The Trump-CNN dustup is a matter of branding. / Pedro Plassen Lopez

Battle of the Brands

A showman takes on a blockheaded logo

The Trump-CNN dustup is a matter of branding. / Pedro Plassen Lopez
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As the wheezing, oligarchy-battered American republic was preparing to settle into its Fourth of July lawn chairs, our great leader logged on to his Twitter account to remind us, in his inimitable, tediously self-dramatizing fashion, why we’re never again allowed to have nice things. In a tweet heard round the world, Donald Trump posted a gif from his days as a pro-wrestling executive—only instead of the spectacle of the brightly hued, overleveraged real estate baron pretending to bodyslam WWE generalissimo Vince McMahon, this doctored video features The Donald manhandling a figure with CNN’s logo in place of McMahon’s kisser.

Ha, because our populist maximum leader is throttling the whole corrupt “dishonest” fake-news delivery system, get it? Never one for subtlety, Trump labeled the tweet with the hashtag #FraudNews—now his preferred taunt for CNN in the wake of its botched, retracted story about Trump campaign associate Anthony Scaramucci meeting with Russian officials prior to the inauguration.

For weary students of media-propelled culture wars rhetoric, the intensively meta tour through the next few news cycles was a familiar slog. Yes, lawmakers decided this latest megalomaniacal social-media outburst from Trump called for a sober round of ineffectual chiding—just as Trump’s deranged misogynist Twitter attacks on Morning Joe cohost Mika Brzezinski a few days earlier stirred up a rousing chivalrous chorus of sternly worded Capitol Hill disapproval, even from the normally invertebrate GOP caucus. And yes, CNN executives and media commentators alike conspicuously fretted over the prospect that doctored footage of a transparently phony WWE executive dustup—talk about Fraud News!—would spur real-world vigilante assaults on the press from the Trump faithful.

What truly rankles here is the pious sanctimony of CNN in the aftermath of Trump’s outburst.

There was also, per the labored scripting of untold culture wars-past, a miniature tempest over CNN’s follow-up report on the Reddit troll who originally created and posted the now epically oversignifying gif. (This genius’s nom de Reddit is HanAssholeSolo, which CNN was of course forced to render as “HanA**holeSolo, in what was the only moment of genuine, if inadvertent, humor in the whole dreary fracas.) The network made a great show of not outing the poor schlub’s identity, since as a private citizen, he could well be made vulnerable to leftish online flaming, and worse. But the network also noted that it reserved the right to publicize Mr. A**holeSolo’s offline identity should the gif creator revert to his past trolling excesses—and that, naturally, provoked the right-wing media sphere to light up with charges of PC-style “thug journalism.” Yes, even in this side report on an already gnat-straining orgy of politico-journalistic self-obsession, there was still room for more sententious bloviating on sacred patriot freedoms defiled by the decadent scheming media elite. Surely some eager Reddit MAGA chatroom will soon burst forth with a follow-up gif showing a spandex-clad CNN logo bodyslamming the Bill of Rights.

So much speculative mayhem over so very little substantive content! While it is indeed reckless and stupid for an American president to indulge childish fantasies of turnbuckle vengeance on the press, Trump is, in one sense, only publicly bruiting the sentiments that our esteemed roster of right-wing chief executives routinely vent on the Fourth Estate. Richard Nixon earnestly waged an Oval Office war on the American media. On the 2000 campaign trail, George W. Bush, in his oafish fashion, called then New York Times politics scribe Adam Clymer a “major-league asshole” (er, pardon me: a**hole) on a mike he mistakenly took to be dead; this was but one effusion of a similar administration-wide contempt for reporters as leftist heels and would-be traitors.

What’s more, given the, uh, verisimilitude-challenged nature of all pro-wrestling footage, it’s hard to treat Trump’s tweeted détournement as any sort of veiled threat of real-world violence. (Sadly, the only major wrestling-based assault on our free-press traditions took place in the courts, not in a pay-per-view venue, and did far more lasting harm, thanks to the moneyed villainy of Trump confrere Peter Thiel, than anything achieved by a thousand camera-staged scissor holds.) 

