in terms of short-term military capacity. USA has about 30 per cent more military personnel than Russia, but Russia has more nuclear warheads. Any serious short-term conflict between the two will essentially mean nuclear war since it is unlikely that Russian conventional forces would be able to reach US shores in strength, or it will wait to allow US to build up forces on its border. Only if these two countries develop the madness to engage in such a war they can mutually annihilate each other and take most of the world with them. What these metrics indicate is that given the poor capacity of Russia to engage USA in non-nuclear warfare outside of its neighbourhood, it is more appropriate to say that USA is a formidable enemy of Russia rather than the converse. 

Generations of US citizens have been subjected to incessant propaganda by the American media to instil in them a strong belief that the erstwhile Soviets, and now Russia, were their worst enemy. The effect is so ingrained that the Americans seem to be totally oblivious that they had actively helped in the unravelling of the Soviet empire, and it no longer exists. A very prominent person in a CNN talk show blithely said that the Russians have been the mortal enemy of USA for 70 years. It did not matter to him that the Russian state did not even exist prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union toward the end of 1991. Putin has tried to bring this fact and the sea change in international politics during the last few decades to the notice of US journalists. He categorically stated that USA was the only superpower of the world and it should play its due role to maintain stability and peace in the world. He offered Russia's cooperation in such effort. Despite his acceptance of USA as the only superpower, certain sections of the US population, including the liberal media, are dead against building up a good relation with Russia and continue to paint it as an enemy country. This provides a strong rationale for continued military build-up. 

Trump was a welcome exception to this line of thinking. During his entire period in office the only statesmanlike thing he ever said was that since USA and Russia together hold 90 per cent of the nuclear arsenal of the world it is essential that they have a good working relationship to avoid mishaps. He correctly views the relationship with Russia as not adversarial, but competitive. This seems to have made the media go berserk. The flagging of an alternative enemy by Trump, Iran, was not regarded as a good enough substitute. It is noteworthy that immediately after the summit CIA published a report in which it alleged that China was conducting a cold war against USA.  The intelligence community has already picked an alternative enemy, and its narrative will most likely receive more traction in future.

Many political and security experts in USA and elsewhere are of the opinion that US foreign policy is hostage to its armaments industry. The latter needs a credible enemy to spook the government into arms build-up. But such build-up cannot go on for long without wars. Hence, USA is engaged perpetually in direct or proxy wars in different parts of the world far away from its shores. It also actively promotes animosity in various parts of the world (e.g. Middle East) to ensure the sale of military equipment. The powerful war industry will not take kindly to any policy that reduces tension and hence, arms sale. It is natural that this industry, and its military and civilian allies would be alarmed by Trump's advances to Russia that raises the prospect of the disappearance of the principal adversary, which could lead to a reduction of tension all around the world. This needs to be nipped in the bud, but the problem is that they are confronting a pugnacious Republican billionaire president who does not seem to have much respect for his intelligence services. How to salvage the situation? To start with, more negative propaganda against presidents Trump and Putin!

There were some sub-themes behind the opposition to any talks with Putin. The media expressed its fear that Trump was not smart enough or informed enough to face up to the seasoned Russian president. Even if this were true, which I very much doubt, it is in bad taste to publicly humiliate their elected president. Even worse was to claim that he could not be trusted to meet Putin alone as he might have been compromised. Unexpectedly Trump had more than two-hour-long one-to-one meeting with Putin before the formal meeting with advisers and officials present. Neither president divulged what they had discussed in this confidential meeting which heightened the media suspicion of undue concessions and added fuel to the fire of its dislike of the presidents.

The critics of Trump were also enraged that he did not confront Putin over Crimea, Ukraine and Syria. One commentator said that he should have held Putin accountable for the Syrian war and refugee crisis blissfully or wilfully ignorant that the war began more than four years before Russia intervened militarily toward the end of 2015 at the plea of Syrian government, and that most of the refugees had already fled Syria by that time. The outside world believes that the war was orchestrated by USA with its regional allies who then let loose the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on Syria and Iraq. The critics also forget that Trump did not go to the Helsinki summit with a formal agenda of specific matters, he went there to explore the prospect of building a good relation with Russia. He could not possibly aggressively confront Putin without risking being confronted by him on issues such as regime change. This would have been a very effective way to scuttle his effort to improve relation.

How little the world knew about what was discussed in those two hours became evident when the Trump camp announced, three days after the summit, that the White House would invite Putin for a visit to Washington. Such a decision could not possibly have been taken without discussing it with Putin during the one-to-one meeting. This invitation has now become the source of great ire and criticism of Trumpian method of diplomacy. There will be probably other surprises in future, and to the great discomfort of the critics they have not found a way to subpoena the president for a full disclosure and he is not obliging.

