It happened again this week. In fact it happens nearly every day, and it’s one of the most infuriating things about this infuriating era.
On Monday, three stories came out that under any other president, certainly under Barack Obama, would have been three-day mini-scandals—at least. But under Trump, they’re either so dwarfed by the running narratives (Russia; shambolic White House; tweets) or so unsurprising coming from him that it’s hard not to just shake our heads and move on.
These little scandals drive home to me what may be the single starkest lesson of these first 70-whatever days of Trump: that the right-wing media has enormous agenda-setting power in this country.
Item one: Trump welcomes to the White House one of the biggest human-rights abusers in the world and says he’s done a “fantastic job.” Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has put tens of thousands of people in prison. Whatever Egypt was under Mubarak and then under Morsi, which was bad enough, it’s now worse.
Now, I’m not going to get on too high a horse here. Presidents from both parties have tolerated Egyptian authoritarianism for decades, and while Obama did suspend military aid to the country for a time after al-Sisi overthrew Morsi, it was restored in 2015. So no American president has exactly come down hard on Egypt.
But inviting a thug like that to the Oval Office, and praising him to the stars, is sending a signal. Remember the circumstances under which al-Sisi gained power. There was the initial uprising against Mubarak in Tahrir Square. Out he went. There were actual elections, and in came Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Then the people said, “No, this is not what we had in mind,” and they gathered in Tahrir Square again. In other words, the people of Egypt were exercising what meager power they had to say, “We are desperate for reform and real democracy.” And then in comes this guy to pulverize it.
Item two: The Forward reveals that Sebastian Gorka, Trump’s chief counterterrorism adviser, once praised a very far-right—and anti-Semitic—Hungarian militia. I won’t dive too deep on the details here; you should read them from the reporter who unearthed them, Lili Bayer. A little morsel: One captain in the militia referred to Jews as “Zionist rats” and “locusts.” This is far from being Gorka’s first controversy.
Item three: Records released over the weekend and first spotted by Pro Publica showed that Trump can pull money out of his businesses any time he wants—with zero public disclosure. A “Trust Certification Change” was made to the documents governing the status of Trump’s finances on Feb. 10, after he took office, stipulating that the trust “shall distribute net income or principal to Donald J. Trump at his request.” He owns more than 400 businesses, and according to Pro Publica, Trump can take profits or the businesses themselves anytime he pleases. Imagine the potential for corruption that sets up.
In the pre-Trump world, any of these three would have ignited huge fireworks.
Imagine that Obama had hosted in the Oval Office a left-leaning dictator, say Hugo Chavez or his successor, Nicolas Maduro, of Venezuela. Obama did in fact meet Chavez once, but not in the Oval Office. It was at a Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. Obama shook Chavez’s hand and the right wing tore into him for days.
Now imagine that Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser had far-left associations. Say he’d been photographed wearing a hammer and sickle button, as Gorka was wearing a medal associated with Hungarian Nazi collaborators. That person would have been out of the job two scandals ago.
And finally, imagine that Obama had done something squirrely about his personal finances just three weeks after taking office. The ideas that Obama was personally corrupt and might be using the presidency for personal gain—for starters—would have taken root immediately.
Why? Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones and Breitbart and The Blaze and all their numerous imitators across the web and the AM radio dial would instantly have pounced and started ranting. And then Fox would have picked it up. Limbaugh et al. would say absolutely anything, without regard to factual truth, which is how those myths about Obama attending a madrassa and all those things got started. Fox had to play it a little bit straighter, but the message was basically the same.
So when some bit of news came out about Obama—for instance, that he went to school in Indonesia when he was a little child—it took only a few creative turns of the screw for the school to become a madrassa. And while they may not have Obama to kick around anymore, the pattern is still the same, as we’re seeing now with this story on Susan Rice, who is established to have done absolutely nothing wrong but now has the banshees screaming police state (and who is herself here the victim of a leak seemingly solely intended to smear her and drag her through the mud for a few days).
The left has no remotely equivalent attack machinery. It doesn’t exist because there’s no market for it. It wouldn’t work. Liberals just don’t have the same hunger for red meat. They have a hunger for it, but not the same hunger, not anywhere near.
End result? Obama ends up ensnared in all kinds of phony scandals that don’t really exist. Poor Shirley Sherrod, a totally blameless woman, loses her Agriculture Department job after Andrew Breitbart lies about her and right goes into hysterics about her alleged (but in fact nonexistent) reverse racism. Sebastian Gorka, a man who praised a far-right and anti-Semitic militia—and it doesn’t seem like anyone doctored that tape—continues to report to work.
The Trump administration already has racked up so many scandals, failures, and sleazy deals that I guess it’s inevitable that some of them slip by. But just keep this propaganda imbalance in your mind. It explains why these near-daily controversies just fade away. Imagine where he’d be in the polls if all of these got the attention they deserve!