Saturday, April 21, 2018
Politics

The right builds an alternative narrative about the crises around Trump

WASHINGTON — Enemies from within have launched a "deep-state" smear campaign, news organizations are acting with ulterior motives, and the worst attacks are yet to come.

Pushing back against the biggest threat so far to Donald Trump's young presidency, his most fervent supporters are building alternative narratives to run alongside the "establishment" media account — from relatively benign diversions to more bizarre conspiracies.

"They're going to say that Donald Trump has Alzheimer's," said the president's friend and longtime associate Roger Stone, who made an online video laying out how the president's own Cabinet could trigger a never-used provision of the Constitution's 25th Amendment to stage a coup on the grounds that Trump is mentally unsound. "This is the game plan. Watch carefully," Stone swore.

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As Americans process a dizzying week of damning revelations about the president — his firing of the FBI director, James B. Comey; his disclosure of highly sensitive intelligence to the Russians; and his plea to Comey to drop the bureau's investigation of his fired national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn — Trump has found shelter on the right, where the collective judgment of the conservative media and the Republican Party so far seems to be to dismiss the allegations as "fake news," shift the blame and change the subject.

With varying degrees of credibility and credulity, conservatives have fed stories that Trump is the victim of sabotage by an adversarial intelligence community full of Trojan horse holdovers from the Obama administration.

"There is someone burrowed into the intelligence community who wants to hurt Trump," conservative author and radio host Laura Ingraham warned.

They have accused the media of abetting felons inside the government who are leaking damaging information about Trump and jeopardizing national security, perhaps with revenge in mind. After all, reported Matt Drudge, Trump had once called out the Washington Post's owner, Jeff Bezos, for potential antitrust violations.

They also pointed to a familiar and irritating theme from the presidential campaign: The same people who told them they were throwing away their vote on Trump, a man who was supposed to be too reckless and buffoonish to ever get elected, are now gloating that they were right all along.

Trump supporters "see the news media and the establishment as one of those airlines dragging them down the aisle, bloodying them," said Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist, who said that Trump's foes often fail to understand how their criticism can backfire. "And when they assault him, it validates the idea that he's the only thing there to protect us from them."

Anyone who assumes widespread defections against the president in short order, Castellanos added, should understand that many of Trump's fans are not eager to see a return to the establishment-dominated political order he promised to demolish.

"'See how poorly it's turned out for you? See how erratic and uncertain life is with Donald Trump? Come back!' I don't think so," he added.

For many Trump loyalists, the issue is not whether his presidency is messy and chaotic and dysfunctional. Many of them seemed resigned long ago to the fact that it would be. The more relevant question is whether they see anyone else who is equipped to change Washington in the way Trump promised he would.

On Wednesday, Trump seemed to agree with the narrative that his supporters have been constructing.

"I did not get elected to serve the Washington media or special interests," he said during a commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut. "I was elected to serve the forgotten men and women in our country, and that's what I'm doing."

Barely four months into Trump's presidency, the vast majority of Republicans nationwide so far seem unfazed, polls show. Gallup reported his approval among Republicans this week at 84 percent, though that has slipped slightly in the last two weeks. Among all Americans, it is 38 percent.

Trump and his aides have already started playing to the mistrust that many Americans have with the country's political and media establishment as a way to deflect the week's news. The message was a classic "us-versus-them" battle cry: They want their power back, and we cannot let them have it.

His campaign issued that plea in an email to supporters on Tuesday night, just hours after the New York Times reported about his request to Comey to shut down the federal investigation into Flynn. It read: "Every day from here on out will be an uphill battle — and we need to be prepared to go into the trenches to FIGHT BACK."

In the conservative media, an alternate story line has already taken shape. In this story, Comey, an embittered and opportunistic employee whom Trump fired, is now trying to redeem himself with retroactively released — and unseen — memos of his version of events. On "Fox & Friends" on Wednesday morning, one of the hosts, Brian Kilmeade, expressed disbelief. "If you write it down, does that mean it's true?" he asked.

The chief accomplice in this version of events is the news media, which in the case of the Washington Post, erupted into cheers when its story on Trump's disclosure of intelligence to the Russians broke. "WASHPOST Newsroom staff openly applauding at latest Trump hit finally clarifies how this has turned into nothing but a bloodsport!" Drudge wrote on Twitter. (A reporter for the Post had actually written on Twitter that the newsroom applauded when the story broke an online traffic record.)

And if there is any criminal wrongdoing, these accounts pin that on the leakers inside the "deep state," a phrase popularized by Trump administration officials such as the chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, to describe the vast bureaucracy of federal employees seeking to undermine the president.

In some corners, the explanations took on a much more sinister tone. Fox News, talk radio and websites like Alex Jones' Infowars heavily covered the story of a murdered employee of the Democratic National Committee and attempted to link his death to unproved claims that he surreptitiously sent party documents to WikiLeaks. The staff member's family has vigorously denied the story, and distanced themselves from the private investigator working on the murder case, who has given conflicting accounts of his findings.

But the mainstream media, these organizations said, were burying the story and focusing on Trump's woes instead.

"Where's the Washington Post on this?" Ingraham asked on Fox.

Then there were Stone and Jones, who made the video about their suspicions that a coup was in the offing. (Under a provision of the 25th Amendment, if a majority of the cabinet and the vice president decide that the president can no longer carry out his duties, the vice president replaces him.) In the same video, Jones urged Trump's supporters to fight attempts to undermine him. "There is a cultural war," Jones said. "They want to bully you into submission."

Jones touched on a point that some conservatives say will make it very difficult for Trump's core supporters to easily abandon him. Trump has created his own political culture, and its devotees are strongly and emotionally committed to it.

"They took a huge risk, and they are deeply invested," said Charlie Sykes, a conservative author who has been critical of Trump. And the news cycle they inhabit, he added, is only hardening their beliefs.

"These days when people say, 'Oh, my gosh, this really looks terrible, was I possibly wrong about Trump?' they quickly go on social media or see the shows and instantaneously find something that reinforces their opinion," Sykes added. "And they cling to that."

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