The presidential inauguration, and the Women’s March on Washington the next day, revealed the extent of the social and political polarization that exists in the United States: glimpses of the right-wing surge around Trump – and of counter-power, stoking a possibility of radical change.
The incoming Republican president’s inner circle of advisors and his cabinet of billionaires and multimillionaires are committed to an authoritarian plutocracy at home, and an abandonment of multilateralism in favor of power politics abroad. Only slightly distanced is a Republican-controlled Congress that is dead-set on cutting already-insufficient wages, benefits, and working conditions, and that is eagerly directing attacks against poor people, women, African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and the LGBQT community. Violations of the human rights of the US people are spreading: Trump’s ban on refugees and immigrants from seven heavily Muslim countries does damage both domestically and internationally – and his support for torture presages more.
The new administration presides over a political party system that is in disarray. Trump’s candidacy came as a deep affront to members of the Republican Party establishment, whom he knocked off one by one. Beginning his run for the nomination as an outsider, he climaxed it by taking over the Republican Party. The results of the election then blasted the Democrats into near-inconsequentiality. Trump’s presidency therefore did not emerge out of the party structures that shape – and strangle – US political life: He is a loose cannon, and this goes beyond his temperament.
Considerable contingency also suffuses the counter-power. The overwhelming success of the Women’s March – people in the millions turning out, not only in Washington but also in hundreds of other US cities and around the world – made it the largest day of protest in US history. Included were many who demanded an end to racist violence and gender discrimination, and who insisted that the United States be restructured in radical and inclusive ways. Many other participants wanted chiefly to vent their angst and fury at Trump’s ascendancy: Socially and politically, it’s a complex formation. The strategic question is whether it will become a bearer of “resistance,” as Angela Davis hopefully put it, that goes on to contest each violation perpetrated by Trump’s four-year incumbency.
It’s early days, but it’s already clear that the new Administration’s forceful threats to our public information system will figure in deciding this question.
Attention has aptly focused on “Alternative Facts”: the term with which Trump aide Kellyanne Conway attempted to deflect NBC journalist Chuck Todd, when he challenged her on the new Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s bald-faced lie: that the audience for the Trump inauguration was the largest in US presidential history. More revealing was Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’s intervention. Preibus told Chris Wallace on Fox News “The point is not the crowd size, the point is that the attacks and the attempts to delegitimize this president on day one – and we’re not going to sit around and take it…there’s an obsession by the media to delegitimize this president, and we are not going to sit around and let it happen. We’re going to fight back tooth and nail every day, and twice on Sunday.” Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, then declared that the media are the “opposition party”; and, the next day, Trump himself echoed Bannon’s words.
Some may compare these attacks on the press to those of the Nixon Administration. Remember Vice President Spiro Agnew, who cried out that the media were “nattering nabobs of negativism;” recollect Nixon’s Office of Telecommunications Policy, which became his Administration’s top-gun against commercial newscasters as well as PBS officials – for producing news and documentaries that it deemed inimical to the US war on Indochina. Even-keeled analysts, however, also need to recall a more immediate precursor, the Obama Administration, whose anti-press measures were considered the most extreme since Nixon and even garnered a report from the Committee To Protect Journalists. That report quoted New York Times reporter David Sanger that “this is the most closed, control-freak administration I’ve ever covered.” Obama’s efforts at media control persisted, furthermore, into the final days of his presidency. Before leaving the White House, Obama quietly gave the green light (buried in the provisions of the 2017 Defense Authorization Act) to create a Global Engagement Center (GEC) housed within the State Department. The purpose of the GEC is to “lead the coordination, integration, and synchronization of Government-wide communications activities directed at foreign audiences abroad in order to counter the messaging and diminish the influence of international terrorist organizations.”  The little known GEC will become part of a massive and longstanding US global propaganda machine.
Trump’s people are indeed indulging in innuendo and smears, and adopting Nixon’s preferred strategy of direct government intimidation to create a chilling atmosphere. However, to take full measure of what is occurring requires that we move beyond journalism, to sketch a more far-reaching campaign to uproot and transform our overall system of public information. This many-sided endeavor is also, crucially, anchored both in ideology and political-economy.