Professors analyze Trump’s presidency, media
Lucas Masin-Moyer | Wednesday, February 1, 2017
The first 12 days of President Donald Trump’s term in office have been marked by a flurry of executive orders and nationwide protests. In response, NDVotes organized a Tuesday installment of its Pizza, Pop and Politics series and brought two University professors to discuss Trump’s time in office thus far, focusing on his consolidation of power and his approach to the media.
Susan Ohmer, associate professor of film, theater and television, said today’s media landscape has been fragmented by the current political environment, representing a return to previous media eras.
“We often hear that many elements of today’s political scene are unprecedented, and in many ways, that’s true — but in some ways that’s not,” she said. “In the 19th century, and the late 18th century, newspapers … were openly partisan. If you could imagine a landscape populated with a lot of Fox Newses, that’s what it was.”
Ohmer said while this fragmentation is not unprecedented, the media landscape has changed dramatically in other ways in recent years.
“I think one of the most significant differences we see is the sheer amount of news from every form — whether it’s social media, print, broadcast. It comes at you all day long,” she said.
According to Ohmer, Trump’s relationship with the media is a unique aspect of media coverage in this election.
“We certainly have a president who is more savvy than many previous presidents when it comes to news, not just media representation,” she said. “President Trump is very knowledgeable about the news cycle. One of the things that strikes me is his ability to time tweets in sync with the news cycle.”
Ohmer said this relationship between the president and the media is also made more interesting by Trump’s preference for particular news organizations.
“Another thing that we’ve seen that been very striking is the fact that this President picks favorites — Sean Hannity comes to mind,” she said. “For example, at this first news conference, he didn’t take questions from CNN and lumped them in with BuzzFeed, saying they were both bad.”
Ohmer said echoes of presidential confrontation with the media have been seen before, but they have typically been on a much smaller scale.
“Many people have drawn parallels between this administration and the Nixon administration in 1968,” she said. “Nixon did all this in secret. He didn’t come right out and say, ‘CNN, I’m not taking your questions,’ or, ‘I’m going to kick you out of the White House if you don’t cover me how I want.’”
Gary Hollibaugh, assistant professor of political science, said it is important to look at the early policy actions taken by the Trump administration in order to better understand how the next four years will play out.
“A lot of the things he has been signing are, by and large, presidential memoranda, which are policy directives given to agencies to implement specific things,” Hollibaugh said. “The success of President Trump’s policy program is going to be dependent on the cooperation of departments because all of these policies need to be interpreted and implemented — or perhaps not implemented — by others.”
According to Hollibaugh, there are three key elements necessary for Trump to maintain political control, the first of which is politicization of advisors and appointees.
“[Politicization] is the stacking of political officials in administrative agencies,” he said. “This is not a tactic that is unique to Trump. … This is something that lots of presidents have done. President Obama was criticized a lot in his administration for the use of policy tsars.”
The second key for political power, according to Hollibaugh, is resolving any ambiguities about preferences, exemplified with his dismissal of acting Attorney General Sally Yates.
“Once President Trump realized that [Yates] was not going to implement policy the way [he] wanted, he removed her,” Hollibaugh said.
Hollibaugh said the final key aspect for ensuring political control is bureaucratic organization.
“President Trump has, to a minor extent, done this,” he said. “One of his executive orders … directed that within the immigration and customs enforcement office, there be the creation of an office to focus on crimes committed by ‘removable aliens.’”
However, the administration has come up short in some aspects of bureaucratic organization, according to Hollibaugh.
“The National Park Service employees who publicly denounced the President’s policies, whether or not you agree with the policies, does represent a fundamental failure of the President to control his administration,” he said.
Similarly, Hollibaugh said Trump had fallen short in another aspect of agency coordination, which was demonstrated in his failure to inform Homeland Security Secretary General John Kelly of his new immigration policy.
“General Kelly only found out about this by watching TV,” Hollibaugh said. “This typically doesn’t happen — because General Kelly was caught flat-footed, the entire Department of Homeland Security and the entire border control really had no idea what to do, because there was a complete breakdown of coordination.”