The dyspeptic post-summit discourse in the media leaves the audience with an impression that it represents the view of the great majority of the US citizens. Trump is painted as a person who is disgraceful, deranged, treasonous, lying and currently losing popular support. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A very recent poll has found that 79 per cent of the Republicans staunchly support his post-summit press conference performance. More galling for the phony patriots is the finding of another poll that 54 per cent of the Americans support his invitation to Putin for a second summit in the US capital itself. No doubt Trump is relying on the social media to spread his message.

There is actually a very good reason for such popular support for Trump. The media might have missed that there were few US presidents who had been as sincere about their election promises as Trump (no matter these were mostly negative promises easy to implement). During his campaign he had promised the voters that he would put restrictions on immigration and even build a wall along the Mexican border to stop infiltration of migrants from the south whom he called drug peddlers and criminals. He promised to severely restrict visa facility for people of Muslim-majority countries. He has already imposed immigration and visa restrictions, and he is doing all he can, in the face of congressional opposition, to build the wall.

He made no bones about his abhorrence about rules-based multilateral trade which makes the projection of raw American power difficult. One of the first things he did on ascension to the presidency was to abort the proposed Tran- Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement that was so painstakingly put together by President Obama. He rattled the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) partners sufficiently such that they now grudgingly agree to amendments that will please him. He has imposed high tariffs on NAFTA partners, European Union (EU), China and some other large trading partners that go against the grains of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). His expressed purpose seems to be to start a trade war which he thinks US will win because of its more robust economy. He has already succeeded in forcing EU to agree to some changes including import of all non-auto industrial products without any tariffs, non-tariff measures and subsidies. EU has also agreed to import more natural gas from USA as well as more of soybeans to offset the reduction by China. These gains should raise his electoral support. He might be emboldened to demand more trade concessions from partner countries.

Trump tried to repeal Obamacare with an executive order.  Against huge international opposition he unilaterally withdrew from the climate accord and Iran nuclear deal, and upset the peace process in Palestine by recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital and supporting Israel's violent assault on the Palestinians. He browbeat EU allies into significantly raising their defence budget by January 2019, a feat that had eluded the previous presidents. Putin might very well suspect that Trump's apparent tilt to Russia is a scare tactic to extract concessions from an EU illogically fearful of Russia.

It is now becoming clear that the antics of Trump are an attempt to create a new world order by breaking up or at least weakening the global institutions such as trade compacts, EU and even some UN organisations. This would enable USA to dictate its transaction terms without being constrained by any overarching international laws and practices. Whether and to what extent he will succeed remains to be seen; but the facts are that the US economy is doing well and his voter base is strongly supportive of him. He needs only maintain this voter enthusiasm till November 2020 (or at most 2022) to serve his purpose. What happens when the sunami of backlash, if any, hits the US shores does not seem to be his concern.

Trump's refusal to categorically express his confidence in the US intelligence community in respect of their report on Russian meddling in 2016 US election became another issue for virulent criticism. Such a demand would be risible in a developing country; no one except a small coterie of people in the government would unreservedly put their confidence in whatever their intelligence or law enforcing agencies aver or allege. Is USA so different? At the turn of the millennium the US intelligence agencies had advised the then US president, the UN Security Council as well as the rest of the world that Saddam's Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. This piece of motivated and fake information led to the approval by President Bush of the murderous military campaign against Iraq that led to the killing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. USA spent two trillion dollars for the campaign and 4500 US soldiers lost their lives. The demons let loose by the war are still killing tens of thousands of people in Iraq and neighbouring countries. Several decades earlier the lives of thousands of innocent Americans were destroyed by McCarthyism on account of fake or false intelligence reports. Would the then presidents have done disservice to the nation had they not trusted those reports?

The Trump case may involve more than the argument above. According to US press stories, it is likely that Trump could be subjected in future to the judicial processes or even impeachment for his contacts with Russia (and other alleged malfeasance). Since the contents of the intelligence report were not made public, it is not known what it contained. But the President is privy to the information, and if he has reasons to suspect that some information in it could be used against him, doesn't the US constitution give him the right not to incriminate himself by declaring his full confidence in the report? If every American citizen has a right to challenge any intelligence or law enforcement agency's allegations against him, doesn't a president have the same right? Does the possibility that US national interest could be at stake obliterate that right?

It is understandable that a fair section of the US public is greatly disappointed by the behaviour of their president. Admittedly he is no angel and his utterances about virtually all the minorities except the Jews are plain racist and reprehensible. The possible consequences of his strong-arm tactics and policies on trade, migration and security issues have disappointed many Americans and virtually all non-Americans. It is the solemn duty of the media workers to air their views and concerns on such issues. However, this should not blind them to the extent that they black out or understate the contra views, however unpleasant, if these are held by a substantial section of the Americans or have merit. The thin line between news and propaganda could be blurred and the credibility of the mainstream media could decline.

M A Taslim is Economics researcher and columnist.

Views expressed in the

article are of the writer's own.


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