The approach that Trump is taking with Scarborough is the same as that of Karens everywhere: Call the cops, even if there’s no actual violation, and make life miserable for the people having the cops called on them. In both cases, the point is to punish the people who dared to challenge him.
Trump has repeatedly used this technique against media companies that he feels have slighted him. Angry at CNN for negative coverage, he promised to block a merger between AT&T and Time Warner, CNN’s parent company. The Trump Justice Department attempted to prevent the deal, and lawyers for the companies argued it was a politically motivated step. A judge ultimately approved the arrangement, over the Justice Department’s objections.
Trump has also demanded that the United States Postal Service raise rates for Amazon, whose CEO, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post, another outlet that has frequently been critical. In tweets, Trump has explicitly tied his attacks on Amazon to Bezos’s ownership of the Post.
These are big policy maneuvers with potentially wide-ranging implications. In other cases, Trump has worked the refs in smaller, more personal ways, using his own voice more than the policy apparatus of the federal government to punish critical voices. He called on ESPN to fire Jemele Hill, now a contributing writer at The Atlantic, for criticizing him. The White House has also sought to revoke press credentials for journalists Trump deems insufficiently deferential. (Today, Trump tagged Twitter’s head of site integrity in a tweet, a method of directing abuse his way.)
The good news, from a checks-and-balances standpoint, is that many of these steps have failed, or are likely to fail. There’s little chance of a murder case against Scarborough, since there’s no basis for it. The AT&T–Time Warner merger went forward. Judges gave the credential revocation a skeptical hearing in March. The executive order seems destined to land on the same scrap heap as Trump’s first Muslim ban, eventually. The Amazon question is less settled; Bezos and the Post have not flinched, but Trump continues to pressure the post office, and just installed a loyalist as chair of its board of governors.
But Trump can still succeed, even if these individual moves fail. He’s testing boundaries, trying to figure out what he can and can’t get away with; he’s already learned in other spheres that he can get away with quite a bit. Beyond that, he’s keeping others in line. Any company or individual thinking of imposing even mild accountability measures on Trump—it’s hard to overstate how minimal Twitter’s fact-check was—has to reckon with what response he might offer.
To see how this works, look no further than Facebook, which seems to be in a defensive, and sycophantic, crouch as the executive order looms. CEO Mark Zuckerberg today granted an interview to Fox News—already a sign that he’s trying to reach Trump and his allies—in which he criticized Twitter’s move.
David A. Graham
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