Last week, Donald Trump’s authoritarian instincts got the better of him, and he called on Congress to investigate American media outlets that publish news he doesn’t like. This morning, apparently bothered by the latest reporting on his July 20 meeting at the Pentagon, the president went just a little further.
“With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!”
On the one hand, it’s not at all healthy in a modern democracy to have a chief executive publicly threaten the broadcast licenses of news organizations that publish reports he disapproves of. We’ve all grown quite accustomed to Trump’s posturing, but that doesn’t make his antics any easier to defend.
But on the other hand, it also seems quite likely that Trump’s chest-thumping bluster is ultimately meaningless. At what point is it appropriate to challenge news outlets’ licenses? I don’t know, big guy, maybe after you finish suing the women who accused you of sexual misconduct – which should coincide with that lawsuit you threatened to file against the New York Times for daring to report on the women’s accusations.
Axios recently published an item on Trump’s embrace of something known as “madman theory,” which gained prominence in the Nixon era. As the piece noted, “Plenty of world leaders think the president is crazy – and he seems to view that madman reputation as an asset. The downsides are obvious: the rhetoric can unnerve allies and has the potential to provoke enemies into needless, unintended war. But Trump keeps using the tactic, with varying degrees of success.”
In order for “madman theory” to work, a leader’s enemies have to believe he’s genuinely crazy and his mental instability makes him capable of dangerous and irrational behavior. Once that’s established, the theory goes, the leader’s rivals will make concessions they wouldn’t ordinarily agree to because they’re sincerely scared of what the madman might do.
When Nixon tried this in 1969, it didn’t work: the North Vietnamese assumed the Republican president’s posturing wouldn’t amount to much, and they were right. Nearly a half-century later, Trump’s “madman theory” might seem more plausible – it’s vastly easier to believe he’s unstable – were it not for the fact that this president keeps making threats he has no intention of following through on.
All of Trump’s bluffing makes him look less like a madman and more like a joke. If the point is to intimidate his targets into submission – in today’s case, American news organizations – the president is likely to be disappointed by the results.