They say patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel but for the Trump administration, it's become the first port of call to hide from criticism. After Sen. John McCain blasted Trump for the botched Yemen raid that left dozens of civilians and one Navy SEAL dead, Sean Spicer went on a rant worthy of its own Saturday Night Live skit:
“It's absolutely a success, and I think anyone who would suggest it's not a success does disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens,” Spicer said at Wednesday's daily briefing. “He fought knowing what was at stake in that mission. And anybody who would suggest otherwise doesn't fully appreciate how successful that mission was.”
He added: “I think anybody who undermines the success of that raid owes an apology and [does a] disservice to the life of Chief Owens.”
I half expected him to pick up the podium and attack the reporters assembled in the room.
This tasteless propaganda is more of the Toxic Patriotism that we saw during the Bush years. Instead of actually respecting and honoring our dead, they were cynically used to shield the "war time president" from any and all criticism. It was a tactic the country was not familiar with and with the advent of Fox News' 24/7 patriot-gasm smeared across the media landscape, we didn't know how to respond. The press completely surrendered and Republicans, unchecked, led the country into a disaster we're still dealing with over a decade later.
Spicer is hoping that he can browbeat the press into acquiescence again but there are a few problems with Toxic Patriotism. First, Spicer is terrible at it. Really really terrible. He's so bitter and insincere (and insecure) that no one takes him seriously. That Melissa McCarthy didn't have to dig all that deep in her brutal satire of him doesn't help. It's been the better part of a week and Trump is still pissed off at Spicer about it. Toxic Patriotism needs to be sold and Spicer is the wrong messenger.
Second, Toxic Patriotism only works if people are not ready for it. By the time Bush slouched his way out of office, the "shock and awe" of it had worn off. People were over being cowed into submission. Bush had made such a mess of the Middle East, no one outside of Fox's audience was interested in being told they weren't patriotic enough when all they wanted was for American troops to stop dying or coming home maimed and mentally scarred.
This doesn't mean Toxic Patriotism is completely ineffective. Chris Hayes infamously had to apologize for saying he was uncomfortable calling our troops "heroes." But he was right not to want to lionize the troops. By turning them into jingoistic symbols, we can justify any atrocity. Bush did exactly that. Obama, to a much lesser extent, continued it. And now Trump is champing at the bit to start a new war in the Middle East. Or maybe in the South China Sea. Or possibly Australia. We're going to war with someone, dammit, because wars make you look strong and something something "America First." Using dead troops as a shield will make it much easier to build public support.
The third problem with Spicer's attempt at using Toxic Patriotism to stifle the press is that you have to have something to threaten the press with. Trump has been abusing the press for almost two years now. Since taking office, he's escalated the conflict to the point where the media are actually reporting on him instead of acting like stenographers for the administration. The outlets that Trump attacks the most have seen an unprecedented surge in subscriptions, encouraging them to grow their investigative staff and focus like a laser on the administration.
Even CNN doesn't seem to be too concerned with losing access to the White House after it banned Kellyanne Conway from its Sunday programming. They relented and allowed her back on the network but then they fed her to Jake Tapper who promptly made a light snack of her. Clearly, CNN is well past the point of caring if the White House is their friend.
Trump's goons have already declared the press to be the "opposition" and it's almost impossible to control the media when they've already been forced into an adversarial stance. It becomes manifestly impossible when being adversarial works for their bottom line. Trump, Spicer and Conway have preemptively defanged one of their best weapons.
If we're all lucky, the Trump administration will keep trying to wield Toxic Patriotism as a weapon against the press, furthering entrenching their resistance to being silenced. If we're even luckier, in 20 years, they'll be making movies about how the American press returned to its roots of holding power accountable and brought down the most corrupt president in our nation's history.
In the meantime, The Washington Post's Erik Wemple had his own chilling words for Spicer and Trump:
Of course, Spicer’s stern objections won’t mute further investigation of this incident. They’ll merely encourage it. Military families, journalists and civil servants — they all know that the proper way to commemorate the lives of fallen service members is to sort out the truth. Not to heed the remonstrations of some fellow at a press podium. Extreme vetting will happen regardless of Spicer’s wishes, as a Post colleague notes:
There are 634 days left to the 2018 elections.
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