“Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” —Mark Twain, in an interview with Rudyard Kipling, 1899
“You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” The statement is taken from a 2005 conversation between Donald Trump and Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush. An audio recording of Trump’s lewd remarks was publicly released for the first time during the final weeks of the 2016 presidential election season. The unmistakable sound of Trump saying he wanted “to fuck” a married woman, among other debasing remarks, seemed like an immediate death sentence to his run for the White House, and to any future in politics.
On October 19, 2016, less than two weeks after the audio leaked to the press, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump entered their last televised debate before the election. The nation was still months away from the first Women’s March and nearly a year away from the eruption of the #MeToo movement. During the debate, Trump tried to quell the claims that he was sexist by stating, “Nobody respects women more than me.” Less than three minutes later, as Clinton discussed Social Security and Medicare, Trump interrupted her with the insult that she was “such a nasty woman.”
Trump’s performance spoke volumes. The meaning of his words, as well as the act of interrupting and speaking over Clinton while she spoke, displayed Trump’s sense of male privilege and aggression as clearly as his lewd remarks to Billy Bush. As has become typical, subsequent press coverage followed partisan divides.
On October 21, 2016, two days after the debate, Clinton and Trump were again in the same room for the Alfred Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner. The dinner is an annual Catholic fundraiser and has been a popular stop for presidential campaigns since the 1960s. It is customary at the dinner for political opponents to both compliment and joke about each other. This time, however, neither candidate complimented the other. Clinton entered the event under scrutiny after WikiLeaks had released her private emails exposing the Democratic Party’s efforts to elevate her campaign against her primary rival, Bernie Sanders, as well as racist language by Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta referring to “needy Latinos.”
During her speech, Clinton sidestepped the emails and focused on Trump’s sexism: “Donald looks at the Statue of Liberty and sees a 4 — maybe a 5 if she loses the torch and tablet and changes her hair.” The joke drew laughter. Later in the evening Trump gave his speech which began with laughs and applause. Then, as expected, he broke with tradition stating, “I wasn’t really sure if Hillary was going to be here tonight, because, I guess, you didn’t send her invitation by email. Or maybe you did, and she just found out about it through the wonder of WikiLeaks. We’ve learned so much from WikiLeaks. For example, Hillary believes that it is vital to deceive the people by having one public policy and a totally different policy in private.” Mild-mannered laughter and applause quickly turned into boos of disgust.
Corporate media covered the event with emphasis on the WikiLeaks revelations and Trump’s buffoonish behavior. Concern over Trump’s lewd and degrading behavior at the debates had already faded away. In fact, the relevance of the comments only resurfaced much later when several women, including adult film star Stormy Daniels, began voicing allegations of adulterous encounters with Trump, and the various ways he had tried to silence them through lawyers, legal agreements, hush money, and intimidation. Trump’s political ambitions grew after being invited to speak at the Republican Party’s 2012 convention. Fear over Trump’s inexperience and propensity to make uncouth remarks led the Republicans to hire a media trainer to prep him for his performance. Trump worked with the trainer, but never gave the speech because Hurricane Isaac shut down the convention. However, Trump’s decades in the public eye had helped him to fine-tune his knack for self-promotion and marketing. By the time election day approached in 2016, his campaign had become a well-oiled marketing machine, aggressively shaping media narratives with the help of unsavory characters such as Stephen Bannon, Paul Manafort, and self-described “agent provocateur” Roger Stone.
Trump has deftly and routinely overcome negative media coverage that has destroyed previous politicians and campaigns. His constant use of lies (“alternative facts”), counterattacks, sensationalism, and media swerves have helped him do so. A media swerve is a tactic that shifts narrative direction in a particular story to avoid facts or discussion viewed as negative by the party committing the swerve. These mass diversions were employed to manipulate media and distract public attention from facts, ethical considerations, and issues of substance that either were antithetical to Trump’s positions or questioned his conduct.
By exploiting vulnerabilities in both traditional and social media, Trump has repeatedly redirected national attention in ways that have allowed him to evade accountability and strengthen his base of supporters. His responses to three major events demonstrate this dynamic: the violent clashes in Charlottesville during the Unite the Right Rally, the 2017 ambush in Niger, and the investigations into Russia’s covert operations to influence the U.S. population.
Unite the White
During an August 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a Nazi sympathizer ran his car into a crowd of peaceful anti-racist protesters, killing one young woman and injuring many people. In response to the rally and hate crime, Trump offered conflicting messages that illuminated both his bigotry and his media skills for avoiding scrutiny about his racism. Shortly after the incident, Trump denounced hatred and violence on “many sides” despite clear video evidence showing that it came from one side — the white nationalists.
Two days later, after critics lambasted the president for conflating Nazis with peaceful protesters, the White House, not Trump, tweeted a denouncement of “white supremacists, KKK, Neo-Nazi and all extremist groups.”