Indeed, what truly rankles here is the pious sanctimony of CNN in the aftermath of Trump’s outburst. Despite all of Trump’s recent huffing and puffing, it’s crucial to recall that this was the idiot cable franchise that lavished untold acres of free media on the 2016 Trump primary campaign—during which the candidate launched all sorts of violent threats on protesters and political foes with nary a peep from the now mortally offended cable protectors of public civility. Indeed, not content with handing over an unfiltered megaphone to an authoritarian thug, CNN then proceeded to brand itself as the cheerful employer of a whole new cohort of pro-Trump hack pundits—including Corey Lewandowski who, back in the more innocent-seeming days of 2016, was forced to resign his Trump campaign post for actually assaulting a reporter. That’s right: the omni-pandering network that is today pleased to present itself as a noble defender of First Amendment freedoms gleefully enlisted a genuine journalist-bashing thug into its ranks of camera-ready commentators for the sake of enhancing its market share. What’s more, Lewandowski was still drawing a salary from the Trump campaign while he spouted Trumpist talking points in CNN’s Columbus Circle aerie—a first-order disqualifying conflict of interest for any news organization with the remotest interest in journalistic integrity.

Trump knows that as long as he can bait our media lords into engaging in his preferred terms of conflict, he can let them drone on sanctimoniously about themselves.

But that’s just the thing: The Trump-CNN feud has nothing to do with the actual conduct of journalism, and everything to do with optimal brand positioning. Trump continues to flog his own brand as the outsider scourge of a decadent, dishonest fake-news industry, while Jeff Zucker’s morally bankrupt network gleefully endorses the Trumpian vision of politics as an extension of reality television—a moral calamity that Zucker himself abetted back when he and Trump were collaborating on The Apprentice at NBC. The having-all-things-both-ways ethos of Zucker and his bottom-feeding network was painfully on display when CNN’s first and worst Trumpinista Jeffrey Lord defended Trump’s tweets against charges of violence-incitement by likening them to the claim from liberal foes of the GOP health-care bill that its cuts to Medicaid and other guaranteed coverage would “kill millions of people.” (The actual claim is that the bill would result in the deaths of thousands of people, but fact-checking shameless toadies such as Lord is largely an exercise in futility.) Lord then asserted, without a shred of evidence, that such rhetoric directly led to the shooting of GOP Rep. Steve Scalise last month.

And so it goes. In the actual world of consequential executive policy-making, the Trump White House is not only negotiating to shred our already pitiable health-care safety net, but is also drastically escalating civilian drone-warfare casualties in Syria, cruelly planning to eliminate low-income heating subsidies, eviscerating the federal prosecution of corporate crimes, all while seeking to produce yet more lavish tax cuts for the rich. (This is to say nothing, of course, of the genuinely scandalous assault on press freedom now unspooling in the indictment of Baffler contributor Aaron Cantú and the prosecution of the other dissenting citizens swept up in the strongarm police sweep of protesters during Trump’s inauguration.) It’s assuredly not the case, as many critics have asserted, that Trump deploys his outrageous array of drive-by Twitter assaults to “distract” us from the serious harm his administration is wreaking on the commonweal—as though the collective American attention span is so depleted that it can’t take in both unhinged social-media crusades and unsound policy initiatives from the same commander-in-chief. But a practiced brand-wizard like Trump is savvy enough to know that, as long as he can bait our media lords into engaging in his preferred terms of conflict, he can let them drone on sanctimoniously about themselves—and thereby confirm his pasteboard caricature of the press as out-of-touch elitist Fauntleroys. The ensuing culture war playbook will proceed on auto-pilot, and CNN will continue to grotesquely fall down on the job while gazing admiringly at its own fake-heroic reflection. In the Trumpist cultural dispensation eagerly abetted by the dark lords of CNN, the public defense of press freedom is just another exercise in terminally vacuous brand maneuvering.

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.

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