On August 14, 2017, while under immense pressure from Republicans, Trump issued a statement saying, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence.” However, a day later, Trump redirected blame away from the white supremacists in Charlottesville. “You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit,” he said, “and they were very, very violent.”
Many journalists denounced Trump’s comments for not directly calling out the violence of white supremacists. Journalist Jeremy Scahill tweeted “Trump, Bannon, Gorka, Miller emboldened these Nazis. Encouraged them. And Trump’s ‘many sides’ bullshit continues that. This is terrorism.” Scahill was undoubtedly aware of Trump’s popularity with white supremacists, his removal of federal funding for groups that fight racism, and his appointment of known white supremacists to his cabinet, including self-identified white nationalist Richard Spencer’s mentee Stephen Miller; former Breitbart chief Stephen K. Bannon; and Sebastian Gorka, who once “wore the medal of Vitézi Rend, a Nazi organization.”
Trump’s campaign had attracted strong support from former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke. During the 2016 campaign, Duke told radio listeners that a vote for Trump’s rivals would be “treason to your heritage.” Trump had also received the support of the neo-Nazi site The Daily Caller and of Richard Spencer. “Each time Trump was asked on Twitter about his white nationalist supporters,” wrote Evan Osnos in The New Yorker in February 2016, “the candidate, who is ready to respond, day or night, to critics of his debating style or his golf courses, simply ignored the question.”
Six months before the racist hate crimes of Charlottesville, the Southern Poverty Law Center had reported that there were more than 900 hate groups operating within the United States. However, the corporate press often treated Trump’s racism as a partisan issue rather than a matter of historical fact. Although networks such as CNN had Don Lemon, Jake Tapper, and Van Jones denouncing Trump’s connections to white supremacy, Fox News often made false equivalencies between the Black Lives Matter movement and white nationalist groups.357 Tammy Bruce, a Fox News contributor, claimed on Fox and Friends that Trump, like Ronald Reagan before him, had “immediately eviscerated” white supremacist groups. Sean Hannity cherry-picked Trump’s denouncement on August 14, 2017, arguing that Trump had made it clear “there’s no place in this country for these neo-Nazi, fascist, white supremacists,” and that those criticizing him for being racist are making a concerted partisan effort to undermine him and his presidency.
After days of engaging in a war of words over race, Trump deployed a media swerve. As outrage mounted over his false equivalency between the actions of violent white supremacists and those of nonviolent anti-racist demonstrators, Trump began denouncing progressives — who prior to the Unite the Right Rally had convinced the city of Charlottesville to remove Confederate monuments — as “foolish.” As the corporate press took the bait and engaged in discussions about the removal of monuments as the origin of the news story, the issue of violence and white supremacy drifted outside the frame.
While the meaning of public historical markers is certainly a national issue, Trump had succeeded in distracting news media coverage from the potential hate crimes and other threats posed by white nationalist groups, many of which were his proud supporters. Furthermore, the national discussion about Confederate monuments, many of which were constructed to iconize white supremacy over Black people, was never adequately addressed by the corporate media. Instead, the media often conflated history and heritage and treated them as partisan issues with conservatives like Tomi Lahren arguing that the removal of Confederate monuments was designed “to erase history and to erase every shred of patriotism.”
Breitbart’s commentary on the matter quoted the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR):
Removing or relocating from public property all monuments that symbolize white supremacy, hatred, and racism is a crucial and appropriate response to the violence of this weekend,” said a statement from CAIR spokesman Zainab Chaudry. “Monuments in public spaces represent what our cities seek to represent as their core beliefs. They shape identity and influence societal values. The enduring values of our cities cannot be rooted in white supremacy. We applaud this move by the Mayor’s office that will make it clear that hate has no place in Baltimore.”
The Breitbart post then reminded its readers that such commentary should be regarded as that of the enemy: “Breitbart News has frequently noted that the CAIR group is so closely entwined with Islamists and with jihadis that court documents and news reports show that at least five of its people — either board members, employees or former employees — have been jailed or repatriated for various financial and terror-related offenses.” The alt-right media strategy was to demonize efforts challenging public memorials symbolizing white supremacy.
As the corporate media turned to address issues regarding historical monuments, the original focus of the Charlottesville story dissipated and moved from a discussion of racism, violence, and a complicit president to a debate over history, heritage, and the meaning of the Civil War. Trump’s swerve tactic had been successful. In fact, according to Greg Sargent in the Washington Post, “President Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, was among the very few top officials around Trump who quietly cheered as he resisted pressure to unequivocally lay the blame for the deadly violence in Charlottesville on Nazis and white supremacists. Bannon confirmed that he views the racial strife and turmoil unleashed by Charlottesville as a political winner for Trump.” However, it was not a political winner for Bannon. As criticism continued to mount about Trump’s handling of Charlottesville, the White House put the blame on Bannon, and forced him to resign. Thus the episode is yet another testament to Trump’s ability not just to redirect the media and evade meaningful accountability, but to do so while energizing his alt-right, white nationalist base.